Tag Archives: identity

Reasons for Persons

Suppose you are replicated on Mars, and the copy of you on Earth is killed ten minutes later. Most people feel like there is some definite answer to whether the Martian is they or someone else. Not an answer got from merely defining ‘me’ to exclude alien clones or not, but some real me-ness which persists or doesn’t, even if they don’t know which. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit argues that there is no such thing. Personal identity consists of physical facts such as how well I remember being a ten year old and how much my personality is similar to that girl’s. There is nothing more to say about whether we are the same person than things like this, plus pragmatic definitional judgements, such as that a label should only apply to one person at a given time. He claims that such continuity of memories and other psychological features is what matters to us, so as long as that continuity exists it shouldn’t matter whether we decide to call someone ‘me’ or ‘my clone’.

I agree with him for the most part. But he is claiming that most people are very wrong about something they are very familiar with. So the big question must be why everyone is so wrong, and why they feel so sure of it. I have had many a discussion where my conversational partner insists that if they were frozen and revived, or a perfect replica were made of them, or whatever, it would not be them. 

To be clear, what exactly is this fallacious notion of personal identity that people have?

  • - each human has one and only one, which lasts with them their entire life
  • - If you cease to have it you are dead, because you are it
  • - it doesn’t wax or wane, it can only be present or absent.
  • - it is undetectable (except arguably from the inside)
  • - two people can’t have the same one, even if they both split from the same previous person somehow.
  • - They are unique even if they have the same characteristics – if I were you and you were me, our identities would be the other way around from how they are, and that would be different from the present situation.

So basically, they are like unique labels for each human which label all parts of that human and distinguish it from all other humans. Except they are not labels, they are really there, characterising each creature as a particular person.

I suspect then the use of such a notion is a basic part of conducting social relationships. Suppose you want to have nuanced relationships, with things like reciprocation and threats and loyalty, with a large number of other monkeys. Then you should be interested in things like which monkey today is the one who remembers that you helped them yesterday, or which is the one who you have previously observed get angry easily.

This seems pretty obvious, but that’s because you are so well programmed to do it.There are actually a lot of more obvious surface characteristics you could pay attention to when categorising monkeys for the purpose of guessing how they will behave: where they are, whether they are smiling, eating, asleep. But these are pretty useless next to apparently insignificant details such as that they have large eyes and a hairier than average nose, which are important because they are signs of psychological continuity. So you have to learn to categorize monkeys, unlike other things, by tiny clues to some hidden continuity inside them. There is no need for us to think of ourselves as tracking anything complicated, like a complex arrangement of consistent behaviours that are useful to us, so we just think of what we care about in others as an invisible thing which is throughout a single person at all times and never in any other people.

The clues might differ over time. The clues that told you which monkey was Bruce ten years ago might be quite different from the ones that tell you that now. Yet you will do best to steadfastly believe in a continuing Bruceness inside all those creatures. Which is because even if he changes from an idealistic young monkey to a cynical old monkey, he still remembers that he is your friend, and all the nuances of your relationship, which is what you want keep track of. So you think of his identity as stretching through an entire life, and of not getting stronger or weaker according to his physical details.

One very simple heuristic for keeping track of these invisible things is that there is only ever one instantiation of each identity at a given time. If the monkey in the tree is Mavis, then the monkey on the ground isn’t. Even if they are identical twins, and you can’t tell them apart at all, the one you are friends with will behave differently to you than the one whose nuts you stole, so you’d better be sure to conceptualise them as different monkeys, even if they seem physically identical.

Parfit argues that what really matters – even if we don’t appreciate it because we are wrong about personal identity – is something like psychological or physical continuity. He favours psychological if I recall. However if the main point of this deeply held belief in personal identity is to keep track of relationships and behavioural patterns, that suggests that what really matters to us in that vicinity is more limited than psychological continuity. A lot of psychological continuity is irrelevant for tracking relationships. For instance if you change your tastes in food, or have a terrible memory for places, or change over many years from being reserved to being outgoing, people will not feel that you are losing who you are. However if you change your loyalties, or become unable to recognise your friends, or have fast unpredictable shifts in your behaviour I think people will.

