Social prerequisites of rationality

by [anonymous]6 min read24th Mar 201532 comments

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Summary: it is a prerequisite that you think you are entitled to your own beliefs, your beliefs matter, you think your actions follow your own beliefs and not from commands issued by others, and your actions can make a difference, at the very least in your own life. This may correlate with what one may call either equality or liberty.

Religion as not even attire, just obedience

I know people, mainly old rural folks from CEE, who do not think they are entitled to have a  vote in whether there is a God or not. They simply obey. This does NOT mean they base their beliefs on Authority: rather they think their beliefs do not matter, because nobody asks them about their beliefs. They base their behavior on Authority, because this is what is expected of them. The Big Man in suit tells you to pay taxes, you do. The Big Man in white lab coat tells you to take this medicine, you do. The Big Man in priestly robes tells you to kneel and cross yourself, you do. They think forming their own beliefs is above their "pay grade". One old guy, when asked any question outside this expertise, used to tell me "The Paternoster is the priests's business." Meaning: I am not entitled to form any beliefs regarding these matters, I lack the expertise, and lack the power. I think what we have here is not admirable epistemic humility, rather a heavy case of disempoweredness, inequality, oppression, lack of equality or liberty and of course all that internalized

Empoweredness, liberty, equality

Sure, on very high levels liberty and equality may be enemies: equality beyond a certain level can only be enforced by reducing liberties, and liberty leads to inequality. But only beyond a certain level: low and mid-levels they go hand in hand. My impression is that Americans who fight online for one and against the other simple take the level where they go hand in hand for granted, having had this for generations. But it is fairly obvious that on lower levels, some amount of liberty presumes some about of equality and vice versa. Equality also means an equality of power, and with that it is hard to tyrannize over others and reduce their liberties. You can only succesfully make others un-free if you wield much higher power than theirs and then equality goes out the window. The other way around: liberty means the rich person cannot simply decide to bulldoze the poor persons mud hut and build a golf range, he must make an offer to buy it and the other can refuse that offer: they negotiate as equals. Liberty presumes a certain equality of respect and consideration, or else it would be really straightforward to force the little to serve the big, the small person goals and autonomy and property being seen as less important (inequal to) the grand designs and majestic causes of the big people. 

The basic minimal level where equality and liberty goes hand in hand is called being empowered. It means each person has a smaller or bigger sphere (life, limb, property) what his or her decisions and choices shape. And in that sphere, his or her decisions matter. And thus in that sphere, his or her beliefs matter and they are empowered to and entitled to make them. And that is what creates the opportunity for rationality. 

Harking back to the previous point, your personal beliefs of theism or atheism matter only if it is difficult to force you to go through the motions anyway. Even if it is just an attire, there is a difference between donning that voluntarily or being forced to. If you can be forced to do so, plain simply the Higher Ups are not interested in what you profess and believe. And your parents probably not try to convince you that certain beliefs are true, rather they will just raise you to be obedient. Neither a blind believer nor a questioning skeptic be: just obey, go through the Socially Approved Motions. You can see how rationality seems kind of not very useful at that point.

Silicon Valley Rationalists

Paul Graham: "Materially and socially, technology seems to be decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor, not increasing it. If Lenin walked around the offices of a company like Yahoo or Intel or Cisco, he'd think communism had won. Everyone would be wearing the same clothes, have the same kind of office (or rather, cubicle) with the same furnishings, and address one another by their first names instead of by honorifics. Everything would seem exactly as he'd predicted, until he looked at their bank accounts. Oops."

I think the Bay Area may already have had this fairly high level of liberty-cum-equality, empoweredness, maybe it is fairly easy to see how programmers as employees are more likely to think freely about innovating in a non-authoritarian workplace athmosphere where both they are not limited much (liberty) and not made to feel they are small and the business owner is big (equality). This may be part of the reason why Rationalism emerged there (being a magnet for smart people is obviously another big reason).

Solution?

