Rob Bensinger

Communications lead at MIRI. Unless otherwise indicated, my posts and comments here reflect my own views, and not necessarily my employer's.



“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

I'd be interested to hear what you think honor is. :) I think the word 'honor' is used to point at some 'inherently good things about a person' (things related to integrity, promise-keeping, fairness, respect, grace) and also to point at some things about how others perceive you (that you're seen as having honesty, principle, dignity, etc.). I wasn't trying to precisely define 'honor', just saying that honor seemed to involve both internal-virtue-like things and reputation-like things.

COVID-19: home stretch and fourth wave Q&A

Note: I wrote the OP, and I've asked Oliver to credit me in the post. I originally kept my name off it in case I needed to add controversial or crazy-sounding advice to the post at some point. But I no longer see scenarios where that happens, and leaving the post authorless prevents people from using the post to update about my epistemics/rigor/COVID knowledge/etc.

Oliver's arguments make sense to me, and make me less concerned about the B.1.1.7 strain. I'm still a bit confused about why others disagree/disagreed with this?

“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

A note of caution: I think the analytic-philosophy thing I'm doing, of trying to carve things up into a precise and exhaustive set of buckets, risks picking the wrong carving and missing subtleties in the thing Anna was gesturing at in the OP.

E.g., Anna said:

If I am safeguarding my “honor” (or my “reputation”, “brand”, or “good name”), there are some fixed standards that I try to be known as adhering to. For example, in Game of Thrones, the Lannisters are safeguarding their “honor” by adhering to the principle “A Lannister always pays his debts.” They take pains to adhere to a certain standard, and to be known to adhere to that standard. Many examples are more complicated than this; a gentleman of 1800 who took up a duel to defend his “honor” was usually not defending his known adherence to a single simple principle a la the Lannisters. But it was still about his visible adherence to a fixed (though not explicit) societal standard.

I feel like this is a deep-ish paragraph that's getting at some attitude shifts that haven't yet been fully brought to consciousness in this discussion. Like, I feel like there's a sense in which US-circa-2021 PR culture and "defend my good name" culture both have fixed standards, at any given moment in time. But there's something different about the attitude toward those standards?

It's like virtue and reputation ("honor") were one thing at the time, and now they're two things. So the very word "PR" has become a thing that feels manipulative, amoral -- no one thinks it's virtuous to do PR, it's just what's done.

I almost wonder if the problem is less "people stopped caring about being truly-intrinsically-virtuous" and more: People stopped rationalizing their reputation-management as virtuous; which fed into a "it's impractical and uncouth to care about virtue" cycle; which resulted in people having too many degrees of freedom, because it's easier to rationalize arbitrary actions as practical than to rationalize arbitrary actions as virtuous.

“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

Yeah, I'm confused about this too. I feel like the real distinction is three-way:

  1. Trying to embody specific virtues; vs.
  2. Trying to convince others that you embody those virtues; vs.
  3. Trying to make others approve of you.

Anna's original post sort of sounds like it was distinguishing 3 from 2 -- "PR" and "defending your reputation/brand" are both about optimizing what others think of you, but 2 is less corruptible because it has more content (assuming you care about the specific content of your brand/reputation, and your goal isn't just "have a positive brand/reputation"!).

Duncan's reply feels more to me like it's distinguishing 3 from 1 (while noting that 2 can sometimes emerge from 1 as a side-effect, because truly possessing a virtue can help convince others that you have that virtue).

I think the word "honor" encourages some sliding between 1 and 2: Anna's focus was on defending your honor, which is more of a reputation-y category-2 thing, whereas Duncan spoke of "trying to be honorable", which is a category-1 thing.

Is MIRI actually hiring and does Buck Shlegeris still work for you?

+1 to Anna's reply. I've poked Buck to make sure he gets in touch with you and confirmed he's still point person on getting in touch post-pandemic, and I've updated our Careers and Get Involved pages to note that we're hiring more slowly as a result of (1) COVID-19 and (2) the fact that we're re-evaluating some of our strategy.

Still Not in Charge

One relevant question is how many smart, strategic, long-term optimizers exist. (In politics, vs. in business, or in academia, etc.)

E.g., if 1 in 3 people think this way at the start of their careers, that's very different than if 1 in 1000 do, or 1 in 15. The rarer this way of thinking is, the more powerful it needs to be in order to overcome base rates.

Book review: The Geography of Thought

To be more explicit: I think in a visual test like this in English, "What goes with this?" would almost never mean "physically belongs in the same place" or "causally relate" -- except as special cases of "belongs in the same category". An exception would be something like clothing/fashion, where "does X go with Y?" is used idiomatically to mean "do X and Y look nice if you wear them together?"

Book review: The Geography of Thought

"X goes with Y" is vague in English. Even "belongs together" could mean that the two things belong together in a category, rather than belonging together physically.

My intuition is that American kids are pretty used to exercises where you're supposed to sort things by classifications like "animal vs. non-animal", so they're to some extent expecting that when you show them this kind of picture.

Book review: The Geography of Thought

Offense at cultural appropriation is a pretty new thing in the West, too, rather than being a deep and long-standing tradition.

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