Which is not to say I think you should care about these kinds of continuity when you decide whether an imperfect upload would still be you. I’m just hypothesising that these are the things that will make people feel like ‘what matters’ in personal identity has been maintained, should they stop thinking what matters is invisible temporal string. Of course what you should call yourself, for the purpose of caring disproportionately about it and protecting its life is a matter of choice, and I’m not sure any of these criteria is the best basis for it. Maybe you should just identify with everyone and avoid dying until the human race ends.

Person moments make sense of anthropics

Often people think that various forms of anthropic reasoning require you to change your beliefs in ways other than conditionalizing on evidence. This is false, at least in the cases I know of. I shall talk about Frank Arntzenius‘ paper Some Problems for Conditionalization and Reflection [gated] because it explains the issue well, though I believe his current views agree with mine.

He presents five thought experiments: Two Roads to Shangri La, The Prisoner, John Collins’s Prisoner, Sleeping Beauty and Duplication. In each of them, it seems the (arguably) correct answer violates van Fraassen’s reflection principle, which basically says that if you expect to believe something in the future without having been e.g. hit over the head between now and then, you should believe it now. For instance the thirder position in Sleeping Beauty seems to violate this principle because before the experiment Beauty believes there is a fifty percent chance of heads, and that when she wakes up she will think there is a thirty three percent chance. Arntzenius argued that these seemingly correct answers really are the correct ones, and claimed that they violate the reflection principle because credences can evolve in two ways other than by conditionalization.

First he said credences can shift, for instance through time. I know that tomorrow I will have a higher credence in it being Monday than I do today, and yet it would not be rational for me to increase my credence in it being Monday now on this basis. They can also ‘spread out’. For instance if you know you are in Fairfax today, and that tomorrow a perfect replica of your brain experiencing Fairfax will be made and placed in a vat in Canberra, tomorrow your credence will go from being concentrated in Fairfax to being spread between there and Canberra. This is despite no damage having been done to your own brain. As Arntzenius pointed out, such an evolution of credence looks like quite the opposite of conditionalization, since conditionalization consists of striking out possibilities that your information excludes – it never opens up new possibilities.

I agree that beliefs should evolve in these two ways. However they are both really conditionalization, just obscured. They make sense as conditionalization when you think of them as carried out by different momentary agents, based on the information they infer from their connections to other momentary agents with certain beliefs (e.g. an immediately past self).

Normal cases can be considered this way quite easily. Knowing that you are the momentary agent that followed a few seconds after an agent who knew a certain set of facts about the objective world, and who is (you assume) completely trustworthy, means you can simply update the same prior with those same facts and come to the same conclusion. That is, you don’t really have to do anything. You can treat a stream of moments as a single agent. This is what we usually do.

However sometimes being connected in a certain way to another agent does not make everything that is true for them true for you. Most obviously, if they are a past self and know it is 12 o clock, your connection via being their one second later self means you should exclude worlds where you are not at time 12:00:01. You have still learned from your known relationship to that agent and conditionalized, but you have not learned that what is true of them is true of you, because it isn’t. This is the first way Arntzenius mentioned that credences seem to evolve through time not by by conditionalization.

The second way occurs when one person-moment is at location X, and another person moment has a certain connection to the person at X, but there is more than one possible connection of that sort. For instance when two later people both remember being an earlier person because the earlier person was replicated in some futuristic fashion. Then while the earlier person moment could condition on their exact location, the later one must condition on being in one of several locations connected that way to the earlier person’s location, so their credence spreads over more possibilities than that of the earlier self. If you call one of these later momentary agents the same person as the earlier one, and say they are conditionalizing, it seems they are doing it wrong. But considered as three different momentary people learning from their connections they are just conditionalizing as usual.

What exactly the later momentary people should believe is a matter of debate, but I think that can be framed entirely as a question of what their state spaces and priors look like.

