Robin Hanson proposed stores where banned products could be sold.1 There are a number of excellent arguments for such a policy—an inherent right of individual liberty, the career incentive of bureaucrats to prohibit everything, legislators being just as biased as individuals. But even so (I replied), some poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of five children is going to go into these stores and buy a “Dr. Snakeoil’s Sulfuric Acid Drink” for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphans to weep on national television.
I was just making a factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?
On questions of simple fact (for example, whether Earthly life arose by natural selection) there’s a legitimate expectation that the argument should be a one-sided battle; the facts themselves are either one way or another, and the so-called “balance of evidence” should reflect this. Indeed, under the Bayesian definition of evidence, “strong evidence” is just that sort of evidence which we only expect to find on one side of an argument.
But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property. Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?
Politics is the mind-killer. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.
One should also be aware of a related failure pattern: thinking that the course of Deep Wisdom is to compromise with perfect evenness between whichever two policy positions receive the most airtime. A policy may legitimately have lopsided costs or benefits. If policy questions were not tilted one way or the other, we would be unable to make decisions about them. But there is also a human tendency to deny all costs of a favored policy, or deny all benefits of a disfavored policy; and people will therefore tend to think policy tradeoffs are tilted much further than they actually are.
If you allow shops that sell otherwise banned products, some poor, honest, poorly educated mother of five kids is going to buy something that kills her. This is a prediction about a factual consequence, and as a factual question it appears rather straightforward—a sane person should readily confess this to be true regardless of which stance they take on the policy issue. You may also think that making things illegal just makes them more expensive, that regulators will abuse their power, or that her individual freedom trumps your desire to meddle with her life. But, as a matter of simple fact, she’s still going to die.
We live in an unfair universe. Like all primates, humans have strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness; thus we find this fact stressful. There are two popular methods of dealing with the resulting cognitive dissonance. First, one may change one’s view of the facts—deny that the unfair events took place, or edit the history to make it appear fair.2 Second, one may change one’s morality—deny that the events are unfair.
Some libertarians might say that if you go into a “banned products shop,” passing clear warning labels that say THINGS IN THIS STORE MAY KILL YOU, and buy something that kills you, then it’s your own fault and you deserve it. If that were a moral truth, there would be no downside to having shops that sell banned products. It wouldn’t just be a net benefit, it would be a one-sided tradeoff with no drawbacks.
Others argue that regulators can be trained to choose rationally and in harmony with consumer interests; if those were the facts of the matter then (in their moral view) there would be no downside to regulation.
Like it or not, there’s a birth lottery for intelligence—though this is one of the cases where the universe’s unfairness is so extreme that many people choose to deny the facts. The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6–0.8 is overwhelming, but even if this were to be denied, you don’t choose your parental upbringing or your early schools either.
I was raised to believe that denying reality is a moral wrong. If I were to engage in wishful optimism about how Sulfuric Acid Drink was likely to benefit me, I would be doing something that I was warned against and raised to regard as unacceptable. Some people are born into environments—we won’t discuss their genes, because that part is too unfair—where the local witch doctor tells them that it is right to have faith and wrong to be skeptical. In all goodwill, they follow this advice and die. Unlike you, they weren’t raised to believe that people are responsible for their individual choices to follow society’s lead. Do you really think you’re so smart that you would have been a proper scientific skeptic even if you’d been born in 500 CE? Yes, there is a birth lottery, no matter what you believe about genes.
Saying “People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!” is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, “Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of five children didn’t deserve it, but we’re going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.” Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I. But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately—maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can’t quote it.
I don’t think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration. I count it as a tragedy. It is not always helping people, to save them from the consequences of their own actions; but I draw a moral line at capital punishment. If you’re dead, you can’t learn from your mistakes.
Unfortunately the universe doesn’t agree with me. We’ll see which one of us is still standing when this is over.
1Robin Hanson et al., “The Hanson-Hughes Debate on ‘The Crack of a Future Dawn,’” 16, no. 1 (2007): 99–126, http://jetpress.org/v16/hanson.pdf.
2This is mediated by the affect heuristic and the just-world fallacy.
