Wiki Contributions


An obvious direct effect is whether Sarah speaks up in her defense.  If you say "Somebody did XYZ, which are bad", then for Sarah to say "Well, actually, X didn't happen, Y is an exaggeration, and Z had mitigating circumstances, plus the accuser is hypersensitive and prone to misinterpreting things" would identify her as the alleged villain, and therefore probably lower her reputation even among people who mostly believed her.  On the other hand, if you say "Sarah did XYZ", then that makes it very likely that Sarah will say things in her defense, since she has everything to gain and nothing to lose (unless her defense manages to make her sound worse, which probably occasionally happens).

So, if it's possible for Sarah to severely undermine your claims, then giving her name basically guarantees she'll do it, while hiding her name (and any identifying details) gives her a good reason not to.  So if you want the point "XYZ are bad" to stand, then keeping Sarah out of it could be tactically useful.  (Though, on the audience side, if I see a post that says "Hey, everyone, XYZ happened and they're bad", and then I hear that there's someone who could have severely undermined the author's claims, I wonder "Hmm, is this actually a credible report?  I'd like to know, because I don't want to make policy decisions based on exaggerations and falsehoods—that leads to moral panics.")

Now, I guess you can separate the claims "XYZ are bad" and "Sarah did XYZ".  Potentially even Sarah could respond to a unified post by saying "Yes, XYZ would be bad if I did them.  However, I did not."  In terms of pure logic, there's no reason one should interfere with the other.  In terms of "discussion on the post getting dominated by he-said she-said rather than by weighing principles and deciding what the rules should be", one can certainly distract from the other.

But then, another aspect is that someone who wants to hurt Sarah for other reasons could be motivated to say "Sarah did XYZ, which are bad".  And as part of this, they could be motivated to exaggerate the badness of XYZ even when they're claiming to discuss the abstract general case—"X is especially harmful to people who ...".  People reading your post may bear this in mind.  And Sarah, in conducting her defense, is motivated to downplay the badness of XYZ—"You haven't mentioned the obvious coping strategies that are likely to be employed, and the research that claims X is so harmful is flawed in several ways ...".  The same motivations might be extended to other people who are on "your side" or "Sarah's side".

Whereas if Sarah's name is kept out of it, then that reduces these motivations, and therefore (probably) the degree to which they, and suspicion of the motivations, taint the abstract discussion.  (On the one hand, Sarah might anticipate that her name might leak eventually [perhaps specifically to a subset of the audience who knew some private details] and still be motivated to exaggerate her arguments about the abstract case.  On the other hand, for Sarah to do so risks leaking her identity—"Hey, why do you care so much about defending this unnamed villain?".  Such leaking risk is likely less for Sarah's defenders, if any.)

All the above is heavily affected by the details of the situation.  Is the harm, and its extent, obvious and objectively verifiable?  (If so, why doesn't everyone already know XYZ are bad?  Perhaps it's obvious once you see the evidence and most people are just ignorant.)  Is the accuser robustly credible, or will Sarah be able to dig up and show a history of the accuser being hypersensitive, misinterpreting things, and/or lying?  Is Sarah very good at arguing?  Is there other bad blood between the accuser and Sarah?  Does the intended audience have a lot of people who are highly motivated to take Sarah's side or the accuser's side?

The above all feed into the final question: what would a rational audience member deduce about the decision to not name the culprit?  Various reasons are possible, and the details/context determine which are plausible.  It may help to state the reason in the post (of course, it will likely attract some people arguing against it).

I would say that it changes the moral angle from "You're actively participating in evil, you have a responsibility to stop" to "You have an opportunity to reduce the badness.  Taking it would be admirable; not taking it is morally equivalent to not donating to charity."

I do approve of ranking countries' goodness/badness according to what fraction of your money they take from you... But in this context, I think you would then want to multiply by "the average amount of evil that the country does per tax dollar".  (Of course, there is no widely accepted objective metric for that.)

I did some figuring and it looks like I came to the same conclusion.

