Ask me anything: moral judgments edition

Reader Lewikee asked when I’d do another “Ask Me Anything.”  So fine, let’s do one now (and for the next 24 hours or so, or until I get too fatigued).  The rules:

• This time around, only questions that ask me to render a moral judgment on some issue, which could be personal, political, or both (I answer plenty of quantum and complexity questions in the comments sections of other posts…)
• One question per person total; no multipart questions or questions that require me to watch a video or read a linked document
• Anything nasty, sneering, or non-genuine will be left in the moderation queue at my discretion

Let me get things started with the following judgment:

It is morally wrong to lie to parents that you’re taking their children away from them for 20 minutes to give them a bath, but then instead separate the children from their parents indefinitely, imprison the parents, and confine the children in giant holding facilities where they can no longer be contacted, as United States border agents are apparently now doing.  And yes, I know that people sometimes make such proclamations not out of genuine moral concern, but simply to virtue-signal for their chosen tribe and attack a rival tribe.  However, as someone who’s angered and offended nearly every tribe on his blog, I hope I might be taken at face value if I simply say: this is wrong.

Update (June 18): OK, thanks to everyone who participated! I’ll circle back to the few questions I haven’t yet gotten to, but no new questions please.

136 Responses to “Ask me anything: moral judgments edition”

1. RandomOracle Says:

I’m guessing you’ve been asked this before, but I don’t know your answer so I’ll ask anyway: if someone were to discover a poly-time algorithm for solving NP-complete problems (and say that algorithm is also efficient in practice so that you could solve large SAT instances on a regular computer) what would be the moral thing to do? What would you do if you were in that situation?
Publishing it doesn’t seem morally right, given the disruptive impact it would have on society, but keeping it a secret or revealing it only to certain parties also seems questionable.

2. Mark Says:

Should birthright citizenship and all the constitutional protections (e.g. the 13th amendment) be granted to an Artificial Intelligence with a conscious experience created within the United States?

3. David Says:

Stripped of platitudes, how do you personally justify the recent and ongoing Israeli massacres of Palestinian protesters?

4. George Says:

Is it wrong to eat animals?

5. Sam Says:

What do you think about sortition, the process of selecting public officials by lot – do you think it could ever work in practice as a means of governing an entire country?

6. Scott Says:

RandomOracle #1:

if someone were to discover a poly-time algorithm for solving NP-complete problems (and say that algorithm is also efficient in practice so that you could solve large SAT instances on a regular computer) what would be the moral thing to do?

I’ve answered that question several times before on this blog. First, demonstrate to the world that you most likely possess such an algorithm, by solving some challenge instances, publishing ZF proofs of the Riemann Hypothesis and 200 other famous conjectures, etc. Give the world maybe a couple months’ grace period to stop using all the cryptographic systems that are now compromised (even though, in this case, it’s far from obvious what they’ll use instead! QKD? one-time pads?). Then, for the good of humanity—for all the spectacular discoveries and inventions that will massively outweigh the loss of convenient cryptography—publish the damn algorithm.

7. Jacob Says:

To what extent do you feel a moral obligation to help prevent catastrophic climate change, and how are you discharging that obligation?

There’s an obvious generalization here, but asking it would create a multipart question and break the rules 🙂

8. Scott Says:

Mark #2:

Should birthright citizenship and all the constitutional protections (e.g. the 13th amendment) be granted to an Artificial Intelligence with a conscious experience created within the United States?

That’s a pretty enormous question for a blog comment section. 🙂 If you’re assuring me that the AI has a conscious experience, then yes, almost by assumption it ought to be granted political rights. However, those rights might be different in detail from the rights of biological humans. If, for example, the AI could easily be deleted from one computer, then restored from backup and run on another with no interruption to its experience—would that be “murder”? The futurist/singularity community (not to mention sci-fi writers…) have of course explored these sorts of questions in considerable depth, and I tried to do so myself in some sections of The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine. But I freely admit there may be aspects to the moral question that won’t occur to us until we have some actual experience with human-level or post-human-level AIs.

9. Bill Kaminsky Says:

First, the obligatory Simpsons reference from the classic moment Krusty the Clown reveals that he is the estranged son of the wisest Rabbi in Springfield, Rabbi Hyman Krustovsky, a rabbi so wise he was constantly asked for advice whenever he walked down the street:

Man Seeking Advice #1: Rabbi Krustofsky, should I finish college?

Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Yes! No one is poor except he who lacks knowledge.

Woman Seeking Advice: Rabbi, should I have another child?

Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Yes. Another child would be a blessing on your house.

Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Could you rephrase that as an ethical question?

Man Seeking Advice #2: Ummm… is it right to buy a Chrysler?

Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky: Oh, yes. For great is the car with power steering and dyna-flow suspension.

10. Scott Says:

David #3:

Stripped of platitudes, how do you personally justify the recent and ongoing Israeli massacres of Palestinian protesters?

I don’t. I think it’s a terrible situation, with more than enough blame to be shared both by Hamas and by the Netanyahu government. For anyone interested, this piece by Yair Rosenberg explains some of the facts of what’s been happening, regardless of which side they seem to support.

11. Bram Cohen Says:

How do you feel about the catholic church, and now, apparently, the southern baptists, becoming more palatable? How should one react to an entity becoming ‘better’ while still somewhat ‘bad’?

12. Anon Says:

This is based on a true story currently unfolding, I summarize so that things are self-contained. I post anonymously, since I think it’s interesting to discuss, but fear for my identity for reasons that become clear in the story.

A highly reputed Professor X (no relation) is accused by a graduate student at his school of sexual harassment. The school finds him guilty of a Title IX violation and disciplines him, but in a way many (myself included) find lacking — seemingly having to do little more than a sensitivity training class. In particular, he keeps his job.

At some point during the events (which is unclear to me, whether it was before or after this sentence was declared), a professor at another school thinks that this is all hogwash. He *knows* that Professor X is a great person, based on his own past interactions — there’s no way he could do something like sexually harass a student. This is a (IMO) extremely misguided opinion: I’ve never seen him do anything wrong, so he could never do anything wrong. Either way, he writes a letter to this effect (i.e., as a character reference), solicits signatures from his colleagues, and sends it to the school’s Dean — all of this is done privately.

Now, another member of the community, Professor Y (who has a large platform), learns about this private letter, obtains a copy of it through unknown means, and makes it public. Furthermore, Professor Y puts in effort to obtain a “partial list of signatories” (somehow), and similarly makes it public on their platform.

My question is: was this last act moral? For the sake of argument, let’s assume Professor Y has a 100% reliable source for this list — this may or may not be true in this case, as one of the signatories is claiming that some of the signatories wrote and sent a separate letter.

My personal moral judgment is that no, this is not moral. To use one analogy, I would liken it to revealing everyone at my institution who voted for Trump — I do not agree with their choice of vote, but it is their right to make it privately and free from threat of political violence (including mob justice). There are more subtleties here, but I end in a failed attempt at brevity.

13. Sanketh Says:

This seems different from most of the other questions here and you’ve probably answered it before, but I couldn’t find the answer, so… Do you think it is morally wrong for PhD programs to *require* an undergraduate degree? (Especially in emerging fields like the C-word and the Q-word.)

14. Hanan Says:

Do you have any friends that express opinions you think are immoral?

If you do, how are your relationships?

15. Isaac Says:

How should one choose a career? In particular, how should one prioritize between objectives such as direct societal good, earning money which can be donated, personal aptitude, personal interest, and other objectives?

16. Charles Says:

From where does the US government derive it’s political authority? To put it another way, why does anyone have a moral obligation to follow government orders?

17. Peter Norvig Says:

Matt Ginsberg has a novel attempting to answer RandomOracle’s question: https://www.amazon.com/Factor-Man-Matt-Ginsberg/dp/0999757105

18. Anon Says:

About your response #6 to RandomOracle #1 — what if a hobbyist were the
discoverer? What would be a moral way to make some money from their discovery?

19. Maxky Says:

Is it morally ok to produce nuclear waste and leave it to future generations, given that (1) it has to be kept save for, say, 1 Million years and (2) we essentially don’t know, how to handle it (no terminal storage for highly radioactive waste has been built yet, worldwide, after 60 years of nuclear energy)?

20. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Given your bolded paragraph, I’m curious what you think is a morally justifiable response to this behavior. For example, is encouraging people to functionally shun anyone who is currently an employee of ICE while this continues a morally acceptable tactic?

21. fred Says:

Hi Scott,

given world overpopulation and the fact that you were born into this world with a “winning ticket” (in the USA, white, super smart, and whose parents could provide you the best education), how do you justify having your own biological kids instead of adopting children living in some third world hell hole?

22. Clark Says:

In what circumstances is it okay to kill?

23. Bill Kaminsky Says:

Second*, here is my actual moral question. I am fond of the following bit of prose by the noted American sci-fi/fantasy author Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985). Indeed, I find this passage of his quite poignant even though my more rational side tells me it is quite naive. The passage comes from a preface Sturgeon wrote for the 1978 English translation of the 1964 Russian “cautionary” sci-fi novel World Soul (Душа мира) by Mikhail Emtsev and Yermey Parnov. Without further ado:

In the last paragraph of the book [i.e., World Soul], you will find these words “People should know more than what was or will be. People must know that which must never be.”

This is reminiscent of a recent remark of Ray Bradbury’s. In a discussion of 1984, Bradbury pointed out that the world George Orwell described has little likelihood of coming about—largely because Orwell described it. “The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future,” Bradbury said, “but to prevent it.” Consider thoughtfully this Soviet version of that very thought.

THEODORE STURGEON
San Diego, 1977

Again, part of me does think this passage to be quite naive. That is to say, a voice in my head sneers whenever I read it that: “First of all, bub, you are one snooty, overeducated fool if you think the masses are so short-sighted so as to not see most of the various metaphorical trains steaming toward them carrying massive cargos of s#!t ‘which must never be.’ Ignorance, bub, simply is not the reason all this dystopian s#!t gets enacted every 1-3 generations with whatever technological means is then at humanity’s disposal at that particular moment. Instead, the reason is some ineffable sickness in humanity’s collective soul preventing sustained, benevolent collective action. (Oooh, I bet that is why World Soul has that title… I just got that!) Second, it is just sooooo darn cute that snooty, overeducated fools like yourself think that making a good enough argument — be it non-fiction like Sturgeon’s preface or fictional stuff like the underlying more-or-less forgotten novel World Soul or even the great and still-widely-read novel 1984 — will stop humanity from going on another one of its rank, ignorant, and atrocious kill-fests of murder and neglect sometime all too soon!”

But despite that sneering from that one voice in my head [and don’t worry folks, there really aren’t that many other voices in my head, and all-in-all they’re pretty well-behaved… witty and urbane even 😉 ], another voice in my head thinks, “No, Sturgeon is right! If you see a bad future coming, it *is* your moral imperative to work to prevent it. Though painfully true, it is ultimately an utterly insufficient rebuttal to sneer that (1) a lot of people at least vaguely foresee the potential coming dystopias and (2) the pen, sadly, is not so much mightier than the sword as to ever make it a safe bet swords will never be used. It is worth making the argument with all your might.”

Thoughts? Scott? Others?

=== Endnote ===
* I open with the word “Second”, since the first part of my thoughts for this thread is Comment #9. Of course, Comment #9 was not so much a thought as just a reflexive Simpsons reference.

24. Scott Says:

George #4:

Is it wrong to eat animals?

I find it hard to uphold a blanket ban on eating animals, for several reasons—because the animals themselves have no similar scruples, because humans are also animals who evolved to need meat for a fully healthy diet, because it’s only recently in human history that vegetarianism (let alone veganism) even became feasible for a large fraction of people.

On the other hand, I also find it impossible morally to justify our current methods of factory farming, the more so the more one learns about those methods. The bigger issue than the animals being slaughtered is the lives they’re allowed (or not allowed) to lead beforehand. I’m not proud of the fact that, by eating meat, I help to perpetuate this system. I was a vegetarian in undergrad and didn’t feel like I got enough to be at peak mental alertness, but surely I could if I were more disciplined about getting B12, iron, and whatever else I needed.