Momentary humans almost always pass lots of information from one to the next, chronologically along chains of memory through non-duplicated people, knowing their approximate distance from one another. So most of the time they can treat themselves as single units who just have to update on any information coming from outside, as I explained. But conditionalization is not specific to these particular biological constructions; and when it is applied to information gained through other connections between agents, the resulting time series of beliefs within one human will end up looking different to that in a chain with no unusual extra connections.

This view also suggests that having cognitive defects, such as memory loss, should not excuse anyone from having credences, as for instance Arntzenius argued it should in his paper Reflections on Sleeping Beauty: “in the face of forced irrational changes in one’s degrees of belief one might do best simply to jettison them altogether”. There is nothing special about credences derived from beliefs of a past agent you identify with. They are just another source of information. If the connection to other momentary agents is different to usual, for instance through forced memory loss, update on it as usual.

How to talk to yourself

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) airplane on Kiruna...

Image via Wikipedia

Mental module 2: Eeek! Don’t make me go on that airplane! We will surely die! No no no!

Mental module 1: There is less than one in a million chance we die if we get on that airplane, based on actual statistics from as far as you are concerned identical airplanes.

Mental module 2: No!! it’s a big metal box in the sky – that can’t work. Panic! Panic!

Mental module 1: If we didn’t have an incredible pile of data from other big metal boxes in the sky your argument would have non-negligible bearing on the situation.

Mental module 2: but what if it crashes??

Mental module 1: Our lives would be much nicer if you paid attention to probabilities as well as how you feel about outcomes.

Mental module 2: It will shudder and tip over and we will not know how to update our priors on that, and we will be terrified, briefly, before we die!

Mental module 1: If it shuddering and tipping over were actually good evidence the plane was going to crash, there would presently be an incredibly small chance of them occurring, so you need not worry.

Mental module 2: We could crash into the rocks!!! Rocks! In our face! at terminal velocity! And bits of airplane! Do you remember that movie where an airplane crashed? There were bits of burning people everywhere. And what about those pictures you saw on the news? It’s going to be terrible. Even if we survive we will probably be badly injured and in the middle of a jungle, like that girl on that documentary. And what if we get deep vein thrombosis? We might struggle half way out of the jungle on one leg only to get a pulmonary embolism and suddenly die with no hope of medical help, which probably wouldn’t help anyway.

Mental module 1: (realizing something) But Me 2, we identify with being rational, like clever people we respect. Thinking the plane is going to crash is not rational.

Mental module 2: Yeah, rationality! I am so rational. Rationality is the greatest thing, and we care about it infinitely much! Who cares if the plane is really going to crash – I sure won’t believe it will, because that’s not rational!

Mental module 1: (struggling to overcome normal urges) Yes, now you understand.

Mental module 2: and even when it’s falling from the sky I won’t be scared, because that would not be rational! And when we smash into the ground, we will die for rationality! Behold my rationality!

Mental module 1: (to herself and onlookers from non-fictional universes) It may seem reasonable to reason with yourself, but after years of attempting it – just because that’s what come’s naturally – I think doing so relies on a false assumption. Which is that other mental modules are like me somewhere deep down, and will eventually be moved by reasonable arguments, if only they get enough of them to overcome their inferior reasoning skills. Perhaps I have assumed this because I would like it to be true, or just because it is easiest to picture others as being like oneself.

In reality, the assumption is probably false. If part of your brain (or social network) doesn’t respond sensibly to information for the first week – or decade – of your acquaintance, you should be entertaining the possibility that they are completely insane. It is not obvious that well reasoned arguments are the best strategy for dealing with an insane creature, or for that matter with almost any object. Well reasoned arguments are probably not what you use with your ferret or your fire alarm.

Even if the mental module’s arguments are always only a bit flawed and can easily be corrected, resist the temptation to persist in correcting them if it isn’t working. An ongoing stream of slightly inaccurate arguments leading to the same conclusion is a sign that the arguments and the conclusion are causally connected in the wrong direction. In such cases, accuracy is futile.

