Interlude with the Confessor (4/8)

by Eliezer Yudkowsky11 min read2nd Feb 200995 comments


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(Part 4 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

The two of them were alone now, in the Conference Chair's Privilege, the huge private room of luxury more suited to a planet than to space.  The Privilege was tiled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with a most excellent holo of the space surrounding them: the distant stars, the system's sun, the fleeing nova ashes, and the glowing ember of the dwarf star that had siphoned off hydrogen from the main sun until its surface had briefly ignited in a nova flash.  It was like falling through the void.

Akon sat on the edge of the four-poster bed in the center of the room, resting his head in his hands.  Weariness dulled him at the moment when he most needed his wits; it was always like that in crisis, but this was unusually bad.  Under the circumstances, he didn't dare snort a hit of caffeine - it might reorder his priorities.  Humanity had yet to discover the drug that was pure energy, that would improve your thinking without the slightest touch on your emotions and values.

"I don't know what to think," Akon said.

The Ship's Confessor was standing stately nearby, in full robes and hood of silver.  From beneath the hood came the formal response:  "What seems to be confusing you, my friend?"

"Did we go wrong?" Akon said.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep the despair out of his voice.  "Did humanity go down the wrong path?"

The Confessor was silent a long time.

Akon waited.  This was why he couldn't have talked about the question with anyone else.  Only a Confessor would actually think before answering, if asked a question like that.

"I've often wondered that myself," the Confessor finally said, surprising Akon.  "There were so many choices, so many branchings in human history - what are the odds we got them all right?"

The hood turned away, angling in the direction of the Superhappy ship - though it was too far away to be visible, everyone on board the Impossible Possible World knew where it was.  "There are parts of your question I can't help you with, my lord.  Of all people on this ship, I might be most poorly suited to answer...  But you do understand, my lord, don't you, that neither the Babyeaters nor the Superhappies are evidence that we went wrong?  If you weren't worried before, you shouldn't be any more worried now.  The Babyeaters strive to do the baby-eating thing to do, the Superhappies output the Super Happy thing to do.  None of that tells us anything about the right thing to do.  They are not asking the same question we are - no matter what word of their language the translator links to our 'should'.  If you're confused at all about that, my lord, I might be able to clear it up."

"I know the theory," Akon said.  Exhaustion in his voice.  "They made me study metaethics when I was a little kid, sixteen years old and still in the children's world.  Just so that I would never be tempted to think that God or ontologically basic moral facts or whatever had the right to override my own scruples."  Akon slumped a little further.  "And somehow - none of that really makes a difference when you're looking at the Lady 3rd, and wondering why, when there's a ten-year-old with a broken finger in front of you, screaming and crying, we humans only partially numb the area."

The Confessor's hood turned back to look at Akon.  "You do realize that your brain is literally hardwired to generate error signals when it sees other human-shaped objects stating a different opinion from yourself.  You do realize that, my lord?"

"I know," Akon said.  "That, too, we are taught.  Unfortunately, I am also just now realizing that I've only been going along with society all my life, and that I never thought the matter through for myself, until now."

A sigh came from that hood.  "Well... would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long?"

"Not... really," Akon said.

The shoulders of the robe shrugged.  "You have judged.  What else is there?"

Akon stared straight at that anonymizing robe, the hood containing a holo of dark mist, a shadow that always obscured the face inside.  The voice was also anonymized - altered slightly, not in any obtrusive way, but you wouldn't know your own Confessor to hear him speak.  Akon had no idea who the Confessor might be, outside that robe.  There were rumors of Confessors who had somehow arranged to be seen in the company of their own secret identity...

Akon drew a breath.  "You said that you, of all people, could not say whether humanity had gone down the wrong path.  The simple fact of being a Confessor should have no bearing on that; rationalists are also human.  And you told the Lady 3rd that you were too old to make decisions for your species.  Just how old are you... honorable ancestor?"

There was a silence.

It didn't last long.

As though the decision had already been foreseen, premade and preplanned, the Confessor's hands moved easily upward and drew back the hood - revealing an unblended face, strangely colored skin and shockingly distinctive features.  A face out of forgotten history, which could only have come from a time before the genetic mixing of the 21st century, untouched by DNA insertion or diaspora.

Even though Akon had been half-expecting it, he still gasped out loud.  Less than one in a million:  That was the percentage of the current human population that had been born on Earth before the invention of antiagathics or star travel, five hundred years ago.

"Congratulations on your guess," the Confessor said.  The unaltered voice was only slightly different; but it was stronger, more masculine.

"Then you were there," Akon said.  He felt almost breathless, and tried not to show it.  "You were alive - all the way back in the days of the initial biotech revolution!  That would have been when humanity first debated whether to go down the Super Happy path."

The Confessor nodded.

"Which side did you argue?"

The Confessor's face froze for a moment, and then he emitted a brief chuckle, one short laugh.  "You have entirely the wrong idea about how things were done, back then.  I suppose it's natural."

"I don't understand," Akon said.

"And there are no words that I can speak to make you understand.  It is beyond your imagining.  But you should not imagine that a violent thief whose closest approach to industry was selling uncertified hard drugs - you should not imagine, my lord, my honorable descendant, that I was ever asked to take sides."

Akon's eyes slid away from the hot gaze of the unmixed man; there was something wrong about the thread of anger still there in the memory after five hundred years.

"But time passed," the Confessor said, "time moved forward, and things changed."  The eyes were no longer focused on Akon, looking now at something far away.  "There was an old saying, to the effect that while someone with a single bee sting will pay much for a remedy, to someone with five bee stings, removing just one sting seems less attractive.  That was humanity in the ancient days.  There was so much wrong with the world that the small resources of altruism were splintered among ten thousand urgent charities, and none of it ever seemed to go anywhere.  And yet... and yet..."

"There was a threshold crossed somewhere," said the Confessor, "without a single apocalypse to mark it.  Fewer wars.  Less starvation.  Better technology.  The economy kept growing.  People had more resource to spare for charity, and the altruists had fewer and fewer causes to choose from.  They came even to me, in my time, and rescued me.  Earth cleaned itself up, and whenever something threatened to go drastically wrong again, the whole attention of the planet turned in that direction and took care of it.  Humanity finally got its act together."