While I’m unlikely to change unilaterally, I’d actually be supportive of a blanket ban on factory-farmed meat, for both animal-welfare and environmental reasons. By radically driving up the cost of meat, such a move would likely spur the development of in-vitro meat, substitutes like Impossible Burger, and other things that many of us hope will eventually make slaughtered-animal meat obsolete. Short of that, I think we should all strongly support further research into and development of those meat substitutes, try to eat more of them, and try to cut down on the number of dead cows, pigs, and chickens.

25. Scott Says:

Sam #5:

What do you think about sortition, the process of selecting public officials by lot – do you think it could ever work in practice as a means of governing an entire country?

In present circumstances, I think that choosing a president uniformly at random from the entire US population would most likely have given us a less terrible result than what we ended up with. In general, though, I’m not a fan of that system; it seems to have all the disadvantages of democracy (i.e., the people being governed no better than they deserve) except with an even higher probability of picking a total ignoramus. Maybe one could choose randomly among all citizens who pass a test of basic knowledge of American history and government (one that would surely also have disqualified our current president)?

I will say this in favor of the sortition system: it would create an immense need for a fully trustworthy source of public random numbers, which happens to be something I’ve been researching lately, as an application of quantum supremacy experiments. 🙂

26. rotozeev Says:

If people in the country want to have democratic referendum with question:
“- Do you support to stop the democracy in our country and start dictatorship?”

What must to do democratic authorities in such a case:
– Allow this democratic referendum and stop the democracy when the people decide to stop democracy?

27. Jeffo Says:

If you could ask an actual, omniscient Oracle a single question, what would it be? (How this answers a moral question, I leave to you.)

28. Scott Says:

Jacob #7:

To what extent do you feel a moral obligation to help prevent catastrophic climate change, and how are you discharging that obligation?

I think that trying to prevent catastrophic climate change is probably the central collective moral obligation that all of us now have. As for what I’m personally doing to discharge that obligation—well, not enough. Briefly:

(1) I use my blog to call attention to the issue.

(2) I donate to Democratic candidates and try to support them in other ways (like advocating vote-swapping). While there’s plenty of blame to go around, I think that the “let the world burn” intransigence and denialism of the US Republican Party has probably been the foremost obstacle to action on this crisis for the past 30 years.

(3) I donate to environmental causes.

(4) I try to advance the causes of education, rationality, and clear thought more generally.

(5) I try to contribute to the field of quantum computation, which could in turn help our civilization design more efficient solar cells, batteries, and carbon-capture methods (OK, a stretch, I know 🙂 )

(6) I continue to look around for interventions by which I could use whatever unusual profile of skills I have to make a decisive contribution to this issue. My greatest regret in life is that, after ~25 years, I still haven’t found one. NaderTrading came close, but it fell just a few thousand votes short of flipping the outcome of the 2000 US presidential election. On the other hand, just the fact that that could have succeeded, that it came halfway or so to succeeding, underscores for me that from a utilitarian standpoint, looking for strange interventions of this kind is probably tens of thousands more important than trying to reduce my personal carbon footprint or anything like that.

I’m open to suggestions for what else I could be doing.

29. Scott Says:

Bram #11:

How do you feel about the catholic church, and now, apparently, the southern baptists, becoming more palatable? How should one react to an entity becoming ‘better’ while still somewhat ‘bad’?

I think that, when an institution that did horrible things in the past becomes much less horrible, that’s unequivocally worth celebrating. Pope Francis, in particular, strikes me as a decent, courageous, and praiseworthy individual, and I’m no more prevented from saying that by disagreements on matters of theology than I am in (say) the case of the Dalai Lama. Of course, one should continue to condemn formerly very bad institutions for any of the ways in which they continue to be bad, or for any signs of backsliding; I don’t see any contradiction there.

30. Stephen Harrigan Says:

Do you think that the way that governments allocates funding for science is good or not? By this, I don’t mean how much money is spent, but more the distribution of larger to smaller grants. Do you think that funding should be allocated more evenly among many principal investigators, big science should be more supported or the mix is currently about right?

31. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Bram Cohen #11

“How do you feel about the catholic church, and now, apparently, the southern baptists, becoming more palatable? How should one react to an entity becoming ‘better’ while still somewhat ‘bad’?”

I want to note that as a factual matter, it isn’t obvious that what is happening with the Southern Baptist leadership in part has much at all to do with either the Southern Baptist rank-and-file or the self-identified evangelical Christians as a whole. In that regard, there’s a very big difference in that the Catholic Church has been out of step with its population who has generally been more reasonable and accepting than its leadership. In contrast, both not only did Southern Baptists and evangelicals have not only vote Trump in wide margins but he remains popular with them, as does support of his policies. See e.g. https://religioninpublic.blog/2017/03/10/the-2016-religious-vote-for-more-groups-than-you-thought-possible/ http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/politics/state/russell-moore-donald-trump-southern-baptists/ and https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/november/trump-elected-president-thanks-to-4-in-5-white-evangelicals.html .

32. Scott Says:

Anon #12: Obviously I don’t know many crucial details of the case you describe, anything beyond what you’ve reported. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that the professor is 100% guilty as charged of sexual harassment, and that his colleagues were naive and misguided to send letters to the dean vouching for his character. Even then, I agree with your moral judgment: it’s completely unacceptable to try to “out” the people who vouched for the professor and destroy their careers, and not only because of the possibility (or, from what you describe, likelihood) of accusing the wrong people.

Ideally, anyone who felt they had something to say about the professor’s character, positive or negative, in response to the allegations, would be willing to say it in public. On the other hand, as readers of this blog know, we now live in a world of runaway viral public shaming campaigns. And certainly, if accusations can be lodged confidentially (as they can with Title IX), then it seems fair that positive character references or attempts to refute the allegations could be lodged confidentially as well.

There are some situations where, after all conventional channels have failed, vigilante justice can be justified—even including “outing” correspondence believed to be private, and trying to shame people or get them fired. But those cases are extreme. People who didn’t harass anyone themselves, but only signed letters attesting to the character of someone else accused of harassment, are not even close to the threshold where I’d be comfortable with vigilantism.

I mean, like, even in a murder trial, the accused is allowed to call his friends up as character witnesses, to attempt to sway the judge or jury to greater leniency by attesting that, while of course they (the friends) weren’t there the night of the stabbings, the accused always seemed like a great guy before that. And we don’t normally say that the friends should be publicly shamed for this sort of testimony, or indeed that they should face any negative repercussions at all—only that their testimony is of limited relevance. But if we agree to that, then surely all the more so in the case you describe?

33. Jacob Says:

Scott,

Some ideas I’ve been thinking about that you might have better traction on (based on your network) or be interested in:

1) Pushing GiveWell (or its large funders, like Dustin Moskovitz?) to expand their scope to the intersection of climate change and effective altruism.

I make a recurring annual donation to GiveWell and asked their donor relations about climate change in February, sadly their reply then was “I don’t have any recommendations for you, as we haven’t prioritized work on climate change organizations or those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

2) Figuring out effective individual carbon offsets.

Google has a carbon offset program (https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/www.google.com/en//green/pdfs/google-carbon-offsets.pdf), and I believe allows employees to buy in — maybe there’s some way to expand that to a wider community — whether academic, tech, the public, etc.

I see Peter Norvig in the comments, perhaps he can weigh in?

My personal approach is pretty close to yours once you correct for our skills/employment/etc. I also feel like I’m not doing enough… would love to do more (and have a modest amount of money where my words are…) if there was a clearer path to doing so.

34. Scott Says:

Sanketh #13:

Do you think it is morally wrong for PhD programs to *require* an undergraduate degree?

I’m not sure that I’d describe graduate programs requiring undergrad degrees as a moral issue, but yes, I’d like us to be much more open to unusual cases—as, in fact, I understand that many graduate programs were in the past, before everything became more bureaucratized.

If you’re the sort of person who could succeed in grad school, I think that 95% of the time it’s not a problem for you to get an undergrad degree first in your chosen field—and furthermore, you actually need (or would greatly benefit from) the knowledge you’d gain in undergrad. Recall that this—i.e., training future academics—is a case where even Bryan Caplan agrees about the real, non-signalling value of undergraduate education. But that still leaves us with the other 5% of cases, and there (as with other issues in education) I’m strongly on the side of exceptions being made when necessary.

In my career so far, it’s happened exactly once that I met someone who was almost entirely self-taught, with (I think) no relevant undergrad background and no plans or desire to acquire any, who I nevertheless badly wanted to work with me. In that case, I offered the person to come to UT Austin for a year or two as a visiting researcher, and I’d figure out a way to pay him a salary from my grant as if he were a postdoc. I’m still disappointed that he turned me down.

35. RandomOracle Says:

Scott #6: Fair, though I would think that a longer grace period would be better, like say 20 years. I mean even if it were possible to replace all public-key crypto on the Internet in a matter of months one could still use that algorithm to decrypt the communication that occurred before that. That could still be potentially devastating.

Peter Norvig #17: Oh wow, I did not know about this book. Thanks a lot for mentioning it, I’m definitely going to check it out! 😀

36. Scott Says:

Hanan #14:

Do you have any friends that express opinions you think are immoral?

If you do, how are your relationships?

I’ve been extremely lucky with my friends, but I guess like most people, I do occasionally have to negotiate the question of when a moral disagreement becomes so enormous as to strain a friendship.

In general, I pride myself on being willing to talk to people from all over the ideological spectrum. I have pro-life friends, libertarian friends, SJW friends, anti-Zionist friends, and also friends who are Bibi-loving Zionist right-wingers. I even acquired a few friends in Texas who are Trump supporters—friends I value because of the extraordinary kindness they showed me and my family on a personal level, and who I’ve been careful not to discuss politics with. (Maybe someday… 😀 )

I once wrote about how proud I was that every single man or woman who was my friend before the comment-171 affair, remained my friend afterwards—whether they agreed or disagreed with any particular argument I made. Indeed, the only people who thought that my writing openly about my teenage experiences somehow made me a bad person, were people who’d never actually met me, and who’d probably consider me a bad person regardless of what I said.

That’s no longer 100% true: out of dozens of friends with a vaguely “SJW” orientation, I’ve since cut off contact with exactly one of them. It was by mutual agreement; our worldviews had simply grown too far apart for useful dialogue to be possible. We’re probably both happier this way.

37. Sanketh Says:

Scott #34: Sorry, I should’ve been more precise. (You did answer my question though.) Say you have an application from some random high school kid who claims to be ready for graduate school in CS but refuses to get an undergrad degree in CS. (Alternatively, one could consider that person to be on the verge of burning out.) What do you do?

I don’t think I understand your argument or that of Bryan Caplan on this. How is academia so different from industry? I agree with Caplan in that undergrad education certifies that one is conscientious and a conformist, and overall a great worker. But just as one could drop out of high school and fix some roofs, one could drop out and prove some theorems in mathematics. Then why should one of these people be forced to go through four years of college?

38. John Sidles Says:

I.  In regard to Bill Kaminsky’s comment #9, in comparing the relative moral worth of car models, it is Biblically evident that Phymouths and Hondas are morally preferable to Chryslers, on the grounds that (1) the Old Testament records that Jehovah drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden in a Fury, and moreover (2) the New Testament attests that upon the day of Pentecost, the apostles were in one Accord. 🙂

II.  More seriously, biblical support for Scott’s OP judgment in respect to the separation of parents from children, is provided by the Old Testament):

Exodus 1:15.  And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah.

16.  And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.

17.  But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them …

Reflecting upon the moral lesson of this passage from Exodus has inspired at least some Seattle Quakers to morally advocate, and hence to practice, unyielding nonviolent resistance to the “Orange Pharoah’s” family-breaking commands, and to call also for the public inversion of US flags in token of that moral resistance.

