Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meaning in Space: Mars as Distraction

From io9, an excerpt from Robert Zubrin's book The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must:
There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity's career as a spacefaring species, with no limits to its resources or aspirations, as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond.
The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans [sic] to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it.

Is that really the only counterargument?

I will treat Zubrin's reasons here individually.

1. [A mission to Mars] is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe.

Why do we want to know the secret of life? Mostly, because we want to know our own origins. Why do we want to know our origins? I submit that it is because we suspect they will give us a clue to our purpose.

However, study of life origins to date have not given us any clue as to what our purpose might be. If anything, it has shown us that we have no purpose.

I would find it aesthetically beautiful to know how life emerged, how common it is, whether there are different chemical possibilities for life than ours. But my experience of aesthetic beauty does not make up for the very real suffering of others, and it is criminally negligent for me to use aesthetic beauty to distract myself from their very real suffering. Anaesthetic beauty, that.

2. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering

As with the moon race, this is probably true. But to what purpose? Is attracting more young people into science and engineering a good thing? The life of a scientist or engineer is frequently dull and unrewarding, not at all that promised by the grand adventure of a Mars mission. I could not comfortably usher teenagers into the kind of life lived by my friends who are actual aerospace engineers.

3. ...and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers.

I thought we all agreed, after Vonnegut, that "pioneer" was a swear now, like "conquistador" and "rapist." Even if there's no one out there to be, um, "pioneered," geographical expansion is the most boring, primitive sort of exploration.

Also, Zubrin's appeal to in-group loyalty ("nation") must fall flat for anyone with a more global sense of empathy.

4. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world

In other words, a Mars mission will let us think about nice science-fiction fantasies, instead of the depressing reality of hunger and cancer and environmental destruction.

As to the emotional connotations of "pioneer" and "frontier," see my post on Political Metonymy.

5. ...a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity's career as a spacefaring species, with no limits to its resources or aspirations, as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond.

Getting more resources and more space does not solve any of the interesting problems. We want geographical expansion for monkey reasons, not person reasons. Like longevity (see: The ____ Must Go On), expansion in physical space is one of those primitive goals that need not infect our thinking any longer, as we now know it cannot lead us to what we really care about.

Distraction is what we mean by finding meaning in our search for meaning, the canard of Camus.

The only reason to go to Mars is that we are lonely and bored. But if there is anything to be learned from the whole of human history, it is that nothing relieves loneliness or boredom. Adventure can, at best, distract us from it for a while, while we pass on our loneliness and boredom down into the future, and all around the galaxy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

College as Suicide Gamble

On the subject of the dubious value of a college degree, Richard Posner writes:
...the more interesting question is whether Krugman is right to be pessimistic about the future returns to a college education. The market disagrees. If the market agreed with him, college enrollments would be plummeting because college is expensive, not only in tuition but also in opportunity costs—the income forgone by being in school. College enrollments continue to increase relative to population, and, more important from a market perspective, more and more high-school students express a desire to go to college, even though if Krugman is right their college education will not produce lifetime earnings increments sufficient to offset the cost of tuition and the cost of their forgone earnings during their college years. [Emphasis mine.]

Posner admits that the market could be wrong:

A high school student, and his parents, are hardly in a good position to predict the structure of the labor market in ten or twenty years. Most people base most of their expectations for the future on simple extrapolation from the recent past. Often that’s the best one can do in the presence of profound uncertainty.

Poor information and uncertainty may be part of it, but I think the Becker-Posner model of effective suicidality (truncated utility function) could apply here. It is not necessarily that young people predict that a college degree is a good investment; it is that life without a college degree, for many middle-class people, would be an unimaginable humiliation, on the level of social death. We bet on education to establish social belonging, and we are not sensitive to the serious bad consequences entailed by failure, because not taking the risk leaves us in a position worse than death. It's simply unthinkable.

In fact, the increasing prevalence of college education itself makes college ever more "required" for one's social belonging and self-respect. In effect, it raises Id (reduces utility for a given income) across the population (even for people whose utility functions are not truncated, which leads to misery at higher levels of income). Society as a whole is on a hedonic treadmill.

When I was a freshman at MIT, Noam Chomsky told a small group of us that college was where society was storing us to hide the fact that there wasn't enough meaningful work to go around.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us About the Value of Life

I request feedback on this. Please criticize and distribute.

The probability of your coming into existence was bogglingly small.

The ejaculation that led to your conception contained hundreds of millions of unique spermatozoa. You are the one in half a billion that made it to fertilization. And it was that particular ejaculation that resulted in conception – as opposed to the thousands of ejaculations your father experienced before and after your conception. Your parents met (literally or figuratively, if you’re the product of a sperm donor) and conceived you, instead of conceiving with other potential mates, or not conceiving at all. And this startling history applies to your parents as well – your grandparents – your great-grandparents – and on back to the Australopithecines and beyond – each one the winning sperm of hundreds of millions, the result of a particular ejaculation, a particular union, that could have not happened as easily as your nonexistent brothers and sisters failed to happen.

Are you lucky to be alive?

Most people seem to experience a mixture of terror and delight when contemplating their own unlikeliness in this way – terror at the prospect of never having come into existence, and delight in one’s specialness, one’s victory over the other potential beings. One might even feel pity for those who never got to exist.
The conventional wisdom is that we are all very lucky to be alive – that life is a benefit, a precious gift that has been given to us. This is an important belief. It is a belief that is necessary to justify creating a child – if the child is benefited by being born, then procreation, at least toward him, is morally innocent. Perhaps it is even morally required!

Of course, life isn’t so great for everyone. The world is so bad, in fact, that its badness is the most conclusive argument against the existence of a loving, all-powerful deity. But when antinatalists point out the serious harms that come to all living beings, such as hunger, loneliness, jealousy, pain, illness, fear, and death, we are often told that we are giving an incomplete picture of reality. Reproduction advocates, realizing that the moral innocence of reproduction rests on life having a positive value, advise us to look on the bright side. We are frequently invited to consider the good things about life, the sunsets and puppies and children’s smiles that allegedly blot out the bad and give life its high net positive value. And that’s the folks who are willing to engage the question at all: too often, the question of the value of life is not addressed because it is supposedly just so obvious that life is worth getting. (This is the position taken by Thomas Nagel and Bryan Caplan, among others.)

So is life a precious gift, or is it a costly burden? Are we impossibly lucky to be alive – or impossibly unlucky?

Let’s not argue the point. We can do better: we can measure.

