The silent trade: universal objective ethics in action

Once upon a time, back during the Age of Exploration, there was a marvellous practice called the “silent trade”. It was a solution to a serious coordination problem between groups who had no languages in common, or distrusted each other so much that they refused to come within range of each others’ weapons.

What makes it marvellous is that it constituted experimental proof of the existence of universal, objective ethical principles sufficient to build cooperation among hostile parties.

Here’s how it worked. One party is, say, the captain of a Portuguese merchant ship on the Gold Coast. He wants some of that gold, but nobody speaks the local language. Furthermore, there are disquieting reports from the few survivors that Europeans who venture out of sight of a ship’s guns tend to get eaten.

The other party is a local chief onshore. He has the same problem; he wants cloth and beads and metal knives, but he doesn’t speak the traders’ language. Furthermore Europeans have magical bangsticks that kill at a distance, and there are disquieting reports that tribes who were too welcoming got massacred by gold-seeking adventurers.

So, the captain brings his ship inshore and a heavily armed away party makes several piles of different kinds of trade goods on the beach. When they’re back on the ship, the vessel fires a cannon and retreats far enough offshore to not be a prompt threat.

The cannonshot attracts, as is meant to, the attention of the natives. They come out of the jungle, eye the various piles, and bring out their trade goods; gold, ivory, and whatnot. A pile of goods goes next to each of the traders’ piles. The natives withdraw from the beach.

Now the ship comes back inshore. Traders eye the piles and decide which exchanges they’ll take. Carrying away the native stuff nearest a pile of trade goods signals consent for the natives to take that pile and that pile only. Leaving a pile in place, or splitting it, signals wanting a better offer. Withdrawing a pile says that the native stuff nearest it is uninteresting.

Adjustments made, the ship withdraws again. Now it is the natives’ turn to evaluate the new state of the trade and re-adjust their own piles. The same rules apply; carrying a pile of trade goods away tells the Europeans they can have what the natives had offered for it. leaving a pile in place invites the Europeans to bid up, and withdrawing a pile says the trade goods offered for it are not interesting.

Sometimes, one side might split up one of the other side’s piles, putting goods near one part but not the other; this is a way to say “some of these goods are interesting, but not the others”. Various other elaborations are recorded.

The process would continue until a cycle during which neither side altered its piles or one side withdrew them all. This signaled the close of trade.

The scenario I’ve described is unusual in that the traders and natives might actually get in visual range of each other. In some important instances, such as the longrunning salt-for-gold trade between the North African coast and sub-Saharan West Africa, that never happened; coordination was entirely by drum signal. Silent trade was also reported in the 6th century CE on the East Coast of Africa between Indians and Arabs on one side and interior tribes on the other.

The silent trade flourished in Africa from classical times (Herodotus reported Carthaginians engaging in silent barter with West Africans) to about 1500CE. It fell into disuse only when enough cultural contact developed with the interior tribes for mutual language acquisition.

The most interesting observations about the silent trade begin with the fact that, as far as the historical record can see, nobody ever cheated – or, if they did, it was an unusual and sporadic phenomenon that failed to disrupt the exchanges.

Neither the traders nor the natives nor any third party had the ability to enforce honest dealing. No force could be used, and nobody punished except by the termination of the trade. Yet self-interest policed the process quite effecively.

The silent trade, when historians think of it at all, is usually considered a trivial bit of exotica, a footnote to the sweep of history. But it is much more than that; it is a demonstration of objective universal ethics. To explain this, I need to introduce, or remind you of, a couple of related concepts.

Those of you familiar with Robert Axelrod’s studies of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma will recognize a theme here; parties in the silent trade faced an iterated cooperate-or-defect choice (where defecting would have been to simply run off with the other sides’ goods) and settled into a stable tit-for-tat exchange.

In that exchange, both parties achieve what game theorists call “positive-sum” interactions – both are better off than if the exchange had never taken place. (This is distinct from zero-sum interactions, in which one party gains but the other loses, and negative-sum interactions in which both parties lose.)

Now I want to introduce the notion of a Schelling point. This, due to the economist Thomas Schelling, is “a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special, or relevant to them.” My favorite example is the effect rivers have on political geography. Two hostile, non-communicating tribes separated by usable land is a recipe for a frontier war, but if a river runs between them both are likely to accept it as a natural boundary and confine their warfare to punishing violations.

Finally I want to exhibit the idea of Lorenzian incomplete aggression. The naturalist Konrad Lorenz famously observed that animals who cannot communicate with language nevertheless express “I could hurt you, but I choose not to” with aggressive behavior that is deliberately interrupted or misdirected short of actual damage. Anyone who has ever seen children roughhousing, or experienced the kind of solid friendship that martial artists can develop after a hard but clean bout of sparring, knows this works in humans too.

Several Schelling points are clear on examination of the silent trade. One is that it takes place at boundaries. By putting goods on the beach with an armed party and then withdrawing, rather than pushing into the jungle to hunt game or find trading partners, the traders did not merely reduce their chances of being eaten, they combined use of a Schelling point with uncompleted aggression.

The rules of the silent trade embody at least two important ethical principles; nonaggression and voluntary reciprocal exchange. If we are asking whether these principles are universal and objective, what better evidence could we ask for than to have seen them mutually agreed on by different groups of humans without the ability to even speak to each other (let alone shared cultural assumptions) and then sustained down the generations for over a thousand years?

The silent trade gives us grounds for a very strong claim: there is a universal objective ethics, and its building blocks include (a) nonaggression, (b) Schelling points, (c) honesty, and (d) voluntary reciprocal exchange. Or to put it more simply, “Do as you would be done by.” – the Golden Rule.

I have no doubt that the behavior of everyone in the Gold Coast story I told above seems natural to the reader. This is because we are actually neurologically wired to participate in universal ethics. Some equivalent of the Golden Rule is live in every human culture, and one of the first results to emerge from evolutionary psychology in the 1990s is that humans seem to come equipped with a cheater-detection module – our performance on logic problems improves when they are framed as questions about whether someone is violating reciprocity.

It would not be not stretching a point very far to say that the silent trade is in our DNA; its building blocks, such as the ability to recognize Schelling points and uncompleted aggression, certainly are. Through the lens of the silent trade, we can begin to see universal ethics as a culture-independent evolved behavior that solves a universal problem – how to achieve and maintain positive-sum cooperation.

This realization challenges several common beliefs, including cultural relativism and Hume’s guillotine – the notion that you can never derive an “ought” (normative moral or ethical statement) from an “is” (a fact about the world). How these falsehoods became so entrenched would be a topic for several more essays, but my point here is the silent trade helps us see past them – not just with a lot of argument and theory but in a practical, concrete, empirical way.

While I will not try to develop the argument here, the reader should consider this proposition: that the only ethical claims we should accept are universal (that is, agreements that could be reached by parties that cannot coerce or even at the limit communicate with each other), and that all other ethical claims are invalid, actually damage the prospects for sustained positive-sum cooperation, and should be discarded.

261 thoughts on “The silent trade: universal objective ethics in action

  1. Now, if we could just formalize that mathematically, we’d still never convince a politician of it.

  2. IIRC there’s some of this kind of trade in Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. Knowing that this really happened makes me have even more appreciation for that book.

  3. @esr: “The most interesting observations about the silent trade begin with the fact that, as far as the historical record can see, nobody ever cheated – or, if they did, it was an unusual and sporadic phenomenon that failed to disrupt the exchanges.”

    It’s not clear given the setup how you *can* cheat. Yes, you could theoretically cheat by substituting inferior goods whose poor quality wouldn’t be realized till after the trade was made, like pyrite instead of actual gold, but that’s a good way to disrupt the exchange, and you wouldn’t hear about it because it wouldn’t happen *again*. (Either because the cheater got punished by her own side, and the traders got a fair deal if they tried again, or because the traders would say “We can’t deal with them”, not come back, and trade with someone else who would play fair.)

    “While I will not try to develop the argument here, the reader should consider this proposition: that the only ethical claims we should accept are universal (that is, agreements that could be reached by parties that cannot coerce or even at the limit communicate with each other), and that all other ethical claims are invalid, actually damage the prospects for sustained positive-sum cooperation, and should be discarded.”

    Ethics are rooted in survival. When people live together in groups, there must be agreement on what constitutes acceptable behavior, or the group does not survive. We call the agreement “customs” or “morality”, and we call the written down version “law”, but the agreement is a survival necessity. Any “universal” ethics will have a similar base, and the silent trade is an example.

    You can argue from that that any ethics that *aren’t* universal aren’t ethics, and are at best local customs valid only within a certain group. Good luck *doing* so.
    ______
    Dennis

  4. DMcCunney: They’ve left a bunch of valuables on the beach. You cheat by picking them up and walking away.

  5. @Alsadius: They’ve left a bunch of valuables on the beach. You cheat by picking them up and walking away.

    And it’s disruptive to the transaction and you don’t hear about it because it doesn’t happen again. Next time they see you coming, they don’t leave out the valuables.

    Effective silent trade is ongoing trade, where both parties do it again.
    ______
    Dennis

  6. @Alsadius: And I agree with ESR’s point.

    But cheating also needs to be effective to continue, so you can’t really cheat in silent trade because the other side can decline to play after you do it.

    What I said earlier probably should have been “I don’t see how you can keep cheating”, and I still don’t.
    ______
    Dennis

  7. In addition to the “not come back” tactic when cheated upon, I’m sure that people weren’t dumb. They wouldn’t put out that much stuff upon their first interaction with a potential trading group. They’d leave just a few items, enough to signal willingness to trade, but if stolen, would be just a small loss.

  8. @DMcCunney: You wouldn’t be able to keep cheating, alright, unless someone was naïve enough to keep it up.

    But Peter Minuit is recorded in history for one big acquisition he cheated at. Why wouldn’t other cheaters boast about their exploits? And if they would, why wouldn’t any of it be recorded? Easiest explanation is it didn’t happen – or didn’t happen often.

    You did say, though, that
    “It’s not clear given the setup how you *can* cheat.”
    Hopefully not only it is, but also my explanation for the unlikeliness of widespread cheating makes sense.

  9. David Friedman expands on this general idea in A Positive Account of Property Rights, which is worth a read. It looks at how various rights can arise naturally without any sort of moral or legal argument behind them, and tries to explain why these wind up being suspiciously similar to what people consider moral and legal. Summary from the conclusion:

    […] If my analysis is correct, civil order is an elaborate Schelling point, maintained by the same forces that maintain simpler Schelling points in a state of nature. Property ownership is alterable by contract because Schelling points are altered by the making of contracts. Legal rules are in large part a superstructure erected upon an underlying structure of self-enforcing rights.

  10. “the only ethical claims we should accept are universal”

    Counterexample: ethical norms against polygyny*. You’re going to have a very hard time convincing me to give up that one. It’s not universal though. Polygyny even seems to be something of a default. But it’s a nasty default and it’s worth preventing it, and ethical norms against it seem to be The effective way of avoiding falling into the polygyist attractor. So we should give up an effective norm that makes for a better society, because it’s not “universal”? Pfff. No way.

    [*] You know the kind I mean. The harem-keeping kind. I’m not talking about hippy free love whatever. Even they have norms against polygyny: (https://thingofthings.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/one-penis-policies/)

  11. >Legal rules are in large part a superstructure erected upon an underlying structure of self-enforcing rights.

    Heh. I am never very surprised when David’s mind and mine turn out to have been running on parallel tracks. I don’t much think he is either.

  12. Should be ‘never derive an ought from an is’, not ‘never derive an ought for an is’.

  13. >Counterexample: ethical norms against polygyny

    Hm. I’m not sure you’re wrong, but there’s at least an argument that polygyny happens downstream of a great deal of coercion and isn’t sustainable without it.

    Thus, it may be that the correct ethical stance is to accept that we cannot forbid polygyny (because that’s not a universal) but we can forbid the behaviors that are upstream of it. And then watch the institution wither because the incentives that fed it have changed.

    There is at least one example of a culture (the diaspora Jews) electing to abolish polygyny in historical times, so I’m not entirely waving my hands here.

  14. @Irving Rivas: But Peter Minuit is recorded in history for one big acquisition he cheated at. Why wouldn’t other cheaters boast about their exploits? And if they would, why wouldn’t any of it be recorded? Easiest explanation is it didn’t happen – or didn’t happen often.

    But did Peter in fact cheat? We look at it as buying the island of Manhattan for worthless trinkets, but that reflects our values on what has worth. What were the Lenape’s values? Since they were willing to accept his offer, they apparently found it sufficient. If both sides are pleased with a deal, it’s hard to call cheating. There are all manner of deals made today that mystify me because I don’t see the value in the proposition, but I’m not the one making the deal.

    Minuit might have boasted to his fellows about the low price he paid, but for all I know, the Lenape may have boasted about the high price they got.

    And as I said later, I should have said “It’s not clear how you can continue cheating.” Agreed you can do it once, but that’s self-limiting.

    Agreed on your explanation of why cheating wasn’t wide spread.
    ______
    Dennis

  15. The silent trade stands in interesting contrast to copyright law in the digital age, where despite communication between the parties involved, both producers and consumers of information routinely accuse each other of flagrant and ongoing cheating, and yet nobody stops.

  16. I think you’re right, polygyny is downstream of a lot of coercion, and probably unsustainable without it. But I also think it’s upstream of a lot of coercion, including a lot of the coercion it’s downstream of. Coercion is complicated. Hard to define. It’s all mixed up in the boundaries of property rights and the legitimacy of pre-existing claims. What’s worse, you need a fairly high amount of coercion just to keep the peace and provide a reasonable level of order.

    Maybe in a perfected society of anarcho-capitalists where everyone agreed on what coercion was and not to do it, polygyny wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t know. But here on earth monogamy has served as a simple, bright line rule. It’s a Schelling point. And it’s done a lot better than the golden rule ever did at interrupting the bad equilibrium of polygyny, violence, and coercion.

  17. “In that exchange, both parties achieve what game theorists call “positive-sum” interactions – both are better off than if the exchange had never taken place. (This is distinct from zero-sum interactions, in which one party gains but the other loses, and negative-sum interactions in which both parties lose.)”

    Minor nit, but I have to quibble with your use of the terminology here; positive-sum in game theory doesn’t mean nobody loses, it just means the winners win more than the losers lose.

    Of course, in the absence of coercion, such an interaction does usually mean everyone wins; the “winners” have to pay the “losers” to make the outcome happen, shifting the reward around.

  18. Where’s the interrupted aggression? Is it just that people aren’t stealing the merchandise?

    I hadn’t heard about Jews giving up polygyny, but now that you mention it, it must have happened. Do you have any details?

    I’m thinking that silent trade can only happen in places where you can trust that no third parties can sneak in and steal the merchandise.

  19. I remember first reading about silent trade years ago, as a footnote in the Cartoon History of the Universe, of all places. I forgot about it, because I completely missed the significance of it at the time.

    Reestablishing a mutually beneficial cooperative equilibrium after both sides have been defecting for a while seems like it should be a really Hard Problem. But it’s something that has happens every time two sides at war bury the hatchet and go back to trading with each other. I don’t have good intuition for this.

  20. Monogamy is only a schelling point for modern Westerners (including India). Most of the hominid species are polygamous and were polygamous. Monogamy is a social technology of empire, finding its origins in Greece and Rome. Empires create societal instability, and so does monogamy.

  21. Nancy: Western Jews gave up polygyny about 800 years ago, due to a Rabbinic ruling. When the State of Israel was founded, Sephardic Jews were also forced to give it up. The 800 year old Rabbinic ruling expired recently; the Rabbi’s renewed it.

  22. “Silent trade was also reported in the 6th century CE on the West Coast of Africa between Indians and Arabs on one side and interior tribes on the other.”

    Do you really mean “West Coast”? Don’t you mean “East Coast”?