The Confessor worked his jaws as if there were something stuck in his throat.  "I doubt you can even imagine, my honorable descendant, just how much of an impossible dream that once was.  But I will not call this path mistaken."

"No, I can't imagine," Akon said quietly.  "I once tried to read some of the pre-Dawn Net.  I thought I wanted to know, I really did, but I - just couldn't handle it.  I doubt anyone on this ship can handle it except you.  Honorable ancestor, shouldn't we be asking you how to deal with the Babyeaters and the Superhappies?  You are the only one here who's ever dealt with that level of emergency."

"No," said the Confessor, like an absolute order handed down from outside the universe.  "You are the world that we wanted to create.  Though I can't say we.  That is just a distortion of memory, a romantic gloss on history fading into mist.  I wasn't one of the dreamers, back then.  I was just wrapped up in my private blanket of hurt.  But if my pain meant anything, Akon, it is as part of the long price of a better world than that one.  If you look back at ancient Earth, and are horrified - then that means it was all for something, don't you see?  You are the beautiful and shining children, and this is your world, and you are the ones who must decide what to do with it now."

Akon started to speak, to demur -

The Confessor held up a hand.  "I mean it, my lord Akon.  It is not polite idealism.  We ancients can't steer.  We remember too much disaster.  We're too cautious to dare the bold path forward.  Do you know there was a time when nonconsensual sex was illegal?"

Akon wasn't sure whether to smile or grimace.  "The Prohibition, right?  During the first century pre-Net?  I expect everyone was glad to have that law taken off the books.  I can't imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then - flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn't take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -"

"You need a history refresher, my Lord Administrator.  At some suitably abstract level.  What I'm trying to tell you - and this is not public knowledge - is that we nearly tried to overthrow your government."

"What?" said Akon.  "The Confessors?"

"No, us.  The ones who remembered the ancient world.  Back then we still had our hands on a large share of the capital and tremendous influence in the grant committees.  When our children legalized rape, we thought that the Future had gone wrong."

Akon's mouth hung open.  "You were that prude?"

The Confessor shook his head.  "There aren't any words," the Confessor said, "there aren't any words at all, by which I ever could explain to you.  No, it wasn't prudery.  It was a memory of disaster."

"Um," Akon said.  He was trying not to smile.  "I'm trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -"

"Give it up, my lord," the Confessor said.  He was finally laughing, but there was an undertone of pain to it.  "Without, shall we say, personal experience, you can't possibly imagine, and there's no point in trying."

"Well, out of curiosity - how much did you lose?"

The Confessor seemed to freeze, for a moment.  "What?"

"How much did you lose in the legislative prediction markets, betting on whatever dreadful outcome you thought would happen?"

"You really wouldn't ever understand," the Confessor said.  His smile was entirely real, now.  "But now you know, don't you?  You know, after speaking to me, that I can't ever be allowed to make decisions for humankind."

Akon hesitated.  It was odd... he did know, on some gut level.  And he couldn't have explained on any verbal level why.  Just - that hint of wrongness.

"So now you know," the Confessor repeated.  "And because we do remember so much disaster - and because it is a profession that benefits from being five hundred years old - many of us became Confessors.  Being the voice of pessimism comes easily to us, and few indeed are those among the human kind who must rationally be nudged upward...  We advise, but do not lead.  Debate, but do not decide.  We're going along for your ride, and trying not to be too shocked so that we can be almost as delighted as you.  You might find yourself in a similar situation in five hundred years... if humanity survives this week."

"Ah, yes," Akon said dryly.  "The aliens.  The current problem of discourse."

"Yes.  Have you had any thoughts on the subject?"

"Only that I really do wish that humanity had been alone in the universe."  Akon's hand suddenly formed a fist and smashed hard against the bed.  "Fuck it!  I know how the Superhappies felt when they discovered that we and the Babyeaters hadn't 'repaired ourselves'.  You understand what this implies about what the rest of the universe looks like, statistically speaking?  Even if it's just a sample of two?  I'm sure that somewhere out there are likable neighbors.  Just as somewhere out there, if we go far enough through the infinite universe, there's a person who's an exact duplicate of me down to the atomic level.  But every other species we ever actually meet is probably going to be -"  Akon drew a breath.  "It wasn't supposed to be like this, damn it!  All three of our species have empathy, we have sympathy, we have a sense of fairness - the Babyeaters even tell stories like we do, they have art.  Shouldn't that be enough?  Wasn't that supposed to be enough?  But all it does is put us into enough of the same reference frame that we can be horrible by each others' standards."

"Don't take this the wrong way," the Confessor said, "but I'm glad that we ran across the Babyeaters."

Words stuck in Akon's throat.  "What?"

A half-smile twisted up one corner of the Confessor's face.  "Because if we hadn't run across the Babyeaters, we couldn't possibly rescue the babies, now could we?  Not knowing about their existence wouldn't mean they weren't there.  The Babyeater children would still exist.  They would still die in horrible agony.  We just wouldn't be able to help them.  If we didn't know it wouldn't be our fault, our responsibility - but that's not something you're supposed to optimize for."  The Confessor paused.  "Of course I understand how you feel.  But on this vessel I am humanity's token attempt at sanity, and it is my duty to think certain strange yet logical thoughts."

"And the Superhappies?" Akon said.  "The race with superior technology that may decide to exterminate us, or keep us in prison, or take our children away?  Is there any silver lining to that?"

"The Superhappies aren't so far from us," the Confessor said.  "We could have gone down the Super Happy path.  We nearly did - you might have trouble imagining just how attractive the absence of pain can sound, under certain circumstances.  In a sense, you could say that I tried to go down that path - though I wasn't a very competent neuroengineer.  If human nature had been only slightly different, we could easily have been within that attractor.  And the Super Happy civilization is not hateful to us, whatever we are to them.  That's good news at least, for how the rest of the universe might look."  The Confessor paused.  "And..."


The Confessor's voice became harder.  "And the Superhappies will rescue the Babyeater children no matter what, I think, even if humanity should fail in the task.  Considering how many Babyeater children are dying, and in what pain - that could outweigh even our own extermination.  Shut up and multiply, as the saying goes."