Truncated Utility Functions and the Value of Life

“Utility” is an economic concept similar to happiness, but broader. It is the ultimate emotional evaluation of whether things are good or bad. The concept of utility does not rest on a purely hedonistic model of life; economics recognizes that utility may be gotten from a variety of transactions and experiences, springing from motives self-interested, altruistic, and everything in between.

Broadly speaking, utility is a function of “income” – again, very broadly defined. Income in this sense need not be monetary income in dollars, as from a job or investments, but may include items that are not even available directly on any market, such as affection from other humans and self-respect. I will address below the question of what real human utility functions are actually a function of. (I reserve the right to switch willy-nilly and with no warning between speaking of utility functions that are functions of monetary income and those that are functions of other things, depending upon context to clarify which I mean.)

As Gary Becker and Richard Posner note in the unpublished paper that is one of the primary subjects of this essay (“Suicide: An Economic Approach”), in studying how utility responds to changes in income, economists have primarily focused on middle-class individuals – people who own houses, earn money from investments, and buy fire, health, and automobile insurance. This has led to the conclusions of economics occasionally not being true observations of general human nature, as they often purport to be, but rather observations of middle-class human nature.

One of these suspect observations is that utility functions are concave. This is a typical representation of a concave utility function:

What this means is that a person gets a lot of utility from the first dollar he gets – even the first thousand or ten thousand dollars – but he doesn’t get nearly as much utility from the 40,000th dollar, and even less from the millionth dollar. (Modern American utility functions of income apparently top out at around $75,000 per year.) What this means is that, dollar for dollar, gains are less valuable to the average suburbanite than losses are painful. He would rather pay $1000 a year in car insurance (say) than take a one-in-ten chance at a $10,000 loss during that year in an accident. This phenomenon – that makes the insurance industry viable and makes utility functions concave – is called risk aversion.

Many people behave in ways that are not consistent with risk aversion. They make “bad” bets – bets where the expected payoff (probability of success times magnitude of win) is less than the cost of the bet. They take risks seemingly without regard for possible bad consequences. They appear focused on the present and immediate future, at the expense of the far future (they are “extreme future discounters”). Miserable people and poor people are particularly likely to fit these criteria.

Why are middle-class folks risk averse, but not miserable folks or poor folks?

Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier, in their paper “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State,” present a possible solution: irrationality and akrasia. The bad choices made by poor people are a result of their inability to forecast the future effects of their actions, combined with laziness. Welfare and other social programs, rather than making the poor better off, paradoxically make them worse off (say Caplan and Beaulier) because their irrational, akratic minds cannot handle the extra choices. (Note: this is my characterization of Beaulier and Caplan's conclusion; they use euphemistic terms at all times.)

Gary Becker and Richard Posner have a different solution: miserable and poor people don’t “properly” consider the future, because their lives are so painful that they are effectively suicidal. Poor people look around and rationally weigh the costs and benefits of different courses of action, but choose to gamble on long shots precisely because their current situations are not worth living in. They would just as soon die as remain in their current situations, and so gamble what little they have on the hope of a meaningful life.

Don’t just think gangs and lotteries and crime and crack. Think about people pursuing acting or singing careers, or going to law school or business school, or marrying in haste, or even, perhaps, having children. Such people bet everything – including their futures – on winning a particular gamble, even if it’s not a fair gamble and the likelihood of payoff doesn’t make up for the losses necessarily incurred pursuing the gamble.

The utility function pictured above has a lot of space beneath it and above the x axis, even at the origin. This reflects a judgment that even at zero income, a person takes great value from being alive.

This may or may not fit the facts.

The actual points at which actual human utility functions intersect the x axis may be far to the right of the y axis, as with this utility function for a person who only begins to get positive utility at income Id. For all incomes below Id, the person experiences negative utility – that is, he suffers.

This utility function is a model for the phenomenon that many people (myself included) do not seem to derive much utility at all from incomes (broadly conceived) much greater than zero.

Many people are so miserable that they do not want to enter the future at all. Their whole future projected life is worthless to them. In technical terms, their utility over all future time intervals, appropriately discounted, is less than zero. Also, their current utility (present circumstance) is zero or negative (otherwise they'd stick around a bit longer to pick up extra utility).

Suicide is one option for such people. But there are two other options, according to Becker & Posner (terminology is mine):
  • Take what you have and “bet” it on a chance at something that would make life worth living. If it fails, you can always kill yourself. (Gamble)
  • Since there is an element of uncertainty to the future, take what you have and use it to make the present livable so you can postpone suicide. Something to make life worth living might be just around the corner. If not, you can always kill yourself. (Palliate & Wait)

The utility function above for inefficient utility producers (like myself), where the utility function dips below the x axis, means that the person modeled must fear losing income below this point, because having income below Id means he will suffer.

But a would-be suicide need not suffer. He has an ace up his sleeve: all suffering is the same as death to him, for he can use death to escape any suffering. His utility function is effectively truncated. It looks like this:

Instead of dipping below the x axis, his utility function continues along the x axis all the way to the y axis (and beyond, if you allow for negative income). Now there is a portion of the utility function that is convex – the signature of risk preference, the opposite of risk aversion described above.

Any income below the critical level Id is worth nothing to the effectively suicidal person. This means that it will not make sense for him to expend any effort in securing income below this level. Like a depressed person who has lost the sense of the value of things, he is not motivated to get up in the morning, to work hard, to be responsible, if all it means is income below Id. It's the same as death to him.

How can we tell who is effectively suicidal? Nonsuicidal people still often rationally accept gambles, even gambles with a risk of death. The main way to tell the difference between effectively suicidal people (with a truncated utility function, as above) and nonsuicidal people is that suicidal people are insensitive to the potential for great losses, and are only motivated by the possibility of a big win; effectively suicidal people accept actuarially unfair gambles which do not properly compensate them for risk of loss (including risk of death). Nonsuicidal people demand to be compensated for risks of loss, including risk of death.

To the extent that people display risk preference and extreme future discounting of losses but not large gains – to the extent that they are willing to accept unfair gambles with a high probability of loss (Gamble) or improve their short-term well-being at potentially great cost to their future selves (Palliate & Wait) – the hypothesis of effective suicidality must be considered. Only by considering and rejecting this hypothesis, based on data and/or reasons, could we meaningfully attribute these features to departures from the rational actor model, as Beaulier and Caplan do prematurely.

Beaulier and Caplan essentially argue against “welfare floors” because by cushioning the bad consequences of a gamble, they make antisocial gambles more attractive. But they ignore that there is a built-in welfare floor in any human society, welfare state or not: suicide.