  23. So, the required components are:

    -Signalling ability. “I prefer to trade” by withdrawing out of killing distance. “I want more of that trinket there” by splitting the pile. Etc.
    -Theory of mind, to understand that natives will come to same conclusions
    -Awareness of time, consequence modelling, and delayed gratification. Otherwise it might be more fun to just eat the other side right now.
    -Some kind of economy, where a surplus is being produced.

    Anything I missed?

    Why don’t animals engage in trade? At what IQ level does it emerge by those basic criteria being met? Is chimpanzee other-grooming a precursor to trade?

  24. Loose speculation:

    Re: aggression-detection being inborn: I think the concept of territory and status certainly is. The limbic system is very good at detecting “someone is messing with my space/stuff/ranking”. Trade would be having the rational capacity to say “OK, let’s stop messing with each other, because it’s more profitable that way”. Detecting “profit” or “value” is in itself probably a limbic thing, based on dopamine.

    Now, the counter to the proposed universality of this insight might be “reason isn’t universal, it’s a cultural construct, stop imposing your Western values”. But I think reason also arises from modules of the brain that can be observed to be universal – spatial manipulation, error-detection, that sort of thing. Failure to be rational and arrive at the trade strategy is either because of brain deficits or harmful societal programming. Or maybe you’re so high IQ that you find a new maximum beyond trade (maybe you invent robots or something).

    Re: Hume’s is/ought problem: I think your solution doesn’t *resolve* it per se. It de-mystifies moral behavior, and moves it from the “ought” realm to the “is” realm. I haven’t studied Hume so much, but as I read it the is/ought problem is basically begging the question of there being a supernatural force – in order to have objective oughts as the problem is formulated, there must be a God. In order to have morality from an atheist POV, it must be in the “is” category – ie arises from our brain architecture and the nature of reality in predictable ways. Putting it in the non-supernatural “ought” category is akin to making it a mere whimsical preference (which is probably what the post-modernists want). Oh, we ought to trade because you like trading? Well, we ought to eat strawberries, because I like strawberries and that’s a more fun narrative.

    All of this talk about objective morals arising out of nature sounds quite Randian. Now, if someone could cross-pollinate that with the latest findings in neuroscience, we’d really have something….

  25. In a way, ESR is like Rosseau, in the sense that: if we took away all societal programming and tribal mysticism, rationality would lead us to enough stable equilibria to have noble, decent and productive societies. We would reason from first principle and the nature of survival, and we would all be better off for it. Kind of like the noble savage under a different guise.

    I agree, but under the condition that IQ is taken into account. I believe that IQ is not linear in its effects, rather that certain abilities emerge at certain thresholds. Add enough spatial, error-checking and linguistic and you get enough abstraction to try trade. If you want wide adoption of that strategy, ie backport it to lower IQ levels, you need to encode it as cultural OS. Witness how in your example it’s the Europeans, running on Christianity, who initiate the trade. The natives catch on, because joining is easier than leading (verifying a solution is easier than producing it). Not saying the Europeans had higher IQ in the example, but rather that they had the benefit of cultural capital.

    So, what I’m saying is:

    Pure rationality leads to good society? Yes, but only beyond certain IQ threshold. To backport good society below this level, cultural OS is needed.

    Thoughts?

  26. Hah! This goes against my point above:

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2003/jul/03/research.science

    “Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.”

  27. @Lawrence D’Anna
    ” Polygyny even seems to be something of a default.”

    All forms of “*gyny” are supposed to supply resources for raising children. If you look at history from a suitable distance, you mostly see that the number of men and women that combine to procreate depends on the number of mothers&children that a man can support.

    This runs from situations where men cannot support mother and child better than the mother alone and mothers stay single. To polyandry, where one woman marries more than one man because that is the only way to support her and her children
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyandry

    To monogamy where man and woman can support the children. In polygyny, a woman is (economically) much better off as the n-th wife of a rich man than as the sole wife of a poor man. In polygynous societies, women of poor men are generally really poor and the prospects for the children are bad. Whenever women can earn a living or men earn enough to support a family, women prefer monogamy. But even in western societies, we see that some women prefer to be the n-th wife (mistress) of a very rich or powerful man than the sole wife of a poor man.

    In polygyny, the bargaining position of women is bad, and in most cases they have little say in who they marry. That is probably why polygyny tends to stay in force even when the economic situation does not warrant it anymore. Polygyny in rich(er) societies is an odd beast as it forces a lot of men to remain bachelors. That tends to be a very destabilizing factor, politically. Yet another reason polygamy tends to become restricted in practice when economic times improve.

  28. @Lawrence:
    And it’s done a lot better than the golden rule ever did at interrupting the bad equilibrium of polygyny, violence, and coercion.

    As I see it, monogamy is an application of the golden rule: Neither party wants the other sleeping with other people, so they agree to sleep only with each other.

    As a general note, with regards to disappearance of polygyny among the Jews (and Christians, for that matter), while the Bible nowhere universally forbids it, it is forbidden for people in positions of leadership both in the Old Testament (the king of Israel is forbidden from having many wives in Deuteronomy 17:17, and having had many wives is noted as a character flaw of King Solomon later on) and the New Testament (one of the qualifications for leadership in the church laid out in 1 Timothy 3 is having only one wife), which, interestingly, forbids polygyny among exactly the types of people that are most likely to practice it (the powerful, as a status symbol). So the elimination of polygyny in the diaspora had its roots in a long tradition of disapproval of the practice, and that disapproval continued on in Christianity as well. And even aside from being forbidden for people in leadership, polygyny is not portrayed very sympathetically in the Bible: God never told Abraham and Jacob to have only one wife, but the headaches polygyny caused for them are clearly portrayed, while anything it might have gained them is glossed over, if present at all.

  29. @Jon Brase
    Similar things are told in the Islamic tradition.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygyny_in_Islam#Scriptural_basis_for_polygyny

    These Verses were revealed after the Battle of Uhud, in which many Muslim men were killed, leaving widows and orphans. Thus, many argue that these Verses have been revealed “because of God’s concern for the welfare of women and orphans who were left without husbands and fathers who died fighting for the Prophet and for Islam. It is a verse about compassion towards women and their children; it is not about men or their sexuality.” [3]

    Note that Muhammad’s first wife was a widow. Also, several of his later wives were widowed or divorced. So much for all those Muslim men claiming their religion “forces” them to marry virgins.

    More from Sisters in Islam (SIS)
    http://www.musawah.org/islamic-feminism-fighting-theology-theology
    “Similarly, Sisters In Islam (SIS), an Islamic feminist association founded in 1987 that advocates for the rights of Muslim women in Malaysia, use Qur’anic verses in their book titled Unveiling the Ideal: A New Look at Early Muslim Women to prove that Islam and gender justice are actually compatible.”

    SIS considers polygamy to be permitted only when a large number of women have been rendered yatim, i.e. orphans and widows, due to devastating wars, and views the verse as an explicit declaration that “polygamy is not a right, but a restriction and responsibility to ensure that justice be done to orphans.”

    Furthermore, SIS believes that Muslims who regard polygamy as a “right” have forgotten or intentionally overlooked the second part of verse [4:3] that states,

    “But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”

  30. This is excellent, but there is one big problem here. This is how groups relate to each other. This is not how individuals relate to each other inside groups.

    Schelling points exist precisely because communication breaks down between groups, but they are almost unnecessary inside groups: any group that cannot communicate well inside is a rather dysfunctional group. And even when the don’t communicate, they are supposed to have shared customs and values and all that, so group members should more or less know what is expected of them. For example, there are no Schelling points in software project management between the PM and team. You want something? Explain it in clear terms, there is no use for a project manager who cannot. But general quality standards don’t need to be explained all the time, they should ossify into customs. But maybe, there are Schelling points between the project team and users / customers. As they are different groups.

    So while it may demonstrate that ethical instincts exist for the purpose of intergroup dynamics, it says just about nothing about how people behave inside groups.

    I mean, the issue is, that in the modern world, we often think we are just individuals who transact with each other, and there are the states / national governments and not much more. And this is especially so when people, like you, even consider individualism a clear positive value.

    And yet the fact is that human nature is more tribal and groupy than that. So we should strive to interpret human behavior through all these dimensions: how individuals inside groups relate to each other vs. how groups relate to each other.

    Specifically, libertarianism makes far more sense to me if I see it not as a recipe for individuals relating to each other but as a recipe for groups relating to each other. Inside the group, it seems too cold, distant and formal. Between groups, it just sounds like being civilized without sacrificing your group’s interests.

    This isn’t idle speculation on my part. I propose that it could be demonstrated with historical evidence (with some effort) that ingroup trade has always been different than outgroup trade, so a small-town shopkeeper treated customers differently than an international trader shipping something from here to there and even there were different rules and laws for this.

    The big issue on the political scene is IMHO that I think people would far more often like to be tribal than fully individualistic, but it is not really allowed. That group loyalties are far more suppressed today. And thus, while I don’t deny honest individualism exists, too, I think far too often individualism is a tactical outlet for suppressed ingroup loyalty. I mean, consider something like forced wealth redistribution. I bet a lot of folks wouldn’t really mind it too much if only their money would go to people they are strongly in-group with. But they cannot say that, because then they get called racist or something similar. So all they can really do is to oppose it in principle. I mean, I do get it that you really do honestly oppose it in principle, I just don’t think it is always the case. It often depends on how diverse a nation is, in the sense of group identities.

    Anyway, my point is that humans have multiple parallel ethical instincts. One are intergroup behavior, and this is a good example of that. Another one is behavior inside groups. And that is totally different. Perhaps, individualists like yourself have at some level merged this two, like, you treat everybody with more distance than most people treat ingroups but less than most people treat outgroups. I also understand this kind of distance is at some level traditional in Anglo cultures, I picked it up from Sherlock Holmes novels long ago, but make no mistake, Cromwell’s troops were no individualists.

    And I think it would be very useful to develop a keen ear for groupish signals, it makes things so much easier to understand. I mean, in politics, leftish stuff like appeals to fairness often just means “we all are ingroup, so gimme”. And rightish stuff like an appeal to property rights often just means “no, we aren’t really that ingroup”. Basically…

    Again the big problem is that group consciousness is something considered somewhere between distasteful to evil / racist / discriminative / bad today, and thus gets suppressed, hardly gets discussed and usually gets hidden. I mean, leftism is essentially saying that the all of humankind should be one ingroup, but even nonlibertarian rightists tend to be nationalists and thus they too are basically saying one country should be one ingroup, and the reality is that groups are often smaller than nations. But you can hardly talk about this. So group signals you can only pick up by reading between the lines. The almost unique feature of the NRx blogosphere is the attempt to try to be conscious about groupishness: https://nydwracu.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/why-anarcho-fascism-an-introduction-to-group-dynamics/

    I wish it was possible for people to be more honest about their group loyalties, it would prevent so much empty posturing and hot-air.

  31. >Do you really mean “West Coast”? Don’t you mean “East Coast”?

    Urk. I typoed. Will fix.

  32. > > Counterexample: ethical norms against polygyny

    > Hm. I’m not sure you’re wrong, but there’s at least an argument that polygyny happens downstream of a great deal of coercion and isn’t sustainable without it.

    Disagree. Polyamory, as practiced by the LessWrong crowd and similar always winds up as one sultan, a lot of harem girls, and a lot of eunuchs crying into their couch creases. Without coercion, fertile age women are apt to wind up screwing the alpha male, ignoring the great majority of males, and are apt to wind up as cat ladies.

    Rather, it is monogamous patriarchy that requires a great deal of coercion.

    What happens is that the price of pussy is too high. So the young men are not motivated to work nor fight in defense of the realm. The King, the elders, the high priest, or whatever, introduces patriarchy, which can be thought of as price control of the means of reproduction, or socialism of the means of reproduction. (Which of course people care about a lot more than the means of production)

    The King thus artificially lowers the price of pussy. Shortages naturally ensue, which worsens the problem of unmotivated troublemaking idling stay-at-home young men, rather than fixing the problem. So the King or high priest or whatever introduces rationing to fix the pussy shortage, meaning monogamy and chastity.

    Zulu empire illustrates this directly and explicitly. Any man that keeps discipline in the face of the enemy got one virgin wife over which he has total power. King gets any excess virgins. Instant monogamy and patriarchy, except for the King, who gets polygyny and patriarchy.

    The reason monogamy and patriarchy require extreme coercion is that reproduction is not iterated prisoner’s dilemma. You make a deal with a member of the opposite sex to create and raise children only once or so. So the natural equilibrium is defect defect, hence all those LessWrong eunuchs weeping into their couch crease.

    To get out of defect defect equilibrium requires extreme social pressure on the easy cases, and a lot of actual violent coercion (shotgun marriage) on the hard cases.

    The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Australian government applied fairly extreme coercion against women who did not much want to marry, and the pushback and resistance it encountered (lots of women with illegitimate children resisting shotgun marriage to the fathers of those children) indicates that anything less would have made the illegitimacy problem even worse.

  33. I don’t really understand why polygyny would be downstream to a lot of coercion, given how men tend to be promiscuous and women hypergamous, sultan-and-harem setups are more or less the natural local optima expressing the desires of both sexes. 1:N setups are obviously inequal as it is far harder to replace the 1 as any random member of the N, but this inequality is not necessarily coercive, and many women actually enjoy being dominated if only it is done by a truly sexy guy who radiates authority and power. So it is fairly easy for both the sultan and harem to be happy with it. Not saying it always works perfectly, but has at least as much chance of working out well for the man and women in question as monogamy.

    The only true problem with polygny is what happens with the men who must stay single. Not only they will be unhappy, they will also likely to become destructive and aggressive, or lazy and retreat into grass-eater fantasy worlds. They will be less likely to work hard and fight brave. You cannot even solve the problem by enlisting them and sending them somewhere to fight because without a family and without much chance to get one, what would they be fighting for? So this generally reduces the productive output and military power of polygynous societies and thus they tend to be conquered by monogamous ones. Or at least it results in economic downturns as perpetually single guys decide that working hard does not worth it.

    About universalistic ethics, they can be a candidate for inter-group rules, but I think it would sheer madness to say that inside groups the only acceptable rules are universal ones. Different rules are a major factor in creating different group identities. And one interesting counter-intuitive fact found by researchers lately that the more burdensome rules a church imposes on its members, the more loyal the members will be to it. It seems if you want to have really good cohesion in your group you need to come up with all kinds of nonsensical rules like no meat on Wednesday and Friday. They work just like rituals, but more efficiently.

  34. I wrote:
    Polyamory, as practiced by the LessWrong crowd and similar always winds up as one sultan, a lot of harem girls, and a lot of eunuchs crying into their couch creases.

    I forgot to mention that the Sultan usually engages in BDSM, meaning he role plays dominating and enslaving the harem – or is really dominating and enslaving the harem?

  35. TheDividualist, I think you are pre-supposing a harder distinction between in-group and non-in-group behavior than can really hold up under scrutiny. One reality that subverts it is that our group identification is contextual. Think, for example, how often people on the same project team are divided by politics.

    I also think you are missing the ways in which universal ethics solves individual coordination problems within groups as opposed to between them. For example, there is a humanity-wide Schelling point that whatever customs my culture may have about land tenure or portable wealth, you do not go grabbing personal property off someone’s body without being considered greedy and a criminal. Even the top alpha in a despotism avoids such behavior, because it looks (and is) petty and greedy.

  36. >Where’s the interrupted aggression? Is it just that people aren’t stealing the merchandise?

    Landing an armed party in someone else’s territory is aggression. Conspicuously not trying to collect the gains from having superiority of force is interrupted aggression.

  37. >But did Peter in fact cheat? We look at it as buying the island of Manhattan for worthless trinkets, but that reflects our values on what has worth. What were the Lenape’s values?

    I agree that this is a nontrivial question.