"Oh, come on!" Akon said, too surprised to be shocked.  "If the Superhappies hadn't shown up, we would have - well, we would have done something about the Babyeaters, once we decided what.  We wouldn't have just let the, the -"

"Holocaust," the Confessor offered.

"Good word for it.  We wouldn't have just let the Holocaust go on."

"You would be astounded, my lord, at what human beings will just let go on.  Do you realize the expenditure of capital, labor, maybe even human lives required to invade every part of the Babyeater civilization?  To trace out every part of their starline network, push our technological advantage to its limit to build faster ships that can hunt down every Babyeater ship that tries to flee?  Do you realize -"

"I'm sorry.  You are simply mistaken as a question of fact."  Boy, thought Akon, you don't often get to say that to a Confessor.  "This is not your birth era, honorable ancestor.  We are the humanity that has its shit together.  If the Superhappies had never come along, humanity would have done whatever it took to rescue the Babyeater children.  You saw the Lord Pilot, the Lady Sensory; they were ready to secede from civilization if that's what it took to get the job done.  And that, honorable ancestor, is how most people would react."

"For a moment," said the Confessor.  "In the moment of first hearing the news.  When talk was cheap.  When they hadn't yet visualized the costs.  But once they did, there would be an uneasy pause, while everyone waited to see if someone else might act first.  And faster than you imagine possible, people would adjust to that state of affairs.  It would no longer sound quite so shocking as it did at first.  Babyeater children are dying horrible, agonizing deaths in their parents' stomachs?  Deplorable, of course, but things have always been that way.  It would no longer be news.  It would all be part of the plan."

"Are you high on something?" Akon said.  It wasn't the most polite way he could have phrased it, but he couldn't help himself.

The Confessor's voice was as cold and hard as an iron sun, after the universe had burned down to embers.  "Innocent youth, when you have watched your older brother beaten almost to death before your eyes, and seen how little the police investigate - when you have watched all four of your grandparents wither away like rotten fruit and cease to exist, while you spoke not one word of protest because you thought it was normal - then you may speak to me of what human beings will tolerate."

"I don't believe we would do that," Akon said as mildly as possible.

"Then you fail as a rationalist," the Confessor said.  His unhooded head turned toward the false walls, to look out at the accurately represented stars.  "But I - I will not fail again."

"Well, you're damn right about one thing," Akon said.  He was too exhausted to be tactful.  "You can't ever be allowed to make decisions for the human species."

"I know.  Believe me, I know.  Only youth can Administrate.  That is the pact of immortality."

Akon stood up from the bed.  "Thank you, Confessor.  You have helped me."

With an easy, practiced motion, the Confessor slid the hood of his robe over his head, and the stark features vanished into shadow.  "I have?" the Confessor said, and his recloaked voice sounded strangely mild, after that earlier masculine power.  "How?"

Akon shrugged.  He didn't think he could put it into words.  It had something to do with the terrible vast sweep of Time across the centuries, and so much true change that had already happened, deeper by far than anything he had witnessed in his own lifetime; the requirement of courage to face the future, and the sacrifices that had been made for it; and that not everyone had been saved, once upon a time.

"I guess you reminded me," Akon said, "that you can't always get everything you want."

To be continued...

A reminder:  This is a work of fiction.  In real life, continuing to attempt to have sex with someone after they say 'no' and before they say 'yes', whether or not they offer forceful resistance and whether or not any visible injury occurs, is (in the USA) defined as rape and considered a federal felony.  I agree with and support that this is the correct place for society to draw the line.  Some people have worked out a safeword system in which they explicitly and verbally agree, with each other or on a signed form, that 'no' doesn't mean stop but e.g. 'red' or 'safeword' does mean stop.  I agree with and support this as carving out a safe exception whose existence does not endanger innocent bystanders.  If either of these statements come to you as a surprise then you should look stuff up.  Thank you and remember, your safeword should be at least 10 characters and contain a mixture of letters and numbers.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading.  Yours, the author.

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Righteousness is so ugly.

I say we exterminate all other lifeforms on earth cause the "eat or get eaten" thingy is so cruel.

Legalized rape?

Weirdtopia, alright.

2mwengler9yI always used to wonder if I was with a woman having intercourse with her and she told me "No!"... was there a grace period for me to withdraw or was I instantly guilty of rape? Legalized rape could just be a change in the timescale over which adjustments take place when consent is initially given and then withdrawn?

3.2 seconds at sea level in the Eastern hemisphere.

Are you looking for a legal answer? Technically, the rule for rape-by-force can be explained as requiring you to stop as soon as there is no longer consent. If some person was wacky enough to withdraw consent in the midst of penetration, then I can't imagine you'd be guilty if you acted quickly to stop intercourse. But no, you don't get to say "Just a few more thrusts, please." In short, the test is whether you are trying to stop.