It is inconsistent to maintain that, on the one hand, a welfare floor is undesirable because negative utilities are necessary as motivators for action, and on the other hand, that utility is rarely negative and hence procreation is morally innocent.

This model does not, however, predict mass suicides at any point, and the fact that suicide remains rare does not mean that many people do not have effectively suicidal, truncated utility functions. All this theory claims is that people act as if they don’t value their lives. Unsuccessful gambles may or may not be followed up with actual suicide; the costs of suicide are often greater than a pre-suicidal person realized when contemplating life paths, and are artificially elevated by the de facto suicide prohibition. Also, cheap palliation is widely available, allowing many would-be suicides (such as myself) to postpone this costly decision.

Policy Implications

The most important policy implication of the “mathematics of misery” I have outlined here – of the fact that many people appear to attach zero value to their lives – is that procreation becomes much more of a suspect enterprise. If people’s behavior reveals that they do not highly value their lives, then it is not “obvious,” as Bryan Caplan would have us believe, that human beings are benefitted by being brought into existence. A life that produces zero utility in the immediate present, and zero or negative utility for the foreseeable future, is hardly the kind of precious gift that would justify procreation, yet from this model it is likely that a substantial portion of the population of the world lives just this kind of life.

Someone whose utility function is negative for all time intervals would have been better off not having been born. Many people are in this situation through no fault of their own. A second policy implication for recognizing this is a move toward greater compassion in providing “palliative care” to people whose present utility and expected future utility are negative and whose only incentive to remain alive is uncertainty. As a society, we are willing to allow “palliative care” for terminally ill persons, but our middle-class model of risk aversion and the value of life prevents us from recognizing the need for palliative care in “healthy” people as well.

Third, there are implications for harm reduction, regardless of one’s position about the value of life. Viewing utility functions (and hence human motivation) in this light, we can see that a suffering person chooses from available gambles and palliation methods. Outlawing a particular type of gamble or palliation method will likely divert demand to other types of gambles or palliation, and hence will not reduce overall levels of harm unless substitution happens to be toward less harmful activities. Recognition of this “demand for risk” should guide policy decisions regarding dangerous activities.

What Real Human Utility Functions Are Functions Of

The utility function does appear to be a function of income – within a country, wealthier people are less miserable. But it is also a function of one’s past incomes – receiving a higher income increases utility in the short run, but in the long run, it sets a new baseline for utility (this is the hedonic treadmill). Utility is also a function of the incomes of near others (that is, a function of within-group status), which is why more direct income-utility correlation is found within-country than between countries.

However, as I have written previously, more than anything, a human utility function is a function of social belonging. That's the ultimate point not only of income, but of intelligence, beauty, and many other material and non-material goods: they may be traded for social belonging. The ability to provide others with what they want is the opposite of burdensomeness, a pillar factor of suicide risk in Thomas Joiner’s model (the other pillars are social belonging as such, and competence in carrying out the act of suicide). We want income because we want to be able to get the attention of others. We want a safe social place, primarily – and, of course, we want a better social place than the one we currently occupy.

The primary good, for humans, is group belonging. There is only so far up or down you can go in a social group, only so much room for status manipulation – otherwise you have to find a whole new social group. Within a group or class, we’d like to go up, but we’d HATE to go down. Each person sees a huge drop-off in utility when considering the loss of his present group belonging, no matter whether his present group is high or low in status relative to greater society. This has very little to do with absolute material welfare.

This is why the guy choosing television and phones over food is making the right choice. Group belonging really is more important than short-term well-being. He is even displaying risk aversion, as is the poor black parent who gives her child a name that strongly signals group belonging at the expense of belonging in other groups or classes.

It’s extremely difficult to join a whole new social group. Everyone faces a utility drop-off, a chasm, at the prospect of losing social belonging – a process sometimes described as social death. People behave as if losing one’s social group and status is worse than death. This is strong evidence that social death really is worse than death.

Poor Baby or Rich Baby: Which Is Worse?

Data about crime, drug use, and other forms of risk preference and palliation seem to indicate that poor people are more likely than rich people to display the kind of truncated, effectively suicidal utility function I have been discussing. This could support the claim that it is more wrong for a poor person to have a child than for a rich person.

However, when we realize that social belonging trumps everything, we see that what really determines the value of life is the opportunity to be party of a social group. Middle class people have different relevant social groups from poor people, and the very wealthy have different social groups altogether. A child born into one of these groups must establish a place for himself; if few places are available, downward mobility (social death) is indicated. Therefore a person born into a very wealthy social group that has few opportunities for belonging may be in a worse position than a person born into poverty but with many opportunities for belonging.

As Becker & Posner note, the nature of the "Gamble" you can buy depends on your present income; higher present incomes buy better gambles, with a higher probability of success. Therefore, wealthier people may succeed in their suicide gambles more often than poor people, so their gambles are more socially invisible than those of the poor - but they are still making them.

However, the social belonging hypothesis that I have been advancing here (that social belonging is the primary determinant of utility) implies that the income at which life becomes worth living, Id, varies with one's existing social situation, hence with initial income. Wealthy effectively-suicidal people start out with more initial income - they have more to gamble with - but they have a higher mark to reach for their gambles to be successful. It is not clear which effect predominates.

See also:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Love, Sex, Babies, and Neural Correlates

A possible solution to the mystery of why postpartum disfigurement has persisted as a trait detrimental to sexual desirability, despite correlating with fertility, is this: once human pair bonding has occurred, visual assessment of attractiveness of one's partner (or other members of a partner's sex) ceases to be an important motivator.

What would really nail this theory home, for me, is if fMRI studies demonstrated some kind of reduction in processing the physical sexual attractiveness of one's partner and others during the postpartum, pair-bonded state.

Analogously, analysis of what we polys term "New Relationship Energy," which mortals call "being in love," indicates that this phenomenon is associated with deactivation of neural areas associated with critical social judgment of others. Once the "decision" to be in love has been made (by your body, not by "you"), the brain ceases evaluation of the love object in social terms. (See, e.g., Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, "The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love." NeuroImage 21 (2004) 1155–1166.)

This is what Héloïse d’Argenteuil is making concrete in what is still the most righteous expression of romantic love I have yet encountered, from her first letter:
God is my witness that if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me for ever it would be sweeter and more honorable to me to be, not his empress, but your whore.

Its elevation above the self-interested social congress of the world is at the heart of the righteousness of romantic love.