Having said all that, I would be reluctant to engage in a project of pushing liberal values on the world in order to prepare the soil for sowing Rationalism. The primary reason is that those values all too often get hijacked - liberalism as an attire. Consider Boris Yeltsin, the soi-disant "liberal" Russian leader who made the office of the president all-powerful and the Duma weak simply because his opponents at there, i.e. a "liberal" who opposed parliamentarism (arguably one of the most important liberal principles), and who assaulted his opponents with tanks. His "liberalism" was largely about selling everything to Western capitalists and making Russia weak, which explains why Putin is popular - many Russian patriots see Yeltsin as something close to a traitor. Similar "sell everything to Westerners" attitudes meant the demise of Hungarian liberals, the Alliance of Free Democrats party, who were basically a George Soros Party.  The point here is not to pass a judgement on Yeltsin or those guys, but to point out how this kind of "exported liberalism" gets hijacked and both fails to implement its core values and sooner or later falls out of favor. You cannot cook from recipe books only.

What else then? Well, I don't have a solution. But my basic hunch would be to not import Western values into cultures, but more like try to tap into the egalitarian or libertarian elements of their own culture. As I demonstrated above, if you start from sufficiently low levels of both, it does not matter which angle you start from.  A society too mired in "Wild West Capitalism" may start from the equality angle, saying that the working poor do not intrinsically worth less than the rich, do not deserve to be mere means used for other people's goals but each person deserves a basic respect and consideration that includes their beliefs and choices should matter, and those beliefs and choices ought to be rational. A society stuck in a rigid dictatorship may start from the liberty angle, that people deserve more freedom to choose about their lives, and again, those choices and the beliefs that drive them better be rational.

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it is a prerequisite that you think you are entitled to your own beliefs

Not clear what "entitled" means. In some senses of this word, being entitled to your own beliefs is a bad idea, as in "I'm entitled to my own opinion" spoken in the face of disagreeable evidence.

[that] your beliefs matter,

What does "matter" mean? On what scale, and why does the scale matter? If it's a matter of being worth paying attention to on the margin, then it may be a question of goals and ability. It's plausible that for many people life outcomes won't depend very much on large classes of their beliefs, that paying attention to things other than such beliefs would be more efficient.

[that] you think your actions follow your own beliefs and not from commands issued by others,

Perhaps you are in a subordinate role, so your actions do follow from commands issued by others, but this is compatible with them following from your own beliefs, or from today's weather.

[that] your actions can make a difference, at the very least in your own life.

Very bad decisions are easy to invent, so clearly your actions can make a difference. The real question is whether at the margin the best you can do can be improved efficiently enough to make this kind of activity a good idea.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Not clear what "entitled" means.

It means not-even-attire. When you are not simply following an authority in the sense of "I trust it because X said it" but more in the sense of "X said it, it is not my job to trust, just to obey" it can be called not feeling entitled to judge. The attitude of the bureaucratic clerk who follows rules not because he trusts the higher ups make good rules but because he feels it is not his job to judge if the rules are good.

What does "matter" mean?

Beliefs that matter may either change your own actions or other people's actions by them listening to you.

Very bad decisions are easy to invent

They tend to be illegal or at least socially disapproved which is kind of the point. It is easy to be safe as a conformist who just obeys. They put warning labels on everything these days :)

It is easy to be safe as a conformist who just obeys.

Not necessarily. That depends on whether the social rules contains good advice. For example, in the Soviet Union blindly obeying all the official commands may very well cause you to starve. Hence most people cheated the system any way they could get away with. While as you observed they wouldn't openly question the official doctrine, their actions tell a different story.

[-][anonymous]6y 1

Hm, this is a good point. Clearly felt needs clearly override that. I was thinking more amonst the lines of office red-tape rules conformism, religious etc.

I'm not sure I agree. the requirements of rationality are personal, not social (I think), and they're more general than you propose.

You must believe there is a reality, and you must believe that at least some of it is consistent with observation, and you must believe you can make choices that change your future experiences.