Mental module 2 is a prime example, alas. She basically just expresses and reacts to emotions connected to whatever has her attention, and jumps to ‘implications’ through superficial associations. She doesn’t really do inference and probability is a foreign concept. The effective ways to cooperate with her then are to distract her with something prompting more convenient emotions, or to direct her attention toward different emotional responses connected to the present issue. Identifying with being rational is a useful trick because it provides a convenient alternative emotional imperative – to follow the directions of the more reasonable part of oneself – in any situation where the irrational mental module can picture a rationalist.

Mental module 2: Oh yes! I’m so rational I tricked myself into being rational!

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Population ethics and personal identity

Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting topped ...

Photo: Misocrazy

It seems most people think creating a life is a morally neutral thing to do while destroying one is terrible. This is apparently because prior to being alive and contingent on not being born, you can’t want to be alive, and nobody exists to accrue benefits or costs. For those who agree with these explanations, here’s a thought experiment.

The surprise cake thought experiment

You are sleeping dreamlessly. Your friends are eating a most delicious cake. They consider waking you and giving you a slice, before you all go back to sleep. They know you really like waking up in the night to eat delicious cakes with them and will have no trouble getting back to sleep. They are about to wake you when they realize that if they don’t give you the cake you you will be unconscious and thus unable to want to join them, or be helped or harmed. So they finish it themselves. When you awake the next day and are told how they almost wasted their cake on you, are you pleased they did not?

If not, one explanation is that you are a temporally extended creature who was awake and had preferences in the past, and that these things mean you currently have preferences. You still can’t accrue benefits or costs unless you get a bit more conscious, but it usually seems the concern is just whether there is an identity to whom the benefits and costs will apply. As an added benefit, this position would allow you to approve of resuscitating people who have collapsed.

To agree with this requires a notion of personal identity other than ‘collection of person-moments which I choose to define as me’, unless you would find the discretionary boundaries of such collections morally relevant enough to make murder into nothing at all. This kind of personal identity seems needed to make unconscious people who previously existed significantly different from those who have never existed.

It seems very unlikely to me that people have such identities. Nor do I see how it should matter if they did, but that’s another story. Perhaps those of you who think I should better defend my views on population ethics could tell me why I should change my mind on personal identity. These may or may not help.

On behalf of physical things

Most people inadvertently affect the reputations of groups they are seen as part of while they go about other activities. But some people also purposely exploit the fact that their behaviour and thoughts will be seen as evidence of those of a larger group, to give the false impression their views are widely supported. These people are basically stealing the good reputation of groups; they enjoy undeserved attention and leave the groups’ images polluted.

Such parasites often draw attention to what a very ordinary member of the targeted group they are, or just straight out claim to be speaking for that group. People who ‘have been a left voter for fifty years, but this year might just have to vote conservative’ are getting much of their force from implicitly claiming high representativeness of a large and respected group, and those who claim they write ‘what women really think‘ are more overt. From the perspective of women who think for instance, this is almost certain to be a damaging misrepresentation; any view other than your own is worse, and people who have good arguments are less likely to steal the authority of some unsuspecting demographic as support. It is also costly to listeners who are mislead, for instance about the extent to which women really think. Costs of prevention ignored then, less of this is better.

Purposeful exploitation of this sort should be easier than other externalities to groups’ reputations to punish and to want to punish; it’s easier to see, it’s directed at a specific group, and it’s more malevolent. However the public can’t punish or ignore all claims or implicit suggestions of representativeness, as there are also many useful and accurate ones. Often much of the interest in learning what specific strangers’ views are requires assuming that they are representative, and we keenly generalize this way. So mostly it is up to groups to identify and punish their own dishonest exploiters, usually via social pressure.