0Gunnar_Zarncke7yAs a youth I read 'Ayla and the Clan of the Cave Bear' and the Cro Magnon there are portrayed as a patriarchaic tribe where rape (nonconsensual sex) is 'legal' (albeit not looked well at). [] This is of course no comparable society. I just wanted to mention it as a cross reference.
0christopherj6yWeirdtopia? No -- history. For example, the Bible rules allowed for capturing the enemy's women as loot, having sex with their slave, and I'm fairly certain that a woman's wishes in terms of consent mattered a lot less than those of the male in charge of her. I seem to recall that at some point in Europe the feudal lord or whatever could have his way with your wife, and you had no recourse. This, of course, probably has more to do with inequality than anything else. As for consent, it's ... complicated. For one thing, it exists in the mind and thus cannot reliably leave a physical trace (because of how memory works by retroactively fitting facts into a narrative, not even the owner of the brain can be certain). And then there's sleeping, and drugs, and mental illness, and changing one's mind, and how we decided that none of the usual applies when the person is below a certain age. As a hypothetical example, consider a mute quadriplegic who can only communicate by blinking, gave consent, then withdrew consent halfway through the act but while their partner couldn't see their eyes. Besides, it's not like any modern society would allow assault or harassment, so if they got rid of the laws concerning the special case where sex is involved, it wouldn't really change much.
1Good_Burning_Plastic6yFWIW ISTR a husband wasn't allowed to refuse sex from his wife either.
1RichardKennaway6yMattered a lot less, to whom? To the men. I'm sure they mattered a great deal to the women. That is where the story is performing weirdtopia. In the story, nonconsensual sex is taken lightly by everyone involved: not only the doers but the done to.
1Jayson_Virissimo6yLike the use of chastity belts [], the droit du seigneur [] is just more made-up bullshit to defame the medievals.
1Lumifer6yYour own Wikipedia link seems to be quite clear that this right did exist at certain times in certain cultures. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia states "There is no evidence of the alleged right in medieval Europe", but as support links to Britannica which says a very different thing: "The custom is paralleled in various primitive societies, but the evidence of its existence in Europe is all indirect."
0[anonymous]6yI didn't deny that it existed "at certain times in certain cultures." I am denying that is existed in Medieval Europe, which is why I wrote "...the droit du seigneur is just more made-up bullshit to defame the medievals."
1Jayson_Virissimo6yI am not claiming that it never existed anywhere. Merely, that it very likely didn't exist (as a common practice) in the European Middle Ages. The text is behind a paywall, so I don't know what indirect evidence they refer to, but the only evidence I've seen is hearsay from Enlightenment thinkers that otherwise had a track record of making exaggerated or outright false claims about the Middle Ages.

One arrangement that would make legalizing rape just fine would be having very good security almost everywhere. Maybe everyone has the option to carry a little personal security-bot in their pocket, and that bot is very effective in repelling all attacks on the person.

So rape is legal, but so is defending against it, and everyone is able to defend themselves unless they've opted out of it. And certainly some people would find "risky dating" exciting and nice. Perhaps even a majority of the population, once they've lived long enough in a world qui... (read more)

When I think of this particular Weirdtopia premise, I think "the boundaries of consent have been redrawn in different places" rather than "the boundaries of consent have been eliminated". (Can you do the latter without changing human nature a lot?) There would still be a place where "no" means "no", and things you shared only with someone you chose. But then kissing someone against their will, however much of a psychic violation it might be in their society, still isn't quite analogous to the present-day concept of "rape" with all the threat of damage and death that it implies. More like having a naked photo of you posted to the Internet, say. So in that sense, yes, they wouldn't have any concept directly analogous to our "rape", unless it was beating someone up while kissing them - and conversely, beating someone up while having sex with them would sound just as odd to them as the previous phrase did to you.

But as I didn't actually write any of this into the story, feel free to exercise the reader's right of interpretation here.

[-][anonymous]12y 0

When I think of this Weirdtopia premise I think "the boundaries of consent around the sexual self have been redrawn in different places" not "the boundaries have been obliterated". But I should probably stay quiet for a while and let the readers exercise their right of interpretation. Just beware of the temptation, given something promisingly weird, to try to fit it into an existing framework of normality.

Just being able to read and understand this story made reading OB worthwhile.

I"m longing for the other half!


Well... would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long?

False dilemma.

0TheStevenator9yGood point. I was thinking the same thing. It became a false dilemma right after the coma. Also, nice name. :) Still very much enjoying the story! Love the background of the Confessor!
0Articulator4yIt is a false dilemma, but the Super Happies won't give you one half without the other, I fear.

Well... would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long? I would prefer to life painfree and healthy, having sex as often as i want to. Its not another job to fullfill, but a pleasant leisure activity.


I gotta say, Eliezar, you're doing a good job of making the alternatives look worse than religion. And I say this as a guy who drifted away from religion because he could find no rational reason to believe in the existence of the deity.

Tho those who hinted at "legalized rape": READ AGAIN. You seem not to have understood that the abolition of the law carried with it free retaliation against rapists and prediction markets that surely ended up influencing the incidence of rape.

Jeez, I dunno how that zinged past you.

BTW, Eliezer: man, come on, don't keep us waiting for the next part!


That's not the idea I'm getting at all (free retaliation, etc). It seems more to me that these people can't imagine intentionally hurting or being distrustful of each other, and so when they say 'rape', think 'tickle fight'.

"You seem not to have understood that the abolition of the law carried with it free retaliation against rapists"

This is nowhere to be found in the story.

...though having said that, I do see how a casual reading might give that idea. The problem is clearly the clause "take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far". I think that line should be rewritten to rule out the wrong interpretation.

That is, assuming it's not me who has the wrong interpretation, but I'm fairly confident I got it right. As I understood it, it should read like this:

I can't imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then - flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe [from non-consensual sex] because she couldn't take matters into her own hands [by forcing you to have sex] if you went a little too far [with your flirting]"

"You need a history refresher, my Lord Administrator [because that's nothing like what non-consensual was, back in those days]. that the reading that was intended?

1[anonymous]8yI think this is about the best interprentation of it. Most comments here are too focused on the statistically common Male-on-Female rape. I think in between lies a significant reduction in the number of men with libido-control problems and so (giving lots of inteprentative room and not to offend feminists) women might actually be revealed as having an on-average more ravenous sexual apetite? From what little I know of human neurology, male sex-stuffs are the basic things in the ancient parts of the brain that most any higher mammal share, while female sex-stuffs are much later and closer to our large frontal lobes. (This might be entirely incorrect, please correct me if I am.)
0Swimmer9638yBased on my (also limited) understanding, I think it's partly correct. The brain circuits that create arousal in females are just about as ancient as in males, I think, but in males those circuits can be activated by pretty basic stimuli (i.e. looking at a human with boobs), whereas females may require a lot more complex, nuanced stuff, like emotional closeness–just looking at a naked, muscular guy won't suffice.

"Um," Akon said. He was trying not to smile. "I'm trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -"

Akon obviously does not regard the idea of nonconsensual sex with much distaste. So why would he want it banned?

I think the important question is: Why does he not regard the idea of nonconsensual sex with much distaste?

(I can't help but think of The Forever War, where military custom and law require consent to any request for sex.)

So it's only sex if both people climax, and since guys have less control over their reflex they are the ones to get raped? Maybe both genders can get raped, and naturally he was just thinking of his own problems wit it. In fact, the oddest thing isn't that rape is legal, but that he imagines noone broke laws.