  38. It is possible to get chastity, patriarchy and monogamy as natural law in anarchy or in the absence of a strong state if we assume that woman are naturally property. If all men are socially obligated to respect other men’s property rights in women, and it is socially acceptable to kill a male who talks to your wife or daughter without permission, then the patriarch will cut a deal with other patriarchs to have as many son’s in law as possible, and this is iterated prisoner’s dilemma because the extended family headed by the patriarch is the actor, rather than the individual, so the natural equilibrium is cooperate cooperate, since the family makes many agreements to have children.

    If however, we have romantic marriage, where the couple make their own decision to cooperate to bear and raise children, then it is not iterated prisoner’s dilemma, since they will make the decision only a few times, and so the natural equilibrium, absent external coercion, is defect defect. In the case of romantic marriage you are only going to get monogamy, chastity, etc, if agreements to bear and raise children are harshly enforced by an external power that drastically punishes defection.

  39. JAD, you clearly have no idea how a healthy poly network operates, and it would be wandering too far off topic for me to try to explain this. It is on-topic, however, to note that your account of how monogamy is “imposed” is historically almost exactly backwards.

    In reality, the polygyny trait in societies is strongly driven by how extreme social stratification is. When a relatively small number of high-status men can use centralized authority to easily corner most resources, polygyny follows. On the other hand, in a society with low stratification and decentralized politics, you get monogamy and nuclear families. Compare, say, Imperial China with Anglo-Saxon England.

    The bioenergetics driving this is clear. For polygyny to be sustainable, 1/N of a high-status male has to yield a higher expectation of parental investment than 1 of a average-status male, for N > 1. (This also explains why it is not in fact normal for poly to degenerate into harems, though it might become so if the degree of stratification in our culture were to increase drastically.)

    This is also why polygyny basically never survives the equalizing effects of industrialization. Instead, a small minority of wealthy men take mistresses, but not at high enough volume to monopolize the pool of eligible females.

    Your point about mate choice not being IPD is sound, but it doesn’t follow that the natural equilibrium is defect/defect, because the expected cost of landing in the defect/defect trap is really high. So people outside the 3% minority of hard-core deviants are very careful about who they marry, to the point where nowadays there’s an increasing tendency not to actually marry until couple compatibility has been established by years of cohabitation.

  40. The late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Australian government applied fairly extreme coercion against women who did not much want to marry

    The “Australian Government” applied coercion during the 18/19thC? Perhaps you could be more specific about what you mean here because the straight reading of this sentence is completely and obviously wrong. And you are not usually that transparently wrong.

  41. @TheDividualist

    Schelling points exist precisely because communication breaks down between groups, but they are almost unnecessary inside groups: … For example, there are no Schelling points in software project management between the PM and team.

    I look upon GoF-derived patterns in OO languages with no small measure of scorn—these appear to be a technical answer to a social question; if the question they sought to answer was also technical, then where is the fully formalized, ‘pattern oriented’ programming language?—however, they do appear to be a perfect counterpoint to your argument. For instance, by labeling two possible modes of class generation the “Builder” and “Factory” pattern, it provides the team and the PM a small (and distinct!) list of focal points around which they can argue contrasting merits and build mutually agreeable solutions. ISTM that software development does generally have a problem with communication… well, rather a problem with incompatible incentives between coders and management, for which patterns have provided the necessary focal points for game-theory resolution.

    …general quality standards don’t need to be explained all the time, they should ossify into customs.

    I am not sure that this is entirely true for software development; as implied above, I think any rule simple and valuable enough to be universal (such as ‘always assign an initial value to variables’) should be baked into compilers at least as a warning. As a result, software development should have no customs per se—aside from perhaps something akin to “avoid generating too many compiler warnings”, or rules too complex or narrow to be included in compilers (and thus also a poor fit as “customary practice”).

  42. Female strategy of getting best genes for offspring is not evolutionary stable if getting those best genes is coupled with high changes of child not growing to the reproductive age, or high chance of not getting a child.

  43. Aren’t universal ethics under bounded rationality the root cause of tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios? Everyone does the obvious thing that their instincts align with, and consequently everyone dies.

  44. >Aren’t universal ethics under bounded rationality the root cause of tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios? Everyone does the obvious thing that their instincts align with, and consequently everyone dies.

    No. The universal-ethics solution to tragedy-of-the-commons problems is to divide up the commons into properties, so that someone has an incentive to defend each piece against over-exploitation.

  45. @ESR but the bioenergetics argument presupposes that currently optimal strategies override ancestrally optimal strategies. In other words, that rational calculus overrides lust even when the choice is completely voluntary. Doesn’t that sound a mite too optimistic?

  46. @esr
    “No. The universal-ethics solution to tragedy-of-the-commons problems is to divide up the commons into properties, so that someone has an incentive to defend each piece against over-exploitation.”

    In most cases, commons were governed by the community. Individual members had rights on use of the commons. Rights were defended. Members overstepping their tights were “corrected”.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_land

  47. @Jon Brase: Jacob did in fact have two wives (Leah and Rachel), as well as two concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah).

  48. I think that you have this almost backwards. This isn’t evidence of a universal ethic for fair dealing – it’s almost prima facie evidence for the lack of one, or for the existence of one for unfair dealing. The default for most societies is ‘fair dealing and truth within my tribe, and anything is fair game outside of my tribe’, where tribe would have been your extra-extended family, your village, etc. The reason things like the silent trade evolved was precisely because it answered the question of ‘how do we trade when they’ll screw me over, rob me or kill me if they can, because they’re not of my tribe?’.

    We see evidence of this everywhere. We see it in the behavior of the current wave of refugees migrating to Western Europe. We especially see it in the mess that western society has made of the Middle East. Everywhere that borders are drawn that aren’t on tribal lines, you are eventually going to have either a civil war/genocide, or you’re going to get war with a neighboring country that has as a majority, the minority on the other side. Or just look at the interactions between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have as an end goal of all the Jews being dead, and while the Jewish goal is not reciprocal, they definitely don’t see a problem with expansion, pushing the Palestinians away. Standard, built-in, universal behavior for dealing with people outside the tribe.

    Now, somehow, strangely, the USA has ended up mostly in a local minima where fair dealing has become the default. I mostly believe that it’s because we’ve somehow ended up in a situation where the entire country is our tribe, so most people almost never end up dealing with non-tribal people.

  49. >@ESR but the bioenergetics argument presupposes that currently optimal strategies override ancestrally optimal strategies.

    I don’t think so. Ancestrally optimal strategies reflect that bioenergetics exactly, which is what we should expect since they evolved under selection.

    The more general point here is that we should expect optimality under selective competition, economic efficiency, and universal ethics to coincide. When we think they don’t, the least hypothesis is that our understanding of the objective constraints is faulty.

  50. @Nancy Lebovitz
    “If large numbers of childless men are the default, why would people have a nearly 50-50 sex ratio?”

    Ecologically, that can indeed happen.

    But large numbers of childless men are the exception in history, not the rule.

    In hunter gatherers, the differences in “wealth” are too small to allow large imbalances. In agricultural societies, there simply are too few very wealthy gentry to matter much. Men rich enough to gather a harem of hundreds of women are simply few and far between (literally). The rest of the population was largely equal in poverty. Also, a peasant needs a wife to help him growing food. That alone would prevent too large an imbalance.

    The current imbalances in the Middle east and Asia are caused by industrialization and the inflow of external (oil) money.

  51. >I think that you have this almost backwards. This isn’t evidence of a universal ethic for fair dealing – it’s almost prima facie evidence for the lack of one, or for the existence of one for unfair dealing.

    You’ve missed something important. I guess it’s so huge that it’s invisible to you.

    The key difference between your neighboring tribes at war and the silent trade is how a potentially aggressive side estimates the expected payoff from an attempt at coercion.

    You can figure the rest out from there. The generalization to universal ethics is left as an easy exercise, especially since I implied the answer in the OP if you were paying attention.

  52. @Nancy Lebovitz

    >If large numbers of childless men are the default, why would people have a nearly 50-50 sex ratio?

    Most animals have the same ratio, because individual selection beats group selection easily and if 10 males impregnate 50 females, then each and every individual has a huge selfish-gene incentive to birth males because it means their own genes have 5x higher chance of being passed on. This in practice restores the equilibrium quickly.

    And yet, typically 10 deer or reindeer will impregnate 50 females. The 40 who lost the horn-locking contests won’t. In the absence of fathering / providing i.e. males valued only for their genes, as is the case of deer or reindeer, the only really stable equilibrium is a lot of practically useless loser males. You can not not birth them because it immediately gives an advantage to another animal who does, and any female who has a genetic mutation mating only with the highest quality male will have more and more succesful offspring than a female who mates with any random average male deer. Therefore, each and every parent cannot really do much than birth equal number of sons and daughters and just hope the sons will manage to defeat the other animals sons. In species that have fathering / providing that changes it, but not completely.

  53. >The more general point here is that we should expect optimality under selective competition, economic efficiency, and universal ethics to coincide.

    I don’t really understand this. Isn’t the whole point that humans didn’t evolve for living in civilized, historical societies, we evolved to live in uncivilized prehistoric ones? Thus economic / bioenergetic efficiency changed when people stopped hunting-gathering and started farming, and yet our instincts evolved under hunting-gathering and were not actually efficient in the new system anymore. I mean, I may be missing something, but this is obvious, this is the root of all human irrationality, that our instincts are optimized for a way of living that isn’t around anymore and wasn’t around for thousands of years.

    Beyond this, which is IMHO standard theory, I also have a pet personal one. Why is there such an intelligence gap between humans and animals? Why isn’t there a species of halfwit apes? Why does it look like the evolution of intelligence was some kind of a runaway, positive-feedback system? Intelligence, due to infant head size, made childbirth harder, more dangerous, and maternal investment (lactation) longer because human babies had to born premature. Thus intelligence made women even more valuable than men. It was already so for all mammals, but as humans got more intelligent, the female-male value gap got increasingly bigger due to the all-important infant head size problem. This is standard theory more or less. I propose that the utility of intelligence was that males used it for sexual competition, to lock down as many as possible from the ever-more-valuable women. The nice thing is that this predicts perfectly this type of runaway, positive-feedback process. And it is almost obvious that intelligence used for sexual competition means warfare for women with clever tactics.

    This means if there are universal ethical instincts at all, they must be more soldier type instincts – like respect a truce – than trader type.

  54. >Wealth does not matter too much, social status, relative social position matters

    That’s a limiting case for one kind of society – one where there aren’t really any material assets that can buy your children a significant nurturance advantage. Hunter-gatherer societies are like that, but most settled ones are not; in those, wealth substitutes for and eventually drives status.

  55. @ESR

    Polygyny: I’ve read a stat somewhere, that around 1700, the 23% of 40 to 44 years old people were unmarried and childless in Europe. Obviously it had to be the poorest men who couldn’t support a family and a roughly equal number of women. For these women it would have been a far better choice to be concubines of rich and powerful men and the rich and powerful men would have gladly taken them. Something prevented this. And that something that can prevent a large number of women and rich and powerful men from having a more or less mutually voluntary transaction with each other is probably repression or coercion. What else? Either repression by law or by very strong social taboo.

  56. What makes it marvellous is that it constituted experimental proof of the existence of universal, objective ethical principles sufficient to build cooperation among hostile parties.

    I question designating these traits as universal. There seems to be some assumption that there is a set of ethical principles that serves as a best fit for all societies, regardless of technology or values (social evolutionary conditions), while it seems likely to me that there are differing principles that would work ‘best’ under differing evolutionary conditions.

    Take polygyny; while monogamy seems a better long term social norm in modern society, there are social conditions where a polygynous society could be expected to do better, namely, a shortage of breeding-age males. Compare to sickle-cell anemia; the genetic inheritance of this trait is generally a disadvantage unless in an environment where there is a high risk of malaria, where it becomes an advantage. Remove the risk of malaria, and it becomes a disadvantage.

    People will naturally attempt to better their conditions by the easiest means that they can forsee, which may include voluntary trade or theft by force or fraud. Voluntary trade is necessarily better in aggregate over people in general, being a zero or positive sum trade, but that doesn’t rule out an individual or small group seeing theft as a better option.

    The silent trade seems to be a case where total theft isn’t an option. Presumably both sides realize that the other side has more to trade than they’ve left on the beach, meaning repeated trading sessions are possible over time, and, more importantly, they have no option to go and take all of the other side’s wealth via force, as each has an insurmountable advantage in their own areas (the villagers can’t sink and loot the ship, and the traders don’t have the manpower to take on the villages). Silent trade worked because the people involved could see that long term it improved their condition and that theft by force wasn’t an option.

    The key as someone that wants as many people engaged in bettering their conditions via voluntary trade as possible is to encourage a social evolutionary environment where the technology and cultural values are as supportive of voluntary trade and inimical to theft by force or fraud as possible, and it’s not necessarily going to be the case that advances in technology or changes in culture will move this way. The utility of theft by force seems to be highly subject to economies of scale, for example.

  57. >Isn’t the whole point that humans didn’t evolve for living in civilized, historical societies, we evolved to live in uncivilized prehistoric ones?

    Yes, but a lot of the objective constraints didn’t change in the transition. The most important one, for example – the scarcity of female reproductive capacity. Thus, you’re still going to mostly get your optimality “coincidence” in most circumstances, even though average wealth levels have gone way up.

    >This means if there are universal ethical instincts at all, they must be more soldier type instincts – like respect a truce – than trader type

    And yet, we observe trader-type universals. So this means you don’t understand the problem yet.

  58. >Either repression by law or by very strong social taboo.

    We can observe that there weren’t laws against the practice, or if there were they were effectively never enforced. If that ever happened it would, for example, certainly have shown up as a plot driver in period satires.

    So, strong social taboo. Yes. We even know how it was enforced – by a credible threat that illegitimate children would suffer abuse and disadvantage all their lives.

  59. I think the model of everyone has 50% sons because otherwise they’re at a genetic disadvantage leaves out that having sons represents a cost which might or might not pay off. I’m not saying that having no sons would be a good strategy, just that having 35% or 40% sons might be a better strategy than going 50-50.

  60. @Nancy
    “I’m not saying that having no sons would be a good strategy, just that having 35% or 40% sons might be a better strategy than going 50-50.”

    No. Every child has a father and a mother. So the average reproductive worth of a man and a woman are equal. This means that a woman that cannot estimate the relative worth of her children will be best of by producing boys and girls in equal proportions.

    However, if a female can estimate the reproductive success of her male offspring, a weak female will produce girls and a strong female will produce boys. That is exactly what happens in some animals.

  61. “Polygyny: I’ve read a stat somewhere, that around 1700, the 23% of 40 to 44 years old people were unmarried and childless in Europe. Obviously it had to be the poorest men who couldn’t support a family and a roughly equal number of women. For these women it would have been a far better choice to be concubines of rich and powerful men and the rich and powerful men would have gladly taken them. Something prevented this. And that something that can prevent a large number of women and rich and powerful men from having a more or less mutually voluntary transaction with each other is probably repression or coercion. What else? Either repression by law or by very strong social taboo.”

    While it may be better for the unmarried low-status women to serve as a concubine for a rich and powerful man, it does not mean that it is also beneficial for the rich and powerful men as well. There’s also the effect on the rich and powerful wife to consider, which feeds back into the effect on her husband.

    Second, social taboos don’t change overnight. How soon after a change in conditions occurs can we expect the corresponding taboos to change? If 90% of the world’s men died overnight, how long would it take to legalize polygyny? Now, apply that logic to a more subtle change.