Worthy of note too, are child-centric moral values of a politically conservative, life-long registered Republican voter, namely Fred Rogers. These moral values are set forth in a just-releasted documentary film “Won’t you bet my neighbor?”. Needless to say, Mr. Rogers’ moral principles are impossible to reconcile with those of the “Orange Pharoah” and the (now-unrecognizable) Republican party that he and his supporters have hijacked.

III.  One of the most interesting chapters in Frances Bradshaw Blanshard’s semi-obscure biographical work Frank Aydelotte of Swarthmore (1970) is chapter 16 “The Commission on Palestine” (PDF here)

One day toward the end of the year [1945] he [Frank Aydelotte] picked up his telephone to answer a call and was told that this was the White House, President Truman speaking.

The President and the British Prime Minister were appointing a joint commission to advise their governments what to do about the jewish refugees of Europe and about the future of their “homeland,” Palestine, The problem was of highest urgency. Would Mr. Aydelotte serve on the commission? The President hoped very much that he would.

Such a call from such a source and in such an interest could be answered, Frank felt, in only one way. He accepted at once.

History records, as Blanshard vividly describes, that the recommendations of the Commission on Palestine were utterly disregarded. In a nutshell, the “Orange Pharoahs” had their way.

The moral question asked  A natural moral question, therefore, for Scott to ponder and hopefully address (and everyone else too), is this:

Supposing that it were in our power today, to retroactively influence President Truman to embrace the recommendations of the Commission on Palestine, and moreover to enforce (in 1945) these recommendations by means of the then-unmatched economic, military, and political power of the United States, would it be morally obligatory for us, today, to exercise that retroactively history-changing power?

PS: perhaps I should mention that in 1945, Frank Aydelotte was serving as the founding director of the then-unique Institute for Advanced Study (at Princeton). Nowadays of course pretty much every nation has a similar institute for catalyzing advanced studies, which loosely are federated as the so-called Inter-Continental Academia (ICA).

The quantum correlates of that question  Gil Kalai recently led a thought-provoking ICA panel discussion (video here) which touched upon on the implications of “the beautiful [quantum] physics above the supremacy threshold” (Gil’s phrase), in relation to the broader objectives of the ICA member-institutes.

One purpose of posing the above “The Commission on Palestine” moral question to Scott, then, is to provide some historical background for reflecting upon the ICA-relevant moral implications of the emerging “quantum conatus” (as it might be called) that nowadays is being increasingly and inescapably evoked (as it seems to me anyway) by the inherent creative tension between quantum supremacy and quantum skepticism.

39. The problem with gatelpeers Says:

Hi Scott,

I think this was discussed to some extend earlier in a previous entry when I believe you said the SAT should the most important tool for making admission decisions. For completeness in that discussion my question is really simple: is there a moral way to make decisions in college admissions, particularly when it comes to undergraduate admissions at Ivy League and Ivy League like schools?

I want to bring two data points as context for this question:

https://www.npr.org/2018/06/15/620368377/harvard-accused-of-racial-balancing-lawsuit-says-asian-americans-treated-unfairl . While the people suing Harvard have a legitimate point in my opinion, it is no less true that culturally, Asians, are being advantaged with respect to other groups by growing up with parents for whom higher education is supreme and who are willing to sacrifice more than parents from other cultures to ensure their kids get a good higher education.

https://www.amazon.com/Tailspin-Americas-Fifty-Year-Fall-Fighting/dp/1524731633 particularly Chapter 2 “Meritocracy Becomes The New Aristocracy” in which the author argues that the change in admission policies at America’s top schools essentially replaced the old WASP aristocracy by a new aristocracy that trains their kids since they are born to game the admission game at America’s top schools.

If the SAT (or any other standardized form of testing) is the answer, how do you justify that there will always be parents spending a fortune coaching their kids to ace the SAT while other kids won’t have access to the same kind of preparation?

40. Anon Says:

What is the personal moral responsibility of government agents when they act in their capacity as agents of the government? Say, when ICE agents separate children from their parents. Or when soldiers kill when given lawful but immoral orders. Or when a bureaucrat enforces a policy cutting benefits to people unfairly. Etc…

41. Jair Says:

Is it ever right to euthanize someone who is physically healthy but very depressed, as sometimes ocassionally done in, e.g., the Netherlands? (Please say no.)

42. Jalex Stark Says:

Suppose that you have the good fortune of being able to spend most of your time solving and writing up solutions to hard problems. (Maybe you’re a grad student or a professor on sabbatical.) How do you split your time between the following three endeavors? You might give an empirical answer by thinking on how much time you allocated to each, or you might give a theoretical answer by querying your moral compass.

A) Work on the problem that’s most “academically interesting”, maybe a precise definition is “has the highest expected value in terms of writing papers and having fun conversations with colleagues.”

B) Work on the problem that’s most “morally imperative”, maybe a precise definition is “has the highest expected value in terms of (moral value of the world conditioned on you working on this thing)”

C) Work on the meta-problem of deciding between A, B, and C. That is, figuring out what the problems are, how likely you are to make progress on them, what the moral / academic value of a solution is for each problem, etc.

43. Rick Fetters Says:

Is Sabine Hossenfelder doing science a great service in her critique/criticism of string theory?

44. Jonathan Paulson Says:

Does the median American have a moral obligation to donate to charity? How much?

45. Dan Rose Says:

Is there a moral difference between a real-life Schrödinger’s box versus flipping a fair coin to decide whether or not to kill a cat? Does your view change if some interpretation is proven true?

46. Scott Says:

Isaac #15:

How should one choose a career? In particular, how should one prioritize between objectives such as direct societal good, earning money which can be donated, personal aptitude, personal interest, and other objectives?

Everything you mentioned could be a relevant consideration for choosing a career! Personally, I might give the highest priority to choosing a career that you’re passionate about, if only because being passionate about something tends to be a prerequisite to being successful at it, and being successful tends to be a prerequisite to helping the world. Or rather: I might advise you to choose the career that you’re most passionate about, among all the careers that you—meaning you in particular, not in you in the abstract—find that you can actually make a living at. 🙂 (And that fulfill basic requirements like not being immoral or destructive.)

As you probably know, one of the most important insights of the effective altruist movement is that, while it might give you a warm glow to choose a career in a soup kitchen or an injured animal sanctuary, if you’re able to do so, you could probably help those causes a lot more by going to work at a hedge fund and then donating most of your earnings to charity. So, if you’re passionate about something that’s also able to make a lot of money, and you also want to help the world, then I’d definitely recommend the latter route! On the other hand, if you’d hate every minute at the hedge fund (or law firm or cryptocurrency startup or whatever), if you feel it would grind you up to where you could no longer continue in the job, or eat your soul to the point where you no longer cared about helping others, etc., then again, I’d give the highest priority to where you’re the most passionate (and therefore successful, and therefore useful to the world).

47. Scott Says:

Charles #16:

From where does the US government derive it’s political authority? To put it another way, why does anyone have a moral obligation to follow government orders?

I don’t think there’s an absolute moral obligation to follow the orders of the US government or any other government. In some cases, there can even be a moral obligation to defy those orders. The examples of Oskar Schindler, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, etc. spring immediately to mind.

On the other hand, so long as one can do so without perpetuating evil (but, e.g., merely inconveniencing oneself), I do think that there’s virtue in obeying the laws, even laws that one disagrees with. At least, until such time as one can persuade one’s fellow citizens to change the laws. My reason is again the obvious one: by doing so, one helps to uphold a general norm of law-following, without which experience has shown that civilization falls apart.

And also: it’s a big world. For all the injustices that it’s perpetrated and perpetrates today, the US government is usually pretty good about letting people leave the US, and there are 194 other countries to choose from. Just like, if you don’t want to abide by the rules of tennis, a natural expectation is that you leave the tennis club and take up a different hobby, so if you despise the laws of your country and are unable to change them, it seems reasonable that you move. (It’s no coincidence that, if we look at the worst regimes in history, from Nazi Germany to the USSR to North Korea to the antebellum US South, part of the general package of terribleness was always the victims’ inability to escape.)

48. Scott Says:

Anon #18:

About your response #6 to RandomOracle #1 — what if a hobbyist were the discoverer? What would be a moral way to make some money from their discovery?

If you’d proved P=NP, I suppose the most obvious way to make money today would be to mine as many of the remaining Bitcoins as you could without causing the whole system to collapse. It’s not clear to me that this would be unethical: it’s not like you’d be “stealing” from anyone else, and presumably, everyone who invested in Bitcoin accepted the risk that others might devalue the currency by figuring out better ways to mine it. You could do this, and probably make at least a few billions of dollars, before you publicly announced your algorithm (though anyone following the Bitcoin market would see that something was strange).

Other possibilities could be to patent your algorithm and license it, or keep your algorithm secret and sell queries to it. A problem with the first approach is that patents for algorithms tend to be hard to get and even harder to enforce. A problem with the second approach is that you’d immediately make yourself a target for the world’s intelligence agencies and criminal networks! Also, and more interestingly: people could probably use access to your algorithm itself to help them rediscover your algorithm.

49. Scott Says:

Maxky #19:

Is it morally ok to produce nuclear waste and leave it to future generations […]?

Indeed, there’s a nonzero moral problem with leaving nuclear waste around for future generations—but from what I know of the subject, it’s, like, orders of magnitude less than the catastrophe we’re inflicting on future generations through the burning of fossil fuels. So it seems totally inconsistent to me to worry about the former but not the latter. Future generations would thank us if the worst they had to deal with, from our time, was some radioactive waste here and there.

50. Scott Says:

Joshua Zelinsky #20:

is encouraging people to functionally shun anyone who is currently an employee of ICE while this continues a morally acceptable tactic?

Given the current situation, if I knew anyone who worked at ICE, or in any levels above it in the Trump administration, I think I would feel some moral obligation to ask them how they slept at night. And the only answers I’d be happy with would involve saying that they were also aghast at the situation, and that they’d try to ameliorate it from the inside if and when doing so was within their power.

I do know from experience that large organizations are often extremely heterogeneous, with multiple factions working against each other, in a way that people outside the organization are unable to see. So if our hypothetical employee pled that they worked for a “good” part of ICE, which had nothing to do with the separating-crying-children-from-their-parents part or was even trying to counteract that part, I wouldn’t immediately dismiss it as a self-serving rationalization, without first learning more about the matter.

Incidentally, the same goes even for Nazis: the default assumption is of course that all of them are evil, except what about that one from the concluding scene of The Pianist?

51. Scott Says:

fred #21: My first reaction—and I’m not particularly proud that this is my first reaction, but I’ll confess it—is that Jews probably get some sort of pass on fretting about their contribution to the world’s overpopulation, until their population is at least back up to where it was in 1939.

But also, and more broadly: as I’m sure you know, fertility in most Western countries is now well below the replacement rate. While overpopulation is still a problem, I think that solving it is overwhelmingly a matter of empowering women in the developing world, providing them education and contraceptives and job opportunities, rather than convincing hypereducated first-worlders to have even fewer children than they would otherwise have. (This does need to be balanced, though, against the first-worlders’ greater damage to the environment.)

Finally, there’s what I once called the paradox at the heart of the natalism versus anti-natalism debate. Namely, the world needs more people like the ones who altruistically choose to have fewer kids (and like the kids who those altruists raise), and fewer people like the ones who have as many kids as they feel like, indifferent to long-term consequences. Yet anti-natalist appeals will tend to reach only the former, thereby leading to a world of the latter.

52. Scott Says:

Clark #22:

In what circumstances is it okay to kill?

I have nothing original to say about that, nothing you couldn’t find in Moral Philosophy 101. There’s a range of circumstances I’d be willing to entertain, including: in self-defense, in defense of others, for a suffering cancer victim who begs be euthanized, for an unrecoverable coma patient, as punishment for particularly heinous crimes (Eichmann, bin Laden), etc. Crucially, though, I wouldn’t consider any of these to be automatic exonerations; they’d all depend on further circumstances.

53. Scott Says:

Bill Kaminsky #23: Sorry, but I’m going to rule your question out of bounds, on the grounds of requiring me to read too long and digressive a piece of text. Same rule applies to any future questions.