Catperson: I agree with your reading.

Additionally, it seems Akon is unaware of the historic asymmetry of gender roles in non-consensual sex.

Either that, or in this impossible possible world there was a reversal from our present gender dynamics at some point in the past.

Akon seems to be assuming that a male cannot possibly initiate sex, in this sentence:

I can't imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then - flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn't take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -

That suggests some sort of genetic editing. Perhaps they've left the male sex drive in place, so 'rape' is not actually going to be very unpleasant, but given the females a perfect defense, or a consciously-controlled pheromone that must be on for the male to get an erection, or something of this nature.

1rkyeun7yWhat happened was genetic egalitarianism. Women are now just as strong as men, and have the same drives and urges as men, and are every bit the rapist as men. And men are now every bit the tease as women were... the scales are now even. And the physical consequences are meaningless. There's no longer any threat of unwanted disease or pregnancy or even injury. There's no reason to be mentally scarred by the action because this humanity knows better. why was it illegal? It doesn't hurt anyone. In their age. But the elders remember the hurt. And they screamed their rage and the history of profanity.
1Jiro7yRape is performed by an individual, not by a class. Does this society not only have the women as strong as the men, but also every individual person as strong as every other individual person? (And for that matter, as powerful as every other individual person--for instance, none are employers, rich people, or law enforcement.)
-1rkyeun7yNo, it's just that none of that really matters now, since rape has as much physical or mental consequence in this world as a high-five. They live in a world that went from joking about rape on 4chan to joking about it in the boardroom because everyone was 4chan.
1Jiro7yThen what did you mean when you explained it away by saying that "Women are now just as strong as men"? If rape doesn't matter because it causes no harm anyway, it shouldn't matter whether one group is more capable of doing it than another;

Rolf: Perhaps they've [...] given the females a perfect defense

I think you're trying too hard to make it "acceptable". It's common currency in transhumanist circles that - even if all goes well - the future will almost certainly contain some things that we would find shocking. But your suggestion would mean it's not really shocking.

What I'm taking from it is that, in this imaginary future society, there is non-consensual sex that - for one reason or another - is not unpleasant.

Again, though, it does not seem to occur to Akon that he might be the one to initiate the sex. To me this indicates some heavy editing of the male psyche or sexual response.

A further point: The scenario Akon describes doesn't actually seem all that nonconsensual to me, and also very unrealistic for an un-edited male human. (This is by no means a criticism; rather I'm impressed at the ability to show someone who thinks almost like a contemporary human, but not quite.) Who flirts with a woman with absolutely no plan to sleep with her if the opportunity is of... (read more)

6Sheaman377310y...seriously? You've never even heard of recreational flirting? Flirting just for the fun of it? Well then, to answer your question, I do. Now I'm going to go back to trying to understand how nonconsensual sex can be acceptable. edit: I should have realized someone else would have said much the same thing I did already.
7jimrandomh10yThat reference is there to get you thinking about what it means to alter our fundamental values, by showing an example of a human value having been altered already. It's supposed to be abhorrent, for the same reasons that allowing the Superhappies to modify human values further would be.
8SilasBarta10yFWIW, I never found the Superhappies that abhorrent. Nor did I understand what made them evil for wanting to e.g. offer the least powerful humans a way to "opt out" for a life of pleasure. Nor, especially, did I understand why we would care about altering Superhappy values, as they pertain to stuff not involving interaction with humans, to be more like human values. I mean, sure, I guess it would be nice if Superhappies had romance and stuff among themselves, but I don't see why it's something humans would make major concessions to get. Mostly we'd be trying to get them to not interfere with us, so what they do among themselves (short of torture/killing, which isn't really an issue) is between them and their god -- or Dionysus, as the case may be.
2MartinB10yI would want some of the untranslatables. It is so lonely in here.
1TheOtherDave10yThat part makes more intuitive sense for the Babykillers, I think. That is, they were defined as having the eating-of-babies as a terminal value; they wanted to maximize the amount of baby-eating in the world, regardless of who is eating the babies. So it makes sense for them to value an offer from us to eat more babies ourselves, and to accept that offer in exchange for them doing something we want. Similarly, the humans in that story negatively valued babies being eaten, regardless of whose babies they are. That is, the idea that the babyeaters were running around eating their own babies bothered the humans. Having less baby-eating in the world is something those humans valued, and something they were willing to offer things in exchange for (or impose by force) if they could. Offering the analogous deal to humans becomes trickier, because identifying human terminal values is tricky. I'm not convinced there's any such thing, actually. But in the world of the story, there are such things, and they include "romance and stuff". This is a recurring theme in EY's writing, that humans have terminal values that can survive being optimized for. If your willing suspension of disbelief doesn't stretch that far, then yeah, it's hard to get into the story.
1Leonhart10yReally? Huh. From what I remembered of the original context, it was more to do with posthuman minds being more robust and non-traumatizable, such that being raped did not have any long-term negative effects; reducing it to just another "interesting surprise" in one's day. On that reading, I didn't find it abhorrent.

I still wonder how that would look in practice. Do people have a right to enforce "I'm busy"? :"I prefer spending time with someone else?" "I've been raped four times today and I'm really busy"? What happens to celebrities?

Imagine this as a society where people are entitled to a half hour's work on demand from anyone else they want the work from.

0[anonymous]7ySome guess cultures kind-of sort-of work like that: you don't usually ask people favours unless you really need to, or you know they wouldn't be inconvenienced by doing them, because then they'd feel obligated to do them for you.
1[anonymous]7y“no plan to sleep with her ever” != “ no plan to sleep with her immediately at any time she wants”

Trying to wrap my head around this, I'll propose that this society has 'freedom of intercourse'. Stopping someone by force from having sex with you would be as improper as stopping them by force from talking to you, even if you didn't like it. Walking away might be acceptable but considered generally impolite. People who have nonconsenual sex frequently would be stigmatized and avoided as annoying people are today, but

Today nonconsenual sex is bundled with violence, fear of violence, and expectations of personal space. If the impossible possible culture is such that everyone expects their genitals to be part of the social space instead of their personal space, then no great sense of emotional violation will be felt even if the social interaction is unwanted.