    With your example, if we take that the social taboo on low-status women being concubines is removed, that doesn’t mean the social negatives on rich and powerful husband’s who neglect their wives for their concubines goes away at the same time, much less the social negatives on rich and powerful wives who’s husbands need to resort to a concubine (even if there’s no direct negative social effects for taking a concubine, the husband still needs to deal with the negatives of ‘angry wife’ and ‘angry in-laws’). A rich and powerful husband, then, still needs to examine all of these relationships when choosing what to do.

    Likewise, once the silent trade is established, it generates risks to trying to cheat. These may be in the form of taboos and social enforcement mechanisms (other traders that don’t cheat may be angry), or in not knowing the other side’s capabilities to respond.

  62. >However, if a female can estimate the reproductive success of her male offspring, a weak female will produce girls and a strong female will produce boys. That is exactly what happens in some animals.

    It has been observed in humans as well – shows up as a time-variable response to food scarcity. There is some evidence – disputed – that the effect shows up as a small swing in human offspring’s sex ratios, driven by social status.

  63. “I think the model of everyone has 50% sons because otherwise they’re at a genetic disadvantage leaves out that having sons represents a cost which might or might not pay off. I’m not saying that having no sons would be a good strategy, just that having 35% or 40% sons might be a better strategy than going 50-50.”

    Evolution for something like that plays out very slowly, and the species may go through periods with a both a shortage of males and a shortage of females. 50% also happens to work biologically very easy.

    Social means of dealing with an excess of one gender tend to be easier to undo when conditions change. Too many males? You can remove them from the breeding population in several ways. Traditionally, either go to war with your neighbor (very quick fix) or establish a tradition of sending surplus males to non-reproductive positions like religious orders.

  64. @Civilis
    “Polygyny: I’ve read a stat somewhere, that around 1700, the 23% of 40 to 44 years old people were unmarried and childless in Europe.”

    The same held for women, and there often was an imbalance of women (too many women). Many unmarried women stayed home to care for their parents and help their brothers or became servants (also, concubines?). The result was also that many women went into prostitution to service the unmarried men. It was bad for the children too. Read Dickens for the mid-nineteenth century situation.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_era

    Rich men might want more women, but not more children.

  65. This means if there are universal ethical instincts at all, they must be more soldier type instincts – like respect a truce – than trader type.

    Aren’t they the same after all? Say you have two warring tribes, Foo and Bar. Neither the Foo chief nor the Bar chief wants to see their finest warriors bleeding and dying. Foo chief goes to Bar chief and says that he is willing to cease hostilities provided condition A is met. Bar chief replies that he would be happy to meet condition A provided he receives concession B from Foo chief. And so forth, until either both parties are satisfied or the costs to both parties are lower than the costs of losing more men.

    Is this not trade? Perhaps not mercantile trade but all the cognitive requirements of mercantile trade are there.

  66. People can have all kinds of beliefs about gravity and those beliefs can change over time, but none of that cogitation alters what gravity is. As sentient intelligent beings, we strive to understand and test this phenomena; and ultimately deduce that it is a fundamental and universal force in our universe. In this regard, we cannot will the universe to change, but only be mistaken in our understanding.

    In the realm of living things, reproduction is an absolute and evolution appears to be a universal force that influences this propagation. For about a billion years, bacteria have dominated our planet as living matter, but Homo sapiens are unique in that we have been proactively tinkering with the forces of evolution for a few hundred thousand years.

    For the most part, this tinkering has resulted in the improvement of our numbers, physicality, health, and robustness. However, during the past few millennia of civilization, we have accelerated this impact via intrusion into the new phenomena of memetic evolution (not to mention the emerging eugenic manipulation of human DNA). In essence, we are now reprogramming life from conception forward.

    Behavior can be programmed both genetically and memetically. What is currently encoded in our genes likely survived the gauntlet of long-term evolutionary forces and may be considered a natural trait. However, there is nothing to stop us from reprogramming this away and substituting something else.

  67. Did the tribesmen and merchants ever see each other? If not, there is the problem of lack of reputation. The merchants would be able to identify which tribe they are trading with by geographical location, but how distinct are ships at beyond weapons-range?
    Without a reputation system, a ship could make substantial short-term gains by initiating trading then taking everything, both theirs and native, and moving along the coast to the next tribe and repeating. Of course, this would screw over everyone else and completely break the system.

    (Also, nice as this preview box is, It’s kinda covering the Post button.)

  68. >(Also, nice as this preview box is, It’s kinda covering the Post button.)

    I guess I’ll have to disable it.

  69. If non-aggression is universal, then why is there a need for this complicated retreat rigmarole?

  70. “you can never derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ […] these falsehoods”

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to say it’s a falsehood. It’s more that it is a difficulty that can be be dodged more easily and usefully than one might think. Rather like some Hume-ish points about the difficulty of induction, as it happens. Also for that matter rather like some abstract amalgam of ancient philosophers arguing about what aesthetics really means.

    Backing off to more concrete questions about “what strategies are stable” and um-um-statistical-issues-that-are-difficult-to-paraphrase and “what food is nutritious” works. It also works to reason about how our intuitions about ethics and confidence and deliciousness have more than a coincidental connection to those concrete questions.

    Similarly you can express something like Goedel’s incompleteness or the halting problem in such overweening language that it sounds false, and/or that people might carelessly invoke it to reach overbroad false conclusions, but that won’t make it false, it just means that for many practical purposes the more important truth is that you can get around its limitations.

  71. >It just needs moving down a little.

    I have no idea how to do that. If you do, please tell me.

  72. Winter on 2016-01-20 at 04:59:29 said: Whenever women can earn a living or men earn enough to support a family, women prefer monogamy.

    There are very few places where the average man does not earn enough to support a family. That is an unsustainable state of affairs.

    However, there are lots of places where women can support themselves and children (including, surprisingly, much of Africa).

    In these places, polygyny is widespread. The woman doesn’t need a full-time breadwinner to herself, and is attracted to being attached to a high-status male.

    Serial polygyny is very common in underclass communities, for similar reasons. Welfare or even low-wage work or handouts from relatives can be sufficient for survival. So the women hook up with Big Men or yield to the seductions of pick-up artists, because there are no particularly bad consequences. Note how often male underclass criminals have several children by multiple “baby mommas”.

  73. Winter on 2016-01-20 at 10:09:16 said:
    > But large numbers of childless men are the exception in history, not the rule.

    PC bullshit. The norm in history has been that a few men monopolized most of the women, either owning them, or predating on them. Common pattern is that women farm, men blow in fuck them, take their stuff, wander off, then some other thug wanders in, fucks them, takes their stuff, maybe kills the children if he is pretty sure they are not his own. That is how things worked in most of the New Guinea Highlands until very recently.

    Population estimated in the male line is always substantially smaller than population estimated in the female line. This is commonly interpreted as the norm being that between one man in two fathered all the children and one man in seventeen fathered all the children, though Cochrane disagrees and interprets the same data as a few Genghis Kahn figures having hundreds or thousands of children, while most males have children, are not entirely childless, but at rates below replacement.

  74. Winter on 2016-01-20 at 04:59:29 said: Whenever women can earn a living or men earn enough to support a family, women prefer monogamy.

    Not seeing it. If women preferred monogamy, would marry while still hot. Some do, most do not.

    Virgins have a tendency to imprint on the man that pops them, so if a man wants to get married, should marry a virgin. In this sense, women prefer monogamy.

    But the common pattern is that a virgin is popped by someone ridiculously alpha, who is not possibly going to marry her, or even learn her name, in which case after she has slept with many such men, like sticky tape that has been peeled off and stuck on too many times, she stops sticking.

    In this sense, women prefer polygyny.

  75. The silent trade works because the sailors have supremacy at sea, the villagers supremacy on land.

    Where this does not apply, the optimal strategy is likely to be defect/defect – the optimal strategy is likely to be kill the men, kill the children, rape the women, loot and burn. It is fairly common for primitive people’s to be permanently in defect/defect equilibrium. Getting to cooperate/cooperate equilibrium is tricky. Smart people are better at it than stupid people. I think anarcho capitalism would work great if everyone was IQ 130 and up. Similarly, drug legalization.

    There have been cases where a primitive people switched quite dramatically from defect/defect equilibrium to cooperate/cooperate equilibrium. Missionaries gave themselves the credit. I would not know if they deserved it or not.

  76. @esr (somewhat of an aside) –

    Lambert> > (Also, nice as this preview box is, It’s kinda covering the Post button.)

    > I guess I’ll have to disable it.

    > > It just needs moving down a little.

    > I have no idea how to do that. If you do, please tell me.

    It looks like you last updated the WordPress theme on this blog nearly 4 years ago. However, WP claims that the “Admired” themehasn’t been updated in over 2 years. It may no longer be maintained or supported and may have compatibility issues when used with more recent versions of WordPress.”

    Here’s a newer (free) theme with a similar appearance (it is being currently maintained): “Admiration”. You will probably want to hack the colors, etc. Perhaps this will fix the covered-up “Post” button bug.

  77. @Lawrence D’Anna, I love your Gravatar. YKYBPTMNHW you have a brief moment of panic when it catches your eye as you’re skimming down the page.

  78. On the topic of polygyny, for most of history, you had defacto polygyny in the form of slaves, plus an excess of women due to lots of men dying in violent conflict.

    That is, you didn’t need to worry about the destabilizing effects of polygyny in a society where women outnumbered free men.

  79. >Here’s a newer (free) theme with a similar appearance (it is being currently maintained): “Admiration”

    Experiment commencing.

  80. I don’t know. It seems to me that your analysis has the same problem I see in every attempt to support moral realism by looking at human universals — you’re just looking at humans, who evolved contingently in a very specific environment. How do you distinguish between (a) objective normative facts that humans evolved to perceive because it was advantageous to do so and (b) conventions that humans evolved to believe were objective normative facts because it was advantageous to do so?

    If you argue that fire burning is an objective fact, and that we have contingently evolved to perceive it as such because that perception enhances survival, people mostly will nod and say this makes sense. If you argue that the correctness of the Golden Rule is an objective fact, and that we have contingently evolved to perceive it as such because that perception enhances survival, you get a lot of discussion. This suggests to me that there is something fundamentally different about the two.

    If all you mean by “universal objective ethics” is “strategies that will in the long run prove pro-survival for any humans or groups of humans that adopt them”, then I’m willing to stipulate that you could be right, and that such beasts may well exemplify objective truths about human nature. But I think you mean something more than that, something along the lines of “objective fact about the universe”, and if so I think we part company; there’s still a miracle happening in step 2.

  81. OK, so I am not expert on this at all, but I read at least a little about it. It seems to have been primarily used in internal African trade and the Europeans cottoned on to it and used it too.

    So to me this looks far more like a memetically spread practice than a genetically spread one. At some stage a random mutation in human behavior caused such a trade to take place. It was profitable and consequently grew and spread through word of mouth (through common language speakers) and through practice (through non common language speakers.)

    The Europeans observed it somehow and learned to use it to their (and their trading partners’) advantage.

    I don’t doubt that there are some genetically derived moral mechanisms in humans — loving one’s baby for example, something which has identifiable physiological mechanisms — but I think mostly it is memetically derived.

    And the danger with talking about “objective ethics” is that they are imposters. By talking about “ethics” there is a subtle implication that the rightness of the ethic is from some external code rather than from some derived measure of utility. Of course you are saying exactly the opposite, that these “objective ethics” are internally derived, but the very word “ethics” clothes it in the very principles you are rejecting — an external, independent definition of ethical.

    And the second big problem is that as soon as you define some ethical principle to be “objective” everyone jumps on the bandwagon and defines the whole corpus of their etihical canon as “objective”. Here we are talking about polygyny as if it is related to the original in any way.

    Finally the argument that if an ethic is not universal it isn’t valid doesn’t wash at all. There are lots of things that few of us would argue are unethical or immoral that are far from universal, and certainly far from objectively universal by some strong derivation as you give above (though as I say, I think it is less strong than meets the eye.) After all, a billion people hold in the highest esteem a person who, while in his fifties, married a six year old girl.

  82. >f all you mean by “universal objective ethics” is “strategies that will in the long run prove pro-survival for any humans or groups of humans that adopt them”, then I’m willing to stipulate that you could be right, and that such beasts may well exemplify objective truths about human nature.

    That’s what I mean.

    >But I think you mean something more than that, something along the lines of “objective fact about the universe”, and if so I think we part company; there’s still a miracle happening in step 2.

    I agree. The only place we might part company is that I think objective truths about evolved human nature are facts about the universe.

  83. >Here’s a newer (free) theme with a similar appearance (it is being currently maintained): “Admiration”

    Sigh. The good news is, the post button becomes visible.

    The bad news is I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the huge freaking categories dropdown that was stepping on the blog title and I didn’t want anyway. And I won’t get support easily for fixing that because the theme is payware.

    Now, though, I know it is a theme-specific problem and can shop around for a better one.

  84. My favorite example is the effect rivers have on political geography. Two hostile, non-communicating tribes separated by usable land is a recipe for a frontier war, but if a river runs between them both are likely to accept it as a natural boundary and confine their warfare to punishing violations.

    This is obviously to some extent influenced by “transaction costs”; at some point the river crossing itself means that transporting forces is dramatically more difficult than moving by land, and the gains available by capturing the transriverine territory muted by the cost of communication. Warfare between the Germanii and Romans is an interesting example, tactics and even low-level strategy often being determined by whether major rivers were frozen over.

    I am curious how practically minor this effect has to get before it clearly loses some of its force; would the same two tribes that accept a navigable river as a natural boundary do so if the river were fordable with effort, or easily?

  85. > JAD, you clearly have no idea how a healthy poly network operates,

    A “healthy” poly network as distinct from actually existent poly networks, which tend to be bizarrely “unhealthy”.

  86. esr on 2016-01-20 at 08:02:35 said:
    > In reality, the polygyny trait in societies is strongly driven by how extreme social stratification is. When a relatively small number of high-status men can use centralized authority to easily corner most resources, polygyny follows. On the other hand, in a society with low stratification and decentralized politics, you get monogamy and nuclear families. Compare, say, Imperial China with Anglo-Saxon England.

    You cannot get authority more centralized than the early days of the convict settlement of Australia, nor inequality more severe, and they found it necessary to enforce monogamy on women with an iron fist.

    The spontaneous behavior of young women separated from their families by being transported to Australia in the late eighteenth century strikingly resembled the spontaneous behavior of young women separated by their families by starting university in the early twenty first century.

    Which is to say: They fucked around like minks in heat, but only fucked a small minority of males and were profoundly reluctant to marry.

  87. >The silent trade works because the sailors have supremacy at sea, the villagers supremacy on land. Where this does not apply, the optimal strategy is likely to be defect/defect

    I am afraid it is indeed true in many cases. https://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/trade-and-peace/

    “So that’s what free trade does to you. If the Uriankhai had grabbed this Bodonchar kid, cut his head off and got his hawk for themselves, they’d still be alive, and would have a game-hunting hawk as well. Because they didn’t, and let a stranger into their midst, they were all killed, their women raped, and their children enslaved for eternity. Trade is mutually beneficial. But some things are much more beneficial.”

    Worth noting: commenters proposed that spontaneous order does have a place in Confucianism, but it is a more complete system

  88. Regarding theme: this is one of the few sites I know that don’t make a Kindle’s (older one) experimental browser crash. Probably for this reason: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=118 it is remarkable, considering that that browser is so brittle, even Wiki can crash it occasionally.

    Now, this in itself is not too important, but when considering something like text-to-speech used by the blind, or perhaps something like InstaPaper which I love (and which works with really weird looking sites as well, but clearly these clean sites make its work easier and thus bug it out far rarer) it could easily get important.

  89. @Jon Brase http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=6994#comment-1680617

    >The silent trade stands in interesting contrast to copyright law in the digital age, where despite communication between the parties involved, both producers and consumers of information routinely accuse each other of flagrant and ongoing cheating, and yet nobody stops.

