David Hugh-Jones

I'm a social scientist in an economics department in Britain. Two of my interests are experimental economics and the social causes of genetic variation. I also have a newsletter at https://wyclif.substack.com and am writing a book at https://www.wyclifsdust.com

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The internet makes it easier to cooperate, that’s the problem

I think that's a weird take. A cooperation game typically has actions where you lose, but others gain more (whatever actions others take). Prisoner's Dilemmas and public goods games are simple examples. The only wrinkle is "what counts as more" if you take seriously the idea that utility is non-comparable across persons. But a weaker criterion is just "everyone would be better off if everyone cooperated", which again the PD and public goods games satisfy.

The internet makes it easier to cooperate, that’s the problem

You're right. I didn't distinguish between the two concepts, because I think cooperation in the colloquial sense – working together for a shared goal – typically involves elements of both. 

At its simplest, the internet makes communication easier, especially public communication. That should certainly help to solve coordination problems. It'll also help solve cooperation problems insofar as (1) communication shapes preferences; (2) people are susceptible to social norms, and communication helps to spread norms, clarify them and make them salient; (3) people can coordinate on structures which enforce cooperation, e.g. punishment for non-cooperators. Examples of (3) might be non-cooperators getting "cancelled", or e.g. consumer boycotts of firms who exploit labour unethically. And of course, points 1-3 can all also be (ab)used to enable bad kinds of cooperation.

Research Hamming Questions

For social science, here are some I'd throw in:

  • Are there questions nobody is asking?
  • Is there a real world phenomenon that nothing in the field addresses?

The best social science follows George Orwell's dictum: it takes huge effort to see what is in front of your face.

The Dawn of Everything: a review

The Scheidel review is worth reading, though it's rather hurried. Their argument is quite complex and sometimes a bit fuzzy, and the book has a lot of detail; I think it'll take some time for academics to chew through it and understand exactly what's at stake.

 Other academic reviews I've read haven't been great - the typical stuff has been "how can they ignore [my narrow narrow subfield]".

Civilization as Self-Restraint

You might be interested in the concept of "license", which was widely used until about the 18th century. License was like liberty, but license was bad, liberty was good, and the difference was that liberty presupposed self-restraint. So, liberty would be in the middle of your line, license on one end of it, and on the other maybe "tyranny".

No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s

Sure, I find that take on moral intuitions plausible. But if society has to make a real choice of the order of "how much to tax carbon", I think that collectively we would not want to make the decision based on people saying "meh, no strong opinions here, future world X just seems kinda prettier". We need some kind of principled framework, and for that... well, I guess you need moral philosophy! 

No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s

The point is whether they exist conditional on us taking a particular action. If we do X a set of people will exist. If we do Y, a different set of people will exist. There's not usually a reason to privilege X vs. Y as being "what will happen if we do nothing", making the people in X somehow less conditional. The argument is "if we do X, then these people will exist and their rights (or welfare or whatever) will be satisfied/violated and that would be good/bad to some degree; if we do Y then these other people will exist, etc., and that would be good/bad to some degree." It's a comparison of hypothetical goods and bads - that's the definition of a moral choice! So saying, "all these good/bads are just hypothetical" is not very helpful. It's as if someone said "shall we order Chinese or pizza" and you refused to answer, because you can't taste the pizza right now.

No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s

Now I hear the Life of Brian playing in my head: "Always look on the bright side of life! De-duh, de-duh de-duh de-duh!" 

Hume didn't always take his own rhetoric or ideas too seriously. He said he couldn't prove that his friends even existed, but when he played billiards with them, these doubts vanished.

Here's another thought experiment for those convinced by this gloomy view... suppose you find a large red switch marked "Universe: on/off". Flipping it will cause the immediate painless non-existence of everyone everywhere. Do you flip it? Think how much suffering you'll save! This suggests an alternative perspective for AI alignment research: we need to bring forward the arrival of the Paperclip Maker, to put us all out of our misery.

No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s

Yes, I wouldn't say suicide is the be-all and end-all indicator, though it is quite suggestive. I'd also lay weight on simple common sense and intuition here. Most people today like life. If you read about ordinary people from 200 years ago or before, it doesn't seem like unremitting misery. (Piers Plowman, the "rude mechanicals" in Shakespeare, the peasants in the Georgics or in medieval Books of Hours, the ordinary people in the Old and New Testaments. Maybe these were just elites idealizing peasants? Hmm... up to a point.) Reporters and anthropologists who live with peasants and the poor today similarly paint a picture with light as well as shade.

No, human life was not a misery until the 1950s

Saying "it's good to be alive" is not the same as saying people have a moral imperative to bring children into the world. It would probably improve human welfare if I gave all my assets to the poor and starved to death, but I don't have a moral imperative to do it. Judgments of overall welfare are ways of deciding what to do collectively, but no individual has an absolute duty to maximize overall welfare at the expense of his own basic desires and life choices. 

(This is my personal view, not especially carefully thought-out. Some people probably do think we have an absolute duty to maximize welfare. I think your example of having to have 10 children is a reductio ad absurdum of that view, not of the view that the marginal extra human life is a good thing.)

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