Also, I'm not sure I agree with your implication that rationality for others is an end goal for me (though it is an instrumental goal for many of the things I like), nor that it justifies trying to change their culture to support/encourage it.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Feeling empowered (feeling you are able to affect and change things) is perfectly personal, but coming from social conditions.

and you must believe you can make choices that change your future experiences

That is empowerment.

That is empowerment.

"empowerment" usually carries a lot more implications about the kind of choices and experiences that one can expect. I mean it only in the small sense.

The actual requirements of rationality are that one must be sentient and motile.

If Lenin walked around the offices of a company like Yahoo or Intel or Cisco, he'd think communism had won. Everyone would be wearing the same clothes, have the same kind of office (or rather, cubicle) with the same furnishings, and address one another by their first names instead of by honorifics.

With the exception of honorifics, the same argument could be used for an army: everyone wears a uniform and has a gun, so we must have achieved the true equality, right?

Looking from a different angle, if people have to be the same in everything except for their position in the power ladder, that just makes the power ladder more crushing. There is no escape from it; no other game in the town. There is no longer the warming thought of "okay, this guy is my boss, but at least I have nice clothes, or a nice home, so there is still something I can be proud for". There is only "this guy is my boss" and that's the whole story because there is nothing else there.

To me it seems that the cubicle culture is actively trying to remove everything that makes me an individual human. Okay, I admit the possibility that Lenin could have liked this part.

It may seem different to Paul Graham, because he happens to be the guy on the top of the power ladder. To him it probably seems that everyone is a big happy family, because no one dares to tell him otherwise. I am not sure people at the bottom share the sentiment. (Actually, in a different essay he admits that being at the bottom sucks.)

With the exception of honorifics, the same argument could be used for an army: everyone wears a uniform and has a gun, so we must have achieved the true equality, right?

While there's an uniform a general does not have the same uniform than people with lower rank.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Hm, this is not a bad view. I too have seen analyses societies where there are multiple status ladders (e.g. rich businesspeople feel honored if starving poets accept their invitation) are better off.

Yet. The power ladder is crushing when the power distance is high and the leadership style authoritarian. But I think amongst people who use first-name terms, don't make employees report standing before a huge imposing oak desk etc. the power distance / authoritarianism ust be low.

But I think amongst people who use first-name terms, don't make employees report standing before a huge imposing oak desk etc. the power distance / authoritarianism ust be low.

I think you're confusing the actual power distance with how much does it get shoved into your face (aka politeness).

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Stupid question: what else is actual power for, beside enjoying rubbing it into people's faces? I mean, power is an annoying thing you have because it multiplies your mistakes and you have to take responsibility for everything and must decide things you totally don't know how to decide and captains feel lonely on the bridge and so on. If there is no power-trip in the social sense, why would people crave power at all? It would feel like a terrible burden, a duty taken for the sake of others. It would precisely be being the Universal Scapegoat. The CEO's predicament: if every VP and department leader succesfully excuses themselves from blame, then you are to blame. Even if it is a black swan. Blame, like energy, gets conserved, any any amount of blame not succesfully sticked lower down gets sticked on captains.

I've always thought being allowed to rub power in people's faces is a compensation for this terrible burden.

How about people who genuinely want to have something done? For example, if my dream is to create a great computer game... and I happen to be a boss of a company that succeeds to make a great computer game... I don't think I would need an opportunity to rub my power in people's faces to be happy. I would be simply happy that my dream became true.

Obviously this does not work for people to whom "being the boss" is the real goal. But that explains why they do it, not why I should desire to work in an environment optimized for them. (I work in such environments simply because I do not have the necessary skills to create my own environment, and all the environments I know are optimized for this type of people, usually because they are the ones who designed them.)

[-][anonymous]6y 0

But how is that sort of power crushing? In your example, every employee with the same dream likes you having that kind of power, most people are indifferent, and maybe some cometitors are pissed. You are thinking more among the lines of boss and employees sharing the passion but would make it differently (say turn-based vs. real-time strategy), and power can be crushing in the sense of employees seeing their dreams thwarted?

This may seem like a small difference, but in some companies employers can give inputs into the process, and in other companies they are just told to shut up... or maybe they are asked to voice their opinion, but then their opinion is completely ignored in a completely obvious manner.

