The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral.
Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert
—John F. Kennedy, misquoter
Belief is quantitative, and just as it is possible to make overconfident assertions relative to ones anticipations, it is possible to make under confident assertions relative to ones anticipations. One can wear the attire of uncertainty, or profess an agnosticism that isn’t really there. Here, I'll single out a special case of improper uncertainty: the display of neutrality or suspended judgment in order to signal maturity, impartiality, or a superior vantage point.
An example would be the case of my parents, who respond to theological questions like “Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?” with “Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of question, but now I’ve grown out of it.”
Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says: “It doesn’t matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it.” Of course it matters who started the fight. The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, the principal should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch. Let a parent try punching the principal, and we’ll see how far “It doesn’t matter who started it” gets in front of a judge. But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it. It is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.
A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now. It doesn’t matter to the Great Power who started it—who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation—because the Great Power’s ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict. Oh, can’t Israel and Hamas just get along?
This I call “pretending to be Wise.” Of course there are many ways to try and signal wisdom. But trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses—refusing to sum up evidence—refusing to pass judgment—refusing to take sides—staying above the fray and looking down with a lofty and condescending gaze—which is to say, signaling wisdom by saying and doing nothing—well, that I find particularly pretentious.
Paolo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”1 A playground is a great place to be a bully, and a terrible place to be a victim, if the teachers don’t care who started it. And likewise in international politics: A world where the Great Powers refuse to take sides and only demand immediate truces is a great world for aggressors and a terrible place for the aggressed. But, of course, it is a very convenient world in which to be a Great Power or a school principal. So part of this behavior can be chalked up to sheer selfishness on the part of the Wise.
But part of it also has to do with signaling a superior vantage point. After all—what would the other adults think of a principal who actually seemed to be taking sides in a fight between mere children? Why, it would lower the principal’s status to a mere participant in the fray!
Similarly with the revered elder—who might be a CEO, a prestigious academic, or a founder of a mailing list—whose reputation for fairness depends on their refusal to pass judgment themselves, when others are choosing sides. Sides appeal to them for support, but almost always in vain; for the Wise are revered judges on the condition that they almost never actually judge— then they would just be another disputant in the fray, no better than any mere arguer.2
There are cases where it is rational to suspend judgment, where people leap to judgment only because of their biases. As Michael Rooney said:
The error here is similar to one I see all the time in beginning philosophy students: when confronted with reasons to be skeptics, they instead become relativists. That is, when the rational conclusion is to suspend judgment about an issue, all too many people instead conclude that any judgment is as plausible as any other.
But then how can we avoid the (related but distinct) pseudo-rationalist behavior of signaling your unbiased impartiality by falsely claiming that the current balance of evidence is neutral? “Oh, well, of course you have a lot of passionate Darwinists out there, but I think the evidence we have doesn’t really enable us to make a definite endorsement of natural selection over intelligent design.”
On this point I’d advise remembering that neutrality is a definite judgment. It is not staying above anything. It is putting forth the definite and particular position that the balance of evidence in a particular case licenses only one summation, which happens to be neutral. This belief, too, must pay rent in anticipated experiences, and it can be wrong; propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side.
Likewise with policy questions. If someone says that both pro-life and pro-choice sides have good points and that they really should try to compromise and respect each other more, they are not taking a position above the two standard sides in the abortion debate. They are putting forth a definite judgment, every bit as particular as saying “pro-life!” or “pro-choice!”
It may be useful to initially avoid using issues like abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for your rationality practice, and so build up skill on less emotionally charged topics. But it’s not that a rationalist is too mature to talk about politics. It’s not that a rationalist is above this foolish fray in which only mere political partisans and youthful enthusiasts would stoop to participate.
As Robin Hanson describes it, the ability to have potentially divisive conversations is a limited resource. If you can think of ways to pull the rope sideways, you are justified in expending your limited resources on relatively less common issues where marginal discussion offers relatively higher marginal payoffs.3
But then the responsibilities that you deprioritize are a matter of your limited resources. Not a matter of floating high above, serene and Wise.
In sum, there’s a difference between:
- Passing neutral judgment;
- Declining to invest marginal resources;
- Pretending that either of the above is a mark of deep wisdom, maturity, and a superior vantage point; with the corresponding implication that the original sides occupy lower vantage points that are not importantly different from up there.
1 Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985), 122.
2 Oddly, judges in the actual legal system can repeatedly hand down real verdicts without automatically losing their reputation for impartiality. Maybe because of the understood norm that they have to judge, that it’s their job. Or maybe because judges don’t have to repeatedly rule on issues that have split a tribe on which they depend for their reverence.
3 See Hanson, “Policy Tug-O-War” (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/05/policy_ tugowar.html) and “Beware Value Talk” (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/02/the-cost-of-talking-values.html).
