Tag Archives: consistency

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

What’s wrong with advertising?

These two views seem to go together often:

  1. People are consuming too much
  2. The advertising industry makes people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want, worsening the problem

The reasoning behind 1) is usually that consumption requires natural resources, and those resources will run out. It follows from this that less natural-resource intensive consumption is better* i.e. the environmentalist prefers you to spend your money attending a dance or a psychologist than buying new clothes or jet skis, assuming the psychologist and dance organisers don’t spend all their income on clothes and jet skis and such.

How does the advertising industry get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy? One practice they are commonly accused of is selling dreams, ideals, identities and attitudes along with products. They convince you (at some level) that if you had that champagne your whole life would be that much more classy. So you buy into the dream though you would have walked right past the yellow bubbly liquid.

But doesn’t this just mean they are selling you a less natural-resource-intensive product? The advertisers have packaged the natural-resource intensive drink with a very non-natural-resource intensive thing – classiness – and sold you the two together.

Yes, maybe you have bought a drink you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. But overall this deal seems likely to be a good thing from the environmentalist perspective: it’s hard to just sell pure classiness, but the classy champagne is much less resource intensive per dollar than a similar bottle of unclassy drink, and you were going to spend your dollars on something (effectively – you may have just not earned them, which is equivalent to spending them on leisure).

If the advertiser can manufacture enough classiness for thousands of people with a video camera and some actors, this is probably a more environmentally friendly choice for those after classiness than most of their alternatives, such as ordering stuff in from France. My guess is that in general, buying intangible ideas along with more resource intensive products is better for the environment than the average alternative purchase a given person would make.  There at least seems little reason to think it is worse.

Of course that isn’t the only way advertisers make people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Sometimes they manufacture fake intangible things, so that when you get the champagne it doesn’t really make you feel classy. That’s a problem with dishonest people in every industry though. Is there any reason to blame ‘advertisers’ rather than ‘cheats’?

Another thing advertisers do is tell you about things you wouldn’t have thought of wanting otherwise, or remind you of things you had forgotten about. When innovators and entrepreneurs do this we celebrate it. Is there any difference when advertisers do it? Perhaps the problem is that advertisers tend to remind you of resource intensive, material desires more often than they remind you to consume more time with your brother, or to meditate more. This is somewhat at odds with the complaint that they try to sell you dreams and attitudes etc, but perhaps they do a bit of both.

Or perhaps they try to sell you material goods to satisfy longings you would otherwise fulfil non-materially? For instance recommending new clothes where you might otherwise have sought self-confidence through posture or public speaking practice or doing something worthy of respect. Some such effect seems plausible, though I doubt a huge one.

Overall it seems advertisers probably have effects in both directions. It’s not clear to me which is stronger. But insofar as they manage to package up and sell feelings and identities and other intangibles,  those who care for the environment should praise them.

*This is not to suggest that I believe natural resource conservation is particularly important, compared to using human time well for instance.

When to explain

It is commonly claimed that humans’ explicit conscious faculties arose for explaining to others about themselves and their intentions. Similarly when people talk about designing robots that interact with people, they often mention the usefulness of designing such robots to be able to explain to you why it is they changed your investments or rearranged your kitchen.

Perhaps this is a generally useful principle for internally complex units dealing with each other: have some part that keeps an overview of what’s going on inside and can discuss it with others.

If so, the same seems like it should be true of companies. However my experience with companies is that they are often designed specifically to prevent you from being able to get any explanations out of them. Anyone who actually makes decisions regarding you seems to be guarded by layers of people who can’t be held accountable for anything. They can sweetly lament your frustrations, agree that the policies seem unreasonable, sincerely wish you a nice day, and most importantly, have nothing to do with the policies in question and so can’t be expected to justify them or change them based on any arguments or threats you might make.

I wondered why this strategy should be different for companies, and a friend pointed out that companies do often make an effort at more high level explanations of what they are doing, though not necessarily accurate: vision statements, advertisements etc. PR is often the metaphor for how the conscious mind works after all.

So it seems the company strategy is more complex: general explanations coupled with avoidance of being required to make more detailed ones of specific cases and policies. So, is this strategy generally useful? Is it how humans behave? Is it how successful robots will behave?*

Inspired by an interaction with ETS, evidenced lately by PNC and Verizon

*assuming there is more than one

What ‘believing’ usually is

Experimental Philosophy discusses the following experiment. Participants were told a story of Tim, whose wife is cheating on him. He gets a lot of evidence of this, but tells himself it isn’t so.

Participants given this case were then randomly assigned to receive one of the two following questions:

  • Does Tim know that Diane is cheating on him?
  • Does Tim believe that Diane is cheating on him?

Amazingly enough, participants were substantially more inclined to say yes to the question about knowledge than to the question about belief.