I refer to this only by analogy. NRE is not at all the same phenomenon as the postpartum pair-bonded state that I have in mind. The early stage of love, as we polys remind ourselves with our terminology, lasts no longer than a year, maybe two, if you're lucky. (See, e.g., Enzo Emanuele et al, "Raised plasma nerve growth factor levels associated with early-stage romantic love." Psychoneuroendocrinology Vol. 31 Issue 3 (2006) 288-294.) The state of mind that must support monogamous love and continued investment despite postpartum disfigurement occurs after, and lasts much longer.

I don't imagine a woman who has gestated a baby would be eager to see the brain scan of her lover while he looks at her naked body. Nonetheless, it's hard to deny that this is important information for people considering whether to have a baby.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Suicide Prohibition as Regressive Tax

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 80% of Americans think suicide is wrong.

Dear Americans: why is suicide wrong? Presumably, the nature of the "wrongness" of suicide, whatever it is, justifies the de facto suicide prohibition.

I suspect that a large part of that 80% would identify a religious reason for the moral wrongness of suicide (not that I think folks have much introspective access to their true motivations). However, only 51% think abortion is morally wrong, and 23% think divorce is morally wrong, despite strong religious condemnation of both practices.

Even more than religious convictions, I suspect that the perception of suicide as wrong is, at heart, about the suffering of people "left behind" when we kill ourselves. The suffering of those left behind is especially salient. But even if suicide does major harm to those left behind, to our mothers and sisters and best friends and teachers and lovers, this does not justify a suicide prohibition. A prohibition enacted for such a purpose is identical, economically, to a regressive tax.

Regressive taxation is when poor people pay a higher share of their income in taxes than rich people do. It characterizes our current economic system in the United States, but it is generally regarded as undesirable to take from the poor and give to the rich.

A person who genuinely wishes to commit suicide has, by her own measure (the only one that counts), negative expected future utility. She expects to suffer in the future more than any future benefits are worth. The suicide prohibition prevents her from improving her position (from negative expected utility to zero expected utility). It does so for the benefit of those who do not wish to commit suicide - those with positive expected future utility.

The suicide prohibition, when justified on the basis of harm to others, punishes the least well off for the benefit of those much more well off.

It takes choices from the poor to give pleasure to the rich - without consent and without compensating the poor in any way.

Another word for that is exploitation.

Waiting for Happiness

On Fucked-ness

Human welfare is not merely a function of income (broadly defined as you like), but also of one's past income, and of the incomes of others.

The hedonic treadmill and status competition are important characteristics that enable organisms to successfully compete. They also ensure that we will never be able to actually achieve the happiness we imagine. Being satisfied with what you have, in terms of income and social position, is a biological suicide proposition.

We may not be willing to step into the Experience Machine. But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that this is because there are real things in the world (intellectual or otherwise) that we value more than pleasure. It is because many of us lack introspective access to the fact that all we value is pleasure. We imagine there is a difference between real experience and pretend experience, between made-up stories and the "real" story of our lives we tell ourselves. To satisfy our need for a sense of meaningful existence, we must paradoxically imagine realness. Unfortunately, "realness" is often measured in terms of one's effect upon the experiences of others, or upon the material substrates of that experience, inside and outside human bodies. Experience, however, remains all there really is.

We are evolution's nightmare machines. And there are billions of us, imposing our nightmares on each other and on the rest of the natural world, in the service of imagined future happiness that will never come.

Luckily for our genes, and at great cost to ourselves, we have evolved self-deceptive biases so that we fail to realize this and don't kill ourselves.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The (Limited, Obsolete) Function of Cultural Conservatism

Unconscious Design

When was the hand axe invented?

Answer: it wasn't.

Although the hand axe appeared in the Lower Paleolithic, it would be presuming too much to say that it was invented. The same could be said for most of the innovations that have characterized human culture for thousands of years: music, language, baby talk, death rituals, mealtimes, proper names, rhythm, fire, and gossip did not originate from the creativity of any individual. Like the biological adaptation of morning sickness, human cultural adaptations arose gradually, necessarily in coevolution with our genetics.

It worked this way - slowly - because that's what works, in the long run. The shock of a genuine innovation would very likely be more than a fragile early human system could bear. We are all aware that most genetic mutations are either neutral or harmful; the fraction of genetic innovations that are beneficial is vanishingly small. Organisms have developed the conservative process of DNA repair to protect against these likely-harmful shocks to the system. Organisms arise naturally, without conscious invention, and processes exist to prevent innovations (mutations) from harming functioning organisms. In human culture, from the perspective of the individual, things are just done a certain way, and conservative cultural processes exist to prevent cultural innovation from harming a functioning group. The only time a limited cultural change may be welcome is when the existing system ceases to function; otherwise, innovation is (mostly correctly) regarded as dangerous.

Christopher Alexander, in his Notes on the Synthesis of Form, refers to the process by which simple societies slowly change as unconscious design. The extreme conservatism of simple, pre-industrial societies protects their functioning systems (from social organization to food production to shelter-building) from the danger of innovation.

The Burden of Complexity

Unconscious design and protective conservatism work well - until the burden of complexity overwhelms these simple mechanisms. Unconscious design processes (like biological evolution) cannot keep up with change beyond a certain level of complexity. (That's why massive extinctions frequently follow major environmental change.)

Alexander asks us to visualize, as a stand-in for a given human system,[1] a ten-by-ten (say) panel of light-emitting diodes, connected to one another in various ways. When a diode is "on," this symbolizes a bad fit - analogous to discomfort, pain, human misery, poor functioning, etc. When a light is "off," this symbolizes good fit (the absence of a problem). We want all the lights to be off - then we will have solved the design problem.

The probability of finding a solution to the problem is related to the density of interconnection between the diodes (the complexity of the system).

In real-life systems, changing one thing can change a lot of other things, too. Increasing the capacity of a teakettle may also increase its weight and cost, for instance. This is the essentially conservative message of all those fairy stories about making wishes.

Analogously, diodes in Christopher Alexander's imaginary diode box may be connected to each other such that turning one diode on or off turns one or more other diodes on or off. If only a few diodes are connected to each other, we have a pretty good shot at solving the problem just by dumb luck - turn off lights at random and see what happens, and very likely a solution will emerge.

However, when the diodes become sufficiently entangled, it becomes impossible to blindly tinker our way to a solution. If every diode is connected to every other diode, for instance, achieving a solution in this way is impossible.