Like much of Eliezer's writings, this is dense and full of interesting ideas, so I'll just focus on one aspect. I agree that people advocating positions should fully recognize even (or especially) facts that are detrimental to their side. People advocating deregulation need to accept that things exactly like Eliezer describes will happen.
I'm not 100% sure that in a public forum where policy is being debated, that people should feel obligated to advance arguments that work to their side's detriment. It depends on what the ground rules are (possibly implicit ones). If everyone is making a good faith attempt to provide this kind of balance in their statements, it could work well in theory. But if one side does this and the other does not, it will lead to an unbalanced presentation of the issues. Since in practice it seems that most people aren't so even-handed in their arguments, that would explain why when someone does point out a fact that benefits one side, the audience will assume he favors that side, as happened to Eliezer.
Reading the above, I get the impression that Eliezer does in fact favor regulation in this context, and if so, then the audience conclusion was correct. He was... (read more)
Hal, I don't favor regulation in this context - nor would I say that I really oppose it. I started my career as a libertarian, and gradually became less political as I realized that (a) my opinions would end up making no difference to policy and (b) I had other fish to fry. My current concern is simply with the rationality of the disputants, not with their issues - I think I have something new to say about rationality.
I do believe that people with IQ 120+ tend to forget about their conjugates with IQ 80- when it comes to estimating the real-world effects of policy - either by pretending they won't get hurt, or by pretending that they deserve it. But so long as their consequential predictions seem reasonable, and so long as I don't think they're changing their morality to try to pretend the universe is fair, I won't argue with them whether they support or oppose regulation.
Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips). Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?
"Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips)."
All true so far... but here comes the huge logical leap...
"Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?"
What does neuroscience showing the cause of why bad people choose to do bad things, have to do with whether or not bad people deserve bad things to happen to them?
The idea that bad people who choose to do bad things to others deserve bad things to happen to them has never been based on an incorrect view of neuroscience, and neuroscience doesn't change that even slightly.
TGGP, I think we have to define "deserve" relative to social consensus--a person deserves something if we aren't outraged when they get it for one reason or another. (Most people define this based on the consensus of a subset of society--people who share certain values, for instance.) Differences in the concept of "deserve" are one of the fundamental differences (if not the primary difference) between conservatism and liberalism.
TGGP, if the mind were not embodied in the brain, it would be embodied in something else. You don't need neuroscience to see the problem with the naive conception of free will.
The reason I don't think idiots deserve to die is not because their genes played a role in making them idiots. Suppose it were not the genes. So what? The point is that being stupid is not the same as being malicious, or dishonest. It is simply being stupid, no more and no less. Drinking Sulfuric Acid Drink because you wishfully think it will cure your arthritis, is simply not on a moral par with deliberately burning out someone's eyes with hot pokers. No matter what you believe about the moral implications of determinism for sadistic torturers, in no fair universe would mere sloppy thinking be a capital crime. As it has always been, in this our real world.
I am not normally a nit pick (well, maybe I am) but this jumped out at me: an example of a fact--"whether Earthly life arose by natural selection." Because natural seletion is one of the cornerstones of modern biology, I thought I'd take a few seconds to enter this comment.
Natural selection is a biological process by which favorable traits that can be gentically inherited become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms, and unfavorable traits that can be inherited become less common. The driving force is the... (read more)
Sorry, Brayton. I do know better, it was simply an accident of phrasing. I hadn't meant to imply that abiogenesis itself occurred by selective processes - "arose" was meant to refer to life's ascent rather than sparking.
Though, in my opinion, the very first replicator (or chemical catalytic hypercycle) should not really count as "life", because it merely happens to have the accidental property of self-replication and was not selectively optimized to this function. Thus, it properly belongs to the regime of accidental events rather than the regime of (natural) optimization.
The problem here is bias to one's own biases, I think. After all, we're all stupid some of the time, and realising this is surely a core component of the Overcoming Bias project. Robin Hanson may not think he'd ever be stupid enough to walk into the Banned Shop, but we all tend to assume we're the rational one.