I am talking here about autonomy, as one of the conditions for "flow". Some workplaces have it, some don't.

For example, as the boss of the computer game company, I could be micromanaging my employees and on a random whim override their best work with my half-baked ideas for no good reason... or I could be not doing this. Like, I make the decision about whether we are making a first-person shooter or a turn-based strategy, but my graphic people decide how long teeth will the ogres in the game have, because that is their competence.

The crushing form of power is if I start walking around, ask my graphic people to show me the pictures they made, and (despite having zero graphical talent) tell them to make this or that random change, throwing their ideas out of the window, wasting a lot of their work, ruining the consistency of the style, etc., simply because I am the boss and I can show them how little their opinions, skill, and lifelong experience matter in face of the power structure.

(Is this similar to what you called "rubbing the power in people's faces", or did you imagine something completely different?)

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Hmmm... is it sure autonomy is a condition for that? It seems to me Zen monks train for something like the flow all the time and they don't have much of it.

Also, there is the personal kind of autonomy of doing your own work without others bothering you, and the democratic kind of autonomy when having input into what the company as a whole does, the project as a whole, and I think this second cannot really be relevant to it -> the boss will not distrupt flow if he makes all those decisions alone, and leaves autonomy for people to work out the details in the bits and pieces they work with.

No, I meant something far worse than that by rubbing. Intimidation, status symbols, belittling, inequal titles (i.e. calling employees on first name terms but expect to be called back on surname terms) and so on. But yes, this also sounds kinda bad too. This is only bad if employees care about their work and not working just because they must. The other kind of bad is always bad.

Stupid question: what else is actual power for, beside enjoying rubbing it into people's faces?

To accomplish things in reality.

See, your problem is that you lack motivation and don't have goals you're passionate about chasing. But that is not true for a lot of people. A lot of people want -- really want -- specific results and outcomes in the real world and power is very useful for making this happen.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

OK, reformulating: for all those people why is power problematic ? Why would Viliam think it can be still crushing when wielded politely? (You are not Viliam, obviously, and I am not asking you to explain someone else's thoughts, I am just trying to illustrate my point.)

I mean, suppose Romeo and John manages to get MealSquares into every grocery store in the world. That fits this definition of power, but why would that bother anyone who is not a competitor (or perhaps a customer who dislike his favorite foods losing shelf space, but this is not exactly zero-sum, if a small number of people want a product really strongly, that is sort of an ideal setup for a webshop, they will probably not lose their supply).

for all those people why is power problematic ?

I don't understand the question. Why is somebody else's power problematic for an individual? Because of safety, status, and competition. Why is power problematic socially? Well, there is a lot of literature written on the topic and I'm sure you're aware of it.

What does CEE refer to?

[-][anonymous]6y 3

Central-Eastern Europe. West from the Russosphere, either including or east from Germnay/Austria, usually under a historical cultural influence from them, culturally more or less Germanosphere but on the average poorer and more "backwards".

What do you mean with "liberal"?

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Please interpret it in the light of the whole article. How liberty and equality works together up to a certain extent and resutls in empoweredness etc.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Downvote explanations?

Too much speculation, written in a tone of high certainty.

Attempting to fix things on a nation state level isn't the best way in the 21st century.

There no need to change other cultures, it's possible to start a subculture and draw people into that subculture. Making sure that members of a community feel good and develop well is more important than "outreach".

[-][anonymous]6y 0

This sounds like a good idea. Care to elaborate? Peope are trying to fix things on level higher than the nation-state (EU, NAFTA, UNO), it seems the world is moving towards higher units, what processes or changes or historical variables do in your view make acting in smaller units a better idea now than it used to be?

What makes the current age a good time for effective subcultures? The Internet?

Peope are trying to fix things on level higher than the nation-state (EU, NAFTA, UNO), it seems the world is moving towards higher units

UNO has very little power. Nafta is more an agreement that robs nation-states of power and allows them to be sued by corporations in investor-state settlement disputes than itself being a powerful institution. There no NAFTA parliament that's a center of power. Corporations that are smaller entities get power through NAFTA.