54. Peter Norvig Says:

The world needs more kids who will contribute more than they consume, and less who consume more than they contribute.

55. Scott Says:

rotozeev #26:

[Should we allow a] democratic referendum and stop the democracy when the people decide to stop democracy?

Such questions are of course extremely apposite right now! My first instinct is (as is sometimes done) to force any change to the machinery to democracy to require more than a simple majority (e.g., 2/3 or 3/4, or the assent of multiple branches of government). This is partly because dismantling democracy so often inflicts a severe punishment not only on the current generation, but also on generations not yet born (and who are therefore unable to vote). So it seems perfectly appropriate to me for the democracy to prompt the public an extra time: “Are you SURE you want to delete this file?”

56. Scott Says:

Jeffo #27:

If you could ask an actual, omniscient Oracle a single question, what would it be?

I’d simply ask it what I should do to cause the human race to survive.

(For I know if I tried to ask this Oracle a multi-part question, consisting let’s say of the previous question combined with P vs. NP, the Oracle would smite me…)

57. Scott Says:

Stephen Harrigan #30:

Do you think that the way that governments allocates funding for science is good or not? By this, I don’t mean how much money is spent, but more the distribution of larger to smaller grants.

Like my friend Michael Nielsen, I think that governments could probably allocate science funding in much more creative ways than they currently do, and I’d like for them to be able to experiment with many different funding models, including along the dimension you mention (offering larger grants or smaller grants). Crucially, though, I also think that a new funding model should only get to displace an existing one, after it’s shown itself empirically to do better.

58. Scott Says:

John Sidles #38: sorry, question too long.

(And that was my answer to your question, rather than an invitation to ask a new question. 🙂 )

59. Scott Says:

Problem with Gatekeepers #39:

how do you justify that there will always be parents spending a fortune coaching their kids to ace the SAT while other kids won’t have access to the same kind of preparation?

I thought the data showed that the SAT is “coachable,” in ways that don’t involve gaining new general knowledge, only up to a certain point (which is reachable by inexpensive courses or self-study) and not further than that. But I would change my mind if someone convinced me I was wrong about that.

60. Scott Says:

Anon #40:

What is the personal moral responsibility of government agents when they act in their capacity as agents of the government? Say, when ICE agents separate children from their parents. Or when soldiers kill when given lawful but immoral orders. Or when a bureaucrat enforces a policy cutting benefits to people unfairly. Etc…

I’d say that there’s a great deal of personal moral responsibility in all three of the cases you describe.

61. Dmitri Says:

Scott #48: Wouldn’t the same problem with intelligence agencies and criminal networks arise even if you don’t try to sell anything, but simply giving a grace period before publishing the algorithm?

62. Scott Says:

Jair #41:

Is it ever right to euthanize someone who is physically healthy but very depressed, as sometimes ocassionally done in, e.g., the Netherlands? (Please say no.)

OK then: I’ll say no. 🙂

But, while this is a sad question, I think that the barriers in the way of a very depressed person choosing to take his or her own life should be made extremely high but not infinitely high (even supposing they could be).

63. Scott Says:

Jalex Stark #42: 20%, 60%, 20%.

64. Scott Says:

Rick Fetters #43:

Is Sabine Hossenfelder doing science a great service in her critique/criticism of string theory?

I think the skepticism that Sabine Hossenfelder, Peter Woit, and others express toward string theory provides a genuine service to physics. It gets to be called a “great” service to physics only if they turn out to have been right about it. 😉

65. Scott Says:

Dmitri #61: Yeah, good point.

66. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

Scott #58

Let me add 3 data points to the question.

1- To follow on the “coachability” issue, my take with things like these is “follow the money”. The SAT has gone several revisions throughout the years. This 2014 article discussing the changes coming in 2016 has both representatives from the College Board and test prep companies agreeing that the 2014 version was coachable with the test prep companies saying that even the new version is https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/sat-prep-companies-uncoachable-sat-good-for-business

“College Board President David Coleman says the changes will make the SAT a less-coachable exam. But SAT prep companies say this is actually good news.”