You also need to consider the real-world conditions of your policy. Yes, this might be a good idea in its Platonic ideal form, but in practice, that actually doesn't tell us very much. As an argument against "regulation", I think, with a co... (read more)
Alex raises an interesting point: do most of us in fact assume that we would never walk into a Banned Shop? I don't necessarily assume that. I could envision going there for a medical drug which was widely available in Europe, but not yet approved by the U.S. FDA, for example. Or how about drugs that are supposed to only be available by prescription, might Banned Shops provide them to anyone who will pay? I might well choose to skip the time and money of a doctor visit to get a drug I've taken before without problems (accepting the risk that unknown to me, some subtle medical condition has arisen that now makes the drug unsafe, and a doctor would have caught it). Or for that matter, what about recreational drugs? If Banned Shops sold marijuana to anyone with a 100 IQ, I'm sure there are many list members who would partake.
It's a similar argument to my proposal of Rational Airways, an airline that asks you to sign a release when buying a ticket to the effect that you realise how tiny the risk of a terrorist attack is, and therefore are willing to travel with Rational, who do not apply any annoying security procedures.
Alex, a possible problem is that Rational would then attract all the terrorists who would otherwise have attacked different airlines.
PS: And, the risk might not be tiny if you took off all the safety precautions. But, yes, you could dispense with quite a few costly pointless ostentatious displays of effort, without changing the security risk in any significant sense.
James, my comment on drawing the moral line at capital punishment was addressed to the universe in general. Judicial executions count for a very small proportion of all death penalties - for example, the death penalty that you get for just being alive for longer than a century or so.
The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming
Erm. 0.6-0.8 what?
I realize it has little to do with the main argument of the post, but I also have issues with Eliezer's claim:
"The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming..."
Genes matter a lot. But there are a number of problems with the calculation you allude to. See Richard Nisbett's work.
"Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.
--60 Minutes (5/12/96) Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.
She later expressed regret for it, after taking an awful lot of flack at the time, but this does sometimes happen.
I think your point that she took a lot of flak for it is evidence for the original point. The only other reasonable responses to that could have been changing her mind on the spot, or disputing the data, and neither of those responses would have brought similar backlash on her. Conceding weak points to your arguments in politics is often looked upon as a weakness when it shouldn't be.
its unfair to caricaturize libertarians as ultra-social-darwinists saying "stupid ppl who accidently kill themselves DESERVED it". if that quote was ever literally uttered, I would tend to think it was out of exasperation at the opposing viewpoint that govt has a paramount responsibility to save its citizens from themselves to the point of ludicrous pandering.
"Everyone gets what they deserve" is the unironic (and secular) motto of a close family friend who is wealthy in Brazil, one of the countries with the greatest levels of economic inequality in the world. I have heard the sentiment echoed widely among the upper and upper middle class. Maybe it's not as extreme as that, but it is a clear expression of the idea that unfortunate people deserve their misfortune to the point that those who have the resources to help them should not bother. This sentiment also characterizes Objectivism, which is commonly (though not always) associated with libertarianism.
Turns out this has a name: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-world_phenomenon
I recently spoke with someone who was in favor of legalizing all drugs, who would not admit that criminalizing something reduces the frequency at which people do it.
Was that actually his claim or was he saying that it doesn't necessarily reduce the frequency at which people do it? Clearly the frequency of drug use has gone up since they were made illegal. Now perhaps it would have gone up faster if drug use had not been made illegal but that's rather hard to demonstrate. It's at least plausible that some of the popularity of drugs stems from their illegality as it makes them a more effective symbol of rebellion against authority for teenagers seeking to signal rebelliousness.
Claiming that criminalizing can't possibly reduce the frequency at which people do something would be a pretty ridiculous claim. Claiming that it hasn't in fact done so for drugs is quite defensible.
Portugal, anyone? There is a point when arguments need to be abandoned and experimental results embraced. The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has seen a scant increase in drug use. QED
The same goes for policies like Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Many countries around the world have run the experiment of letting gays serve openly and there have been no ill effects.
Abandon rationalization, embrace reality.
The claim of sensible consequentialist (as opposed to moralizing) drug control advocates who are in favor of the War on Drugs is that the War on Drugs, however disastrous, expensive, destructive of liberties, and perverting of justice (to whatever degree they will accept such claims - can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, etc.), is a lesser evil than the consequences of unbridled drug use. This claim is most obviously falsified by a net decrease in drug use, yes, but also falsified by a small increase which is not obviously worse than the War on Drugs since now the anti-War person can use the same argument as the pro-War person was: legalization is the lesser of two evils.