This idea that knowledge absolutely requires belief is sometimes held up as one of the last bulwarks of the idea that concepts can be understood in terms of necessary conditions, but now we seem to be getting at least some tentative evidence against it. I’d love to hear what people think.

I’m not surprised – often people say explicitly things like ‘I know X, but I really can’t believe it yet’. This seems uninteresting from the perspective of epistemology. ‘Believe’ in common usage just doesn’t mean the same as what it means in philosophy. Minds are big and complicated, and ‘believing’ is about what you sincerely endorse as the truth, not what seems likely given the information you have. Your ‘beliefs’ are probably related to your information, but also to your emotions and wishes and simplifying assumptions among other things. ‘Knowing’ on the other hand seems to be commonly understood as about your information state. Though not always – for instance ‘I should have known’ usually means ‘in my extreme uncertainty, I should have suspected enough to be wary’. At any rate, in common use knowing and believing are not directly related.

This is further evidence you should be wary of what people ‘believe’.

Compare the unconceived – don’t unchain them

People often criticise me of thinking of potential people as Steven Landsburg describes without necessarily endorsing:

…like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely we are required to help some of them escape.

Such people seem to believe this position is required for considering creating good lives an activity with positive value. It is not required, and I don’t think of potential people like that. My position is closer to this:

Benefit and harm are comparative notions. If something benefits you, it makes your life better than it would have been, and if something harms you it makes your life worse than it would have been. To determine whether some event benefits or harms you, we have to compare the goodness of your life as it is, given the event, with the goodness it would otherwise have had. The comparison is between your whole life as it is and your whole life as it would have been. We do not have to make the comparison time by time, comparing each particular time in one life with the same time in the other life.

That is John Broome explaining why death harms people even if they hold that all benefit and harm consists of pleasure and pain, which are things that can’t happen when you are dead. The same goes for potential people.

Yes, you can’t do much to a person who doesn’t exist. They don’t somehow suffer imaginary pains. If someone doesn’t exist in any possible worlds I agree they can’t be helped or harmed at all.  What makes it possible to affect a potential person is that there are some worlds where they do exist. It is in the comparison between these worlds and the ones where they don’t exist where I say there is a benefit to them in having one over the other. The benefit of existing consists of the usual things that we hold to benefit a person when they exist; bananas, status, silly conversations, etc. The cost of not existing relative to existing consists of failing to have those benefits, which only exist in the world where the person exists. The cost does not consist of anything that happens in the world where the person doesn’t exist. They don’t have any hypothetical sorrow, boredom or emptiness at missing out. If they did have such things and they mattered somehow, that would be another entirely separate cost.

Often it sounds crazy that a non-existent person could ‘suffer’ a cost because you are thinking of pleasures and pains (or whatever you take to be good or bad) themselves, not of a comparison between these things in different worlds. Non-existent people seem quite capable of not having pleasures or pains, not having fulfilled preferences, not having worthwhile lives, of not having anything at all, of not even having a capacity to have. Existent people are quite capable of having pleasures (and pains) and all that other stuff. If you compare the two of them, is it really so implausible that one has more pleasure than the other?

‘Potential people’ makes people think of non-existing people, but for potential people to matter morally, it’s crucial that they do exist in some worlds (in the future) and not in others. It may be better to think of them as semi-existing people.

I take it that the next counterargument is something like ‘you can’t compare two quantities when one of them is not zero, but just isn’t there. What’s bigger, 3 or … ?’ But you decide what quantities you are comparing. You can choose a quantity that doesn’t have a value in one world if you want. Similarly I could claim all the situations you are happy to compare are not comparable. Getting one hundred dollars would not benefit you, because ‘you without a hundred dollars’ just won’t be around in the world where you get paid. On the other hand if you wanted to compare benefits to Amanda across worlds where she may or may not exist, you could compare ‘how much pleasure is had by Amanda’, and the answer would be zero in worlds where she doesn’t exist. Something makes you prefer an algorithm like ‘find Amanda and see how much pleasure she has got’, where you can just fail at the finding Amanda bit and get confused. The real question is why you would want this latter comparison. I can see why you might be agnostic, waiting for more evidence of which is the  true comparison of importance or something, but I don’t recall hearing any argument for leaping to the non-comparable comparison.

Orange juice 2

Image via Wikipedia

In other cases it is intuitive to compare quantities that have values, even when relevant entities differ between worlds. Would you say I have no more orange juice in my cup if I have a cup full of orange juice than if I don’t have a cup or orange juice? I won’t, because I really just wanted the orange juice. And if you do, I won’t come around to have orange juice with you.

I have talked about this a bit before, but not explained in much detail. I’ll try again if someone tells me why they actually believe the comparison between a good life and not existing should come out neutral or with some non-answer such as ‘undefined’. Or at least points me to where whichever philosophers have best explained this.