    I have a precise definition of property, which is ‘reasonable expectation of control.’ Basically I never attempt to control things unless I expect to succeed. This expectation is created by securing my lines of control.

    Since e.g. Disney continues to release movies in a digital format, we can infer that Disney continues to expect to make money from doing so, despite the fact that the data per se cannot be secured once it is broadcast. Their protestations about pirates are mainly posturing, done because it is cheap. They must be securing something else.

    Indeed this is something of an example of silent trade. “You know, you could pirate this movie.” “No, no, we’re happy to pay for it.” As a result, Disney would probably profit more by scrimping on security than by hypocritically haranguing pirates.

    @Edenist whackjob http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=6994#comment-1680654

    >in order to have objective oughts as the problem is formulated, there must be a God.

    Even that doesn’t work. Either God enforces the laws, in which case it’s deterrence, not an ought, or God does not enforce the laws, in which case it’s merely some guy’s subjective preferences.

    @ JAD

    > I think anarcho capitalism would work great if everyone was IQ 130 and up. Similarly, drug legalization.

    There’s a middle ground between legitimized coercion and your straw ancap, which is self-defence. 130 IQs have better aim: the defectors will get shot. The natural defectors either develop cooperative social norms, which they voluntarily fund enforcement of among themselves, or they’ll end up dead. There may be a technological tipping point, but we’ve definitely passed it already.

    When they legalized pot in Poland, pot use actually went down, despite the expected price drops. Criminals couldn’t use it to signal criminality to each other anymore, which turns out to be a huge chunk of the demand. Rebels also. I know this because I predicted it.

  90. >This is obviously to some extent influenced by “transaction costs”

    That’s right. Schelling-point “natural” boundaries seem to form wherever there’s a discontinuous change in enforcement costs. The change doesn’t have to actually very large, it just has tio be prominent to both sides.

  91. TheDividualist on 2016-01-20 at 10:17:27 said:

    >If large numbers of childless men are the default, why would people have a nearly 50-50 sex ratio?

    Most animals have the same ratio, because individual selection beats group selection…

    Here’s a stab at formalizing it, with lots of simplifying assumptions:

    Call the total number of females in the relevant reproductive group f and the total number of males m.

    Suppose all females reproduce – this turns out not to matter – and let c denote the expected number of children a female has.

    Females only mate with fraction 1/N of males, where n>1. Then an arbitrary male at birth has a 1/n chance of mating. If he mates, he will mate with (in expectation) nf/m females.

    His expected number of offspring per female he mates with is of course c, so his expected number of total offspring if he mates is c*n*f/m.

    Therefore a baby boy’s expected number of offspring is the probability that he mates, 1/n, times c*n*f/m. The n and the 1/n cancel, giving

    cf/m as an infant male’s expected number of offspring.

    The punchline:
    This expression is greater than a female’s expected number of offspring, c, IFF the number of females, f, is greater than the number of males, m. So any mutation that favors having more male offspring will be advantageous.
    It is less than a female’s expected number of offspring IFF m > f. So any mutation that favors having more female offspring will be advantageous.

    So f = m is a globally stable equilibrium.

    Surely all this is well-known by biologists, but it was easier to derive it than to try to find a source that derives it.

  92. Regarding the comment preview:

    >It just needs moving down a little.

    I have no idea how to do that. If you do, please tell me.

    I tweaked some values in wp-content/themes/admired/style.css to get it to line up nicely (I actually moved it up, since I couldn’t get it to account for the dynamic height of the preview). Here’s the changes that worked for me; I have no idea what gremlins they summon on other platforms.

    Align vertically with the website entry field, and horizontally with the right edge of the preview.
    Line 2208:
    old: margin: -20px 0 10px;
    new: margin: -62px 30px;

    Reduce the width to avoid overlapping the website entry field.
    Line 2230:
    old: padding: 5px 42px 5px 22px;
    new: padding: 5px 12px 5px 12px

  93. Winter on 2016-01-20 at 04:59:29 said:
    > All forms of “*gyny” are supposed to supply resources for raising children

    Actually not. African polygyny confiscates resources for raising children. New Guinean polygyny was often worse, murdering the children and beating up the mothers. A large amount of child support money winds up as lover support money. Lover boy shows up on the first of the month, crime rate suddenly drops on the first of the month, leaves shortly afterwards when the child support money runs out, crime rate rises again.

    You get transfer of resources from men to children when men and women are in the cooperate/cooperate equilibrium, forming durable families, which, absent external coercion, is not all that common.

    Defect/defect equilibrium between men and women pretty common – hence the rapidly shrinking population of many countries.

  94. >I tweaked some values in wp-content/themes/admired/style.css

    That almost worked.

    I can see that the preview window is shifted downwards from its previous position, which should vertically expose part of the post button, but the post button itself is reduced to the black line at its top edge.

  95. @esr: The key difference between your neighboring tribes at war and the silent trade is how a potentially aggressive side estimates the expected payoff from an attempt at coercion.

    Shouldn’t this be “estimates the expected payoff from an attempt at coercion, as compared with the expected payoff from an attempt at trade”?

  96. >Shouldn’t this be “estimates the expected payoff from an attempt at coercion, as compared with the expected payoff from an attempt at trade”?

    Or as opposed to just leaving your neighbors the hell alone so they’ll leave you the hell alone.

  97. @ESR @Jim this stuff about the iterated vs. not-iterated prisoner dilemma reminded me of something Dugin said once. That land-based nations like Russia were historically more honest because they have to live with their neighbors, allies, enemies for the long run, and with the consequences of the choices they make regarding to them, while naval nations like Britain were historically more perfidious because they can drop or remove troops from any point of the globe, can be allies with or enemies with any tribe anywhere and just pull out of it doesn’t work well, so they don’t have to live with the consequences of their choices. This sounded a lot like an iterated vs. non-iterated prisoner dilemma, now that I think of it.

  98. @TheDividualist

    Except that account sounds absurd. Russia, China, the Middle East–consistent backstabbers whenever it seems opportune.

  99. All, with regards to sex ratios, I think there is a misunderstanding of evolution going on here. Evolution does not necessarily produce optimal results. It frequently gets stuck in a hole, and, although it does optimize within the hole, it is often hard to jump out of the hole.

    I believe this would be an example. The reason why we have a 50-50 ratio of males to females is deeply ingrained in the DNA mechanisms of reproduction. These mechanisms were fixed very early on in the evolution of animals, long before the higher level considerations being discussed here.

    It is far from easy to see how a mindless mechanism like evolution could dig us out of that hole without an almost complete redesign of how we work at our most basic life mechanisms.
    In fact evolution has tried a few times to do something different here, by producing people with more than two sex chromosomes, however, in every case the result has been somewhere between benign and utterly destructive.

    Perhaps for humans a non 50-50 sex ratio would be beneficial, however, evolution doesn’t have a mechanism to experiment with this, so it can’t do it. It is probably true that we would benefit from the ability to run at 300 miles an hour, however, evolution has created our muscle and nerve structure in such a way that it is stuck, and can’t really do much better than what we do today (without a radical redesign.)

  100. Nonsense. If, for instance, the Y chromosome were to carry a gene that causes sperm bearing it to beat their flagella slightly more slowly, the majority of sperm reaching an egg wouldn’t have it and you’d have more females than males among the offspring. That’s not a complete overhaul of the entire system, nor is it the only plausible mechanism I could give.

    No, this is very probably a case of individual versus group selection. If most members of a population of some species are born female, you stand to make a genetic killing if you mutate so that more of your offspring are male.

  101. Just FYI, the ratio at birth is actually 107-100 boys to girls, worldwide, with nearly all industrial countries around this ratio at birth.

    Historically speaking, this ratio makes sense as men partake in more dangerous activities on a whole, but I haven’t found any study that put forth a good explanation about how this ends up translating into slightly more boys being born.

    Aka, scientifically, this should mean that 51.7% of all sperm carry the Y chromosome vs the X chromosome, but no study seems to support this.

  102. Jessica Boxer:

    No, given how much chromosomes differ among species, including variance among sex-selection chromosomes (in ZW species like birds, the sex-determining chromosome is in the ovum, and matching chromosomes give rise to males rather than females), this isn’t a deep, accidental structural issue.

    Tsar’s selection math holds, rather. In a reproducing population skewed to any one sex, having children of the opposite sex statistically leads to more grandchildren. Therefore, when any mutation that skews sex ratios becomes prevalent, a counter-mutation skewing the other way is increased in fitness accordingly.

    (There’s some weirdness around eusocial insects explained by post-conception kin selection by the worker caste, which are biologically more closely related to female offspring of the queen than to male, and who accordingly have an incentive to bias things in favor of female offspring.)

  103. thsu:

    Actually, it just means the sperm that reach the egg have to be biased in favor of Ys. And, in fact, it’s demonstrated that Y-bearing sperm are marginally faster than the ones with the heavier X chromosome. Then a generally higher male mortality post-conception (both in-utero and post-utero) brings the reproductive-age populations into statistical balance.

  104. >Aka, scientifically, this should mean that 51.7% of all sperm carry the Y chromosome vs the X chromosome, but no study seems to support this.

    No, it shouldn’t.

    We know that sperm with Y chromosomes have longer flagella than the X sperm, but the X sperm’s heads are a bit thicker. This makes the Y sperm faster, while the X sperm are more likely to survive in a more alkaline environment. When the pH gets high enough, the faster Y sperm are unlikely to live long enough to win the race against the X sperm and the alkaline environment; when it’s low enough, the Y speed is sufficient to beat both.

    People have successfully used this knowledge, to either attempt impregnation during a time that the woman’s reproductive tract is toward one pH extreme or the other, and/or for her to “prepare the battlefield” by douching with an alkaline or acidic solution. Based on how sperm are formed, there are almost exactly 50% Y sperm and 50% X sperm (a tiny fraction of XY or 0 sperm are produced) and the differing conception rate is down to women spending a bit more of their fertile time with the pH in the “Favors Y sperm” range than in “Favors X sperm”.

  105. > The only place we might part company is that I think objective truths about evolved human nature are facts about the universe.

    But they aren’t facts about the nature of other species in this universe, which is why I said on the previous thread:

    For instance, if one posits a planet populated by intelligent insects, there might be developed a theory of “rights” that allows a worker to be killed any time her queen (or an officer of the Crown) ordered it. The human theory of rights that declared slavery immoral would make no sense to them, because the requirements for insects to survive and thrive are so different from ours.

    It is possible that we could engage in Silent Trade with the Buggers, but we might find out that our natures are so different that we just couldn’t do it.

  106. >It is possible that we could engage in Silent Trade with the Buggers, but we might find out that our natures are so different that we just couldn’t do it.

    It’s an interesting question, and I don’t have any strong belief about the answer. I don’t think the laws of economics change between species, but there’s another level of instinct involved in the silent-trade signals having to do with how we interpret proximity, territoriality, and ownership. How well that would map over is hard to guess.

  107. I’m not sure I’d assume silent trade is an accurate proxy for all forms of trade. One obvious element of the silent trades is that both sides felt they were getting a really good deal — cheap beads and inexpensive weapons for useless heavy metal. As such the incentives for betrayal were lower; you’re only gaining the cost of your own trade goods, and that’s a pretty minimal gain.

    In transactions where the value of betrayal relative to the value of ongoing trade is higher, it’s unclear to me that silent trade would work.

  108. We’ve been programming computers (and other electronic devices) for about a half-century now, and the evolution of these devices is both extraordinary and impactful. Everywhere you look nowadays, you see people staring at their smart phone whenever they have some spare time (even new mothers tending to infants). This is no trivial development.

    A major feature of the above-referenced addiction is that a large percentage of our population is now ingesting huge amounts of information and messaging, and doing so repetitively. This is a powerful vector for memetic reprogramming of human wetware, and by extension, social norms and cultural biases.

    There is a need for countermeasures in order to restore individual sovereignty over their mental domain. IMHO, this is a place where hacker skill may be invaluable.

  109. The only place we might part company is that I think objective truths about evolved human nature are facts about the universe.

    Hmm. Okay. But either that’s vacuously true — the fact that my cat is grey is indeed a fact about the universe — or I’m still missing a step that justifies what you really do mean.

    To say that the Golden Rule is an objective truth sounds to me like a claim that it transcends humans. Fire would burn even if humans had never evolved.

    I’m probably just going down a rat hole here that is not central to your main point. But you were the one who said it challenges Hume’s guillotine, and I just don’t see it. Perhaps you are saying there’s something about the silent trade that means it must apply to all sapient species regardless of the circumstances under which they evolved? If so, citation needed.

  110. >To say that the Golden Rule is an objective truth sounds to me like a claim that it transcends humans. Fire would burn even if humans had never evolved.

    I keep running into this. It’s a weird kind of refusal to consider humans continuous with the natural world. Instead if arguing with you, I’m going to ask you to consider the ontological status of the following propositions:

    1. Animal territoriality is an evolved strategy for minimizing intra-species violence.

    2. In populations of agents playing an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, tit-for-tat is optimal strategy.

    3. No ethical premise is known that produces more sustained positive-sum interactions between sophonts than the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by.)

    If you consider these to be true statements, on what grounds would you consider them not to be objective< /em> truths?

  111. > 3. No ethical premise is known that produces more sustained positive-sum interactions between sophonts than the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by.)

    But that begs the question of whether it’s even possible to do that. If their nature is so different from ours that treating them the way we’d like to be treated is a violation of how they like to be treated, and vice versa, then we can’t.

    Or maybe we make our operative definition of “sophont” something along the lines of “those species capable of compatible implementations of the Golden Rule”. Your Bloodmouth Carnist theory certainly points that direction.

  112. >But that begs the question of whether it’s even possible to do that.

    It was carefully phrased to avoid that question!

    One conundrum at a time, please; I’m trying to nail down an ontological point about this sort of claim being objective.

  113. > universal, objective ethical principles

    I’ve watched far too much inner-city behavior to buy into that idea, at least as far as “silent trade.”

    A great number would see piles of stuff nobody was actively defending. And then they’d take what they wanted and smash and defecate on the rest to prevent anyone else from seeing any benefit from it. The correctness of that sort of behavior would be so self-evident to them that your chances of even making them understand, much less agree with, any other position are negligible.

  114. Eric, how do you reconcile the existence of a universal objective ethic with the fungibility and transience of human motivation?

    Behavior modification is becoming increasingly insidious and efficacious, and targeted gene manipulation may soon permit root level reprogramming of human social bias. For the past billion years, life form evolution was guided by the forces of natural selection, but we now live in a world where artificial selection is occurring a hyperspeed and it is unclear what the fundamental drivers are.

  115. >Eric, how do you reconcile the existence of a universal objective ethic with the fungibility and transience of human motivation?

    Oh, come on. That’s not even difficult. The existence of an optimal strategy doesn’t mean people are necessarily good at executing it.

  116. 3. No ethical premise is known that produces more sustained positive-sum interactions between sophonts than the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by.)

    Assume that’s true[1]. It still hasn’t obviated Hume’s guillotine or proved the Golden Rule itself to be true; you’ve simply shifted the introduction of “ought”. Instead of “Man ought to do unto others as he would have done unto him” you have “Man ought to maximise sustained positive-sum interactions.” That’s not trivially true; a more left-leaning individual might disagree, and say “Man ought to maximise sustained interactions in which the disparity between the participants’ derived utility is minimised.” The idea of Hume’s guillotine is that you can chase “ought to” upstream by justifying each statement (as I expect you’re doing in your head after reading that last premise), but never reduce it to “is.”

    [1] This might break down in the case of sizable differences in strength between your sophonts, if a strong party can compel a weaker party to sustain the interactions even when they are detrimental to the latter. It would still be positive-sum if the gains realised by the stronger outweigh the losses suffered by the weaker. But for this to happen, the stronger one must adopt a more egoist ethical premise.