The benefits and small costs in Portugal are, at least at face value, not worse than a War. Hence, the second branch goes through: the predicted magnitude of consequences did not materialize.
Just wanted to say thanks for a very thoughtful article. I've burned through a great deal of time, wondering about the morality (or immorality) of the "arguments are soldiers" mindset.
The point of banned goods is not that they are banned because of the hazards for the people alone who buy them but for everyone else also. Sulphuric acid for example is easily usable as a weapon especially in concentrated form. (It grows very hot if it touches water. And it is very acidic. So, by using a simple acid proof squirt gun one can do serious damage.)
And, that's not really all: Suppose I could go into such a shop, proof that I'm sufficiently intelligent to handle dangerous stuff without being a danger for myself and buy a) a PCR machine b) a flu ... (read more)
Most of the goods you mention aren't restricted at all. I don't need any special permits to buy a PCR machine or anything necessary to run it for example.
I can imagine it, but I can't say that I can remember it in a similar case. The "if it saves just one life...." arguments have always struck me as idiotic, but apparently there is a large market for it. Is it really the case that so many people think t... (read more)
Interestingly, I independently came to a similar conclusion regarding drug legalization a few days ago, which I expressed during a class discussion on the topic. Out of about forty people in the class, one person other than me seemed to respond positively to this, everyone else (including people who were in favor of legalization) seemed to ignore it.
"But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property. Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?"
We do like to vote, you know. We do like to see other people vote. We do expect to see some kind of propagand, some kind of pitch to cast our votes in some certain way. We tend to feel fooled, than we don't see that, what we do expect to see in the right place. No, it isn't reserved exclusively for the politic issues.
"I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choi... (read more)
I've noticed that Argument by Innuendo is unfortunately common, at least in in-person discussions. Basically, the arguer makes statements that seem to point to some conclusion or another, but stops a few steps short of actually drawing a conclusion, leaving the listener to draw the conclusion themselves. When I've caught myself doing this and ask myself why, there are a few reasons that come up, including:
Needless to say, this is pretty manipulative, and a generally Bad Thing. But pe... (read more)
Yes. "But your genes would be different." Then it wouldn't be me. "Okay, same genes, but no scientific education." Then it wouldn't be me.
As much as such a thing as 'me' exists then it comes with all the knowledge and skills I have gained either through genetics, training or learning. Otherwise it isn't 'me'.
Shouldn't that answer then result in a "Invalid Question" to the original "Would you be a proper scientific skeptic if you were born in 500 CE?" question?
I mean, what you are saying here is that it isn't possible for you to have been born in 500 C.E., that you are a product of your genetics and environment and cannot be separated from those conditions that resulted in you. So the answer isn't "Yes" it is "That isn't a valid question."
I'm not saying I agree, especially since I think the initial question can be rephrased as "Given the population of humans born in 500 C.E. and the historical realities of the era, do you believe that any person born in this era could have been a proper scientific skeptic and given that, do you believe that you would have developed into one had your initial conditions been otherwise identical, or at least highly similar?" Making it personal (Would you be...) is just a way of conferring the weight of the statement, as it is assumed that the readers of LW all have brains capable of modelling hypothetical scenarios, even if those scenarios don't (or can't even in principle) match reality.
The question isn't ... (read more)
I was surprised and pleased to discover that the rock band Switchfoot have a song about the terrible cost to oneself of treating one's arguments as soldiers. It's called "The Sound in My Mouth". (Youtube link, with incorrect lyrics below it; better ones can be found at the bottom of this fansite page)
It focuses on the social costs rather than the truth-finding costs, but it's still well ahead of where I usually expect to find music.
Alternate title: “debates should acknowledge tradeoffs”. I think that mnemonic is more helpful.
Longer summary: “Debates should acknowledge tradeoffs. Don’t rationalize away apparent good points for the other side; it’s okay and normal for the other side to have some good points. Presumably, those points just won’t be strong enough in total to overwhelm yours in total. (Also, acknowledging tradeoffs is easier if you don’t think of the debate in terms of ‘your side’ and ‘their side’.)”