“By aligning the test with Common Core standards and creating a less-coachable exam, the College Board says it will help level the playing field for students who don’t have the means to pay for expensive test prep. On the low end, test prep can cost hundreds of dollars; on the high end, companies like Veritas Prep can command upwards of $7,000 for private tutoring. Erin Billy, the owner of California-based company TestMagic, agrees that the SAT has favored students who can afford tutoring. “We work with local organizations to offer reduced costs or free help to the students,” says Billy. His company’s prep courses can range from$800 to $2,200. But while the new test promises to reduce the effectiveness of test prep, the SAT tutors say they are skeptical. Many believe that students will still benefit from extra (and expensive) help, regardless of the new changes.” Given the high prices commanded by these classes, I doubt there would be a lot of money to be made if the increase due to coaching was merely a few points. 2- There is the whole question of how well SAT scores actually predict college performance. There have been several studies on this matter and those I am familiar with seem to go along the lines of this one which concluded that not a lot https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/26/new-research-suggests-sat-under-or-overpredicts-first-year-grades-hundreds-thousands . These studies would seem to refute the whole notion of using the SAT as a good admission metric if we understand it as a predictor of who’s better prepared to do well in college classes. 3- I never took the SAT because I didn’t do my undergraduate in the US. However, I did take the GRE to get into a good US university for graduate school. I took a class to understand the GRE and I spent several months doing preparation. In my own case, coaching the GRE was the difference between having a very mediocre score in the old GRE -I got a score in the 500s range in the quantitative section with my first “diagnostics” test- and having a very good score – 800- by the time I took the actual test. I also ended up having both competitive verbal and analytical writing scores -enough to getting me through the finish line-, but the quantitative part was the most important for the schools I applied to. Now, I am not saying that the “coaching” made me smarter nor I am saying that everybody is born equally capable when it comes to mathematical ability. What I am saying, and this experience gave me confirmation in my own personal life, is that knowing the test dynamics and training one’s brain to think like the test can boost one’s scores significantly, which would seem to indicate, at least in the case of the GRE, that the test measures only how well one takes the test. Now, it would be one thing to take the SAT as a measure of how well one takes the test thus signaling “commitment”, “resilience” and a whole other set of qualities that might be sought after by admissions committees. It’s quite another to take it as an objective indicator that allows colleges to separate “college material” -read Ivy League material” – from non college material irrespective of a number of variables that might be going on in the life of the student applicant that can impact the student’s score. Let me know your thoughts : – ). 67. pku31 Says: Re catastrophic climate change, Giving What we Can has this page on estimating effective interventions: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/report/modelling-climate-change-cost-effectiveness/ My moral question: Do you think it’s morally correct to draft dodge IDF service? 68. mjgeddes Says: Fascism (specifically Nazi Germany) is often pointed to as the archetype of evil, however others say that Communism under Stalin was just as evil. So, the question is, which evil was worse? The broader question is, can different types of evil be compared and ranked? 69. Oleg S. Says: Dear Scott, What is your take on distributed autonomous organizations (such as darkweb markets or the DAO experiment)? Should they be banned because of terrorism and other concerns? Or maybe we should create more of them because they are the only future of humanity (with other methods of governing being so inefficient and corrupt)? 70. marc Says: Scott #24 I’m a little surprised at your comments as to why not to stop eating meat here, because there aren’t any which are well thought through! 1. “because the animals themselves have no similar scruples” – and if someone has no scruples in stealing from me (which may don’t), should I take that as acceptance I can steal from them? Or replace “steal” with “murder”? 2. “because humans are also animals who evolved to need meat for a fully healthy diet” – sure but by no means as much meat as people in rich countries eat now, and not the type of meat we eat now. And it has been shown conclusively that one can live very healthily on vegan/vegetarian diets as I am sure you know. 3. “because it’s only recently in human history that vegetarianism (let alone veganism) even became feasible for a large fraction of people.” – true but that’s also true about vaccines, books, free speech etc etc. I hope you may consider these points further and try again giving up meat which a little more focus on the B12 etc this time! 71. Bob Strauss Says: A technology is invented for uploading brain patterns into a computer. There is general consensus (but of course, no proof) that this instantiates the transferee’s consciousness and makes him virtually immortal. The procedure costs one million dollars, making it available to the top 1 percent but out of reach of everyone else. To what extent would you be willing to go to make this technology available to the rest of the population? And assuming you founded some kind of “upload your consciousness” charity, what are the parameters you’d use to choose who gets to live forever? 72. Sebastian Oberhoff Says: Here’s something deliberately contentious: Do you consider gender quotas and similar means aimed at increasing the number of women in STEM subjects reverse sexism? 73. a reader Says: What do you think about positive eugenics? Suppose that in a few years from now, genetics of the intelligence would be mostly elucidated. A billionaire comes to you and says that because you and your wife are among the smartest couples on the planet and he wants to help the progress of humanity, he proposes to you two to have the smartest child you can have and offers to cover all the costs for that child, from IFV to college. (Eventually suppose no editing with CRISPR would be involved – just a classical in vitro fertilization, except all the resulting embryos would have their DNA tested and their predicted IQ according to genes calculated and the one predicted to be the smartest will be implanted.) Would you accept? 74. Scott Says: Jonathan Paulson #44: Does the median American have a moral obligation to donate to charity? How much? Thinking your question over, I’m forced to posit a concept of “obligation” that’s not Boolean, but is on a sliding scale—i.e., that can vary continuously from what we’d think of as an obligation all the way down to “nice if you do it, but no problem if you don’t.” It seems clear to me that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have a moral obligation to donate a lot to charity (they agree), and equally clear that the moral obligation decreases as you get to progressively poorer people—meaning both the amount needed fully to discharge the semi-obligation, and the degree to which it’s semi-obligatory to donate anywhere near that amount—with the function reaching zero sometime before we’ve reached the people who are poor enough to be the beneficiaries of the charity. And clearly this function should be continuous (also differentiable?). You might object that that’s not what you were asking: you were asking for the rough evaluation of this function at the median American’s income. But here I’m going to weasel out and say that different plausible utilitarian theories could draw the curve very differently. I’m now very interested (as I didn’t realize I was just a minute ago 🙂 ) in reading a research paper or two on whether there are plausible utilitarian arguments to determine the functional form of the curve DegreeOfObligation(ToDonateAtLeastX, IfYouMakeY). 75. Ashley Says: Scott #51: Apart from all that, would not ‘super smart’ give you a DUTY to have MORE children (and furthermore your wife seems to be of the same class as well). Surely it would be awesome if humans have a better ability to think clearly and logically, and a good part of that ability could have genetic origins. (BTW, I can’t help thinking that you too must have had this thought, but, as Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz would say, the part of your brain which thought it got a wedgie from the rest of your brain – you probably were too modest to complete that thought ;-)) 76. Calum Says: I’m not sure if this question will make it through the filter, as it’s more “meta-ethical” than ethical. Still, I’m curious to know how it is you think that moral statements come to have truth-values (assuming that you do think they have truth-values!). For example, do you think something’s being right or wrong is a “natural” fact, having to do with, say, pleasure or suffering? Or do you think that we humans “make up” moral truths to some extent. Or stranger still, do you think that moral (and more broadly, normative) facts are just sui-generis features of the world, as, for instance, Derek Parfit thought? Or something else entirely? 77. Scott Says: pku31 #67: Do you think it’s morally correct to draft dodge IDF service? No, but I’ll explain why on a purely factual ground: the great majority of IDF soldiers do things like guard various posts inside pre-1967 Israel, sift through data about Hezbollah movements, or all sorts of other tasks that have nothing directly to do with the occupation of the West Bank. It’s hard to see any of these tasks as morally wrong, insofar as one agrees that Israel inside the Green Line has any right to exist at all. I can understand the moral stance of those IDF soldiers who signed the petition saying they would only serve in ways that didn’t involve occupying the West Bank. (On the other hand, I also understand that no army on earth could survive every soldier acting as his or her own Prime Minister—which is why ultimately, these problems need to be solved at the political level.) 78. Scott Says: mjgeddes #68: Fascism (specifically Nazi Germany) is often pointed to as the archetype of evil, however others say that Communism under Stalin was just as evil. So, the question is, which evil was worse? “Problem with Gatekeepers” and I had this discussion ad nauseum in a previous comment thread. To recap (and since I don’t feel like searching for the link): I regard both ideologies as comparably catastrophic in the effects they had on our world, so much so that it’s difficult to pick a “winner.” Communism killed more people in total, though it also had many more years in which to do so; Nazism perpetrated a genocide. In terms of their motivations, both ideologies seem bad to me (to put it mildly) but Nazism seems clearly worse. The utopia that diehard Communists falsely imagined they were bringing into being is one that many decent people might be able to get behind, whereas the same is not true in the case of Nazism. 79. a reader Says: It seems my former question was left in the moderation queue. I’m very sorry if it was perceived as “nasty, sneering, or non-genuine” – that wasn’t my intention 🙁 Or maybe I used a forbidden word and my comment ended not in moderation queue but in spam? (such things happen sometimes on SlateStarCodex) Or maybe there was a technical problem an my comment was lost? Anyway, another question: Supposing that Artificial General Intelligence represents a potential major danger for humanity, would it be justified to completely forbid internationally the research in this domain, like proliferation of nuclear weapons (and the researchers who do it in spite of the interdiction to be punished)? (Sorry for my English.) 80. Scott Says: Oleg #69: What is your take on distributed autonomous organizations (such as darkweb markets or the DAO experiment)? Should they be banned because of terrorism and other concerns? Or maybe we should create more of them because they are the only future of humanity (with other methods of governing being so inefficient and corrupt)? I don’t feel like I know nearly enough about these things to say what degree of regulation (or perhaps better: attempted regulation) might be appropriate for them. However, I do feel pretty confident in declining to regard them as “the only future of humanity.” 🙂 81. David Karger Says: Asking this because I haven’t been able to find my way out of the moral thicket. How should the academic community relate to a colleague who has been accused of sexual harassment but deny it? Do we proactively ostracize them in order to protect potential future victims and send a message to the community about our values, or do we apply arguments of “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty”? Do we have to wait for a court decision, or create a court structure of our own in academia and follow its rulings, or do the interests of victims trump those of the accused here? At what boundary can we declare someone “obviously guilty”? 82. Scott Says: Bob Strauss #71: A technology is invented for uploading brain patterns into a computer. There is general consensus (but of course, no proof) that this instantiates the transferee’s consciousness and makes him virtually immortal. The procedure costs one million dollars, making it available to the top 1 percent but out of reach of everyone else. To what extent would you be willing to go to make this technology available to the rest of the population? And assuming you founded some kind of “upload your consciousness” charity, what are the parameters you’d use to choose who gets to live forever? In the scenario you describe, it sounds to me like overwhelming demand for the technology would quickly spur imitators and drive the cost down. But OK, suppose we accept the premise of your thought experiment, that we can only afford to make 1% of people live forever. Yes, in that case I’d want to see some sort of government-administered “immortality grants” program, so that this wouldn’t become the exclusive prerogative of the super-rich. Ideally, the lucky survivors would be selected on the basis of how much good they’d accomplished for the world—searching for “good” across a diverse array of fields (engineering, arts, community building, public service…), except with a special focus on publication count in theoretical computer science. This wouldn’t in any sense be eugenics, because we wouldn’t be picking genes; we’d be picking brains (i.e., people) by looking at what they’d done with their lives. In that regard it would be no different from, e.g., picking the winners of the MacArthur grant. 83. Scott Says: Sebastian Oberhoff #72: Here’s something deliberately contentious: Do you consider gender quotas and similar means aimed at increasing the number of women in STEM subjects reverse sexism? OK then, I’ll answer your deliberately contentious question on a deliberately nerdy and technical ground. 😀 Namely: I fail to see what actual moral decision hinges on our choice about whether to use the words “reverse sexism.” Like, in one sense gender quotas obviously are “reverse sexism” (by definition!); in another sense, they’re motivated, whether rightly or wrongly, by a desire to rectify past societal injustices, which seems very different from any of the motivations behind classical, man-on-woman sexism. Anyway, I set out my detailed thoughts about the issue in this post. 84. Mateus Araújo Says: Do you think the actions of the 43 group were morally correct? For clarification: the 43 group was a group of Jewish WW2 veterans that, faced with government inaction, beat the shit out of the resurgent Nazi movement in Britain. 85. fred Says: scott #56 “I’d simply ask [the Oracle] it what I should do to cause the human race to survive.” but what if it tells you to blow your brains out?! :p 86. Scott Says: a reader #73: What do you think about positive eugenics? In principle, it looks like it could totally work, and produce a human species that was more peaceful, tolerant, curious, intelligent, etc. etc. (not to mention sexy), just like humans managed to induce desired behavioral traits in horse and dog breeds over a remarkably small number of generations. In practice, humans have demonstrated such catastrophic irresponsibility with anything in the vicinity of classical eugenics, that to try it again would be like handing a loaded weapon to a toddler. Fortunately, we’ll soon be entering the era of designer genes, which many people still see as morally problematic, but which I see as orders of magnitude less morally problematic than classical eugenics! We all know what’s going to happen in practice: it will start with 100% morally unimpeachable cases, like saving newborns from life-crippling genetic illnesses. From there, it will spread to clearing out mutational load that tends to depress the baby’s IQ and give it all sorts of other problems in life (some known, some unknown). And finally to inserting, deleting, or editing genes specifically to enhance traits like intelligence or kindness. I think that there will be profound moral questions at every step of this process. But after thinking it over a great deal, I’d rather that we ride this slippery slope all the way to the bottom, dealing as compassionately as we can with whatever moral problems are raised at each step, than that we take desperate or coercive measures to stay where we are. I have no trouble admitting that, if there existed a safe genetic intervention that would reliably make my kids kinder and more intelligent, I would’ve wanted to sign up for that with very little hesitation; indeed I’d agonize about it hardly more than I would about giving my kids their multivitamins. 87. Scott Says: David Karger #81: How should the academic community relate to a colleague who has been accused of sexual harassment but deny it? Do we proactively ostracize them in order to protect potential future victims and send a message to the community about our values, or do we apply arguments of “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty”? Do we have to wait for a court decision, or create a court structure of our own in academia and follow its rulings, or do the interests of victims trump those of the accused here? At what boundary can we declare someone “obviously guilty”? Sorry, but I’m going to chicken out and say that I haven’t found my way out of this moral thicket either, and I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. The heart of the problem is this: what you want, from a certain theoretical standpoint, is public trials where accusers could bring charges like “Resolved: that it’s not like the accused did anything bad enough to deserve firing him, but he’s a little bit of a sleaze and women are well advised to be cautious around him.” And then the accused could bring evidence or explanations to defend himself from the charge, and finally the court would deliberate and issue a verdict that everyone would thereafter abide by. As soon as this is stated, though, the problem with it becomes obvious: namely, regardless of the outcome, the mere fact of holding this trial would load up the accused with a career-threatening burden of presumed guilt! (And from a Bayesian standpoint, it’s not hard to see why.) So we therefore implement an alternative solution that’s unsatisfactory on both ends: on the one hand, many creepy men face no repercussions whatsoever; on the other, some men have their careers unjustly destroyed. It’s hard to figure out the solution here. As Orwellian as it sounds, though, maybe we should subject every straight man on earth to a public trial every decade or so, in which all the women who that man knows are encouraged to come forward and describe anything “icky” he ever did to them? That way, the mere fact that a man had been through such a trial could never be held against him, and guys could even boast that they came off better in their trials than most of the other guys around them. 88. Scott Says: OK everyone, that’s all the questions I’m going to answer this time! Thanks so much to everyone who participated. I’ll leave the thread open for a bit longer, in case people want to comment on the answers, but no further questions please. 89. Bill Kaminsky Says: Sorry, Scott. Cut down to size, my question in Comment #23 is basically: *** How frequently and thoroughly do you think should those in the pure sciences reassess whether their vocational efforts should get more explicitly applied? *** 90. A commenter Says: On the subject of obligation to donate to charity: This is a good place to introduce the concept of supererogation. SEP says: “Supererogation is the technical term for the class of actions that go ‘beyond the call of duty.’ Roughly speaking, supererogatory acts are morally good although not (strictly) required.” This is not only a fun piece of vocabulary, but a nice way to defuse any aggressive hand-wringing on these questions in a way that matches our intuitions. With this term, and the framework DegreeOfObligation(ToDonateAtLeastX, IfYouMakeY), one can ask any number of interesting questions: e.g. what is the degree of obligation for an unexpected windfall vs steady income? If I get a moral question, after writing all this: what practical difference does it make if charity is an obligation vs supererogatory? To whatever extent it is an obligation for wealthy people, how should it be enforced — social shaming, or what? At what point does obligated charity become taxation? 91. jk20 Says: Scott #86 Looks bit like a pulp sci-fi. Rewriting human genome may just as well lead to introduction of bugs in the genetic code which will manifest themselves as unheard-of forms of cancer or similar defects. And opens avenue to not only improve, but diminish human qualities for purposes of political control. Why are tuition fees at top schools in US and UK so high? One of the reasons is to guarantee that quality education is affordable for certain circles only. Same principle can be applied to potential genetic manipulations. “Induce behavioral traits in horses and dogs…” – humans are at a higher intellectual level than animals, have more self-reflection and free will, and breeding and manipulating them like lower species can only lead to dumbing down and brutalization. 92. Michael P. Says: David #3: “Stripped of platitudes, how do you personally justify the recent and ongoing Israeli massacres of Palestinian protesters?” David, you got your facts wrong. 80% of the so-called “protesters” that have been killed were members of Hamas, a terrorist organization. These “protesters” were firing rockets and mortars at Israeli cities indiscriminately, including kindergartens. They attached explosives to kites and balloons, send them to Israel, without care which random inhabitants of Israel, Jews or Muslims, would die. It’s getting so bad that Palestinian Authority, the one in charge of the West Bank, the one constantly at odds with Israel, threatened to sever security cooperation with Israel if Israel opens Gaza border, for Hamas is a threat to everybody in the region. The residents of Gaza suffered more from Hamas thugs than from blockade. The reason you don’t hear about that is the antisemitic bias of CNN and such. To ask how one feel about “Israel massacre” is the same if I asked you how do you feel guilty at all about murdering your own mother: if the presumed fact is wrong the associated question is meaningless and offensive. 93. Scott Says: jk21 #90: Obviously these interventions would have to undergo extensive testing before they were considered safe enough to use on humans—same as with any other new drug or therapy. But one thing I feel strongly about is that, if you want to be intellectually honest, you can’t just keep deferring the question of whether a proposed new technology would be good or bad for the human race, by endlessly repeating that the technology might have unforeseen dangers (which is true of anything). At some point you need to consider: yes, and what if we can get it so that it works pretty much exactly as intended, what then? There’s no conspiracy of mustache-twirling, monocle-wearing villains who are trying to keep education “restricted to certain circles” by keeping university tuition deliberately high. What there is, is (1) tuition spiraling out of control because of a “cost disease” whose origins would take a long discussion even to begin to do justice to (a similar cost disease has been affecting healthcare and several other sectors), and (2) government not providing enough financial aid to compensate. (The pessimistic Bryan Caplan hypothesis is that we’re trapped in a spiral here, where every time government increased the student aid, that would just give universities room to let the cost disease fester and become even worse.) Humans clearly do differ from each other in all sorts of behavioral ways, and many of the differences are known to be 30% or 50% or whatever other percent heritable. Yes, our behavior is more complicated than that of horses and dogs, but the fact that it’s more complicated doesn’t make it magically immune from the rules of population genetics. On the other hand, if (let’s suppose) a woman went to a sperm bank and picked out a sperm donor for her child who was 7 feet tall, a football player, a Rhodes scholar, etc etc., then clearly, the fact that she tried to optimize her child for certain traits would not (whatever else one says for or against it) make the resulting child any less human. 94. Scott Says: Bill #89: It’s up to a given scientist to decide whether they want to take their work in a more practical direction—though a grant officer (representing the taxpayers or whatever) might legitimately favor work with a clearer practical payoff, and a scientist applying for a grant might legitimately take that into account. If we leave out nefarious applications like weapon systems and public-spirited applications like stopping global warming—i.e., if we just mean “applications” in the usual sense of “things that could make money for someone”—then I’m not sure I see a strong moral dimension to this question, just questions of interests and strategy. 95. Scott Says: Mateus #84: Sorry, I’d never heard of the 43 group—and while it sounds interesting, I have to rule your question out of bounds because of my general ban on questions requiring me to read outside resources (if I made an exception for one person…) 96. Mateus Araújo Says: Oh come on, I did not require you to read outside sources. You can just give an answer conditional on the information I provided being truthful. If you want more detail (there is a whole book about it), the story is that after WW2 Oswald Mosley, former leader of the British Union of Fascists, revived his Nazi movement, complete with stormtroopers and anti-semitic hatred. The British government declined to intervene (for various reasons that I’ll omit for brevity). The Jewish veterans were not at all amused to see blackshirts marching on their streets after of years fighting the actual Nazis, and decided to solve the matter themselves. Their tactic consisted mainly in going to the blackshirt’s gatherings and beating the shit out of them. As far as I know they never killed anybody, but they succeeded in draining their morale and Mosley’s movement fizzled out after a couple of years. 97. Scott Says: Mateus #96: It sounds like one of those things where you sternly wag your finger at people to stop doing something, with only the tiniest wink in your eye as you do so. 98. Axiomata Says: Scott #28 (and Jacob #33) – I want to offer a suggestion — since you asked! — of another way you could help address climate change. I’ve been glad to see the coverage you give on your blog (e.g. Kuperberg’s parable, which I found a compelling analogy). And I’m persuaded that personal lifestyle changes, while admirable and valuable so far as they go, are far from the most effective steps individuals can take right now. Climate change is a collective action problem par excellence, and it needs a collective solution. So I humbly propose that one of the most effective steps you, Scott, could take, is to use your blog platform to highlight one of the most effective steps that ordinary individuals can take–and that many of your readers especially are likely to be especially well-suited for: to become politically active on climate. For me, this has meant volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, promoting carbon pricing and their particular policy, Carbon Fee and Dividend. I think it is a very decent Schelling point for political engagement in the US. 99. Peter Gerdes Says: What do you think of Singer style arguments about abortion and disability. Personally, I’ve always found Singer’s argument regarding abortion and disability one of the more persuasive moral arguments I’ve ever heard even if it makes us uncomfortable. I mean suppose a woman is intent on having exactly one child. Her mind is made up so whatever happens she’ll try to get pregnant until she gives birth to one child and then will be surgically rendered infertile. This woman gets pregnant and early enough for her to get an abortion the doctors come and inform her that the child she is carrying will have a relatively minor disability but one which surely makes things a little harder and make things just that much worse and more unpleasent throught their life.. The woman is rich and in great health so there is essentially 0 chance she can’t have a child if she aborts this one and she thinks it’s perfectly moral to get an abortion for any reasons even a total whim. Given that either way there will be exactly one child raised and there is no extra harm added by tossing in the abortion doesn’t she have a *moral obligation* to abort this child. I mean surely we agree it would be immoral if she had a healthy baby and then, under anesthesia, went in and *inflicted* that degree of disability via unnecessary surgery. So it’s clear that we think it’s a harm to have the disability and, other things being equal, a child would prefer not to have that burden. As aborting isn’t itself morally wrong it’s a perfectly valid way to choose between asking your child to grow up with a disability or without. Since people get crazy about this I want to specify that I’ve struggled with depression and other mental illness issues through my life (even if it’s all good now) and based on family history and other facts i’m quite sure I was born with a higher than usual genetic disposition to such outcomes. However, I believe fervently that if we learn how to detect such disposition early in pregnancy people face moral pressure to abort so other children can be free of the difficulties I faced. This isn’t some kind of statement of self-hate. I like my life and don’t want to use it. It’s just that I have no reason to think that the possible child who might have been raised by my parents instead had they followed the advice would have enjoyed their life any less. I’m not suggesting I’m any less deserving of equal treatment by society merely acknowledging that disposition for depression is something I (and anyone else) would rather not have so if we can bring that about shouldn’t we? 100. Peter Gerdes Says: On the subject of obligation to donate to charity: If you are a utilitarian you don’t need to believe in things like obligations. Mandatory and non-mandatory actions and whole bag of assorted notions. It’s enough to simply believe there is a partial order on possible states of affairs according to their total utility. If someone asks you about being obligated to give every last cent to charity just look at them blankly. 101. Sniffnoy Says: Peter Gerdes #100: You mean a total preorder, not a partial order. 102. Sniffnoy Says: Scott #86: It’s actually a little unclear that human genetic engineering will be quite as all-upside as that. (I think both these arguments are due to Ozy Frantz, or at least that’s who I recall hearing them from.) The first argument is the first of the two that Ozy discusses here, in the context of eugenics — specifically, that, you might expect that since people care about their children, they’d genetically engineer them in ways good for them… but people also care about their dogs, and yet so many dog breeds have been bred in ways that leave them physically frail and living constantly painful lives. It’s not impossible something similar could happen with humans. (I don’t know that I really buy this argument, but I thought I’d bring it up.) The scarier scenario to my mind though is — well, we imagine that given the opportunity, we’d engineer people for, you know, intelligence, physical fitness, all those good things, right? And sure, well, that’s what we’d do… but most people have, well, different priorities. Physical fitness, sure, but intelligence? No. What you’re going to see is people engineered for such things as agreeableness. (Or just, you know, obedience.) I don’t think I need to spell out the implications and just why this possibility frightens me so. Still, permitting it is still probably better than forbidding it; if one can find a way to only forbid the bad uses, that could be great, but I have no idea how one would specify that… 103. Mateus Araújo Says: Scott #97: I think your moral compass needs some repairs. If there are people marching on the streets preaching genocide not only it is morally correct to beat them up, but in fact there is a moral duty to stop them by any means possible. In fact beating them up suffices only because Mosley’s blackshirts had no chance of creating the ethnostate of their dreams. If they were actually capable of committing the crimes against humanity they wanted the morally correct reaction would be to kill them on sight. 104. fred Says: On what Scott said in #86 “As soon as this is stated, though, the problem with it becomes obvious: namely, regardless of the outcome, the mere fact of holding this trial would load up the accused with a career-threatening burden of presumed guilt!” All those questions aren’t new – it was all explored in a 1967 french movie called “The risks of the job”, where a small town school teacher was falsely accused and the victim of out-of-control gossip, etc. Even innocent, his career was ruined. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_risques_du_m%C3%A9tier 105. Edan Maor Says: Scott #86: “[I]ndeed I’d agonize about it hardly more than I would about giving my kids their multivitamins.” Do you give your children multivitamins? What is the accepted truth here about the effectiveness of that? My impression was that multivitamins aren’t actually necessary or effective at anything, but maybe that’s just for adults? (Sorry for asking another question, but at least it’s not a morality one!) 106. Scott Says: Edan #105: Yes, I’m aware that most research fails to see a benefit from multivitamins for most people. On the other hand, Lily is (alas) a ridiculously picky eater, who survived the past year mostly on chicken schnitzel, hot dogs, pancakes, french fries, and ice cream. So even if multivitamins don’t help the average 5-year-old, it seems plausible to me that they might help her, by providing some nutrient that she’s missing from her almost total refusal to touch vegetables. And if not … well, I don’t think they’re going to hurt her, and also gummy vitamins are a tasty treat that she came to expect each morning. 107. Scott Says: Mateus #103: Your comment, alas, reveals you not to have asked your question in good faith. You weren’t genuinely seeking moral insight: instead, you had an answer already in mind, and just wanted to lecture me if I picked the “wrong” one. (To be fair, a few other questions in this thread probably had the same character.) Yes, there can sometimes be a place for winking, looking the other way, slapping on the wrist, when people have broken the rules but only to execute justice against truly despicable evil. If I’m not mistaken, this moral territory has been explored in approximately 50,000 superhero movies and comics (~20,000 of them Batman alone). 😀 Also, I daresay that few readers of this blog will suspect me of secret sympathy for the Nazis who killed most of my extended family, or insufficient zeal about the pursuit of vengeance against them. At the same time, I’d think it obvious what the danger is of encouraging a general norm of “punching Nazis.” Namely: human nature being what it is, the cynical and opportunistic will see that norm as a license gradually to broaden the definition of the word “Nazi,” until it finally encompasses everyone who they disagree with or don’t like. Furthermore, this is not merely a theoretical worry: anyone who follows social justice controversies knows that it’s exactly what’s been happening over the past few years! The great irony here, of course, is that the norm of “Nazi-punching” was sold as necessary to prevent the rise of a powerful clique able to destroy anyone who it disagreed with. What’s proven itself better at that goal, I think, is a thorough commitment to Enlightenment norms and values. 108. Mateus Araújo Says: Scott #107: No, Scott, I actually asked the question in good faith. I thought because of being Jewish and living in the US you would have an interesting insight. Instead you gave me a vague one-liner about stern talking and winking. I saw your answer yesterday, got quite annoyed by it, decided to sleep over it, read it again when I woke up, and was still annoyed by it. And your slippery slope argument is complete fallacious: I was not asking about punching anyone you don’t like, but self-declared fascists that were actively marching on the streets and preaching hatred against people of the wrong race. It is perfectly consistent to fight against them without extending the definition to anyone you don’t like. A good example is Germany’s hate speech law (Volksverhetzung): it is illegal to preach hatred against a national, religious, or ethnic group. That’s it. It is not a blanked ban on speech you don’t like, and it is not used as such in practice. Moreover, please don’t accuse me, even indirectly, of suspecting you of harbouring sympathy for Nazis. I dearly hope you still assume that I have a minimum of good faith and basic human decency, even if you disagree with my views. I do accuse you of being extremely naïve. How could “a thorough commitment to Enlightenment norms and values” help fighting those who explicit want to destroy them? When did it ever help? Or maybe we should count as an Enlightenment norm Popper’s intolerance of intolerants? 109. AcademicLurker Says: “tuition spiraling out of control because of a “cost disease” whose origins would take a long discussion even to begin to do justice to” This may not be the right place, but I have a naive question about this: why hasn’t Baumol’s cost disease effected barbers? When I get a no-frills men’s haircut at my local barber it costs$17. According to google, the average cost of a men’s haircut in 1981 was $5, which is about$14.5 in 2018. So a cost increase of about 14%.