They likely view the prohibition as just as shortsighted as we would view restrictions on 'free expression'.

Very good of Eliezer to let us identify with the humans before delivering further culture shocks. I suspect that the next installment will have further human weirdness.

Rolf, I flirt with women with no plan to sleep with them even if offered. Flirting can be fun in and of itself, not just as a means to sex.

My understanding is closer to Thom's, "when they say 'rape', think 'tickle fight'." Their 'rape' doesn't involve violence, and isn't considered a violation (it's more likely to be flattering).

In certain older cultures the phrase "If at first you don't succeed..." would be finished with "kill yourself" whereas now we "try again".

Rolf, aside from an authorial intention to mildly soften the shock, in the context of the story you need not assume that males in general don't initiate sex. You need only assume that Akon is getting more himself out of being the recipient of nonconsensual sex or imagining himself so, than initiating / imagining initiation.

This is actually a pretty complicated Weirdtopia premise with an awful lot of implications, none of which we get to see here.

I confess that a hidden motive behind this in-passing conversation is that I have an entirely different story i... (read more)

This is actually a pretty complicated Weirdtopia premise with an awful lot of implications, none of which we get to see here.

Of course; that's what makes it fun to speculate. :D I would love to see your story where this is explored more fully, though.

Speculation: A sufficiently powerful, well-trained mind might have the ability, the superpower if you like, of being able to follow the old advice about enjoying the inevitable. Or to phrase it differently, might be able to genuinely flip its state of consent in some circumstances, very quickly. There are lo... (read more)

Eliezer Y: The fact that it's taken over the comments is not as good as I hoped, but neither was the reaction as bad as I feared.

Heh, well, I will (perhaps?) make the reaction worse. It is interesting what people choose to use as an example of what would be "shocking" but possibly/arguably better. I will note that this choice (non-consensual sex) is guaranteed to make a lot of women uncomfortable to the point where they may, pretty justifiably, have difficulty responding in an unemotional, bayesian manner to it as a purely hypothetical prem... (read more)

alright, you've taunted me into posting. girds my uterus

I wasn't going to post just because weird and anti-female ideas about what sexuality should be in an ideal world are obsequious to science fiction. the idea that women should be nude all the time is a common example, or just that sexuality should be free from emotional commitment (drama), that sex should be considered healthful and natural to be engaged in with as many people as possible with no jealousy or competition. that these ideas are common to science fiction says more to me about what kind of person writes science fiction and what they think of sex than what would be realistic or reasonable. but this series references the ship having it's own 4chan, realism is not to be expected and I understand that.

it's just, I wish the author had thought about what non-consensual sex, about what rape as a concept, as a thing used to torture and to dominate women, really meant before tossing it off as a badly explained line about how much more mature and well adjusted this polyglot culture of the future is.

does the author mean that in this supposed shining utopia of the future that a person can attack another person if the contex... (read more)

2timtyler11yFor context, see also the original "Open Source Boob Project" article [].
0pencilears10yfair enough.

I don't think this future society was intended to be perfect or utopian or a recommendation for how we should develop. I don't think that EY is seriously (or non-seriously) suggesting that society would be better with decriminalized rape.

Rather, this is most likely an expression of the principle that the future will contain things that we would consider a moral outrage, just as every century in recorded history so far has contained things that the people of one or two centuries previous to them would have considered a moral outrage.

There's a lot of discussion in this comment thread already looking at the question from different angles, and I recommend you take the time to look through it.

I agree, though, that the logical implications are not well-thought-out. Can I delay or prevent someone from getting from point A to point B by accosting them in the hallway for sex? What if three people all decide they want sex with the same person at once? Twelve people? A hundred? At a certain point, sexual intercourse is an unavoidably rivalrous good this side of forking uploads.

2Tamfang10yI wonder how much fiction has been written about fucking forking uploads.
1PetjaY4yLegal does not mean "accepted". For us you could replace it with hugging: "Can I delay or prevent someone from getting from point A to point B by hugging them in the hallway? What if three people all decide they want to hug same person at once? Twelve people? A hundred?" Most interaction between people is controlled by people losing social status when behaving wrong, and some mild violence (mostly pushing away) for more extreme misbehavior. Laws are only needed for really extreme cases.
0Pavitra4yThat's a good point, but I'm still not convinced. Hugging is, potentially, fast: if A tries to hug B and B pulls away, a hug has still occurred. Sex takes longer: there's complicated steps involving disrobing and so forth. Your argument applies to, say, groping; but if B doesn't want to cooperate then that becomes relevant before sex has occurred. It's clear ("safe", "take matters into her own hands") that there is not a reliable way of getting out of sex. Also, the dialogue ("Prohibition", "too much") seems to suggest social acceptance.
0Jerry_11yMy first thought was that the word "rape" must have come to mean something different, for example maybe it's been redefined so that women can still rape men, but a man who forces himself upon a woman is assaulting her, not "raping" her. Changes like this happen in language/culture. (As in the Old Testament, wherein the only reason lesbians aren't sentenced to death is that Moses didn't think of sex as something women could do, but only have done TO them.) But this would have been trivially easy to make clear (ten more words of exposition from the Confessor would have done it), and the author didn't bother. It seems as though the author was trying to show that The Future Is Shocking and Offensive. It most certainly will be. But the culture we see isn't consistent with the Hey Rape Is Legal Now bombshell, and he's made no attempt to reconcile them. So, yes, the conclusion we're left with is that either the author doesn't understand what rape is, or doesn't care.
2MugaSofer7yI am from the actual future - four years after you posted this - and ... what? -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Seriously, if your future self is around and can clarify here it would help immensely.
0[anonymous]7yJerry_ hasn't commented on LW since January 2010.
1MugaSofer7y... maybe this will be his surprise return! Maybe?
2Atomsk9yThink about Free Speech. People have the right to lie to you, to say anything they want to you. A stranger can walk up to you on the street and say horrible, uncomfortable, distress-causing sequences of words and symbols to you, and theres not really much you can do to stop it. Why should a person be allowed to say to you a thing that is not true, a thing that you do not want to hear, just in the interest of his own free expression? Now just include sexuality to be included under the umbrella of free expression, blur the lines between mental and physical pain and discomfort, and there you go. And before anyone assumes that this kind of reasoning makes me at all pro-rape or sympathetic to the idea of it, please know that i personally consider Free Speech laws to actually be in their ultimate effect, regressive and detrimental to veracity within the sociopolitical spectrum. That which is true is sustained by its own evidence and merits, only insanity and falsehood needs establishment power to prop it up.
1Articulator7yWe are just simply too good at taking our own norms for granted. Thank you for explaining this in a way I can really get behind. I think we sometimes forget that not only is all ethics relative, but that we have skewed weightings based on what is 'normal'. The number of people driven to depression and suicide by legal means... I wonder, if certain negative strains of human social interaction were made illegal, and guiltworthy, while rape was made legal, and we waited for a couple hundred years, would people still rank them in the same order? If rape was something to 'get over', while surprise polygamy (trying for a word with as few connotations as possible - couldn't find anything) and bullying were horrible events to 'survive'... Hmm, it's certainly a good question. Now, since I'm not a rape victim, I couldn't presume to guess very accurately, but perhaps the knowledge that it's a bad thing reinforces that it's a bad thing? I can't help but draw a rather unfortunate parallel with the broad range of human experiences that are scary at first, and then enjoyable. Before I get voted down into submission, consider that I have used the most physical descriptions I can, since those are the ones we are less likely to change. In the least offensive way possible, would we want to go bungee jumping (again) if it was treated as a terrible thing? If we were told it was terrible our entire lives, then forced into doing it? Traumatic in the extreme. Consider, however, that some people are pushed in these heights-based sports. Off cliffs, out of airplanes, onto ziplines. They enjoy it in the end, so it's ok, right? Would they enjoy it if they weren't supposed to? If it was rape? Interesting questions. Don't worry for my morality, if this musing leaves you fearing for your orifices. I'm a perfectly well-adjusted nihilist, who values his continued (enjoyable) existence enough not to do anything silly.