The EU does have some power, but ACTA showed that EU leadership can't anymore push through their will against grassroot opposition. The battle isn't decided yet but I would guess that TIPP will face the same fate as ACTA.

20 years ago mainstream media was allowed to be boring. People listened to it anyway because they had no real alternative. With the internet bloggers driven by ideology which can make people exited get more power. You need to polarize to get an audience in our era. Mainstream media that doesn't want to alienate anybody can't do that as effectively as people focusing on a small niche.

As Nassim Taleb says, the blogger is antifragile. Small subcultures can be antifragile in a way that a fragile nation state isn't.

I personally feel little loyality towards Germany or the EU. If the interest of Germany were pitted against the interests of the LW community I might simply side with LW. Of course living in Berlin I might be a bit of an outlier, but more and more people don't feel their prime loyality towards the state in which they are living.

If I look at my facebook feed quite a lot of my German friends don't take the German mainstream media opinion of the conflict in the Ukraine but take a more pro-Russian position.

In politics you see what happens when the prime loyalty of politicians doesn't lie with their country but with their friends, their ex-employer and their prospective employer after they end their political career. There might be a few politicians here and there who still see the interest of their nation state as their prime objective, but I think it's less than 20 years ago. That means the nation state has less power.

What do you need to get loyalty? It used to be that you get loyalty by providing food and water, medical care and blessing people marriages.

Today I feel loyalty towards communities that give me a sense of belonging and purpose. That's not the nation state in which I'm living. I feel like in general subcultures are much better equipped for that purpose and therefore predict that more young people put their loyalty into their subculture than the nation state in which they are living.

Tight community that gives their members a sense of purpose and belonging also get more power. Wikileaks needed very little resources to have a bigger impact.

To the extend we can build a rationalist community that makes it's members feel a sense of belonging and purpose, it's members might feel more loyalty towards the community than towards the nation state in which they are living. If the community can coordinate because it's filled with people who want to cooperate it can also make moves on a bigger scale.

In ten years a rationalist might run for office and Effective Altruism money completely finances the campaign, simply because that's the reasonable play to maximize impact.

Lukewarm people don't matter that much for power, but committed people do. A CFAR that can find a way to teach rationality in a way that actually helps people with their lives and make them feel like the belong together can lead in that direction.

General reading: IN SEARCH OF HOW SOCIETIES WORK Tribes — The First and Forever Form by David Ronfeld is very much worth reading to understand how networks do have power and how that social power is of a new quality.

Nassim Taleb writes a lot about why nation states lose power.

As a blog Global Guerrillas is quite good as well.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Hm, these are good points. Some remarks:

  • Bloggers: I have seen all too often that bloggers have a limited amount of stuff they want to say, they say it, and the more or less stop. Whoever happened to discover their blogs - and that is a tiny fraction of the people who would be potentially interested but the information is super hard to fish out from the overwhelming amount online, there are no good Google keywords that filter for "anything, just interesting" - will forget a few years later because blogs are not as a good media to make classics as hardcover books. In fact, I am halfway surprised OB/LW managed to survive so far, and I think it managed to survive largely through consciously forming networks out in meatspace, many early readers and contributors living in the Bay Area and meeting face to face, this also being facilitated by the super extroverted and open culture of California, so, anyway, I think we need to see blogs that survive not as much as magazines but periodicals sent to members of a club who also meet and everybody has the phone number of someone who has the phone number of someone who has the phone number of anyone you would want to get in contact with. Without a meatspace backbone, most blogs die. Exceptions are the ones backed up by mass media fame.

  • National loyalty: it really depends on how well that nation is doing. If you were from the third world, or a closer example: Kosovo, you would probably see nationalism as an altruist ethical duty, and it would not be very wrong: perhaps Haiti needs more fixing, but still there is enough fixing work to do there, too. It would not be highly efficient altruism but efficient enough. The points: expect it to stay alive for less-well-off nations, because they can make a very convincing case of it being ethically okay. As of now, I think a lot of military-age Ukrainians living safe in the West feel ashamed a bit and wrestle with the felt duty to go back and fight. And this is at least defensible enough ethically and emotionally to safely predict that nation-in-trouble-nationalism will not die out as fast as the nationalism of rich, safe, comfortable nations.