  117. >It still hasn’t obviated Hume’s guillotine or proved the Golden Rule itself to be true; you’ve simply shifted the introduction of “ought”

    Let’s argue that later (and yes, I have an argument – it’s effectively the same as Sam Harris’s in The Moral Landscape, though independently arrived at). The point of my “Assuming that’s true” here is different – to banish the notion that claims about human behavior and objective constraints on ethics cannot themselves be objective truths.

  118. Typo: “with aggressive behavior that *us* deliberately interrupted or misdirected short of actual damage.”

  119. Hmm. I always figured that if I were running an extrasolar colony I’d put the borders of the local governments on the watershed boundaries. Perhaps that wouldn’t work though.

  120. >Hmm. I always figured that if I were running an extrasolar colony I’d put the borders of the local governments on the watershed boundaries.

    Watershed boundaries have all the properties of a good Schelling point except being obvious to the naked eye.

  121. @db48x: if I were running an extrasolar colony I’d put the borders of the local governments on the watershed boundaries

    What are “watershed boundaries” in this connection?

  122. > Some equivalent of the Golden Rule is live in every human culture, and one of the first results to emerge from evolutionary psychology in the 1990s is that humans seem to come equipped with a cheater-detection module – our performance on logic problems improves when they are framed as questions about whether someone is violating reciprocity.

    Do you have a link to more information about this?

    I ask because I’ve seen this before, and experienced it. Reading some article or other, I saw a logic problem laid out in abstract terms, and found it to be easily enough solvable, but requiring some thought. Then a visibly isomorphic problem was presented based on human interactions, and not only was the answer immediately, instinctively obvious, but it came with a charge of indignation directed at the hypothetically cheating person. But I can’t now find the article I read, nor recall obvious search terms.

  123. >Do you have a link to more information about this?

    I think the paper was in the 1992 Cosmides & Tooby anthology The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.. That whole anthology is worth a read, anyway.

  124. @Tom Hunt:

    Do you have a link to more information about this?

    The most famous, if not by name, of the “cheat detection” tasks in psychology is the Wason selection task. Asking this question of the general population when the task is phrased in abstract terms of letters and numbers yields a pass rate between 5-10%, while asking a question of if someone is of legal drinking age yields rises to above 75% (and usually much higher).

    [Unsurprisingly, Eric’s citation is the sole “further reading” listed on that Wikipedia page; however, in the context of this discussion I read your post as looking for a more immediately clear answer.]

  125. >and yes, I have an argument – it’s effectively the same as Sam Harris’s in The Moral Landscape, though independently arrived at

    Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape presupposes that human beings form a natural kind in the old Aristotelian sense – once the scientists establish what the essence and properties of this kind are, moral conclusions can be reached by adding the assumption that things ought to be good examples of the kind they belong to. The argument therefore fails under metaphysical assumptions that deny the possibility of natural kinds with intrinsic, objective purposes, such as that called variously empiricism, naturalism or materialism. So if Harris remains a materialist, he has not escaped Hume’s guillotine yet.

    On the other hand, if Harris gives up materialism and accepts formal and final causality as objective features of the world – if he uses an Aristotelian metaphysics as a base to build his science of morals on – he then has to face and deal with the Scholastic arguments from Aristotle’s philosophy for the existence of God. I guarantee you that, whatever premises Harris chooses, at least one of Aquinas’ Five Ways proofs will follow from them …

  126. >weird kind of refusal to consider humans continuous with the natural world

    Interesting. I think I have not communicated my objection. If anything, it seemed to me that you were doing what you suggest I’m doing.

    Humans are 100% natural creatures, in the natural world. But by that token they have evolved contingently, and to conclude that any aspect of their behavior has any predictive or even explanatory value regarding the behavior of any nonhuman part of the natural world (i.e. universe) requires some step beyond merely pointing out that it is a human universal (assuming that it is, for the sake of the argument).

    To address your specific questions:

    >1. Animal territoriality is an evolved strategy for minimizing intra-species violence.

    Granted.

    >2. In populations of agents playing an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, tit-for-tat is optimal strategy.

    Granted.

    >3. No ethical premise is known that produces more sustained positive-sum interactions between sophonts than the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by.)

    Perhaps. I’m not convinced this is irrefutable, but I’ll accept it for the sake of the argument.

    Nevertheless the most you’ve proven is that the strategy of “do as you would be done by” is evolutionarily the most successful strategy possible. That’s not the same as that it is an objective ethical imperative. We are ethically allowed to do all kinds of suboptimal things.

  127. @ esr

    > I think the paper was in the 1992 Cosmides & Tooby anthology The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.. That whole anthology is worth a read, anyway.

    Too bad there’s no Spanish-language edition. :-(

    Fortunately, Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict have been translated; dunno if they’re still in print, though. As for Lorenz, what book would you recommend? FWIW, I’ve read Man Meets Dog (which probably won’t surprise you ;-)).

  128. >Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape presupposes that human beings form a natural kind in the old Aristotelian sense

    I don’t think we read the same book. I’m pretty certain Harris would describe himself as an empiricist.

    The argument I was thinking about was a rather spiriteed reductio ad atrocity of not making increase in human happiness the terminal value of your ethics.

  129. In “The Abolition of Man” (available online), CS Lewis argued “Natural Law” was universal, while simultaneously proving you CANNOT get from ought to is. They are different categories. Different universes.

    Although you may accept X as OBJECTIVELY true, you do not need to act if X is true – you can commit fraud or such. Intellect and will are different, discrete things.

    Even if you accept Morality is both objective and true, you are still left to choose between good and evil. Even if you know (with metaphysical certainty) what is good, depending on what else (eternal punishment or lack thereof), you might choose evil (temporal pleasure or gain).

  130. One other “Schrodinger” type problem is that of sexual mores – ethics.
    Your restriction implies a Robinson Crusoe without a Friday – either male or female.
    But procreation, homosexuality (or even your ideas about Trans) cannot be considered in isolation.
    You have two humans. Then entire spectrum of holy matrimony, rape, prostitution, perversion, and more awaits. But the entire point is you have two in direct contact. Where “(that is, agreements that could be reached by parties that cannot coerce or even at the limit communicate with each other)” cannot apply. They both can communicate and “coerce” and even avoiding such in itself communicate something.

  131. >I don’t think we read the same book. I’m pretty certain Harris would describe himself as an empiricist.

    Certainly. I didn’t suppose that Harris recognized what he was committing himself to – still less that he would use the terms I did. It remains true nonetheless that, for anyone to accomplish the project for which Harris argued, they would have to accept a metaphysics similar enough to Aristotle’s for the Scholastic proofs of God to go through.

    Take this from Harris’s summary of his main thesis: “Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.” This means that conscious minds are a natural kind; that a mind experiencing well-being is a good instance of that kind, and one experiencing suffering is a poor instance of it; and for that reason a mind ought to experience well-being and not suffering. Now you can’t evaluate a concrete thing (the mind of a living human) by comparing it to the abstraction “conscious minds” while maintaining that abstractions exist only within the mind, and pretend that you are being entirely objective and empirical. If your idea of conscious minds as a kind is wholly subjective, your judgement that some states of minds are better than others is equally subjective. It’s like saying clothes should be 20% cooler.

  132. Watershed boundary —
    A line on the terrain, where if you dump a bucket of water, half will flow into the ocean in this river, and half will flow into the ocean in that river.

    There is a spot in Glacier park, north western Montana, where when you dump your bucket, a third will go down the Colombia, a third out the St Lawrence and a third out the Mississippi.

    Granted, much of the water will evaporate, and in some locations, it will flow into local low spots and completely evaporate. And you don’t have to have a boundary at every watershed, just put what boundaries you have on the watershed boundaries.

  133. @Jim Hurlburt: I had interpreted “extrasolar colony” to mean “space colony”, for which the usual concept of “watershed boundary” would not apply. (I realize on reflection that that might not have been the poster’s intent.) I was wondering if anyone had come up with a version of that concept that might be applicable to space colonies.

  134. I was wondering if anyone had come up with a version of that concept that might be applicable to space colonies.

    One possibility would be basing boundaries on gravitational phenomena, a boundary between two bodies being the plane passing through their Lagrange point normal to a line drawn between their gravitational centers.

  135. @ESR

    >2. In populations of agents playing an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, tit-for-tat is optimal strategy.

    >3. No ethical premise is known that produces more sustained positive-sum interactions between sophonts than the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by.)

    Let’s put it this way, maybe: the optimistic, or wishful upper bound is do as you would be done by, and the pessimistic, or realistic, or predictional lower bound is do to other as they really, actually do to you (or to yet others). Or a bit more accurately, use your best guess of the expected behavior of others, with their former behavior being the strongest, but not only, hint. And use the upper bound more for the in-group or for people more or less known to be decent and use the lower bound for the out-group when you have reasons to be more pessimistic. This is ultimately all about reciprocity, but different kinds of it, or broader interpreted.

    The handy thing about such broad reciprocity is that it solves some dilemmas. For example, libertarian NAP sounds childishly naive for much of human history and prehistory and for Mad Max type future scenarios. But you could say that it just means that in a civilized society, where initiating force is uncommon anyway, don’t be the first one who does it. But in some chaotic hellhole where very group raids every group, it’s different.

    (How do civilized societies come about, then? By smart people becoming strong, contracting with each other to leave each other alone and forcing everybody else to do the same, too.)

    Wishful reciprocity i.e. treat others as you want to be treated is often too utopian. I of course would want to be taken if I ever need to be a refugee, but still don’t want to take these million, 80% young male and possibly military-trained, don’t-even-know-if-refugees in. Predictional reciprocity, i.e. treat them like they would most likely treat me, is far more useful here, there are good reasons to be suspicious there.

  136. >I always figured that if I were running an extrasolar colony I’d put the borders of the local governments on the watershed boundaries.

    If we are looking for a Schelling point that can be used to determine what is an actually existing, real, not abstract human community and thus define a government or sovereignty on the level which really belongs together, I think the natural unit is the greater city-state, that is, one city and the surrounding farms, towns feeding it. Smaller units would be difficult, you need to have some hint of warfare capability and thus at least some hint of self-sufficiency. Trade is great but not when war blockades you. As for larger units, nations that don’t have a clearly dominant mega-city but multiple large ones, nations that compete with themselves like a multi-headed hydra, I don’t know, Germany is exactly like that and they are succesful enough, but this all came from artificially unifying smaller states that each had one dominant city.

    The difficulty is that this whole thing often runs the other way around, a city can be founded as a commercial, transportation trade hub, a bay good for a port and a navigable river to transport goods up and down, but very often a city develops from being a capitol, a center of government, as well. So it seems in that kind of case it is the other way around, however many states you define, you get as many capitols. This is a bit scary, by the way, if you consider that cities that owe their existence to being capitols have built their economy more or less on government spending.

  137. I’m still having trouble understanding how a “universal objective ethic” can exist in the absence of life (e.g. turn back the clock about a billion years or so).

    Perhaps there is an analogy to string theory in physics and cosmology. This conception of the fundamental building blocks of the universe (actually multiverse now) is purely an abstract paradigm that is formalized in mathematics; and as yet, may not be subject to any form of empirical testing. If so, then you are back to the faith method of justification in order to achieve broad acceptance.

  138. “Granted, much of the water will evaporate, and in some locations, it will flow into local low spots and completely evaporate.” – of course, if the “local low spot” is big enough, that’s called an endorheic basin. For example, there’s one that covers most of Nevada and half of Utah.

  139. >>For example, there’s one that covers most of Nevada and half of utah
    And southeast oregon and some of the south edge of Idaho. I grew up there.

    Jim

  140. What I’ve read about the silent trade, there was very little trust involved anywhere. About the only bit where there was a little trust involved was in the presumption that the other side would be willing to trade.

    The ship hung off the beach, but the goods where within case shot range.
    The locals stayed in the forest while the traders set up, but the area was within bow shot.

    My understanding was that each side left the other guys stuff alone beyond examining it, adjusting the size and positioning of their own stuff to make and refuse offers.

    The trade was accepted when one side picked up the offered goods and left their stuff. If it appeared if they were trying to take both piles, arrows or bullets would fly.

    About the only trust necessary was that the other side would be willing to trade, and would wish to trade again in the future — and that they would believe that betrayal of that trust would be both short term and long term expensive.

    I would assume that betrayal was tried on occasion, and in the typical case, had a significant negative rate of return — so the next pair of participants took note of the lesson and just went on with the trading.

    Jim

  141. @TheDividualist:

    Let’s put it this way, maybe: the optimistic, or wishful upper bound is do as you would be done by, and the pessimistic, or realistic, or predictional lower bound is do to other as they really, actually do to you (or to yet others). …use the upper bound more for the in-group or for people more or less known to be decent and use the lower bound for the out-group when you have reasons to be more pessimistic.

    The problem with labeling one groups as “trusted” and deserving of more doubt is identifying con artists and abusers: namely, that cheaters will (almost by definition) attempt to manipulate your selection criteria. It is my experience that your apparent belief that humans can be cataloged into a virtuous/trustworthy “in-group” is the more “wishful, optimistic” thinking: you are presuming that your criteria for determining the membership of the in-group is accurate enough, and cannot be “gamed”, such that the proportion of cheaters will be reduced compared to the general population. If this ratio is even equal, than the signaling of an “in group” carries no value, not to mention the harm you would suffer should the correlation be stronger.

    For example, libertarian NAP sounds childishly naive for much of human history and prehistory and for Mad Max type future scenarios. But you could say that it just means that in a civilized society, where initiating force is uncommon anyway, don’t be the first one who does it. But in some chaotic hellhole where very group raids every group, it’s different.

    … Wishful reciprocity i.e. treat others as you want to be treated is often too utopian.

    Interesting then that in Robert Axelrod’s “experiments”/tournament for Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, it was “tit-for-tat”, ie. cooperate in the first round then repeat your opponent’s last move, that was the most successful strategy submitted. Wikipedia even notes that TFT is in the class of evolutionary stable strategies. In fact, Wikipedia even notes that cooperation dominates in “larger” populations and defection in “small” ones, but does not provide enough detail [nor could I find a free source for the referenced papers] to know what this entails.

    I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but if “tit-for-tat” is the NAP expressed for Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, then it turns out the NAP is in fact neither childish or naive: it is the optimum strategy for when your civilization expands beyond a certain size. If you instead restrict who you are interact with because of some “in-group” identification, you are artificially creating the sort of environment where cheaters and defectors thrive.

  142. @esrEric, how do you reconcile the existence of a universal objective ethic with the fungibility and transience of human motivation?

    Oh, come on. That’s not even difficult. The existence of an optimal strategy doesn’t mean people are necessarily good at executing it.

    I think what he might be getting at is that which states you evaluate as optimal, and therefore which strategies you evaluate as optimal, are functions of your motives. If a mad scientist could obtain root in someone’s brain and alter their fundamental motivations such that they are okay with said mad scientist obtaining root in their brain and messing with their motivations – has the mad scientist violated his guinea-pig’s will, or simply performed a very deep sort of persuasion?

    Addictive drugs are perhaps a more closer-to-reality example. One (stupid) ‘optimal strategy’ is to alter your motives such that whatever state you currently are in is evaluated as optimal.

    Our motives are designed to push us to navigate a dangerous complex world and survive. All of our “oughts” relate to that problem. If you don’t make some assumption about fundamental drives being what they are, then you can’t make statements about what an agent “ought” to be doing.

    Of course, in the long run, I imagine short circuiting root motivations means you end up with agents that don’t survive long.

  143. I was wondering if anyone had come up with a version of that concept that might be applicable to space colonies.

    One possibility would be basing boundaries on gravitational phenomena, a boundary between two bodies being the plane passing through their Lagrange point normal to a line drawn between their gravitational centers.