Systems with dense, complex interaction of sub-parts may, from time to time, "hit on" a solution that functions for a while. But this is not stable. Any change in the environment that destroys this lucky "fit" will not be able to be remedied by a simple change in the system, because any change to one part will affect other parts, likely inflicting damage.

The more complex (interconnected) the system, the more incapable it is of successfully responding to environmental change.

Simple systems are stable, even given environmental change. Complex systems aren't stable in a changing environment. Beyond a given level of complexity, conservatism is a losing strategy.

Toward Conscious Design: Big Independent Parts

"Keep things as they are if they work, tinker and hope if they break" does not work to fix big, complex problems arising from a change in environment. We must instead approach big, complex design problems consciously.

Alexander's mathematical approach to complex design problems is to analyze the interconnections between the parts of the problem (the diodes, above), with the goal of identifying big independent parts. If we can identify a part of a design problem that doesn't interact much with the other parts of the problem, we can solve that, and then move on to the next piece.

One major problem with this method is that our language does not necessarily correspond to the "big independent parts" that are so important to identify if we are to have any hope of solving big design problems. It is highly unlikely that a word happens to correspond to a big independent part of the design problem - especially since societies complex enough to require conscious design are much, much newer than language.

How Conservatism Ensures Misfit

There are two ways in which cultural conservatism ensures a bad fit between design and environment. First, conservatism functions in simple societies to preserve a good fit; in order for a conservative process to be useful, good fit must already be present. The knowledge of this causes culturally conservative humans to insist that there is, in fact, a good fit when in reality, the fit is very bad indeed. Second, conservatism obviously functions to prevent the implementation of innovative solutions to problems. In these ways, conservatism perversely functions to preserve a bad fit.

I do not mean here to draw a line between modern political conservatives and modern political liberals, except perhaps connotatively. To varying degrees, we all have tendencies toward conservatism as part of our cultural and genetic legacy. This is expressed generally in the status quo bias and its near relatives (or perhaps subspecies), the endowment affect (loss aversion), risk aversion, and shame from norm violations.

We do not have a choice as to whether we feel the status quo bias; it is a part of who we are. We can, however, decide whether to instantiate it.

Jonathan Haidt and others have found that modern political liberals and modern political conservatives rely on different "moral foundations" in doing ethics. Conservatives rely more on what Haidt terms "authority/respect," "purity/sanctity," and "ingroup/loyalty" than do liberals; liberals rely more on "harm/care" and "fairness/reciprocity." Both respect for authority and preservation of purity or sacredness are essentially conservative functions in the sense outlined above: they function to blindly preserve the status quo, with no analysis of the goodness of the status quo.

The design problem for large, densely interconnected human systems has no chance of solution if the previously adaptive human tendency to conservatism is allowed to control the design process. Our tendency to conservatism is, rather, a part of the design problem that must be solved.

1. Alexander's example throughout the book is the design of a teakettle, although by the end he's designing simple villages. However, his model is of extremely broad applicability - software designers are at least as gay for Alexander's thinking and methods as are urban design nerds like me. The person who gave me my copy works on the search algorithm at Google.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Functional Definition of Pain

The other day I was passed a dollar bill in commerce. The dollar bill had a prayer in Spanish written on it. It was ostensibly a prayer to St. Jude (San Judas Tadeo), but assured me that if I inscribed the prayer on ten more dollar bills, a lot of money would come my way.

I was delighted by this - a chain letter whose information floats on the empty spaces of currency!

If you have not seen it, one of the Intellectual Wonders of the Internet is Daniel W. VanArsdale's paper "Chain Letter Evolution" (and the associated archive of paper chain letters), which establishes paper chain letters as evolving organisms whose information specifies their prospects for reproduction the way our genes specify our own. Copying chain letters by hand introduces the possibility for error, hence for variation - as with sexual reproduction and mutation in organisms.

Information that causes its environment to preserve and reproduce that information, survives and spreads.

Information on chain letters survives by motivating human beings to preserve and reproduce it.

Information in DNA survives by motivating organisms to preserve and reproduce themselves.

Pain, at its most functional and basic, is an attempt by genetic information to establish a relationship between a circumstance and an action. Pain from fire and pain from loneliness are both ways that information exploits us without regard for our well-being: genes that cause organisms to run from fire, or (in social organisms) seek social belonging, get propagated. Never mind the unlucky soul with third-degree burns covering his body in the ICU.

Viewed in this way, it is easier to see the relationship between pleasure and pain. Pain motivates an organism by causing it to do something different than what it's doing; pleasure motivates an organism by causing it to do more of what it's doing. Pain is something like negative feedback; pleasure is positive feedback. Given the need for moderation in the life cycle of a complex organism in a complex environment, and the inherent limitations of positive feedback, we might expect a priori for pain to dominate.

From "Chain Letter Evolution":
We have described the descent and variation of chain letters, and their differential replication depending on copied features present in the text. These processes assure that chain letters "evolve" - that is, they accumulate inheritable features that increase or sustain propagation. It is this evolution that ultimately explains "how chain letters work," and why they worked even as public attitudes and beliefs changed over generations. This success is even more remarkable considering the universal condemnation of chain letters from both secular and religious authorities, and the lack of any real service they provide to their hosts apart from dealing with the false hopes and empty threats that chain letters themselves created. [Emphasis mine.]

Why do we persist in propagating information that does us no good?

Why do we persist in propagating our own genomes when that information does us no good?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Meaning of Life: Sommerset Maugham and the Persian Rug

If you haven't read Of Human Bondage, you should - this is the money shot out of context.

"Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you."

"You are cryptic," said Philip.

"I am drunk," answered Cronshaw.

[Years pass.]

Thinking of Cronshaw, Philip remembered the Persian rug which he had given him, telling him that it offered an answer to his question upon the meaning of life; and suddenly the answer occurred to him: he chuckled: now that he had it, it was like one of the puzzles which you worry over till you are shown the solution and then cannot imagine how it could ever have escaped you. The answer was obvious. Life had no meaning. On the earth, satellite of a star speeding through space, living things had arisen under the influence of conditions which were part of the planet's history; and as there had been a beginning of life upon it so, under the influence of other conditions, there would be an end: man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment. Philip remembered the story of the Eastern King who, desiring to know the history of man, was brought by a sage five hundred volumes; busy with affairs of state, he bade him go and condense it; in twenty years the sage returned and his history now was in no more than fifty volumes, but the King, too old then to read so many ponderous tomes, bade him go and shorten it once more; twenty years passed again and the sage, old and gray, brought a single book in which was the knowledge the King had sought; but the King lay on his death-bed, and he had no time to read even that; and then the sage gave him the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness. Thoughts came tumbling over one another in Philip's eager fancy, and he took long breaths of joyous satisfaction. He felt inclined to leap and sing. He had not been so happy for months.