@Micheal> You expect women to be shocked? You may want to google some common female fantasies...

  • a female
1Gregory Efs2yWould be glad to if we could find at least one completely reliable sourcee that is undeniably from a female source that is not pandering to the market for publicity. It should be noted I am not infering such a thing is the rule, I am merely stating my own ignorance and incapaility of determining solid statistics on the matter

I didn't realize that the mention of Akon worrying about his lipstick was going to be so important. I really like how subtly the (at least partial) reversal of sexual roles is implied here.

Eliezer, I'd be wary of drawing too many conclusions from people's reaction. We're primed to hear you say weird stuff. And of course it took over the comments! It's a poke in a taboo with a thermonuclear level of affective charge, much easier to respond to than hard moral questions, and in stark contrast to an otherwise downbeat but worthy dialogue on compassion fatigue. (Which worked by the way - it snapped me at least into noticing how much I make excuses.)

Any chance to turn the topic to sex and relationships will consume the comments. A surprising number of OB threads have turned into discussions of pick-up artists.

A surprising number of OB threads have turned into discussions of pick-up artists.

Well, they do epitomize "rational agents should win".

would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long?

Depends on the specifics, but quite possibly. The Superhappies aren't wireheads, they're out exploring the universe and learning while being super happy. I could go for that.

Sullivan, making your male audience uncomfortable is as easy as inserting a male-male kiss.

Sexual fantasies of being raped tend to be readily distinguishable from real rape as we know it. Receiving oral sex is a lot more common in rape fantasy than in rape (though (obvious disclaimer) it could certainly be part of a real rape).

But building a Weirdtopia around "nonconsensual lovemaking" or "risky dating" isn't as simple as substituting rape fantasy for rape, because the concept of "rape" isn't just about the danger of death or... (read more)

6pencilears10yok, so what you are saying is that in this hypothetical weirdtopia you've worked it out that women are more likely to initiate sex and to take it too far and disregard the signals of the male if he's saying something like "no stop, I don't want to" which is certainly different from how we order the world in western society. and a valad premise on which to build a social-sci-fi story about the possible implications of such a role reversal. which is exactly what you haven't done. you just used the word "rape" which is a loaded word, when you should not have done so and with out showing the context in the story instead explaining here, I assume there is a scene between two characters later in the story wherein a male is taken advantage of by a female and it all becomes clear. also female on male sexual assault is a very real thing today and again not to be taken lightly or mentioned but not shown or explained. I am aware I am commenting on your explanation, it is not an in-story explanation, I had to scroll all the way down here to see it. (I must say here that I looked up Miss Manners on the point of women initiating relations and she says that when one plays the gentleman's part one must be gentlemanly about it even if one happens to be a lady, the gentleman must gracefully accept a refusal and ladies always have the right to refuse or accept as they choose. this seems to square better with my actual experiences of asking men out.) also you have supplied what seems like the kind of muddle minded defense and reasoning one might put behind something you as the author are sexually attracted too, which is fine, as I mentioned before you are in the company of sci-fi giants in that regard. might have been better done with an actual sex scene, if you are going for author appeal why not go all out? I still feel that dropping in "rape is legal and it is not explained why this is so in the story and it was dropped in as a side comment purely to get a rise out of the a
6NancyLebovitz10yA number of people have asked about that feature of weirdtopia, and as far as I know, Eliezer has never answered. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ETA: My mistake. I was going by memory rather than checking the context. Eliezer has an answer upthread. I can't say it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, but I'll give it another reading. ETA2: I think I understand Eliezer's ideas. I'm not sure the boundaries of sexual consent are that easily changed. I can imagine a society where there are clear (or as clear as such things are among neurotypicals) signals for playing rape fantasies out. If it's the latter level of clarity, it would be a nightmarish place for those who are bad at the signals, but good enough for fiction fodder. It's harder to imagine a society where there are no pairs of people where one person is attracted to the other while the other is emphatically and consistently repulsed by the first. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In the real world, men don't like being bullied or harassed about sex. And this applies to heterosexual men being bullied or harassed by women. It's just less likely to happen than the other way around. Something I didn't get around to posting in a previous discussion of relationships between men and women. There's been a lot of talk about the difficulties for men of having to make the first move. Those difficulties are quite real, but there's a non-obvious advantage-- if you're always making the first move, you can be sure (unless you're being pushed by family or friends) that you're making your own choices.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky10yUm, grandparent of above comment much? []

I think that making men uncomfortable would be best done by simply pointing out that in a society where non-consensual sex was no longer illegal, non-consensual male-on-male sex would also not be illegal.