This means groups are easier to exploit if their members aren’t in a position to punish, because they don’t have the resources to deny respect that matters to the offenders. If you claim to be broadcasting what women think, most women don’t have the time or means to publicize the shamefulness of your malicious externalizing much. Even if they did they would not have much to gain from it personally, so there is a tragedy of the commons. And in big groups it is hard for a member or several to know whether another supposed group member is lying about the group’s average characteristics; they may just be a minority in the demographic themselves. Respectable groups are also good. Last, if most people have a lot of contact with the group in question, and the topic is a common one, it will be harder to misrepresent. So large, respectable, powerless or otherwise engaged groups who don’t commonly discuss the topic with the rest of society are best to make use of in this way.

I haven’t seen this kind of activity punished much, it doesn’t seem to be thought of as especially shameful. But given that, it seems rarer than I would guess. For instance, if you wanted to push a radical political agenda, why join the disrespected minor party who pushes that agenda rather than a moderate party, which allows you to suggest to your audience that even the larger and more reputable moderate party is coming around to the idea?

Who are you?

There are two things that people debate with regards to continuation of personhood. One is whether edge cases to our intuitions of what ‘me’ refers to are really me. For instance if a simulation of me is run on a computer, is it me? If it is definitely conscious? What if the fleshy bloody one is still alive? What if I’m copied atom for atom?

The other question is whether there is some kind of thread that holds together me at one point and some particular next me. This needn’t be an actual entity, but just there being a correct answer to the question of who the current you becomes. The opposite is a bullet that Eliezer Yudkowsky does not bite:

…to reject the idea of the personal future – … that there’s any meaningful sense in which I can anticipate being myself in five seconds, rather than Britney Spears. In five seconds there will be an Eliezer Yudkowsky, and there will be a Britney Spears, but it is meaningless to speak of the currentEliezer “continuing on” as Eliezer+5 rather than Britney+5; these are simply three different people we are talking about.

The two questions are closely related. If there’s such a thread, the first question is just about where it goes. If there’s not, the first question is often thought meaningless.

I see no reason to suppose there is such a thread. Which lump of flesh is you is a matter of definition choice as open as that of which lumps of material you want to call the same mountain. But this doesn’t mean we should give up labeling mountains at all. Let me explain.

Why would one think there is a thread holding us together? Here are the reasons I can think of:

1. It feels like there is.

2. We remember it always happened that way in the past. There was a me who wondered if I might just as well experience being Britney next, then later there was a me looking back thinking ‘nope, still Katja’ or some such thing.

3. We expect the me looking back is singular even if you were copied. You wouldn’t feel like two people suddenly. So you would feel like one or the other.

4. Consciousness seems like a dimensionless thing, so it’s hard to imagine it branching, as if it could be closer or further from another consciousness. As far as our intuitions go, even if two consciousnesses are identical they might be in a way infinitely distant. What happens at that moment between there being one and there being two? Do they half overlap somehow?

1 is explained quite well by 2. 2 and 3 should be expected whether there is any answer to which future person is you or not. All the future yous look back and remember uncertainty, and currently see only themselves. After many such experiences, they all learn to expect to be only one person later on. 4 isn’t too hard to think of plausible answers to; for instance, perhaps one moment there is one consciousness and the next there are two very similar.

Eliezer goes on to describes some more counterintuitive aspects:

…I strive for altruism, but I’m not sure I can believe that subjective selfishness – caring about your own future experiences – is an incoherent utility function; that we are forced to be Buddhists who dare not cheat a neighbor, not because we are kind, but because we anticipate experiencing their consequences just as much as we anticipate experiencing our own. I don’t think that, if I were really selfish, I could jump off a cliff knowing smugly that a different person would experience the consequence of hitting the ground.

These things are all explained by the fact that your genes continue with your physical body, and they design your notions of selfishness (Eliezer disagrees that this settles the question). If humans had always swapped their genes every day somehow, we would care about our one day selves and treat the physical creature that continued as another person.

If we disregard the idea of a thread, must every instantaneous person just as well be considered a separate, or equally good continuation, of you? It might be tempting to think of yourself randomly becoming Britney the next moment, but when in Britney only having her memories, so feeling as if nothing has changed. This relies on there being a you distinct from your physical self, which has another thread, but a wildly flailing one. So dismiss this thread too, and you have just lots of separate momentary people.