"Oh, life," he cried in his heart, "Oh life, where is thy sting?"

For the same uprush of fancy which had shown him with all the force of mathematical demonstration that life had no meaning, brought with it another idea; and that was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern. There was as little need to do this as there was use. It was merely something he did for his own pleasure. Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful; and though it might be no more than an illusion that he had the power of selection, though it might be no more than a fantastic legerdemain in which appearances were interwoven with moonbeams, that did not matter: it seemed, and so to him it was. In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace. Some lives, and Hayward's was among them, the blind indifference of chance cut off while the design was still imperfect; and then the solace was comfortable that it did not matter; other lives, such as Cronshaw's, offered a pattern which was difficult to follow, the point of view had to be shifted and old standards had to be altered before one could understand that such a life was its own justification. Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.

[Philip leaves the art world, goes to medical school, thinks his low-born girlfriend is pregnant, decides to sacrifice his life and marry her, then she finds out she's not pregnant after all]

An extraordinary sensation filled him. He had felt certain that Sally's suspicion was well-founded; it had never occurred to him for an instant that there was a possibility of error. All his plans were suddenly overthrown, and the existence, so elaborately pictured, was no more than a dream which would never be realised. He was free once more. Free! He need give up none of his projects, and life still was in his hands for him to do what he liked with. He felt no exhilaration, but only dismay. His heart sank. The future stretched out before him in desolate emptiness. It was as though he had sailed for many years over a great waste of waters, with peril and privation, and at last had come upon a fair haven, but as he was about to enter, some contrary wind had arisen and drove him out again into the open sea; and because he had let his mind dwell on these soft meads and pleasant woods of the land, the vast deserts of the ocean filled him with anguish. He could not confront again the loneliness and the tempest. Sally looked at him with her clear eyes.

"Aren't you glad?" she asked again. "I thought you'd be as pleased as

He met her gaze haggardly. "I'm not sure," he muttered.

"You are funny. Most men would."

He realised that he had deceived himself; it was no self-sacrifice that had driven him to think of marrying, but the desire for a wife and a home and love; and now that it all seemed to slip through his fingers he was seized with despair. He wanted all that more than anything in the world. What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of South Sea Islands? America was here and now. It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do. He put all that aside now with a gesture of impatience. He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

[Bolded emphasis mine.]

I did not realize for many years that Of Human Bondage is a tragedy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Labia v. Foreskin


18 U.S.C. §116 - Female Genital Mutilation

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

(b) A surgical operation is not a violation of this section if the operation is -

(1) necessary to the health of the person on whom it is performed, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner; or

(2) performed on a person in labor or who has just given birth and is performed for medical purposes connected with that labor or birth by a person licensed in the place it is performed as a medical practitioner, midwife, or person in training to become such a practitioner or midwife.

(c) In applying subsection (b)(1), no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person, or any other person, that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.

Mutilating the genitals of an infant girl is absolutely prohibited, a felony punishable by five years in prison, with no religious exception whatsoever.

Mutilating the genitals of an infant boy is more common than tonsillectomy.

This is despite the fact that many adult women voluntarily choose elective surgery to have their genitals mutilated, while virtually no adult men do.

Really, what the fuck is going on here?

Hume on Suicide

It's not a violation of a duty to God:
It is impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. It is impious says the French superstition, to inoculate for the smallpox, or usurp the business of providence by voluntarily producing distemper and maladies. It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life and thereby rebel against our Creator; and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body, to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them, therefore, equally innocent or equally criminal. [Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine; italics in original.]

Nor to one's neighbors or society:

A man who retires from life does no harm to society: he only ceases to do good, which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? But allowing that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me? [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Nor even to oneself:

That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows that age, sickness, or misfortune, may render life a burden, and make it worse even than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it; and though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured that any one who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

David Hume, "Of Suicide," c. 1755

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Your Possible Future Selves and Their Rights to You Putting Down the Banana Cream Pie

Or, Holy Christ, I founded the goddamn Society for the Protection of Possible Future People

Whose well-being may we ethically sacrifice?

James at Diabasis makes a dangerous, strange, powerful connection regarding the rights of possible future selves.

A while ago, I argued that Adam Ozimek of Modeled Behavior was wrong to consider suicide "murder of a future self" in light of the successive-selves model favored by neuroscience. A future self, I argued, is only a possible future person, with no right to come into existence any more than the 1,526,287th sperm you ejaculated this morning has a right to come into existence together with your sister's ovum.

But all this time, I and others have been arguing in favor of a particular right for possible people: the right not to come into existence.

Connecting the two, James notes that this does seem like evidence of a duty to protect possible future selves from existence by committing suicide at the earliest possible date. (Indeed, I feel annoyance at all my past selves when I suffer.)

If your possible future self has a right for you to put down the fucking banana cream pie and take a walk, for chrissakes (a right, that is, to a certain quality of life) how can it not also have a right to not come into being at all?

Is there a good reason for treating possible future selves distinctly from possible future others? Indeed, I feel morally entitled to sacrifice my future self's well-being, when I wouldn't feel entitled to sacrifice the well-being of proper other people. But since it's my future self, and not "me," that suffers this - am I really any more entitled to make my possible future selves suffer than to, say, make you suffer?

Implicit Theories of Interpersonal Utility Comparison: Procreation and Circumcision

1. Folk Ethics: "If you don't like abortion, don't have one."

Proponents of the idea that "life is a precious gift" (i.e., that life is always worth getting) often cite as evidence the fact (based, presumably, on introspection and a quick, imaginary survey) that most people are glad to be alive. Generalized a bit, the underlying argument can be restated as an accurate proxy is a morally acceptable proxy.

On the other hand, situations where a proxy decision is anything but accurate are often defended as moral, for reasons not related to the accuracy of the proxy "prediction." Often, such arguments contain implicit assumptions about the relative value of utility to one being over another.

One such argument is this:

Although I am obviously pro-abortion, this is a pretty stupid argument. It is an argument about privacy - one that would have no problem with New Abortion, which is obviously a moral horror. It is an argument that, specifically, the utility or disutility of a fetus upon coming into existence is so connected to the actions of the proxy (here, the parent) that the utility of the fetus is not a proper concern of anyone but the proxy. That is, the utility or disutility of the possible person does not matter in the greater scheme of things, and must never be used to influence, in the slightest way, the actions of the proxy. It seems that the implicit account of interpersonal utility valuation is this: the caused owes his being to the cause, such that his utility is only of value - positive or negative - to the cause.