An implicit assumption of this article which deserves to be made explicit:
"All negative effects of buying things from the banned store accrue to the individual who chose to purchase from the banned store"
In practical terms this would not be the case. If I buy Sulphuric Acid Drink from the store and discover acid is unhealthy and die, that's one thing. If I buy Homoeopathic Brake Pads for my car and discover they do not cause a level of deceleration greater than placebo, and in the course of this discovery run over a random pedestrian, that's morally a different thing.
The goal of regulation is not just to protect us from ourselves, but to protect us from each other.
I think it is useful here to distinguish politics as a consequence of morality from politics as a agreed set of methods of public decision-making. With the first politics, or politics(A), yes, one has to present all facts as they are regardless of whether they favor one’s stance IF one is to believe there is a moral duty to be rational. In a world where humans all share that particular view on morality, there won’t be a need for the second kind of politics, or politics(B). Because, in that world, the set of methods for rational decision making suffice as t... (read more)
Debates can easily appear one-sided, for each side. For example, some people believe that if you follow a particular conduct in life, you will go to heaven. To these people, any policy decision that results in sending less people to heaven is a tragedy. But to people who don't believe in heaven, this downside does not exist.
This is not just an arbitrary example. This shows up all the time in US politics. Until people can agree on whether or not heaven exists, how can any of these debates not seem one-sided?
There is so much wrong with this example that I don't know where to start.
You make up a hypothetical person who dies because she doesn't heed an explicit warning that says "if you do this, you will die". Then you make several ridiculous claims about this hypothetical person:
1) You claim this event will happen, with absolute certainty. 2) You claim this event occurs because this individual has low intelligence, and that it is unfair because a person does not choose to be born intelligent. 3) You claim this event is a tragedy.
I disagree with all o... (read more)
I'd like to point out that the statistical value of human life is used by economists for calculations such as Eliezer mentions, so at some point someone has managed to do the math.
"I was just making a simple factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?"
A (tiny) note of dissonance here. As noted earlier, any knowledge/understanding naturally constrains anticipation. Wont it naturally follow that a factual observation shall naturally concentrate the probability density in favour of one side of the debate (assuming, of course, that the debate is viewed as having only two possible outcomes, even if each outcome is very broad and contains many variants).
In this particular example, ... (read more)
An interesting perspective to take. Bravo!
There is two problems with making stores that can sell banned things-hurting the public and people that are uneducated. I could go into one of these stores and buy poison and fill my brother's glass with it. That would be a drawback because it would affect my brother who did not go into a store and ignore a safety warning and pick up a bottle of poison and drink it. This would be a problem. An uneducated mother of five children that drinks poison doesn't deserve to die, her children don't deserve to be orphans, and that is asumming that she drinks it herse... (read more)
I found this post particularly ironic. The statement that a mother of five would drink sulfuric acid but for government regulation is not "a simple factual observation." How could it be? Since we are imagining an alternative world and the statement is not based on any universal law of human action (nor even historical precedent, in which case it would be a probabilistic statement, not a statement of fact), it is speculation. And a very debatable speculation at that. That is, why would anyone bother to market such a product? Surely it would not be... (read more)
“Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of five children didn’t deserve it, but we’re going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.” Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I. But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately—maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can’t quote it.
This speaks to a very significant issue we face today. Vast sw... (read more)
This is similar to the chain about "The end justifies the means," that is, as a supporter of vaccination would say that it is good that children are hurt when injected. Although this is obviously logically unreasonable. But in the case of "fools who deserve" it does not seem obvious, because stupidity is something bad, and therefore stupid people are evil, so they deserve punishment for their anger.
A few ideas:
You can't save a life. Every living thing is doomed to die. You can only postpone deaths.
Morality ought to be based on the expected values of decisions people make or actions they do, not the actual outcomes. Morality includes the responsibility to correctly evaluate EV by gathering sufficient evidence.
There's another reason to say the former rather than the latter. Most people will hear the latter this way:
"Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death ..."
"TLDR. Okay, you're for regulation."