Miscellaneous observations

This page consists of miscellaneous thoughts that are too short, unpolished or unimportant to justify their own blog posts. (I decided to create such a page on 28 Nov. 2017, so my page still is home to lots of short, unpolished and unimportant blog posts I published before 28 Nov.)

On cynicism and idealism

28 Nov. 2017

Cynical altruists

Some people are quite cynical, depressed, nihilistic or even misanthropic by nature yet still exert effort to reduce the suffering of others. Call such people cynical altruists. Others are happy, extroverted, idealistic, oblivious to the dark recesses of human nature and society, and generally score high in agreeableness. For such people, being altruistic is not much of an effort. It comes natural, like dieting for an anorexic. In some sense, I admire cynical altruists more than such “natural altruists”.

You might know the adage “without fear there cannot be courage”. It basically means that a person unable to feel fear (e.g. someone without an amygdala) is in some sense less courageous than a person with strong phobias who overcame their fears. Similarly, one might say: “without bitterness, there cannot be altruism”.

Anti-cynicism bias

I think some people might be motivated to believe that human nature and society are better than they actually are. In my experience, cynical beliefs can often lead to a sense of futility or full-blown depression.

Opportunistic and compartmentalized idealism

I feel as though some people also practice opportunistic aka compartmentalized aka hypocritical idealism. Generally, they believe that human nature is good which gives them a warm-fuzzy, happy feeling and which makes it easier to connect with others. However, when push comes to shove, and their idealistic beliefs might become truly costly (e.g. in terms of finances, alliances, mating, etc.), they are suddenly much warier and cynical. This probably happens subconsciously for a large fraction of humans.

The evolution of causes and subcultures

29 Nov. 2017

Many altruistic causes and movements are started by honest and genuinely selfless people with good intentions who want to overcome serious, neglected problems. As the cause starts to attract more and more followers and becomes more mainstream, it soon starts to attract more and more people who are mostly interested (subconsciously or consciously) in virtue signaling (or increased status more broadly), money, moral licensing or who are just looking for a hobby. Examples include feminism, socialism, anti-racism/civil rights, the climate change movement, etc.

The same could be said for most subcultures in general (except that virtue signaling is here replaced by “coolness signaling”). David Chapman has an amazing essay on this topic.

People who changed their minds are more trustworthy

29 Nov. 2017

Many, possibly most people never abandon their general political or philosophical outlook after age ~20. But it seems very unlikely that one would get all major philosophical and political positions right when one is only 20. Consequently, people whose philosophical and political positions remained largely the same as they get older are, on average, probably less rational and more committed to identity politics than those who do change their beliefs on important issues even after age 20. The latter group demonstrated that they actually can change their minds provided they receive sufficient evidence. I basically don’t know any great rationalist who hasn’t changed their views on at least several important issues since their early adulthood.

The impact of pessimistic art

28 Nov. 2017

Personally, I like pessimistic and nihilistic art (e.g. the writings of Houellebecq or the comedy of Doug Stanhope). Although such art might spread the philosophy of antinatalism (at least to some extent), I wonder whether its impact is positive from a suffering-focused ethics point of view.

I worry that overly nihilistic or pessimistic art repels most people and only attracts people who are already suffering-focused. But instead of inspiring them to change the world, such art just makes them more depressed, cynical and apathetic.

What I dislike about facebook

30 Nov. 2017

  • It seems to encourage recency over substance (newest posts always on the top, the search function is crappy, etc.). Of course, that’s a general problem with all media (or more specifically: humans).
  • Relatedly, things tend to get lost much more than on blogs or websites. Probably because the search function is so shitty. It’s all very temporary.
  • Newsfeed algorithm seems to reward frequent posting (aka spamming).
  • Facebook is very “populist” and its barriers to entry are very small. Everyone is on Facebook. Every possible topic is discussed on Facebook. Contrast this with more specialized fora like LessWrong. Its members are more intelligent, share more epistemic norms. Reddit is better than Facebook because Reddit has subreddits and a karma system.
  • Facebook is basically a “tragedy of the information commons”. It would be better for everyone if most people discussed certain topics on a given forum, e.g. more advanced topics on LessWrong, social anxiety on socialanxietyforums, etc. But everyone has the incentive to start posting on facebook because there are more readers. So everyone is incentivized to write more superficial and broadly-appealing posts to get more likes (compare Yudkowsky’s facebook posts to his LessWrong posts, for example). It’s kind of a similar to the classic economics metaphor of the two ice-cream sellers on a beach. It would be best for them and the customers if A opened their shop on the left of the beach and B on the right side. But both have the incentive to go slightly more to the middle to get a bit more customers. This culminates in both setting up their shop right in the middle of the beach.

Some observations social justice

30 Nov. 2017

  • Social justice advocates primarily focus on the categories gender and race. I agree that life for blacks is, on average, more difficult than for whites – undeservedly so. I’m not sure whether the same is true for women and men. Of course, some sexism against women surely exists.
  • What I disagree with is that it’s very useful to focus primarily on these two categories. I’d think that the variance in well-being (life-satisfaction and happiness) between races and certainly between sexes (where it is almost non-existent, at least in the UK, I don’t really know other data) is much much much lower than within those categories. For example, life for a white man with depression is certainly harder than for a black woman without any mental health problems. That’s one reason to assume that causes that focus on categories like mental health or physical health are more effective. The differences in well-being between people with depression and without depression is very high, so it makes sense to focus on such a category.
  • I’d like to see more feminists focus on countries other than the US and Europe which seem already quite women-friendly (albeit not perfectly so, of course). For example, from what I know, women in Islamic countries face much more and more severe discrimination than women in the US/Europe. My guess is that it’s mostly related to signaling. Endorsing feminist-related issues in the US or Europe makes for a good “I’m a good liberal/on the left and part of your ingroup” signal. But criticizing Islamic countries could seem Islamophobic and nationalistic and Islamophobia and nationalism are usually hallmarks of people on the right/Republicans.