I have recently seen this argument applied to circumcision. In the United States, the genital mutilation of female babies is illegal, but the genital mutilation of male babies is widely practiced. The "accurate proxy is a moral proxy" argument obviously fails here, since despite all the arguments for the benefits of circumcision, the rate of adult males choosing voluntary circumcision is lower than even the suicide rate. I have actually seen the knee-jerk liberal bullshit argument for privacy applied here, however - the idea that "if you don't think circumcision is right, don't circumcise your babies." (I think this is more metonymy than actual argument.)

This is also one of the more easily dealt-with oppositions to the antinatalist position - the idea that, if you think it's wrong to have babies, don't have one - leave the rest of us alone! This implies that the well-being of the baby is of no concern to anyone but the potential parent. It is a very strong position to take about interpersonal utility comparison, but it is the only position consistent with the folk argument from privacy.

2. Classical Economics: "You can't create a negative externality by creating new people."

Another place where an implicit theory of interpersonal utility valuation resides is in the definition and treatment of the "externality" in microeconomics. A "negative externality" is a cost imposed on someone without his consent through a voluntary transaction of others, that these others don't pay for. It's the thing that's not allowed in Pareto efficiency: you can't make somebody worse off without compensating him; that's wrong.

However, it is often asserted in the classical economics tradition (to the understandable consternation of mortals) that it's impossible to create a negative externality on existing people just by making new people. That is because any harm the new people do to the old people (e.g., by raising demand, hence prices, for goods) is compensated by the good the new people do to themselves. This contains a very strong implicit statement about the comparison of interpersonal utility: a possible person's utility is just as important as an already-existing person's utility. This is nearly the opposite of the "if you don't like abortion, don't have one" claim, where a possible person's utility is valued at nothing compared to the existing person's utility. Here, they are valued strictly equally.

Obviously, they can't both be true.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Political Metonymy

Metonymy is the least interesting way our minds work.

Metaphor is a much more interesting cognitive pattern. To use metaphor, we must notice a way in which two things are similar. This is a difficult task. It's true, an African grey parrot can do it, but when we see him do it, we are rightly amazed. Metaphor requires an understanding of abstract relationships, separate from the things themselves. "I dissolve connivers like saliva on tic tacs." "Shake it like a polaroid picture." (And of course the conceit underlying Rich Boy's section of the Diplo Street Remix of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes.")

Compare this to metonymy, which is the linguistic phenomenon of calling something by the name of something associated with it - and represents the cognitive pattern of noticing that two things occur together. It's pretty primitive. (Think Pavlov.) E.g. "Two to the ski mask." "All I love's my dope and dead presidents." (Synechdoche is a species of metonymy, the part associated with the whole - e.g., "Get your ass on the floor." Or "pussy" or "gash" as collective nouns - though those are metaphors when used to denote an actual vagina.)

Metonymy notes correlation - proximity in space or time. Metaphor requires us to form a theory about how things are similar.

You can see how both would be extremely useful, in terms of evolution. Metonymy is easier, and it goes lower down the phylogenetic ladder (<--metaphor). Both processes can, of course, get things wrong. Metonymy, however, is such a dangerous temptation for lazy human thinking that we have had to invent statistical analysis to get science to work.

Unfortunately for our species, metonymy seems to dominate political thinking. Bad things are allowed to "contaminate" metonymically anything associated with them - even if not similar or even rationally related in any way but association. Why do most people oppose eugenics? 'Cause the Nazis did it. Similarly, good things are allowed to "rub off" on associated phenomena, e.g., "the family" with anti-gayness since same-sex couples can't procreate (well, by themselves).

Metonymy, I think, is a prime driver of bullshit – a pretense to truth minus any actual concern for truth. Metonymy is the way in which mere facts can seem dangerous. When we are candid, we admit as much. It is uncomfortable to entertain the hypothesis that, for example, the etiology of homosexuality might be in some way environmental or volitional, because that is associated with the claim that homosexuality is wrong, and hence with retarded attempts to forbid it, “cure” it, or otherwise persecute gay people. It is uncomfortable to entertain the hypothesis that the mental abilities of men and women are different, because that is associated with the practice of female subjugation.

If we are to think well, the challenge is not to get rid of metonymy, but to root out knee-jerk, unexamined metonymy. “The Nazis did it” is not an argument against a practice. Nor is it a legitimate challenge to a factual assertion to point out that the fact might be used to support a nasty conclusion.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Victims of the Suicide Prohibition: Collateral Damage

Prompted by Jim, I'm collecting reports of incidents (and stats, if anybody has any) where non-suicidal bystanders are killed or injured when other people attempt suicide. I will collect these in a piece demonstrating the harm of the suicide prohibition to non-suicides.


If you know of any, stick them in the comment thread or send them to my email. Thanks!

Tenth Try

When I took the California bar, there was a guy in the room with me who was on his seventh try. Poor guy. (I passed; no idea if he did.) That's nothing, since Maxcy Dean Filer took it 48 times before he passed (and then promptly got suspended for crappy practice). (He died this year.)

Poor Fransisco Solomon Sanchez finally succeeded in committing suicide this week on his (at least) tenth try. Like me, he had been involuntarily hospitalized. Guess it didn't help.

One previous attempt was so serious that he had his legs amputated and used prosthetic legs as a result.

Please think about that the next time someone assures you that suicidality is a temporary state, and people who attempt suicide really want to be rescued.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why Less Rape?

Via erosblog: According to Mark Kleiman (and the Department of Justice), forcible rape has gone WAY down in the United States over the past few decades. It peaked in 1979 at 2.8 per 1000 population 12 and over, and in 2009 the rate was .5.

Like homicide, the rate has really tanked since the 1990s, but the downward trend for rape has been more secular and more dramatic than that for homicide.

As Kleiman notes, it does seem like pretty damning evidence for the theory that pornography promotes rape, as a practical matter. And there's some evidence that access to porn prevents rape.

Culture is not my favorite explanation for human behavior, but I think there might be something to it here. Rape used to be accepted as a natural consequence of sluttiness (even the species of sluttiness where you merely let yourself be alone with a guy in a room); see, e.g., that gem of criminology writing from 1967, "Victim-Precipitated Forcible Rape" by Menachim Amir. Pornography was forbidden for the same reason: to repress sexuality.