But standard hair cutting seems to fit all of the criteria for Baumol’s cost disease. It takes just as long to get a haircut today as it did in 1981, and it requires just as much human labor (1 barber for one costumer). So why hasn’t the price of a standard men’s haircut gone up by nearly 300% since 1980 like college tuition has?

110. Scott Says:

AcademicLurker #109: Excellent question! As I’m far from the first to point out, cost disease has most heavily afflicted sectors like education, healthcare, and infrastructure—all sectors that are very heavily regulated, that have people paying the bills who are far separated in time and/or space from the people receiving the benefit (unlike barbering…), and that are not entirely public and not entirely private but a complicated and ungodly mix of both.

I guess one factor is that there is a natural “ceiling” for haircut prices, because as at some point it makes more sense to just cut your own hair. But \$17 is still well below that ceiling, at least for me (I’d rather not think about what I’d end up looking like if I tried to cut my own hair…).

112. Scott Says:

Mateus #108: I confess that I’ve never found that bit by Popper about “refusing to tolerate the intolerant” to be especially useful or insightful, or at least not the way it’s been appropriated by modern SJWs. Like, it’s obvious that even the most tolerant society, if it’s to survive, needs to declare some things beyond the pale of what it will tolerate. The hard part is to decide, which things? I think the basic Enlightenment impulse, of trying to carve out as much freedom as one possibly can for debate, protest, and the airing of views (even views considered offensive or noxious), and drawing the line of prohibition tightly (e.g., around violence or imminent threats of violence), is an excellent one.