"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral." -- Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert Wrong.
With international affairs, isn't stopping the aggression the main priority? That is stopping the death and suffering of humans on both sides? Sure it would be good to punish the aggressors rather than the retaliators but if that doesn't stop the fighting it just means more people are dying.
Also there is a difference between the adult and the child, the adult relies on the law of the land for retaliation the child takes it upon himself when he continues the fight. That is the child is a vigilante, and he may punish disproportionately e.g. breaking a leg for a dead leg.
I don't think the teacher being punched by a parent is a good analogy. Here are two possible other scenarios that differ from the original in a small way:
Regarding judges, we consider it necessary for them to pass judgment but they can gain greater respect sometimes by practicing "judicial minimalism", or saying as little as possible while resolving the specific dispute.
Hold on. Neutrality can also be, and often is, a meta-value judgment about the importance of the considerations that would lead to non-neutrality. The international relations case is a precise example of this.. Sometimes it really doesn't matter who started it. It's not just laziness to say that it doesn't matter who comitted the first Israel-Palestine atrocity: both have committed so many atrocities that the additional moral opprobrium that comes from having started it is just rounding error. And raising "they started it" as a defense of the next atrocity is just a distraction from the fact that the atrocities are indefensible. Same for the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the Hindus and Muslims in India, and so forth. The moral importance of assigning blame for generations and generations of back-and-forth atrocities when both sides have megagallons of blood on their hands pales in the face of the moral importance of stopping the killing.
On a smaller scale, this holds for the schoolchildren too. If two kids are fighting on the schoolyard, sometimes it matters who started it (one kid is a bully), but often it doesn't - if one kid insults then thr other pushes then the o... (read more)
"propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side."
Indeed. (I hope Robin is reading.)
A variation of this that I am very guilty of is only fighting my arguments on the other party's territory.
Instead of taking a position myself I just "try to understand" the other party's argument and in the process lead them down the garden path to a contradiction. When pressed on what I think, I usually reply "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."
Socrates seems to have fathered this tactic. He never claimed to be wise (but we call him wise).
Respectfully, I don't think he ended up all that wise, and neither am I when I argue this way. It does make me seem very wise, if only because it confounds my counterparties and I leave no target for counter-attack.
[sorry if this is a repost; my original attempt to post this was blocked as comment spam because it had too many links to other OB posts]
I've always hated that Dante quote. The hottest place in Hell is reserved for brutal dictators, mass murderers, torturers, and people who use flamethrowers on puppies - not for the Swiss.
I came to the exact opposite conclusion when pondering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Most of the essays I've seen in newspapers and on bulletin boards are impassioned pleas to designate one side or the other as Evildoers and the other as the Brave Heroic Resistance by citing who stole whose land first, whose atrocities were slightly less provoked, which violations of which cease-fire were dastardly betrayals and which were necessary pre-emptive actions, et cetera.
Not only is this issue so open to bias that we have little hope of getting to the truth, but I doubt there's much truth to be attained at all. Since "policy debates should not appear one-sided" and "our enemies are not innately evil", it seems pretty likely that they're two groups of people who both are doing what they honestly think is right and who both have some good points.
This ... (read more)
The quickest way to minimize suffering is to nuke the Middle East into a sea of glass with the nukes spaced such that every person is vaporized instantly without feeling a thing. As they feel nothing from their instant vaporization, they are no longer suffering and no longer are capable of suffering or causing suffering.
Somehow I don't see this as a viable solution.
Consequences-wise, yes. But many people may not realize this fact, not realize its importance, or actually be working on something more important; and while pointing this out to them is good, doing so less than extremely carefully, I think, comes off as "you're with us or you're against us", and is alienating. (Especially if they think they do have something more important.)
There is a very similar quote from Ayn Rand as well:
Your point is good. Sometimes it's just a matter of allocation of resources -- and yes, may sound like "you're with us or you're against us" depending on the tone.
Regarding courtroom judges:
I suspect that the big reason why they don't lose their reputation for impartiality simply by passing judgment is because in their situation, passing judgment ends the argument. Authoritatively.
Yvain, the most murderous dictator the world had ever seen and the biggest imperialist power of the day were on the side of the Allies and if our country had gone to war with his (and been as succesful) I am sure you would be talking about how lopsided the scales were in the other direction, having had it drummed into you through school and popular culture.
Buck Farmer, but surely revealing the tensions in the other party's argument contributes to the discovery of truth?
Religion is possibly to blame for the idea that suspended judgment = superiority. Only God is omniscient, so only He knows things for sure, everyone else must act unsure and tentative.
Priests are allowed to pass judgment and still retain their authority, because they are the voice of God on earth. Maybe the idea of judges evolved from priests and retained that immunity.
Good post. Nick's point is also good.