It's now extremely clear that sexually permissive societies are better for women. Only the very religious and your dad believe otherwise.

Also: here's a 2008 paper with up-to-date information on what we know about the evolutionary biology of rape, which I found while doing my sacred duty to humanity.

Chemical Suicides

From the Associated Press:
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The suicide of a young woman in the Hollywood Hills might have seemed just another sad Tinseltown story but for large notes plastered on the window of the car in which she died: "Danger! Chemicals Inside! Call 911."

Police and coroner's investigators had seen this before — three or four times in the past year — and they knew the danger was real to them and the neighborhood. Had the chemical cloud escaped from the car with people nearby, many others could have died, according to authorities. An evacuation of residents was contemplated but never carried out.
While most suicides affect only the deceased and their families, these cases have the potential to kill strangers.

Of course, the focus in the article is on the big, bad Internet, and those irresponsible folks who put others at risk while ending their own lives (but who are, however, responsible enough to post notes warning of the danger - good job, guys).

What you'll never, ever see in a mainstream media outlet: an acknowledgment that the problem is a lack of availability of quick, painless, effective means of suicide that don't put others at risk.

Legalize barbiturates and you'll never see another chemical suicide.

See also: "The Unspeakable Solution to Japan's Toxic Fume Suicide Epidemic"

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ross Douthat's Victims

Me and my eyes, which were injured from repeated, violent rolling upon reading this, which boils down to, "people support assisted suicide because people have merciful empathetic feelings toward dying people in pain, but there's no logical way to support assisted suicide without supporting a right to suicide in general, ergo assisted suicide must be WRONG!"

He really pretends not to see any other possible consequence from putting (a) and (b) together.

And I think he must mean fictims.

Check the comments, though - Dr. K was righteous and everybody knows it.

My extremely moderate comment here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What Things Are Worth

Quick! How would you calculate the value of:
  • A live chicken?
  • One eighth-ounce of high-grade medical cannabis?
  • Your sense of smell?
  • "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity"?
  • A Ph.D. in philosophy?
  • A day spent working in a coal mine?
  • A three-day migraine headache?
  • A human embryo?
  • A human heart?
  • An act of oral sex with an attractive person?
  • An act of oral sex with an unattractive person?
  • Your memories from ages 5-13?

In order to put a figure on such disparate items as these, we must have a somewhat rigorous idea of what we mean by "value."

One feature of value is audience - who values the item? What is it worth to whom? The same act of oral sex might have different values to the performer and the recipient (not to mention any bystanders). It also might have different value to different recipients. We must be clear about for whom we are calculating the value. What is an embryo worth to would-be parents? To the world? To the potential person created?

The issue of audience is pretty easy to formalize. A more difficult issue is how, exactly, we measure value.

One option: ask people. How much is your sense of smell worth to you? What is the value of not having to give Ron Paul a rim job? How much are your childhood memories worth?

The "ask people and see what they say" option we can call stated preference. The main problems with this method are that (a) people don't necessarily have introspective access to these values, and (b) even when they do, there is a great danger that they might not tell us the truth.

There is a proverb that actions speak louder than words. Economists employ this fact to get around these problems with stated preference - they try to measure how much we act like things are worth.

Where markets exist - as they do for many of the items in my list, from chickens to blow jobs - we can measure value to some degree by price. What a person is willing to pay for the item in question, and what another person is willing to accept in exchange for it, can give us a good idea of the value of an item. An offer (e.g. a statement that one "has five on it") in the context of a potential transaction is better evidence of the value of the item than a mere assertion of value - and an accepted offer is better evidence still, a principle embodied in the essentially-informational request to "put up or shut up."

What about when there's no market?

Certainly there is no market for a sense of smell. Yet we often have a need to calculate the value of such things - e.g. in tort lawsuits when one's sense of smell is lost because of the wrongdoing of another. Are we stuck with stated preference? Willingness-to-accept is often as far as it goes in the law; juries might be asked, for instance, how much they would accept to be without their sense of smell for a day, and then multiply that by the life expectancy in days of the plaintiff.

But there is another set of evidence available. We can measure how much people act like their sense of smell is worth. For example:

  • How much do people demand to be compensated for a given risk to their sense of smell? If people are observed to be willing to take a given risk of losing their sense of smell for a particular value (e.g., to get rid of a cold a few days earlier), we can arrive at a figure based on that.
  • How much do people who have lost their sense of smell pay to try to fix it? If a procedure with a given probability of success is regularly bought for a certain amount, we can calculate based on that.
  • How much does one increase one's consumption of quick-fix utility boosters when faced with a loss of one's sense of smell?

And perhaps there are other sneaky ways to indirectly measure the value of a sense of smell, childhood memories, a human heart.

The point is that when a thing's value is difficult to evaluate because it lacks a market, we can often calculate the thing's value not just based on the reports of the valuers, but based on their observable actions.

The ultimate question of value that I am concerned with is: how much is it worth to you to have been born? What is a human life worth to the individual human?

Too often, when faced with the question of the value of life, even normally rigorous economists default to what I term the "imaginary survey justification" - not even pathetic stated preference (for which the evidence is not even that great), but an extra-lame-out imaginary survey of stated preference ("Of course everybody's glad to be alive!"). It is my position that we can do better.

In the next post in this series I will outline how we might indirectly, empirically measure the value of a human life to the individual living human. This will be largely based on an unpublished paper by Richard Posner and Gary Becker, called "Suicide: An Economic Approach." If you read this in combination with "Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State" by Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier, you will have an idea where I'm going with this!

This also seems related: (via Rob Sica)
We introduce the concept of life salience (activation of biophilia) as a compliment to the concept of death salience (activation of a fear of death), which plays a prominent role in Terror Management Theory. Four experiments tested whether life salience decreases the need to defend one’s cultural worldview, including consumption patterns. Death salience, in contrast, should increase worldview defenses and consumption patterns. Life salience was manipulated by writing about a situation that made participants feel fully alive (Experiment 1), by watching plants grow (Experiment 2), by watching a baby movie (Experiment 3), and by subliminally priming the word ‘life’ (Experiment 4). As expected, life salience increased life-related thoughts, decreased support for consumerism, and lowered spending intentions. Death salience had the opposite effect. These findings suggest that consumerism may be rooted in the existential need to “love life.” [Emphasis mine.]

—Abstract of "Feeling Alive Without Spending a Dime: Life and Death Salience Exert Opposite Effects on Worldview Defense and Consumption Patterns."

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