    I always assumed property and territory for a space colony would be pretty simple: Without amazing amounts of construction and capital investment, everything is useless airless uninhabitable rock, which can be had in arbitrary quantities separated by arbitrary distances.

    Therefore, If you build it and keep it running, you own it.

  144. >But by that token they have evolved contingently, and to conclude that any aspect of their behavior has any predictive or even explanatory value regarding the behavior of any nonhuman part of the natural world (i.e. universe) requires some step beyond merely pointing out that it is a human universal (assuming that it is, for the sake of the argument).

    But that’s not how I’m reasoning at all, in fact it’s the exact inverse of my reasoning. My argument is that human ethical universals derive from the way the universe is, not the other way around.

    >Nevertheless the most you’ve proven is that the strategy of “do as you would be done by” is evolutionarily the most successful strategy possible. That’s not the same as that it is an objective ethical imperative. We are ethically allowed to do all kinds of suboptimal things.

    Of course. But for a rule to be an universal ethical imperative it is not required that everyone do it consistently, it’s only that the rule be demonstrably optimal for the purpose of ethics, which is to enable agents with different (and often conflicting) utility functions to sustain positive-sum outcomes.

    Somewhere upthread thesere was an objection that some people might value minimizing the difference it outcomes visible to other agents. That makes no difference – it’s just another input to the scoring system of some agents.

    The value of the silent trade is that it demonstrates in the real world how Axelrod’s tit-for-tat optimum shows up in the real world even when the ants cannot communicate in any way except their cooperate/defect actions.

  145. >Certainly. I didn’t suppose that Harris recognized what he was committing himself to – still less that he would use the terms I did. It remains true nonetheless that, for anyone to accomplish the project for which Harris argued, they would have to accept a metaphysics similar enough to Aristotle’s for the Scholastic proofs of God to go through.

    Shorter version of your argument: “I need invisible pink unicorns to exist. Therefore I’m going to insist that the existence of invisible pink unicorns is implied by your and Sam Harris’s arguments, in spite of the fact that you and Sam Harris believe don’t believe in IPUs and none of the theory I have accreted around the IPUs has any explanatory power at all.”

    All that is needed for Sam’s account (or mine) is that humans are executing (individual) utility functions which are not necessarily visible to us, and that a world where the typical and worst-case utility scores are higher is better than one in which they are lower. Lumbering this with unicorn-shit about “natural kinds” is pointless.

  146. >If a mad scientist could obtain root in someone’s brain and alter their fundamental motivations such that they are okay with said mad scientist obtaining root in their brain and messing with their motivations

    Hard cases make bad law.

  147. @ams:

    The problem is that colonies may want to lay claim jurisdiction over the empty space around them (for example, an exclusion zone for defensive purposes), or lay claim to natural resources in an area (which they can’t claim to have built), and that once these sorts of claims start being made, orbital mechanics might start mixing peoples territories in together with each other.

  148. > Watershed boundaries have all the properties of a good Schelling point except being obvious to the naked eye.

    Exactly. Probably makes them bureaucratically enforceable but otherwise unstable. Although perhaps if it were embedded in the culture strongly enough, and the capital cities were all at river mouths? If everyone looked “downhill” towards their capital, as it were, perhaps it could work even without lots of surveying. That would make a state made from several smaller watersheds less stable though.

    Another downside is that it might discourage canal-building (all the best canals cross watershed boundaries). Maybe the technology would never fall low enough for that to be a problem though.

    I don’t think city-states would be a good way to go; that presupposes that cities all grow to the same size, which isn’t true. It also doesn’t give you any rules to follow for dividing territory up other than making the farmers send food your way instead of someone else’s way.

    Space boundaries are an entirely different can of worms. You wouldn’t want your navigation to be restricted by having to stay on “your side” of a Lagrange point; they’re far too useful for travel and trade. I think space would mostly need to be treated the way we treat the open ocean; anyone can “sail” the space lanes, and only low orbits are controlled. On the third hand, the Lagrange points could be decent places to put toll booths, assuming you could make it stick.

  149. @Alex K.

    >I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but if “tit-for-tat” is the NAP expressed for Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, then it turns out the NAP is in fact neither childish or naive: it is the optimum strategy for when your civilization expands beyond a certain size. If you instead restrict who you are interact with because of some “in-group” identification, you are artificially creating the sort of environment where cheaters and defectors thrive.

    And this is another way of saying once you are civilized or approaching so, the NAP becomes more viable because the default, expected behavior is not that any random bypasser may try to mug you, for example. I think you are saying the same in other words in this case.

    The tricky part is the uncommon cases, the edge cases. Consider the case of preventive warfare. You won’t attack someone on the street just because his face looks kinda criminalish, but you may support your country to attack some dictatorship bragging about making nukes even when they did not yet attack anyone. Or another edge case, shooting a burglar in your home who does not yet show evidence of having a weapon. OK in this case the initation is in the other party, the question is rather the proportionality of the response. A third edge case is a drug that increases impulsivity and basically likely turns users into violent criminals, is governmental suppression of such drugs acceptable as violence-prevention?

    The NAP isn’t a bad strategy compared to how simple it is, amongst relatively nice folks, the real problem is that it does not really allow to use preventive violence to prevent larger violence (or one that would be against you or your group), and thus it tends to be a less optimal strategy when you deal with people who may very likely be initiating.

    At least if I interpret the NAP the naive way, like the Hollywood action movies of the 1980’s, where the hero always had to wait for the bad guy to shoot or hit first, and was only allowed to shoot or hit back. Isn’t that a bit too inefficient? Often a good approach, I mean, but would you really make that into a truly universal rule? I would override it when expedient. No rule should demand me to be suicidally stupid, every rule is subject to common sense.

    And hence reciprocity sometimes means treat others according what your best guess estimate is how they are actually going to treat you and not how you would want to.

    If you live in safe and nice circumstances, this can be a bit academic. I certainly do now and it certainly feels like nitpicking now. But if the proverbial shit hits the fan and much of the West reduces to something like the Yugo civil wars, this could really be all-important, the decision between always only just shooting back, or sometimes going preventive.

  150. This is only tangentially relevant, but highly interesting. http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/10/06/alice-and-bob-discover-capitalism/ Venkatesh is the first one I ever saw who is 1) genuinely supportive of capitalism 2) has a non-strawman view of what could some people dislike about capitalism 3) seems to get not even the common left-wing criticisms of capitalism but even the far more rarer and thus perhaps more interesting conservative criticisms of it. This level of insight is really rare.

    Basically Venkat perfectly predicted why exactly not only the left but e.g. even the Alain de Benoist type French New Right is angry that American Capitalism is McDonaldsizing France. It is precisely this model, external choices offered break up formerly closed, traditional systems. I mean I am not even sure he even heard about that one and yet the model fits. Impressive.

    The question is, how could you maintain a closed, traditional system, provided you desired so, in face of more attractive external choices, if it looks like you just cannot make it competitive enough? For example, how could a monogamous marriage be maintained against really sexy external seduction? Or how could basically any group of people maintain having a culture, which means, that their choices cluster, and not necessarily around the most competitive offer? Or suppose you are a farmer and prefer that your kids will keep on working the farm when you are gone, but the city offers more attractive jobs? Is there any sort of a general strategy for this?

    Note: I noticed that several people in the thread, even maybe our host, seem to more or less have designed their life around abandoning this keep-together desire altogether. I respect that, but I think if everybody did that, we’d lose things we would miss.

  151. >This is only tangentially relevant, but highly interesting.

    I swear to you that half way through reading this I had this actual thought: “Obvious Hawking-radiation joke is obvious.”

    Rao is, as usual, clever and insightful but also rather sloppy in his follow-through. His “definition” of capitalism is defective in several ways. One obvious one is that it fails to distinguish between free-market systems and those in which the limiting factor of growth is capital and thus economic activity is dominated by capital accumulation and management. To see that these are not the same, consider a hypothetical in which everybody has replicators and zero-point energy sources. Only the second kind of system ought properly to be called “capitalism”, but any free-market system will have the erosive effect Rao describes.

  152. @TheDividualist:
    [Quotes do not appear in the same order as your original post.]

    At least if I interpret the NAP the naive way, like the Hollywood action movies of the 1980’s, where the hero always had to wait for the bad guy to shoot or hit first, and was only allowed to shoot or hit back. Isn’t that a bit too inefficient?…

    And hence reciprocity sometimes means treat others according what your best guess estimate is how they are actually going to treat you and not how you would want to.

    There is a problem with “proactive” heroes who shoot first on the expectation of future violence: specifically, that just such an event could trigger a spreading negative feedback loop, as each instance of violence causes further “heroes” to fear for their future safety and join in the fray. In order to prevent such a tragedy, there must be some means to signal in society when you are correcting an offense rather than committing them. Membership in a enforcement unit (ie. police) is one such signal, but citing action movies suggests you are seeking others.

    If the NAP, as an ethical principle, is to serve as that social signalling it requires that parties not intervene until someone becomes aggressive. Because such a reactive stance is ethically limited to corrective actions, it prevents the “spiral of violence”: bystanders and observers should have little expectation of violence against themselves. Therefore, the “inefficient” extreme is actually more effective than a “proactive” stance in preventing violence.

    A third edge case is a drug that increases impulsivity and basically likely turns users into violent criminals, is governmental suppression of such drugs acceptable as violence-prevention?

    The logic which would permit suppression of such drugs “as violence prevention” could be applied to all other paraphernalia of violence (such as handguns). Your question is therefore equivalent to asking “Doesn’t the NAP require banning handguns?” Gun ownership, or a drug, by itself does not harm other persons, and therefore does not justify a response under the NAP.

    You won’t attack someone on the street just because his face looks kinda criminalish, but you may support your country to attack some dictatorship bragging about making nukes even when they did not yet attack anyone.

    It happens that I do not support such actions, so to me these cases appear equivalent. [Seriously do not understand this example. If you feel this was meant to represent something different from the other cases and still requires a separate response, please rephrase the question in a manner which does not assume any motive or belief on behalf of your audience. If you find that difficult, consider that difficulty itself my response.]

    another edge case, shooting a burglar in your home who does not yet show evidence of having a weapon. OK in this case the initation is in the other party, the question is rather the proportionality of the response.

    Just so. Since I agree there are circumstances which would not justify a deadly response (and I expect we would likely agree on much of the gross contours), but such argument differs from the rest of this post, I choose not to pursue the question herein of proportionality.

  153. @ ESR – “Hard cases make bad law.”

    Except that the paradigm is changing now. For most of our history, evolutionary change was comparatively slow and incremental. Gene editing tools are becoming cheap and accessible; and it’s no longer science fantasy to envision that human genome engineering may soon allow for root level behavioral modification (or targeted at other attributes such as enhanced intelligence or longevity). As in the article by Rao, once these new degrees of freedom come into existence, then inevitably they will be exploited by someone, somewhere.

    The race to become gods via artificially programmed biology is about to begin.

  154. On silent trade, how did western countries deal with civilizations that had a different concept of what they believed was fair?

    For example, in this study below, a common 2 person money game was played (player A gets $x, must give y% to player B, who can accept & both players keep the money, or reject & both players get zero) across several countries, and found that what different countries thought was fair was radically different. Western players would reject below 45%, while many non-western players would only reject below 10%.

    http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/Weird_People_BBS_final02.pdf

    This was one of the first global studies done that showed how a lot of behavior in the USA is actually an unusual outlier when compared to behavior globally.

  155. >what different countries thought was fair was radically different.

    I think the silent trade casts a lot of doubt on those studies. What we see in it is people from radically different cultures executing a common notion of fair exchange.

    It wouldn’t be the first time a lab setting has exhibited game behavior that is quite unlike the analogous real-world choices the players make. Experimental economists are gradually learning not to overinterpret, but the temptation is always there.

  156. @esr – the “fair exchange” of the silent trade is at a higher level. There’s nothing about it that ensures that each party gets the amount of value for their goods that they consider fair. Different valuations simply results in either a failed trade, or a successful trade where either side could have got a better deal but the offer they put on the table was more than what the other side wanted.

    The only thing that the success of the silent trade tells you is that both parties will accept the rules of the game.

  157. How do you think you (or anyone else) can distinguish “fair value” from an acceptable trade?

    Warning: this is a much, much harder problem than it sounds like. If you actually solve it, your Nobel in economics is a shoo-in.

  158. > How do you think you (or anyone else) can distinguish “fair value” from an acceptable trade?
    You can’t.

    The only people who get to define “fair value” are the people who choose whether to give something they value for something else they value more, which is to say the (potential) traders. This is the fundamental reason why minimum-wage, minimum housing or working conditions, etc. laws are wrong. That well-educated suburbanites find a job paying less than $X/hr “unfair”, or providing less than a certain number of paid breaks, or that a payday loan interest rate is “usurious”, or that a “slumlord” is taking advantage of poor folks by providing such poor quality accommodations… and that their subjective opinions justify sending Men With Badges And Guns to prevent these “atrocities” is the arrogance that their opinion is the only one that counts.

    That the Lumpenproletariat believe these are all, in fact, fair trades (as evidenced by the fact that they voluntarily engage in them) is irrelevant, because of course they’re too stupid to make their own decisions, and really need Their Betters to intervene on their poor benighted behalf. For Their Own Good.

  159. > How do you think you (or anyone else) can distinguish “fair value” from an acceptable trade?

    Well, I think it’s fundamentally two ways of talking about the same thing. If there is exactly one (for a given total amount) acceptable trade, then both parties agree on the value of the items being traded.

    If, for a given two types of goods held by two parties, they are unable to come to an agreement on an acceptable trade, then they do not agree on the value of at least one of the goods: either they value their own more than the other party does, or they value the other’s less than the other party does.

    Conversely, if there are many possible ratios in trade that both parties would find acceptable, then they also do not agree on the value of at least one of the goods – either they value the other’s more than the other party does, or they value their own less than the other party does.

  160. For example, suppose you think some object is worth five dollars and I think it is worth one dollar. You cannot sell me that object because there’s no way either of us will find any price named by the other acceptable. Conversely, there are a variety of prices at which I can sell it to you that we will both be happy with.

    Both of these facts are symptoms of the fact that we do not have the same belief of what that object is worth.

  161. @TheMonster – now how do you stop one side of the market from forming a cartel, and therefore denying the other side the benefit of a competitive market?

    A cartel in the sense I’m talking about doesn’t have to be an explicit arrangement (illegal under antitrust laws), it can be a “prospiracy” – e.g. for payday loans: Everyone charges a 500% interest rate because everyone knows everyone else charges a 500% interest rate, and if they got into a price war the gravy train would crash.

  162. > What we see in it is people from radically different cultures executing a common notion of fair exchange.

    After a bit of thought, I realized that silent trade works because it is iterative, allowing both parties to come to an agreement, even if both parties have differing ideas about what is fair – it just might take a few iterations before each side figures out what the other believes is acceptable.

  163. @Random832 Provided that they do not employ force to prevent entry into the market, I don’t have to stop them. The higher they try to push their price, the more new entrants they attract, or perhaps some of their members will defect. Nearly every monopoly has involved some government granting an exclusive franchise to a particular operator, or a limited number of licenses (taxicab medallions — see how Uber and Lyft are killing those government-created monopolies.) To my knowledge, the only non-coercive monopoly ever created was ALCOA, which was “guilty” of driving the price of aluminum so low that no one else could profitably sell at that price, then keeping it low enough that no one tried. That’s non-competititive only in the sense that ALCOA had no competitors, but in reality they were constantly competing against countless potential entrants.

    In the case of payday loans, let all of the do-gooders who believe those rates are too high chuck a few shekels into the “Nice Guys Payday Loan Company” that charges “fair” rates. They’ll put the bastards out of business. You know why this doesn’t happen? Because the “500% interest rate” isn’t all that high when you look at the reality of it.