When parents say they don't care who started it, it may also be a strategy to minimize future fighting. Justice is not always optimal, even in repeated interactions.
Taking a hint from the babyeaters, I can say that the pro-life people are doing what's right' and what's right''', the pro choice people are doing what's right'' and what's right'''', Israel, what's right''''' and right''''''' and Hamas what's right'''''' and right''''''''. Then I can also say that if they wanted to switch to doing what was right, all groups would turn their efforts to FAI plus sustaining their actual existence. However, it seems that there may be many situations where fairly intelligent and well intentioned SL1 political commentators in ... (read more)
The principal's "I don't care who started it" can be a poorly-phrased "both of you started it." In every case, each kid will put full blame on the other--how often do you expect to hear "he started most of it, but I'm responsible for some of the trouble as well?" Often, both kids will even believe what they're saying. But in almost every case (perhaps excluding the playground bully), both contributed to escalating the conflict. Anyone who has shepherded groups of children can confirm this, and it holds just as true for adults, tribes, and nations.
To add to the other points made, the example of Israel v. the Gazans seems to be cherry-picked to me, as there are plenty of conflicts where the Great Powers have taken sides- i.e. basically any UN intervention, since they require the US's support. Even so, the Great Power pretty clearly has chosen aside in the Gazan conflict, since the US Senate passed a resolution officially endorsing Israel's side.
More generally, I think people, at least part of the time, do realize that being neutral is effectively the same as endorsing the stronger side, and simply re... (read more)
I should try and stay neutral in this, but what the hell :-)
I have to say I think this is a very weak point, Eleizer, and the examples reflect this. Sure, fetishising neutrality is a bad thing, and a bias - but as biases go, it doesn't make the top ten, or even the top hundred, and is closely related to a very sensible idea (see next paragraph). Others have pointed out how the headmaster/great powers are probably making the right decision in the examples you mention, and how they often don't stay neutral in many similar situations.
And though there's no goo... (read more)
[T]rying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses - refusing to sum up evidence - refusing to pass judgment...
Do you think this is involved in the general reluctance to assign probabilities in the absence of scientific frequency data (e.g., to assign probabilities to nuclear risks so that one can attempt expected value calculations)?
The Pyrrhonians and Epicureans aspired to an emotional state of studied equivalence, 'epoche', attained by the diligent and conscientious elucidation of equally excellent argument (isothenia) which in perfect equipoise persuaded you of the contingency of all positions. Skepticism, in that classical sense, is profoundly humbling, requires care and effort, and counsels against precipitous action. Granted that's not especially worldly, but then maybe good philosophy never is.
I'd hesitate to dismiss that approach as 'pretentious'. If anything there's something... (read more)
I'm not sure about the judges example. There have been certain judges who've taken sides on high-profile issues (like abortion or gay marriage) and consequently their reputation turned to mud amongst those on the other side of the issue.
So what you're saying is, "Neutrality is a position"?
Regarding Egyptians and Jews, why the Egyptians left no records of the Jews, I answer you with a question: Why you cannot find anything related to the Jews in the stettl I was born in, Jaszbereny, Hungary? No one in Jaszbereny has any idea that half of the population used to be Jewish, that there were three large synagogues, that it had been a center of Jews scholarship. It appears that neither the Egyptian wanted to remember the Jews.
If the outcome of their conflict is not being affected by your existence, it can be said that you are neutral. If you disagree with me, I would be interested to hear what definition of "neutral" you are using.
OK, I get it.
Darnit TGGP, you're right. Right. From now on I use Lord of the Rings for all "sometimes things really are black and white" examples. Unless anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron.
That's why in the old days gentlemen were financially independent. If you are financially independent then there is little material incentive to compromise one's principles. Today, we're taught to become heavily financially dependent, and so people don't take hard stands.
Now that I've made this argument, some probably have the nagging suspicion that the argument is just more intellectual obscurantism and I'm trying to muddy a clear choice between Creationism and Darwinism. To counteract your nagging suspicion here is a series of links to show you that while many experts claim Dembski is wrong, when you only accept their claims in their areas of expertise and aggregate them, they actually agree with Dembski:
Good math bad math http:... (read more)
Email address is here:
This article has too many cases of italicized words. I had to give up reading it.
Argh, it seems to be not possible to write about ID without coming across as an ideologue. This is a good blog and I do not want to pollute it. Before anyone complains about those comments, I give the mods full permission to delete them if they don't pass the well written/interesting threshold.
@yters: that's awfully good of you to give the moderators permission (with an if) to delete your posts
i believe this is the same principle behind our system of taxation
"Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?"
Of course the words "Jews" isn't used, but it is well-documented that West-Semites lived in Egypt. (They even ruled it for a while as the Hyksos dynasty.) There is also the Mernepthah Stele, with a small mention of "Israel."