I've only skimmed this and small portions of the links about the two-envelopes thing.  As the original mathematical exercise, it's kind of fun to construct a probability distribution where it's always advantageous to switch envelopes.  But Wiki says:

Suppose E ( B | A = a ) > a for all a. It can be shown that this is possible for some probability distributions of X (the smaller amount of money in the two envelopes) only if E ( X ) = ∞.

Which seems probably true.  And comparing infinities is always a dangerous game.  Though you can have finite versions of the situation (e.g. 1/10th chance of each of "$1, $2", "$2, $4", ..., "$512, $1024") where switching envelopes is advantageous in all cases except one.

Anyway, onto the moral version from Tomasik's article.  I tried stating it in terms of utility.

Suppose (helping) a human is worth 1 util.  In the first scenario (to which we give probability 0.5), an elephant is worth 1/4 as much as a human, so 0.25 utils, so two elephants are worth 0.5 utils.  In the second scenario (also probability 0.5), an elephant is worth the same as a human, so 1 util, and two elephants are worth 2 utils.  Then the expected-value calculation for helping the human is: "E(h) = 0.5 * 1 + 0.5 * 1 = 1", while for the elephants it's "E(2e) = 0.5 * 0.5 + 0.5 * 2 = 1.25", and thus E(h) = 1 < E(2e) = 1.25, so helping the elephants is better.

On the other hand, if we decide that an elephant is worth 1 util, then our calculations become:

e = 1 u.
.5: h = 4 u, 2e = 2 u.
.5: h = 1 u, 2e = 2 u.

E(h) = 2.5 u
E(2e) = 2 u
-> prefer h.

This reproduces the "always advantageous to switch" problem.

The trouble is that our unit isn't consistent between the two scenarios.  The mere information about the ratio between h and e doesn't fix an absolute value that can be compared across the two worlds; we could scale all values in one world up or down by an arbitrary factor, which can make the calculation go either way.  To illustrate, let's assign absolute values.  First, let's suppose that h is worth $100 in all worlds (you might imagine h = "hammer", e = "earbuds" or something):

.5: h = $100, 2e = $50
.5: h = $100, 2e = $200
"E(h) = $100, E(2e) = $125"
-> prefer 2e.

Next, let's imagine that h is worth $100 in the first world, but $1 in the second world:

.5: h = $100, 2e = $50
.5: h = $1, 2e = $2
"E(h) = $50.5, E(2e) = $26"
-> prefer h.

We see that giving h a much bigger value in one world effectively gives that world a much bigger weight in the expected-value calculation.  The effect is similar to if you gave that world a much higher probability than the other.

And we see that Tomasik's original situation amounts to, the first time around, having "h = $100, 2e = $50 or $200", and, the second time, having "h = $50 or $200, 2e = $100".

So picking the right consistent cross-universal unit is important, and is the heart of the problem... Finally looking back at your post, I see that your first sentence makes the same point. :-)

Now, I'll remark: It could be that, in one world, everyone has much less moral worth—or their emotions are deadened or something—and therefore your calculations should care more about the other world.  Just how if, in world A, picking option 1 gets you +$500, whereas in world B, picking option 2 gets you +$0.5, then you act like you're in world A and don't care about world B because A is more important, in all situations except where B is >1000x as likely as A.

It is possible that the value of human life or happiness or whatever should in fact be considered worth a lot more in certain worlds than others, and that this co-occurs with moral worth being determined by brain cell count rather than organism count (or vice versa).  But whatever the cross-world valuation is, it must be explicitly stated, and hopefully justified.

Commenting on hard mode, eh?  I chose my name because a guy who ran his own forum gave himself that title, and I found it hilarious and awesome; but also I was conscious that it marked me as possibly-arrogant, which meant I had to back it up with substance, and I was fine with that.

Example 4: cancer.  (Well, I guess you already mentioned carcinization. :-P)

Example 5: sociopathy, defection—what you might call cancerous behavior.

In general, when some system is abundant, versions of the system with broken parts will exist in proportionate numbers.

