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This is not a cultural argument per se.

Say x and y come from, respectively: a tribe of quasaieugenicists that settle distributions based on "fitness" rankings (using something like IQ - probably largely arbitrary - but that doesn't matter), and a tribe of equal-sharers (that subscribe to y's conclusion is in the dialog). Within each culture the relevant version of "fairness" (or the 'core distributive principle') is intuitive, much like y's system is for us. In the x culture people with low rankings intuit that their superiors are 'entitled' to their larger share, and in fact this reinforces a strictly tiered society with little to no concept(s) of equality (sure there would be squabbles between the closely ranked - but the distinction between low and high would be clear). Their philosophers do speculate on other systems - but, barring the occasional sociopath, people typically retreat to the same intuition. Thus both societies largely avoid the recursion problem. So now what happens when x and y stumble upon the sylvan pastry?

Of course y might not signal the relevant information pertaining to an xish fitness ranking, especially if the ranking system doesn't have anything to do with appearance. So x might be momentarily confused. But, applying his intuitions, he will probably attempt to recreate whatever routines and evaluations the xers use to establish distribution (just as y applies his familiar calculus). The point is: there will be an argument. And as long as this isn't a survival situation, its difficult to see any variety of bedrock within walking distance.

The Xers and Yers are radically different - but similar enough, I think, to be included within the space of possible human cultures (history is replete with every flavor of hierarchy). I think the reality is that we depend precariously on a very sloppy overlapping of billions of similar but clearly distinct conceptions of morality. The more you venture beyond your social bubble the less you overlap with those adjacent to you, and eventually you start getting into situations like x and y's (so you best mind your ps and qs). Of course the knitting gets progressively tighter as we move closer to the preferred world of Marginal Revolution and OB.


Devil's advocate (literally) on xmas day, here we go:

Premise 1: The Bible contains some useful guidelines regarding interpersonal ethics. Premise 2: SOME people may not adhere to such guidelines absent metaphysical threats (e.g. damnation) or a public shaming (for going against doctrine).

In other words, I'm not convinced that widespread indoctrination MUST always yield worse results (in terms of the ethical behaviors within a group) than a widespread 'understanding' that all people are to think for themselves.

Say we come up with a (more or less comprehensive, easily interpretable) list of ethical guidelines that must be respected to maintain a stable, basically peaceful culture. Can we expect everyone to understand the reasoning behind the list, to comprehend how it functions to maintain prosperity? That neglecting it is actually perilous, in the long run (i.e. can they see past the immediate payoff of defection)? I don't know for sure, but I tend to think that such philosophy eludes Joe Everydude. In that case, is it still a mistake to propagate some crazy, blatantly false beliefs if it helps to maintain a baseline ethical, umm, equilibrium?

Incidentally, I'm not saying that this is how Christianity functions; most of it lost sight of the proverbial forest long ago. I AM saying that I don't see an argument against mind control via cults for those who would eschew ethics, in the absence of any indoctrination programme. Is it possible that vanilla-flavored justice isn't enough to deter some people?


Ethics be damned we need more experiments like this


Well its more or less an empirical question isn't it? On the one hand maybe 9/11 was a fluke - in that case the best option would be to just rebuild and carry on, like Eliezer says. But maybe it wasn't - maybe the people behind it were/are both willing and capable to successfully launch more attacks. In that case it seems to make sense to wager, or at least consider wagering, some amount of lives to prevent greater losses in the future. It all depends on the information available: what are the resources/intents of your enemy? Would it be at all possible to eliminate them, and is the cost of such a possibility less than the cost of (reasonably predictable) future attacks? Skimming through blogs and newssites you can get hundreds of different answers to these questions - the problem is that theres no metric available with which they can be evaluated.

And heres the real kicker. Imagine you had perfect knowledge of 'terrorist' activities, and could formulate a prediction of how many future casualties would be sustained if these organizations were to be left alone. Pretend you come up with a figure of, say, roughly 10,000 dead over the next 20 years. Furthermore, you know (with omniscient precision) that you can eliminate the threat at the cost of a minimum 20,000 foreign lives (with minimal losses to your own side in the process). Such a scenario seems to reveal an insurmountable problem with running a nation state: reason seems to dictate that you suck up the losses on your own side (on the assumption that a life is a life and as many should be preserved as possible) but the workings of politics almost certainly dictate that you make the 'sacrifice' of at least double the amount of nondomestic lives.

So when I said that no metric is available to asses a given strategy, I meant that it cannot exist at all, period. There are fundamental differences in how people assign value to the lives of strangers - some Americans would sacrifice 100 Iraqis for one of their own (or even just the possibility of losing one of their own); others would sacrifice 0.

As long as you have nation-states you are going to have this dilemma, since the nature of war dictates that you occasionally must annihilate scores of foreigners to preserve your own sovereignty.

The most frustrating thing about our war is that it is (as far as I know) impossible for the layman to determine if the cost is worth the effort. Is there any definitive (minimally biased) source that we can go to and look up, say, the military strength of al-qaeda, in number and resources, and in both pre and post 9/11 eras? Not that I know of. We (yes, myself included) all seem to have the intuition that damage inflicted by ourstruly surpasses all potential damage that al qaeda could render. But who can really demonstrate that for sure? Are we just playing to the bouquet of biases against the unobservable? None of these questions are meant to be rhetorical, btw.