I’m not a fan of laws against “hate speech,” which of course is not a legal concept that exists in the US. I concede that, if there were any such laws that were ever morally or pragmatically justified in the history of the world, then surely they’d be the laws against pro-Nazi advocacy in countries that had only recently liberated themselves from Nazism. In our time, however, the following have all, I believe, been earnestly put forward as “hate speech” that’s morally tantamount to Nazism and that should be criminalized: advice for men on how to pick up women in bars; mistaken use of the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender person; academic discussion of the genetics of intelligence.

Is this really the path you want society to go down? At a high enough dose, the chemotherapy can easily become worse than the cancer (and that analogy doesn’t even account for the populist backlash against restrictions or attempted restrictions on speech, the unearned martyr’s victory it gives to those desperate to be “silenced”).

113. jonathan Says:

Regarding the “ethics of having children” question — while I understand peoples’ reluctance to say, “Well sure, maybe some people should have fewer kids, but the world could use more people like *me*”, I don’t perceive any comparable stigma against saying this about *somebody else*. So: Scott, I can unequivocally say that I prefer to live in a world with more of your descendants in it (and, indeed, in a world where people like you have many descendants). And I would say the same about the vast majority of readers of this blog.

As an aside, if you believe, as I do, that human life is very intrinsically valuable, then I think there’s a collective moral obligation to have many children. Of course, this obligation varies on the individual level, and comes along with an obligation to help create a future worth living for our descendants, not to mention our future selves. But the intrinsic value of human life figures prominently in my personal moral calculus on this question.

114. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #97: I think your moral compass needs some repairs. If there are people marching on the streets preaching genocide not only it is morally correct to beat them up, but in fact there is a moral duty to stop them by any means possible.

Ah, but does beating them up stop them? It’s the stopping that’s important, and depending on the situation beating them up can help them.

It sounds like in the situation you described — where they were holding marches, effectively saying “Haha, look how powerful and organized and threatening we are!” — a violent response did indeed help. But I don’t see that applying to, say, the modern-day neo-Nazis here in America, who instead are taking a tack of “Look how we are silenced and how unfairly we are treated!” In such cases beating them up plays right into their narrative.

To be honest, it seems to me that many of those advocating Nazi-punching are doing so less out of an actual consideration of effective tactics and more out of a sheer enthusiasm for violence. (Not accusing you of this, of course.) Otherwise we’d see more advocacy of other potentially effective tactics. Consider pieing Nazis, or glitterbombing Nazis, instead of beating them up. Yes, it’s possible for them to play such a situation to their advantage if they keep their cool — but when are neo-Nazis ever known for doing that? The most likely result is either A. they look ridiculous, or better yet, B. they totally flip out over it and complain about how unfair it is that they’ve been pied, complain that pieing them is silencing them don’t you know, and make themselves and their “Look how we’re being silenced!” narrative look completely ridiculous.

(Remember what sort of person joins neo-Nazi movements. They’re probably looking to get into fights in the first place; they want to look badass. You don’t look badass with pie on your face, and you especially don’t look badass when your spokesperson whines about it.)

Again, once things have gotten to the point where they’re asserting power and trying to intimidate people — rather than begging for attention like the neo-Nazis we get in the US these days — it’s a different story. Until then, such responses as A. counter-demonstrations with vastly superior numbers; B. pie and glitter and similar; and C. simply ignoring them when they’re not actively trying to put together a rally or something, all seem much better responses than violence.

(Also what Scott said, but let’s not forget this.)

115. Mateus Araújo Says:

Scott #112: Easy: hate speech should be forbidden, as well as political parties that advocate against basic democratic values.

And you are again committing a slippery slope falacy: the German Volksverhetzung law has existed for decades without slipping. As far as I know there is no country that forbids the bullshit you mention, nor forbidding it has even be considered in Parliament.

I think you have been interacting with SJWs too much, and taking their notion of ethics as the norm. But this is a bit like learning physics from Bell deniers.

116. Jr Says:

I don’t think hate speech laws are ever enforced evenhandedly. Certainly they are not in Europe where there are noticeably few prosecutions of islamists compared to “Islamophobes”. Eugene Volokh has written well on what he calls censorship envy, how knowing that others are allowed to silence their critics using hate speech laws leads to calls for more hate speech laws.

117. Mateus Araújo Says:

Jr #116: Care to cite an specific example of an “Islamophobe” that has been prosecuted but you think that shouldn’t have, and an Islamist that should have but hasn’t?

To the point, Islamism is a political ideology that advocates against basic democratic values, and as such Islamist political parties are forbidden in Germany and Austria. Historically these laws were used to ban communist and nazi parties in these countries.

A few years ago, there were some Salafists distributing pamphlet in the streets of Vienna (the Mariahilfestraße, to be specific). They were barred under the hate speech laws.

118. Sniffnoy Says:

Mateus #115:

I think you have been interacting with SJWs too much, and taking their notion of ethics as the norm. But this is a bit like learning physics from Bell deniers.

Censoriousness is not primarily an SJW thing but rather primarily a low-intelligence/low-education (these are hard to disentangle) thing. Unfortunately that’s a lot of the population. No political side has any sort of monopoly on “The other people are saying bad things and must be shut up!”; it’s all over the place if you peek outside the walled garden.

And as for Europe, I’d consdier this some serious slippage…

119. Sniffnoy Says:

Mateus #115: Oops, forgot to include this — that said I have also contemplated the idea of “free speech but only for those who endorse free speech”. That is maybe not the worst? Judging it seems to raise the same potential problems as all of these, though, so I’d be wary. I’d be substantially more wary of expanding it to “basic democratic values” more generally.

120. Mateus Araújo Says:

Sniffnoy #118: I’m not talking about Europe, I’m talking about Germany specifically. Poland has a far-right government and is descending quickly into dictatorship. This is not slippage, it is an authoritarian regime exercising censorship.

As for your comment #119, it doesn’t work, as it would only take one to claim to defend free speech in order to be able to engage in hate speech. In fact, this discourse is now all the rage among the European far-right, the Austrian FPÖ (founded by literal Nazis) is very keen on “freedom of speech”.

121. Sniffnoy Says:

Mateus #120:

I’m not talking about Europe, I’m talking about Germany specifically. Poland has a far-right government and is descending quickly into dictatorship. This is not slippage, it is an authoritarian regime exercising censorship.

I don’t understand how that fails to constitute slippage. A big point of the first amendment, and the US constitution more generally, is to limit the harm that someone bad can do should they get into power. Yes of course if you keep electing good virtuous people with the right ideas things will be OK. The question is what happens when that’s no longer the case. If you’re effectively saying that Germany is safe from more widespread censorship only because it has thus far failed to elect government that wants such a thing, that’s not much of a reassurance.

As for your comment #119, it doesn’t work, as it would only take one to claim to defend free speech in order to be able to engage in hate speech. In fact, this discourse is now all the rage among the European far-right, the Austrian FPÖ (founded by literal Nazis) is very keen on “freedom of speech”.

But my goal here isn’t the stopping of hate speech, but rather the stopping of those that want to cut the feedback loop.

Note that neo-Nazis are not actually very keen on freedom of speech. They just claim to be as a tactic because they’re currently a tiny group who people tend to want to censor; but they certainly do want to censor everyone else. And you can see this in that they don’t go around demanding freedom of speech for everyone; they only care about it when it’s them that’s being silenced.

But this is part of the problem with my proposal, isn’t it? 🙂 The question of what counts. To my mind, crying “free speech” when you’re silenced simply doesn’t count as endorsing freedom of speech; endorsing freedom of speech means endorsing it for everyone, means encouraging people to contradict you. Better, probably, to sweep such questions aside and say free speech for everyone…

122. Mateus Araújo Says:

Sniffnoy #121: Sorry if I wasn’t clear, I meant to say exactly that: the far-right is not actually in favour of free speech, they just want to be allowed to spread their hatred. To be specific: the Austrian FPÖ always claims to favour “free speech” so that they can freely engage in antisemitism, islamophobia, and openly wear Nazi symbols. But they always denounce the media that criticises them as “Lügenpresse”, or as it nowadays in the fashion, “fake news”. They also routinely intimidate individual journalists, and now that they are in power are threatening to cut funding to the state broadcasters if it “misbehaves”.

I think the problem with your proposal is deciding between who is actually in favour of free speech and who only claims this. It’s a can of worms. The law should just be the same for everyone: hate speech is forbidden, even if it comes from the “good guys”.

About the Polish example, the problem is that Poland doesn’t have a democratic tradition. It went from foreign occupation to autocratic regime to foreign occupation, with a brief democratic experiment at the end of the Soviet Union. Claiming that Poland’s law constitutes slippage is kind of claiming that censorship laws in Iran or Venezuela constitute slippage.

And it is in any case not the kind of slippage that Scott was worried about: that with the intention of banning hate speech we would end up banning politically incorrect but harmless or even useful speech.

I don’t understand how that fails to constitute slippage. A big point of the first amendment, and the US constitution more generally, is to limit the harm that someone bad can do should they get into power. Yes of course if you keep electing good virtuous people with the right ideas things will be OK. The question is what happens when that’s no longer the case. If you’re effectively saying that Germany is safe from more widespread censorship only because it has thus far failed to elect government that wants such a thing, that’s not much of a reassurance.

Now you’re going insane. When did a constitution ever help against fascists? Over and over again around the world when democracies were replaced by autocratic regimes the constitution was simply ignored. A piece of paper can’t save you. You just don’t elect fascists in the first place, that’s how you keep your democracy.

What I was saying with the German example is that one can easily ban hate speech without slipping into banning speech that should be protected.

123. Michael Says:

@Mateus#112- the problem is that German law was often applied inconsistently. The German Communist party was banned in 1956 but its successor wasn’t banned in 1968, for example.
Regarding #108, there’s a big difference between a law forbidding hate speech and vigilantes attacking anyone they think is preaching hate speech. The courts have centuries of precedent to guide them, regulations, etc. Vigilantes just do whatever they feel like. Would you support vigilantes beating anyone accused of rape or murder?
Furthermore, I think there’s a left-wing bias to your argument. Would you have supported vigilantes beating up supporters of Stalin and Mao in the late 1940s and early 1950s?
Regarding #115, read this criticism of Britain’s hate speech law:
Finally, you seem to have expected Scott to agree Nazis should be banned because he’s Jewish. But that means ignoring OTHER experiences Scott’s had. He was a child afraid of becoming a sexual predator and nobody told him there were thousands of other children like him because people didn’t want to talk about these things. And it surprises you that he has issues with taboos on speech?

124. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

My two cents on the issue of hate speech. I think that the way the Europeans go about this issue is wrong. At the same time, I am generally in agreement with the consistent defense of free speech by the US Supreme Court irrespective of its ideological composition over the centuries. One’s person’s hate speech is another person’s core belief system, no matter how repugnant it might seem to most people.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the US Supreme Court has generally held that government cannot ban most forms of expression, with a very wide definition of what “expression” is. For example, in the US it is OK to protest the funerals of fallen soldiers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snyder_v._Phelps . I personally would never do such a thing, but criminalizing it (or as in the Snyder v Phelps case, creating the basis for civil liability) would get us into very dangerous territory with those who are professional victims (I am talking about SJWs). The exceptions to this principle are very narrow and have to do whether the speech in question might cause physical damage to others. For example, the US Supreme Court has held that the first amendment doesn’t protect people who scream “fire” in the middle of a movie with the intent to create an stampede or to call for the murdering of specific individuals, specially if there is clear intent to go ahead with the plans (the defense of the use of violence in the abstract as a political tool is protected though).

The problem in Europe is that people are still brainwashed since they are little kids to worship government and to look for government to solve all of their problems. While progressives in the United States are closer to the European view than the average American, even most of them -the progressives- would take issue with some of the things that are common place in Europe like for example the difference in libel law between the United States and the UK https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/03/21/394273902/on-libel-and-the-law-u-s-and-u-k-go-separate-ways . I would imagine these progressives wouldn’t like to live under a British-like libel law regime in the age of Trump, for example.