And at least that would move peoples minds away from imagining a world where women are defending themselves from rapists left and right, to one where men are just as preoccupied with defending THEMSELVES from rape as they are raping others. Clearly neither of those scenarios is what is occurring in the society you have imagined, but hopefully it would move people closer to a more gender-equitable reading rather than assuming youre talking about some sort of Gorean hellhole.


the future will almost certainly contain some things that we would find shocking

I'm going to state this more forcefully: "the future will certainly contain things that we would find shocking."

One need only look to the past to see what moral fashions have changed. If you need a refresher on what offices were like less than 50 years ago, watch some episodes of Mad Men. During the dotBoom of the late 90s, I found drinking on the job (most software companies at that time - or at least the trendy ones - had soda machines or refrigerators stocked wi... (read more)

How great is this story?

The encounter with aliens was enlightening for those humans. Just reading this fiction, is still very enlightening for humans!

That's the greatness of it.

The real problem with non-consentual sex is that the cute guys/girls would not be able to cope with all the attention...

"In America, a woman gets raped every five minutes. And she is not enjoing it!"

Tangurena, Are you an old person from the era of Mad Men, shocked at the future of today, in which people drink on the job? or vice versa?

Douglas, I first worked in the 70s, where the last of the unrepentant [jerks] from the era depicted by Mad Men were still controlling the workforce. And I'm a lot older than the youngsters who got all the bucks in the dotBoom. I saw was rampant alcohol consumption did in the workplace. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that each generation has to learn a number of painful lessons all over again.

Beer on the job at software companies?

I'm shocked, too, and I'm almost old enough to have worked at one of those places...

James Andrix says: Trying to wrap my head around this, I'll propose that this society has 'freedom of intercourse'. Stopping someone by force from having sex with you would be as improper as stopping them by force from talking to you, even if you didn't like it. Walking away might be acceptable but considered generally impolite. People who have nonconsenual sex frequently would be stigmatized and avoided as annoying people are today, but

Today nonconsenual sex is bundled with violence, fear of violence, and expectations of personal space. If the impossible ... (read more)

And this will, to some degree or other, be different for women than for men; maintaining/losing control of your sexuality on this deeper level is going to tap into female drives more strongly than male drives, for all the obvious reasons of evolutionary psychology.

BUAHAHAhahahahahaha! Did you wanna restate that, or are you going to let that stand as worded?

I don't buy the (fairly common) idea that in the post-national Future all humans will look alike, though it's a convenient device here. I wonder whether I've ever seen it used this way.

The traits that we now call ethnic may cease to be ethnic markers, but they'll continue to appear so long as the genes exist, albeit rarely in the same combinations. Is there any reason to expect Akon to recognize which clusters of traits were once ethnic markers, out of all the combinations existing in his time?

0Sheaman377310yThe way I read it, it looked as though humanity deliberately blurred and blended the ethnic markers, rather than just allowing them to become homogeneous on their own.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this, damn it! All three of our species have empathy, we have sympathy, we have a sense of fairness - the Babyeaters even tell stories like we do, they have art. Shouldn't that be enough? Wasn't that supposed to be enough? But all it does is put us into enough of the same reference frame that we can be horrible by each others' standards."

That's brilliant. Can I use this quote in a sci-fi alien story I'm writing, if I ever finish and publish it?

The reason I love it so much is because I've been thinking something ... (read more)

The Confessor's beautiful...if only our history could progress in such a way...

How is it not obvious that rape is something on which people are INSUFFICIENTLY CLEAR about its badness. I mean you've personally written about not adopting evolution's alien values, do you think humans are going to get that wrong when the time comes, or do you not see how "legalised rape" is just hopping on board the hooray for monkey brains and negative sum subgoal stomp train? Then having the superhappies, seemingly in most other respects humanities superiors, contrasted to abhorrent aliens, also converging on drastically increased sexuality a... (read more)

3jbay6yI admit that I found this really disturbing too. I think that it is intended as an exercise. Put yourself in the mindset of an average 18th or 19th-century individual, and imagine the 21st century as an idealized future. Things seem pretty wonderful; machines do most of the work, medicines cure disease, air travel lets you get anywhere on the planet in a single day. But then, what?! Women can vote, and run businesses? And legalized gay marriage?!! How shocking and disturbing. It's almost a given that the future's values will drift apart from ours, although we can't be sure how and in which direction they will go. So something about this idealized future would be likely to seem abhorrent to us, even if normal and natural to the people of that time. I think -- and this seems to be the part that people don't understand at first -- EY is not suggesting that rape should be legalized, or painting this as his ideal values of the future. EY is saying something about the way that values change over time; the future is bound to embrace some values we find abhorrent, and the way that he can convey that feeling to us is by picking some abhorrent thing that pretty much everybody would agree is bad, and depicting it being normal and acceptable in a future society. That's the only way that we can experience the feeling of how someone from the past would feel about modern culture.
0[anonymous]6ySure. They will continue to drift in the direction of the values of descendants of New England Puritans, as they've been doing for the last few centuries.
2Jiro6yThe easiest way to experience something close to what someone from the past would think of modern culture, is to imagine how you would feel about their culture. "There are no nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda is a nonentity, the NSA can't spy and taxes are very low. On the other hand medicine is in a horrible state, there's no gay marriage, religion is everywhere, and women can't vote."

Additional comment years later: I don't think this actually makes any sense. Ignoring cases of people unable to give consent at all and a few more edge cases, the cases in the real world where you are permitted to do something to someone nonconsensually are cases where initating force is irrelevant (assuming you don't want to count the act itself as force). I can talk to you without your consent, because I don't need to say "let my sound waves reach your ears, or else I shoot you"--sound waves reach your ears automatically under most circumstan... (read more)