Though we do have written records from ancient Egypt, they are nowhere near complete or consistent enough for the absence of evidence to be treated as useful evidence of absence.
Not that I'm claiming to be wise or anything.
Yvain "anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron." Brin has some interesting comments, including "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."
Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering ("Banewreaker" + "Godslayer") has convinced me that this was what actually happened during the Third Age, and The Lord of the Rings was written centuries later by the victors.
1a. If it is possible to be neutral, state that you have no opinion, and leave it at that. 1b. If it is not possible to neutral, state your bias, as completely as is possible.
Consider what motivates "false claims" of neutrality.
It is essentially a hedge against the risk/cost of bias.
Why is such a hedge necessary? It is an artifact of a "nuanced&qu... (read more)
It is functional for leaders to be more reluctant than most to "take sides" in common disputes. Our leaders do this, and so one can in fact signal high status by being "above" common disputes. Our leaders are in fact wiser than the average person, and in addition we want to say they are even wiser, so it makes sense to call people who signal high status as "wise." Furthermore, on average across human disputes with near equal support on the two sides the middle position is in fact the more correct position. So in this sense it does in fact signal wisdom to take a middle position.
There is some incredible insight hovering in the background here but I cannot put my finger on it.
I am am trained as a lawyer and therefore "disputes" are my livelihood. That being said, I have engaged in all sorts of "dispute" resolutions over the years from jury trials to bench trials to arbitrations to mediations to just simply getting people together and trying to work things out.
The schoolyard fight example is intriguing. We speak of many things when dealing with dispute resolution. I think, if asked, most people would claim that o... (read more)
facepalm And I even read the Sundering series before I wrote that :(
Coming up with narratives that turn the Bad Guys into Good Guys could make good practice for rationalists, along the lines of Nick Bostrom's Apostasy post. Obviously I'm not very good at it.
GeorgeNYC, very good points.
I said that just incase they had any empathetic qualms. I know they don't really need my permission.
Try the neutrality sex position? Even missionaries are known to recommend it.
How much does it matter today who started the first world war? Daniel Kahneman says something to the effect that it isn't particularly fruitful to look for which party to blame in a dispute as each party will be biased to believe that it is right, that it was injured,that the others are to blame. Taking sides would then just be the equivalent of entering into the fray, rather than trying to pull the combatants apart. In a second stage, which is the stage of trying to resolve the causes of the conflict, discussion of the merits of the situation may be relevant, but typically we just need to move on because its hard to get people to accept they have been wrong. Its much easier for them to accept they have been defeated.
Is Robin Hanson "pretending to be wise" when he says:
"My core politics is "I don't know"; most people seem far too confident in their political opinions."?
"Trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses - refusing to sum up evidence - refusing to pass judgment."
I use this non-committal stalling defense when I have not concluded which response will gain the most / cost the least, or when the question is one I don't want to answer for fear it will diminish my status, or for which I have not yet devised a rationalisation.
I remember being guilty of this insidious neutrality, consciously aware that my stance was on very shaky ground, and yet was still prepared to stand my ground. It definitely didn't have the status elevating payoff I would have expected, which is good, because I've never said I was completely neutral about abortion since then. More importantly, it helped catalyze a slow revolution where I began to analyze my cached thoughts, resulting in some surprising reversals so far.
This argument reminds me heavily of Ronald Dworkin's paper "Objectivity and truth" , although he constrains his argument to the domain of moral decisions.
Let me stevenkaas this one for you:
"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who [disagree with my politics]." -- John F. Kennedy, misquoter
The last time the Great Powers got involved in taking sides on minor disputes WWI happened.
Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who.
Neutrality can be an important strategy. Let's take international affairs. A neutral country that seldom takes a side in a dispute can end up being valuable as a go-between. It provides neutral grounds for peace talks can can broker deals between belligerents. A party trusted by both sides of a dispute can smooth the peace process.
Similarly with leaders. To be effective, a leader needs to be trusted by the tribe. The leader's job is to resolve disputes (note that kings used to have supreme judicial authority). Joining the fray should generally be avoided. ... (read more)
My main take-away message: There is a difference between: Passing neutral judgement, declining to invest marginal resources, pretending that either of these is a mark of deep wisdom. Sometimes being neutral is wise, sometimes just lazy. Not taking a side is taking the stronger side.
You mean Paulo Freire!
Facile to the extent that it doesn't acknowledge the nuance of withholding judgement. One does not have to pretend at virtue for demanding a higher standard of rigor before committing to one position or another. This is especially true nowadays, when it is quick and cheap to track down the strongest arguments for, or against, any position and exceedingly difficult to thoroughly debunk them; when misinformation is everywhere and having domain specific expertise doesn't protect a source from bias.
The sort of pretention you're describing is contemptible, but ... (read more)