Finding a simple solution can be very hard:

This is a special collection of problems that were given to select applicants during oral entrance exams to the math department of Moscow State University. These problems were designed to prevent Jews and other undesirables from getting a passing grade. Among problems that were used by the department to blackball unwanted candidate students, these problems are distinguished by having a simple solution that is difficult to find. Using problems with a simple solution protected the administration from extra complaints and appeals. This collection therefore has mathematical as well as historical value.

Suppose it turns out that pianists are a bit more likely to be criminals than the general population; would that make the pianist version funny? Nope.

Eh... I can imagine that happening, if, say, there's a group of criminologists, one of whom presents a report about crime associations by profession, and one of the results mentioned is "Turns out pianists commit 20% more crime, at least based on this sample!  Huh!"  Then I can imagine, a while later (when half of them had started to forget), one of them making that joke about pianists, and that producing a real "...Hmm?  Oh, ho ho ho, very nice" response.  It does depend on shared awareness of the statistic rather than directly on the truth of the statistic.

I can also imagine making a similar joke about cardiologists, for an audience who's read Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers (where cardiologists were completely arbitrarily chosen to make the point "With large n, you can pick lots of individual bad examples even if they're per capita no more likely to be criminal", and you lean into acting like cardiologists are a known scourge of humanity).

The physical difference matters, but the mental difference tends to matter more.

Abstract: A 20-year longitudinal study has traced the academic, social, and emotional development of 60 young Australians with IQs of 160 and above. Significant differences have been noted in the young people’s educational status and direction, life satisfaction, social relationships, and self-esteem as a function of the degree of academic acceleration their schools permitted them in childhood and adolescence. The considerable majority of young people who have been radically accelerated [skipped 3+ grades before graduating high school], or who accelerated by 2 years, report high degrees of life satisfaction, have taken research degrees at leading universities, have professional careers, and report facilitative social and love relationships. Young people of equal abilities who accelerated by only 1 year or who have not been permitted acceleration have tended to enter less academically rigorous college courses, report lower levels of life satisfaction, and in many cases, experience significant difficulties with socialization.


Young People Who Have Been Radically Accelerated. Surprisingly, given the wariness with which Australian teachers regard acceleration, 17 of the 60 young people were radically accelerated. None has regrets. Indeed, several say they would probably have preferred to accelerate still further or to have started earlier. Lubinski, Webb, Morelock, and Benbow (2001) report similar findings from a study of profoundly gifted SMPY accelerands. Some of the children had an unfortunate start to school before their abilities were recognized; others were fortunate enough to enroll in schools where a teacher or school administrator recognized their remarkable abilities and almost immediately argued for a strongly individualized program. In every case, these young people have experienced positive short-term and long-term academic and socioaffective outcomes. The pressure to underachieve for peer acceptance lessened significantly or disappeared after the first acceleration. [...]

In every case, the radical accelerands have been able to form warm, lasting, and deep friendships. They attribute this to the fact that their schools placed them, quite early, with older students to whom they tended to gravitate in any case. Those who experienced social isolation earlier say it disappeared after the first grade skip. Two are married with children. The majority are in permanent or serious love relationships. They tend to choose partners who, like themselves, are highly gifted.


The remaining 33 young people were retained, for the duration of their schooling, in a lockstep curriculum with age peers in what is euphemistically termed the “inclusion” classroom. The last thing they felt, as children or adolescents, was “included.” With few exceptions, they have very jaded views of their education. Two dropped out of high school and a number have dropped out of university. Several more have had ongoing difficulties at university, not because of lack of ability but because they have found it difficult to commit to undergraduate study that is less than stimulating. These young people had consoled themselves through the wilderness years of undemanding and repetitive school curriculum with the promise that university would be different—exciting, intellectually rigorous, vibrant—and when it was not, as the first year of university often is not, it seemed to be the last straw.


Several of the nonaccelerands have serious and ongoing problems with social relationships. These young people find it very difficult to sustain friendships because having been, to a large extent, socially isolated at school, they have had much less practice in their formative years in developing and maintaining social relationships. Six have had counseling. Of these, two have been treated for severe depression.

Load More