125. A Commenter Says:

Re: utilitarianism, “obligation”, and total preorders

Yes, utilitarianism allows us to just pick a total preorder on world states, which constitutes our morality. The problem is that this is true of literally every moral system. Even a binary division into right and wrong is a total preorder, after all.

The problem lies in determining the specific preorder, of course. This “moral AMA”, and indeed all moral statements or dilemmas, consist of data points.

Some of the world states we might be interested in comparing would be one where wealthy people donate considerably to charity, one in which they don’t but are harangued into feeling guilty, and one in which they don’t and don’t feel any guilt. Utilitarian or not, it seems like the heuristic of “obligation” is still useful.

126. anonymous Says:

1. Why are anonymously communicated “character defenses” among tenured faculty permissible against students who attempt to report misconduct?

2. Regarding, “There are some situations where, after all conventional channels have failed”, what constitutes “all channels” to reasonably address power abuses on the part of tenured faculty?

3. Why is the employment protection of tenured faculty members more important than employment protection of students and other non-tenured people?

127. Mateus Araújo Says:

Michale #123: Yes, the current German communist part, the DKP, is not banned, unlike its predecessor, the KPD. The reasoning was that the danger has passed so it’s not worth prosecuting them. Exactly the same reasoning has been applied to the current Nazi party, the NPD. Both the NPD and the DKP are abysmal failures, electorally speaking. And that’s anyway not about the Volksverhetzung law, but the article 21 of the German constitution.

Regarding #108, that’s exactly the kind of answer I was expecting from Scott: that of course we can’t blame Jewish veterans for beating up Nazis, but we can’t have vigilantes making up their own laws and beating up whoever they want. In the case of preventing genocide, though, I think letting the vigilantes do the dirty work is a risk worth taking. That Scott was conflating a ban on hate speech with a ban on giving advice on how to pick up woman just shows how traumatized he is from his interactions with SJWs and how ignorant he is about hate speech laws.

About the British case: I’m not really familiar with Britain. I live in Germany, so I know what’s going here and have some passing familiarity with its laws. But I read your article anyway. The guy was convicted for “grossly offensive comments” under the Communications Act 2003. This is not a hate speech law, and I never defended criminalising “grossly offensive comments”.

128. Mateus Araújo Says:

TPWG #124: You haven’t pointed out a single problem with the German Volksverhetzung law.

With the sentence “One’s person’s hate speech is another person’s core belief system, no matter how repugnant it might seem to most people.” you seem, however, to be making the mistake of thinking that banning hate speech is banning speech you don’t like. It’s not. It’s a well defined law, is banning inciting hatred against national, ethnic or religious groups.

And the reasoning behind it is quite simple: time and time again we have seen that hate speech leads to lynchings, pogroms, terrorism, and genocide. It’s not funny.

129. Scott Says:

anonymous #126: My position is simple. In any official forum where it’s possible to lodge accusations against someone and hurt their career, reputation, and life, it must also be possible for the accused to defend themselves and to call witnesses. If we’re (understandably) uncomfortable with anonymous defenses, we should also move away from anonymous accusations, and have everything be open and public. No one’s rights are a-priori more important than anyone else’s: indeed, the entire point of a systematized judicial process, whether public or private, should be to try to give equal procedural rights to everyone and let the truth win.

130. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

Mateus Araújo #128

Let me be as clear as I possibly can. I believe that the Germany’s Volksverhetzung law (as described here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volksverhetzung ) and similar laws that exist in other European countries are wrong and would not survive a constitutional challenge in the United States. I say that based on this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Socialist_Party_of_America_v._Village_of_Skokie .

With respect to “time and time again we have seen that hate speech leads to lynchings, pogroms, terrorism, and genocide”, a basic principle underlying US Supreme Court decisions on free speech is that so called “prior restrain” is a form of censorship (more info here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near_v._Minnesota ). In essence, US jurisprudence is such that judges can only act on actual damages not “hypothetical/Minority Report” type of situations. Something I also agree with and one of the reasons I find the whole NSA/Google/Facebook spying coupled with “predictive analytics that try to predict behavior” particularly nefarious . Again, I know that Europeans as a whole feel generally differently about this, but this has been one of the big American/European divides throughout history.

At the risk of simplifying things, somebody told me once that together with its imperfections -such as legalized slavery and racism- American culture grew out of those Europeans -and their descendants- who ran way from the Feudal lord seeking freedom and who settled in the Americas whereas current Europeans are the descendants of those Europeans who were happy putting up with abuses of the feudal lord so long as they had the protection said lord in exchange. In the XXI-st century, governments play the role of feudal lords for most Europeans, but a similar rationale still applies. How each side treats so called “hate speech” is a prime example of this difference in mindset.

131. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

Mateus Araújo #128

And to continue with the discussion. The mantra in the US by those of us who are in favor of free speech has always been that the answer to speech you don’t like is “more speech” not “suppression” of said speech. The issue of preemptively “suppressing” speech is a statist position that is generally accepted as valid in Europe and by some hard left people around here but it is not the majority view among Americans of either political persuasion.

Many years back there was a case that highlighted the difference in approach of European courts vs American courts on this issue https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LICRA_v._Yahoo! . Note that while the US Supreme Court refused to hear Yahoo!’s appeal, and therefore the decision by the Circuit/District courts did not create nationwide precedent, the district court said that the French court ruling violated US free speech protections. The circuit court reversed the district court opinion on standing grounds (ie, that the district court did not have jurisdiction to rule on a foreign matter) but not on the substance of the issue.

I am of the opinion that the right response to hateful speech is indeed more speech. For a variety of reasons. First, criminalizing speech only makes said speech go underground (it doesn’t make it go away). Second, and more importantly, confronting hateful ideas in the open is the best way to nullify them in the hearts of those who are watching and who might not have a strong opinion one way or another. One of the reasons regular Germans could claim “ignorance” when the atrocities committed by the Nazi government came to light was that said government controlled the flow of information to regular German citizens. The extreme Nazi censorship made it very difficult to said citizens to know the extent of the abuses (I would imagine that some version of what was going on reached many of them though).

132. anonymous Says:

Comment #129:

Scott, “In any official forum where it’s possible to lodge accusations against someone and hurt their career, reputation, and life, it must also be possible for the accused to defend themselves and to call witnesses . . .”

Tenured faculty (in my field, almost all men), rarely if ever even perceive that they are hurting the careers, reputations and life of the women they refuse to mentor, refuse to equitably teach, and refuse to equitably interact with. And that doesn’t even get to active gender based harassment, which according to the recent NAS study, is very common in academia.

Least one of these women even mention that they are being treated differently, or are being marginalized, or even harassed, do you think that they get equal time and consideration to talk about what they are experiencing? Is there any empathy for this experience of being marginalized and treated as less than a fully thinking, cognitively capable human being?

In my experience working in EECS for the last thirty years, there is no empathy, no hearing and no consideration for the experience of women in EECS.

Women, least they ask for equal time in the airing of their experiences, are written of as man hating b*ches out to damage the careers of the ever holier than thou tenured faculty member.

Overwhelmingly, women do not report their experiences, and when they do, it is very, very difficult to be heard. The reporting comes at a very high personal cost to women, which usually damages their careers.

So, while I do empathize with people who are fearful of being accused of harassment, and do recognize that there are cases where people are wrongfully accused, statistics do bear out that, for the most part, established male faculty are not suffering for the calling of witnesses or a fair hearing.

Overwhelmingly, male faculty have tended to use their stealth insider networks to defend themselves, and are perfectly happy to try women in absentia.

I do not see the justice in this.

So again, I ask you, Scott:

Why are anonymously communicated “character defenses” among tenured faculty permissible against students who attempt to report misconduct?

Why is the employment protection of tenured faculty members more important than employment protection of students and other non-tenured people?

133. Michael Says:

@Mateus#127- Regarding a “ban on giving advice on how to pick up women”, I think Scott was thinking of Roosh V, who does sound rapey and was banned from the United Kingdom. There’s an article about attempts to criminalize his speech here:
https://reason.com/blog/2016/02/03/pickup-artist-roosh-v-causes-moral-panic

134. Scott Says:

anonymous #132: It’s extremely important that reports of sexual harassment be investigated swiftly, and that anyone who’s found guilty be severely punished as an example to others. There’s not the slightest disagreement there; the only disagreement is about the details of procedure. I can understand the arguments for keeping the whole proceedings confidential. I can also understand the arguments for getting everything out in the open. What I don’t understand is how you can do a half-open, half-closed hybrid, where (e.g.) accusations can be lodged in secret, but then any attempt to defend against the accusations is outed and publicly shamed. In your comment, you’re very explicit that the goal, in your mind, is to tilt the procedure to help one side win and the other lose. That sounds to me like a prescription for Soviet-style justice: “the proletariat has gotten the short end of the stick for most of human history, so any time a proletarian takes a kulak to trial, why even suffer the kulak to mount a defense?” More than that, it’s a prescription that could easily be turned against your favored side, depending on the vicissitudes of power—and history suggests that it would. Please think carefully about whether you want this!

If, as your comments strongly suggest, there’s nothing whatsoever that you’d count as “answering your questions” other than agreeing with you, then I regret that I don’t have the energy to continue the conversation.

Everyone: I’m closing down the thread soon, so get in any final comments now. Thanks to everyone for participating!

135. Sniffnoy Says:

Well, I don’t have time to properly write the replies I wanted, so here’s some abbreviated replies, sorry for having to omit stuff:

Mateus #128: I’d be careful with your terminology here. The phrase “hate speech” gets used in a lot of ways and I don’t think you can generally assume that if you use it meaning the particular things banned in German law that people will know you mean that rather than something more expansive. “Grossly offensive comments” is indeed frequently referred to as “hate speech”.

Mateus #122: This really merits a much better response, because you do have a good point here, but I would like to point out that we here in the US did, you know, just elect a censorious totalitarian asshole and our constitution seems to be doing a fairly good job holding him at bay so far. The Republican party may not be properly “fascists” in your sense but it is good to be robust against lesser forms of authoritarianism, you know? Of course it is still possible this whole episode may end with the constitution effectively going down the toilet (to a much greater degree than it is already, that is 😛 ), but it’s not going to happen without some sort of confrontation first.

Actually, now that I think about it some more, I’m a bit confused about your assertion — if the fascists are going to shred the constitution anyway, why bother winning an election first? Like, they care enough about the appearance of rule of law to do one but not the other?

Or to put it another way, if you want to ignore the constitution, you’re going to have to deal with the courts. Like, if you just keep ignoring it, eventually the judges are going to send people to arrest you for contempt of court when you ignore their rulings against you. You can prevent that through violence, I guess, but if you’re willing to intimidate judges through violence, why did you wait until winning an election to do so?

I’m wondering to what extent this is a problem of parliamentary governments that American division of powers (which comes from, you know, the constitution) defends against. But even those have an independent judiciary, don’t they? I’m confused.

The problem with gatekeepers #39: I think this comment is conflating several distinct issues. In particular, you don’t distinguish between preparation aimed at “gaming” the SAT and similar tests, and preparation that actually makes one a better thinker.

136. Mateus Araújo Says:

TPWG #130: I don’t understand your argument. Are you saying that the problem with the German law is that it is incompatible with the constitution of the US? How could that possible be relevant? With problem I mean things like slippery slopes and unintended consequences, like other people in this thread have been bringing up.

About “prior restraint”, the German law does not provide for censorhip. It doesn’t bar the publication of anything. It punishes the author after publication if a court decides that it was hate speech.

You have a misconception about the history of Germany. The problem with hate speech in the 30s is not that it was underground. On the contrary, the government was proudly spreading anti-semitic propaganda everywhere. And the Kristallnacht was no secret; even those that didn’t see it happening with their own eyes read about it in all newspapers.

To prevent it from happening again is one of the main reasons the current Volksverhetzung law was introduced in the 50s.