Imagine I have a book. One day I discover the pages aren’t held together by metaphysical sticky tape. They have an order, but page 10 could just as well precede page 11 in any book. Sure, page 11 in most books connects to page 10 via the story making more sense, but sense is a continuous and subjective variable. Pages from this book are also physically closer to each other than to what I would like to think of as other books, because they are bound together. If I tore them apart though, I’d like to think that there was still a true page 11 for my page 10. Shouldn’t there be some higher determinant of which pages are truly the same book? Lets say I accept there is not. Then must I say that all writing is part of my book? That may sound appealingly deep, but labeling according to ordinary physical boundaries is actually pretty useful.

The same goes for yourself. That one person will remember being you and act pretty similar and the rest won’t distinguishes them interestingly enough to be worth a label. Why must it distinguish some metaphysically distinct unity? With other concepts, which clusters of characteristics we choose to designate an entity or kind is a matter of choice. Why would there be a single true way to choose a cluster of things for you to identify with any more than there is a true way to decide which pages are part of the same story?

I’ve had various arguments about this recently, however I remain puzzled about what others’ views are. I’m not sure that anyone disagrees about the physical facts, and I don’t think most of the people who disagree are dualists. However many people insist that if a certain thing happens, such as their brain is replaced by a computer, they cease to exist, and believe others should agree that this is the true point of no longer existing, not an arbitrary definition choice. This all seems inconsistent. Can someone explain to me?

Added: it’s interesting that the same problem isn’t brought up in spatial dimensions – the feeling of your hand isn’t taken to be connected to the feeling of the rest of you through anything more complicated than nerves carrying info. This doesn’t make it just as well anyone else’s arm. If you had a robotic arm, whether you called it part of you or not seems a simple definitional matter.

Choosing the right amount of choice

The TED talk which I have seen praised most often is Barry Shwartz’s Paradox of Choice. His claim is that the ‘official dogma of all Western industrial societies’ – that more choice is good for us – is wrong. This has apparently been a welcome message for many.

Barry thinks the costs of choice are too high at current levels. His reasons are that it increases our expectations, makes us focus on opportunity costs rather than enjoying what we have, paralyzes us into putting off complicated or important choices, and makes us blame ourselves rather than the world when our selections fail to satisfy. We can choose how much choice to have usually though. You can always just pick a random jar of jam from the shelf if you find the decision making costly. So implicit in Barry’s complaint is that we continually misjudge these downsides and opt for more choice than we should.

Perhaps he is right currently, but I think probably wrong in the long term. Why should we fail to adapt? Even if we can’t adapt psychologically, as inability to deal with choices becomes more of a problem, more technologies for solving it will be found. Having the benefits of choice without the current costs doesn’t appear an insoluble problem.

One option for allowing more choice about choice, while keeping some benefits of variety is to have a standard default option available. Another that seems feasible is using a barcode scanner on a phone, connected to product information and an equation for finding the net goodness of products according to the owner’s values (e.g. goodness = -price – 1c per calorie – 1c per 10 miles travelled + 10c per good review – $100m for peanut traces + …). This could avoid a lot of time spent comparing product information on packages by instantly telling you which brand you likely prefer. Systems for telling you which music and films and people you are likely to like based on previous encounters are improving.

I suspect for many things we would prefer to make very resource intensive choices, because we want to make them ourselves. Where we want to have unique possessions that we identify with, each person needs to go through a similar process of finding out product information and assessing it. We don’t want to know once and for all which is most likely to be the best car for most people. Neither do we want to have randomized unique clothing. We usually want our visible possessions to reflect a choice. This isn’t a barrier to improving our choice making though. Any system that gave a buyer the best few options according to their apparent taste, for them to make the final decision, should probably keep the nice parts of choosing while avoiding time spent on disappointing options.

How much choice is good for us depends a lot on the person. Those far out on relevant bell curves will benefit more from access to more obscure options, while the most normal people will do better by going with the standard option without much thought. One level of choice will not suit all and nor will it have to. We will choose to keep and improve our choice of choices.