I mean, my whole point is how to prepare the soil in the ex-second-and-third-world for some LW injection :)

Tight community that gives their members a sense of purpose and belonging also get more power. Wikileaks needed very little resources to have a bigger impact.

Definitely, but factor in that coercive power still lies in the hands of the nation-state. You probably don't want to wield it, but it can be wielded against subcultures and their ideas. What happens when subcultures that value experimenting with psychedlics meat drug laws head-on?

Nassim Taleb writes a lot about why nation states lose power.

Where? I've read Anti-Fragile but I don't remember this.

Thanks for the book recommendations!

National loyalty: it really depends on how well that nation is doing. If you were from the third world, or a closer example: Kosovo, you would probably see nationalism as an altruist ethical duty, and it would not be very wrong: perhaps Haiti needs more fixing, but still there is enough fixing work to do there, too.

In a lot of the third world the prime loyalty is towards one's clan and not a nation state. That's why those states can't implement the rule of law. The rule of law requires that loyality to the nation state is more important than loyality to one's clan.

If you look at the Middle East the Sunni/Shia devide isn't about nation state loyalities. IS might be called the Islamic State but it is no real state. It's structured very differently from the way nation states are structured. The no need for a parliament that passes law because the law is the Sharia and a local Islamic community can simple govern itself after Sharia laws. The "nations" in the Middle East are also very much 20st century inventions.

You probably don't want to wield it, but it can be wielded against subcultures and their ideas. What happens when subcultures that value experimenting with psychedlics meat drug laws head-on?

Drug decriminalization. There's a lot of movement towards it. Yes, it's today still possible that the nation state wins some conflicts but it's power dwindles and I wouldn't be surprised if in one or two decades most of the drugs are decriminalized.

As of now, I think a lot of military-age Ukrainians living safe in the West feel ashamed a bit and wrestle with the felt duty to go back and fight. And this is at least defensible enough ethically and emotionally to safely predict that nation-in-trouble-nationalism will not die out as fast as the nationalism of rich, safe, comfortable nations.

In some sense yes, but do you notice that those Ukrainians you are talking about in that paragraph don't live in Ukraine and likely don't pay any taxes to the Ukrainian government? They might feel bad about not putting energy into supporting Ukraine, but as far as power is concerned it's not the feeling guilty that counts, it's the doing something.

30 years ago a lot of leaders of alternative groups were really bad. We had cults that were really awful. Complete obedience to a leader got preached in a lot of places. Cult members got encouraged not to think for themselves. They got encouraged to cut family ties.

An organisation like Landmark still resembles in some aspect the old cults but instead of encouraging to cut family ties they preach actually going and forgiving your family members for things that went wrong in the past and build better relationships with them. Instead of blind obedience people are encouraged to think for themselves.

France does fight Landmark and similar organisations as cults but overall those organisations do get better and can provide the sense of belonging and meaning that a lot of people seek.

It would be more accurate to say that institutions are trying to fix things on a supra-national (or explicitly international) level. Subcultures themselves also hold this promise in that, if you're using English as a language, it's difficult to confine their spread within the borders of one nation. They tend to spill over borders. Yes, the internet helps.

I think (I don't know, I'm not ChristianKI) that the parent comment relied on the fact that there's a bigger gap between the modus operandi of non-affiliated individuals and that of (state) institutions than it used to be in, say, the 19th century. Involvement in politics used to be more consequential back then compared to the impact of an average political comment on the internet. Nation states have gotten bigger, more complex, and more stable now when compared to then, and in the past there was more chance for subcultures to pass the institutional threshold and become political parties. It's very possible that one's best hope is a subculture. One that may, just may grow to include powerful institutionally-affiliated individuals. (Heck, just look at LessWrong itself.)