Natural cultural relativists?

When given the same ability to punish anyone, cooperative people want to punish members of groups they identify with more than they do outsiders, while less cooperative people want to punish outsiders more. From the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior:

One of the most critical features of human society is the pervasiveness of cooperation in social and economic exchanges. Moreover, social scientists have found overwhelming evidence that such cooperative behavior is likely to be directed toward in-group members. We propose that the group-based nature of cooperation includes punishment behavior. Punishment behavior is used to maintain cooperation within systems of social exchange and, thus, is directed towards members of an exchange system. Because social exchanges often take place within groups, we predict that punishment behavior is used to maintain cooperation in the punisher’s group. Specifically, punishment behavior is directed toward in-group members who are found to be noncooperators. To examine this, we conducted a gift-giving game experiment with third-party punishment. The results of the experiment (N=90) support the following hypothesis: Participants who are cooperative in a gift-giving game punish noncooperative in-group members more severely than they punish noncooperative out-group members.

..[W]e predict that … punishment behavior is directed toward in-group members who are found to be noncooperators. To examine this, we conducted a gift-giving game experiment with third-party punishment. The results of the experiment (N=90) support the following hypothesis: Participants who are cooperative in a gift-giving game punish noncooperative in-group members more severely than they punish noncooperative out-group members.

The researchers’ conclusion is that punishment is just an extension of cooperation, and so applies in the same areas. They were not expecting, and haven’t got a good explanation for, uncooperative people’s interest in specifically punishing outsiders.

This provides a potential explanation for something I was wondering about. Middle class people often seem to talk about poor people and people from other cultures in terms of their actions being caused by bad external influences, in contrast to the language of free will and responsibility for their own kind. Discussion of Aboriginals in Australia regularly exemplifies this. e.g. SMH:

More than half the Aboriginal male inmates in prison for violent crimes are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, an academic says.

And without effective intervention, the “stressors” for the disorder will be passed on to other generations, perpetuating the cycles of crime.

Dr Caroline Atkinson said most violent inmates had suffered from some form of family violence, alcohol and drug use, as well as profound grief and loss…

“It was a confronting experience being inside a cell with someone who has committed murder, but I quickly realised they are the ones with the answers and they had such amazing insight,” she said.

This is quite unlike news coverage I have seen of middle class white murderers. When we see faults as caused by external factors rather than free will or personal error, we aren’t motivated to punish. Is the common practice of coolly blaming circumstance when we talk about situations like violence in Aboriginal communities because the good, cooperative people who write about these things don’t identify with the groups they are talking about?

On a side note, is our ‘widening moral circle’ linked to greater desire to reform other cultures?

Obvious identity fail

Paul Graham points out something important: religion and politics are generally unfruitful topics of discussion because people have identities tied to them.

An implication:

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

This seems obvious. For one thing, if you are loyal to anything that incorporates a particular view of the world rather than to truth per se, you have to tend away from believing true things. 
Ramana Kumar says this is not obvious, and (after discussion of this and other topics) that I shouldn’t care if things seem obvious, and should just point them out anyway, as they’re often not, to him at least (so probably to most). This seems a good idea, except that a microsecond’s introspection reveals that I really don’t want to say obvious things. Why? Because my identity fondly includes a bit about saying not-obvious things. Bother. 
Is it dangerous here? A tiny bit, but I don’t seem very compelled to change it. And nor, I doubt, would be many others with more important things. If you identify with being Left or Right more than being correct to begin with, what would make you want to give it up? 
Ramana suggests that if having an identity is inescapable but the specifics are flexible, then the best plan is perhaps to identify with some small set of things that impels you to kick a large set of other things out of your identity. 
What makes people identify with some things and use/believe/be associated with/consider probable/experience others without getting all funny about it anyway?
As a side note, I don’t fully get the concept. I just notice it happens, including in my head sometimes, and that it seems pretty pertinent to people insisting on being wrong. If you can explain how it works or what it means, I’m curious.