    I’ve done this scenario with a local KC talk-show co-host who loves to rail against Payday Loans: Suppose Joe Schmoe needs $500 to get his car repaired, so he can get to work. He’ll pay it back in two weeks. “Will you give him $500 today and he’ll pay you back $550 in two weeks?” No, she won’t. That’s 260% APR right there, which she says is too high for people to pay, but she’s not willing to charge it. I say that if she’s not willing to risk her money loaning it at “outrageous” rates, she doesn’t get to send the Men With Badges And Guns to prevent someone else from doing it. And if she is willing to do so, you don’t need MWBAGs. Again, to her highly-educated suburban mindset, there’s no way anyone could rationally want to pay that rate, but clearly if the loan lets Joe get back to work sooner, it can pay off very well to him.

    One reason nobody will do it is obvious: Some of the Schmoes never pay you back, or you get part of the money after fighting an expensive protracted legal battle. So you have to charge more to make up for it. Another is that the do-gooders have successfully demonized Payday Loans to the point where only people who don’t care that they’re called evil bastards will do it. And those people want to be paid a premium to put up with people hating them. Maybe they want to make enough extra they have lots to contribute to charities to help rehabilitate themselves socially.

    Then there are the regulatory costs of creating Nice Guy Loan LLC in the first place. One of the biggest barriers to entry of new competitors against a cartel is the securities regulatory regime. The Left hates Eeeevil Corporations, but the corporation is the mechanism by which a bunch of Little Guys can band together against a Big Guy. Simplifying those regulations would go a long way toward making it very difficult for anyone to cartelize an industry. But instead, the regulations help to push bigger and bigger corporate structures to spread out the fixed costs of compliance, the exact opposite of the stated goal of most such regulation. (Then they want more regulation to fix what they’ve already screwed up.)

  164. @ESR OK, thanks, but I think Rao’s real point is this: capitalism is a radically transformative process that keeps abolishing former versions of itself and projects an unknowable future, the only fairly sure thing is that more and more choice will emerge and with that less and less of any kind of loyalty. While various government meddling and socialism type stuff also atomizes people, the sheer fact of more and more choices emerging also points towards more atomized ways of living. The insight, then, is that supporting this on any sort of conservative ground is fundamentally deluded, it will never bring back an earlier Victorian version of itself with nice old bourgeois values nor anything old. Nor will it preserve anything present.

    Thus there are only two truly valid choices: support the process, but accept that it is a radical, not conservative thing to do, it is a leap into the unknown and also that more choice will unavoidably revolutionize every human relationship. So as a rule of thumb, only those supporters of free markets who are also transhumanists, futurists and highly neophiles really know what they supporting. Buying into it while fully knowing what it is requires something like Doctorow style radical spirit: more curiosity than attachment.

    And those who support the process of capitalism with a conservative disposition probably don’t know what they are actually buying. They would like something stable, predictable, that preserves things they like, nice old bourgeois values and communities. But that is not how the process works. New choices will constantly erode that. And thus those who want to preserve a current or return to an earlier phase of capitalism, i.e. those of a conservative disposition, will sooner or later realize that not only socialism and government meddling, but even the process of capitalism itself is opposing them. Thus they will either abandon this and accept the radical leap of faith in the future unknown but probably more atomized, or probably begin promoting restriction / coercion.

    I think this is the insight here. And for me it is fairly breath-taking.

  165. @ESR @TheMonster

    Fairness has multiple meanings, for example, a rather dishonest political slogan. But if we are interested in the honest meanings of it, the idea that a fair price is not much more than an tacit social agreement: it is just the _customary_ price in a given time or place, which of course will be the most often market clearing price, or else you have a really dysfunctional tacit social agrement.

    Thus an unfair price or an unfair wage can only mean the price that does clear now, is accepted now, but would not clear in most cases, it is away from the general market clearing price.

    Thus, I hire someone to paint my house, and there is a general, customary market clearing price (range) for such a work with such a skillset. But if I somehow know this guy desperately needs money right now and cannot look for a better offer, I could offer a lower one and he would accept it. It would clear the transaction in this case, but would not clear in most cases. These exceptional cases can be called unfair. They can be called unfair both because it violates a tacit social agreement about what the customary price for such a service is, which is obviously the most common market clearing price, and perhaps on the individual scale also because it is an undeserved punishment, a discount put not on the lack of ability or lower quality service but on misfortune. However the idea of deserving things is a HUGE can of worms, so let’s not open that now, I just mentioned it, but perhaps focus on the tacit social agreement part.

    Thus a wage can be unfair in specific cases, but a general market clearing wage for a large group of people with similar skills doing similar jobs per definition cannot be unfair: the tacit social agreement is that this worths that much.

    This was invented by Adam Smith. Alfred Nobel wasn’t around yet. He wrote that if a worker cannot afford a linen shirt people think he is a bad worker. This obviously means that good workers can afford it. I.e. the tacit social agreement about the wage / the market clearing wage of the good worker is one that lets him afford it. This is thus the socially fair wage, and paying a worker – who is in urgency – under this wage is unfair, because not affording a linen shirt makes him look like a bad worker. But if he is not actually bad, then there is obviously an unfair thing, to make good workers look like bad workers.

    Long story short, a fair price is a tacit agreement / general market clearing price, a widely used price per definition cannot be unfair, individual transactions that clear far under the general clearing price can be unfair, thus unfairness can per definition only be exceptional.

    And in the silent trade, a fair price is whatever a given party’s culture at home generally thinks it is, what the tacit social agreement is, i.e. what the usual market clearing price is.

    Now something actually interesting. There are cultures strongly attached to the idea of customary prices. And they are the richer ones! In Switzerland a private organization of construction companies publishes a recommended, not mandatory price list for any small job, and most construction companies don’t bother negotiating or making prices for small stuff, they just use this. They would culturally see going above it greedy and below it stupid. They are strongly attached to the idea that whatever they put in this list, is fair. It is a huge Schelling point. Nobody enforces is but social pressure. They use it with each other, too. Can ya lend me two bricklayers, mines got the flu? Sure. By the price list? Sure. This is how they work. Bit of an old boys network. While in the Egyptian bazaar you spend 30 mins negotiating the price of a copper teapot and there is no social agreement whatsoever, nobody has a clue what the fair price could be, you get a quote, offer 20% of it, the vendor simulates a heart attack and cry crocodile tears about his starving kids, you end up paying 40% and STILL he looks suspiciously too smug about it. And that is a poor country. Interesting, isn’t it?

  166. >the only fairly sure thing is that more and more choice will emerge and with that less and less of any kind of loyalty.

    This is a bit of an exaggeration. What I see is loyalty shifting from accidental cultures to intentional ones – places where individuals have chosen sociality iin pursuit if undividual interests. E.g. hacker culture, gun culture, SF fandom, the rationalist community, etc.

    >And those who support the process of capitalism with a conservative disposition probably don’t know what they are actually buying.

    Surprised it took you this long. This ain’t news to most libertarians. We don’t, as a rule, have conservative temperaments, because conservative temperaments tend to be selected out once they grasp the full implications of market dynamism.

    As I’ve written before, the alliance between pro-free-market classical-liberal/libertarian types and conservatives is a fragile and historically contingent one driven primarily by a shared reaction against Marxism. Libertarians tend to be clear about this, conservatives not.

  167. @Random832: If there is exactly one (for a given total amount) acceptable trade, then both parties agree on the value of the items being traded.

    In other words, it’s a zero sum trade, so no net wealth is created. If this is the only kind of trade that you think is “fair”, then you believe “fair” trades are incompatible with wealth creation.

    (In the real world, these types of trades are negligible, precisely because neither party sees any gain in value from making them.)

    Conversely, if there are many possible ratios in trade that both parties would find acceptable, then they also do not agree on the value of at least one of the goods – either they value the other’s more than the other party does, or they value their own less than the other party does.

    I would put it that the necessary condition for there to be a bargaining range (which is the usual microeconomics term for “many possible ratios in trade”) is that each party to the trade values the other’s good more than he values his own. That’s why both are willing to make the trade: it increases the wealth that each one possesses.

    The fact that there is a bargaining range also means that there is not one unique price at which the trade can be predicted to take place, considered in isolation. But again, if you consider this to be “unfair”, then you believe “fair” trades are incompatible with wealth creation.

  168. @The Monster about the payday loans, these debates lead nowhere because it is not economic illiteracy but holiness-signalling. It is a signal of one’s own goodness to pretend to care about some total utter strangers getting ripped off by $50 when in a better universe they could just pay $5, which is obviously ridiculous, nobody really cares, but people who want to either feel or show being particularly saintly and caring pretend to.

    I don’t know if you read blogs of the NRx type but this is a big topic there. I.e. classic libertarian lore tends to hold these problems are just of economic illiteracy with obvious rational solutions: teach it. While here is a more psychological approach: these are holiness-signalling arms races, to gain (or to feel, subjectively, to have gained) status by being or looking more caring than the neighbor.

    The point is, you get absolutely nowhere with educating economics. While we don’t have a solution either, it is probably either in the direction of deflating holiness signalling arms races, directing them into a harmless field, or separating them from political decision-making.

  169. @Peter Donis – I don’t know what you think you’ve proven about my views by interchanging two or more different meanings of the word “fair”.

  170. @Random832: You implied that a trade (your example was the silent trade, but the same logic would apply to any trade) where there is a bargaining range, where each side “could have gotten a better deal” (your words), is somehow unfair–you say the fairness is “at a higher level”, which implies that it is somehow unfair at the level of the trade itself. I’m simply pointing out that that viewpoint doesn’t make sense. If that’s not your viewpoint, good; but then I’m confused about why you said the fairness of the silent trade was only “at a higher level”.

  171. I’m simply pointing out that that viewpoint doesn’t make sense.

    More precisely, that that viewpoint implies that wealth creation is unfair, which doesn’t seem to make sense.

  172. @TheDividualist. I don’t call them “holiness signaling” so much as “righteousness signaling”. There’s a subtle distinction between the two, but I think we’re in violent agreement that the people who engage in this really don’t give a damn about economics. They really only care about looking like they care. (Might we say “compassion signaling”?)

    Ultimately the problem is that “they mean well” is seen as excusing horrible behavior rather than damning it. I’d much rather deal with a rational person who wants only to enrich himself, than a well-meaning busybody. The former knows that gaining value dishonestly or by force is a negative-sum game, and he can only get away with robbery or fraud for so long before he’s caught and punished. The latter can be absolutely ruthless in his pursuit of my own good (as he sees it), and is the sort of person who would be the Inquisitor torturing a confession out of some poor sinner to save his soul right before burning him at the stake.

    No, when the actual results of policies are not in line with the alleged good intentions of their advocates, I say they must be stripped of the moral high ground of “meaning well”. We have to confront them as the mortal danger they are.

  173. >Thus, I hire someone to paint my house, and there is a general, customary market clearing price (range) for such a work with such a skillset. But if I somehow know this guy desperately needs money right now and cannot look for a better offer, I could offer a lower one and he would accept it. It would clear the transaction in this case, but would not clear in most cases. These exceptional cases can be called unfair

    They may be called “unfair” by people who are neither the buyer nor seller, but their opinion is irrelevant (provided they don’t bring in those MWBAGs to enforce it upon everyone else). He is the sole judge of what is fair compensation for his skills, effort and time, and those who offer him employment are the judges of whether such arrangements are fair to them. If people think he ought to be paid more, let them do so. Improve his situation by giving him a better alternative, not by forbidding what he believes to be the best available to him.

    So long as neither force nor fraud is involved, transactions can only occur when all parties value what they receive more than what they give. Once force is used to foreclose certain options, that is no longer true, and some parties may actually lose value.

  174. @Peter Donis
    > You implied that a trade (your example was the silent trade, but the same logic would apply to any trade) where there is a bargaining range, where each side “could have gotten a better deal” (your words), is somehow unfair

    I searched this page for the quoted words and couldn’t find them, at least in that combination. Assuming someone is actually arguing this, my response is “If they actually could have gotten a better deal, then why didn’t they do that?” The answer, of course, is that either that better deal didn’t exist, they didn’t know about it, or didn’t trust it.

    If it’s really true that a majority of the people believe the “fair” price for X is Y, then there will be plenty of customers willing to pay Y for X, and the suppliers of X don’t have to be exploited by low-ballers. And if it isn’t true, then the people advocating a minimum price of Y for X are either stupid or dishonest.

  175. @TheDividualist. I don’t call them “holiness signaling” so much as “righteousness signaling”. There’s a subtle distinction between the two, but I think we’re in violent agreement that the people who engage in this really don’t give a damn about economics. They really only care about looking like they care. (Might we say “compassion signaling”?)

    Not sure whether you’re trying to specifically distinguish, but the term I usually hear here is “virtue signaling”.

  176. @Peter Donis – I was trying to explain the difference between thsu’s idea of “fair” value vs the fairness of the higher-level trading protocols that ESR was discussing. Your mistake is in assuming that a trade which does not assign “the fair value” [obviously there’s not just one, since the whole point of this digression is that it’s subjective to both cultural and individual ideas] means it is necessarily not “a fair trade”.

  177. Really, reading back, it’s originally thsu’s mistake in equating fairness of valuation with fairness of trading protocols, and clearly I’ve completely failed in my attempt to untangle it.

  178. @Random832: I think your position is that the sense in which an individual trade is “fair” (both parties agree to make it) is different from the sense in which the higher level process is “fair” (both parties agree to conduct multiple individual transactions according to a particular set of higher level rules). Is that a fair (pun intended) statement? :-)

  179. @The Monster: Assuming someone is actually arguing this, my response is “If they actually could have gotten a better deal, then why didn’t they do that?” The answer, of course, is that either that better deal didn’t exist, they didn’t know about it, or didn’t trust it.

    The answer is that there is a bargaining range: there is a range of possible trades that both parties would agree to, so for any trade that is made within that range, each party could point to another possible trade within that range that would have given them a better deal (in the sense of more net value from the trade). So the reason neither party “gets a better deal is that”, if the trade takes place at all, it can only take place at one particular point within the bargaining range. I suppose this could be categorized as “a better deal didn’t exist”, but I don’t know if it is what you intended to capture with that alternative.

  180. Jim Hurlburt on 2016-01-24 at 22:49:38 said:
    There is a spot in Glacier park, north western Montana, where when you dump your bucket, a third will go down the Colombia, a third out the St Lawrence and a third out the Mississippi.

    Umm, not quite. The western end of the St. Lawrence basin is in eastern Minnesota, near Duluth, about 1,600 km east of Glacier National Park.

    The third basin draining Glacier Park is the Nelson River, which runs into Hudson Bay. The drainage is via the Mary River, then the Bow, then the Saskatchewan, then Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson. Note that the Red River of the North, which drains parts of Minnesota and the Dakotas, runs north into Lake Winnipeg.

  181. ESR: the alliance between pro-free-market classical-liberal/libertarian types and conservatives is a fragile and historically contingent one driven primarily by a shared reaction against Marxism. Libertarians tend to be clear about this, conservatives not.

    I think a couple of clarifications would be useful.

    The reaction isn’t against Marxism, it’s against coercive, statist, neomanic do-goodery. Marxist revolutionary socialism is only one particularly noxious form of that impulse. Many sincere and dedicated foes of Communism were deeply implicated in other forms, e.g. LBJ.

    Conservatives are aware that free-market capitalism is not aligned with preserving traditions, nor libertarianism. What they think is that if people are left free to choose, they will generally stick with traditional ideas and ways of life, rather than the clever-dick “upgrades” pushed by the Left.

    As to “how could you maintain a closed, traditional system”… the answer is “keep it closed”. Have minimal contact with any other culture, and raise the children to value the approval of the community above everything else. If the culture is relatively functional (economically successful and demographically stable/growing), it can go on indefinitely. It’s worked for Hasidic Jews in New York, for instance.

  182. >The reaction isn’t against Marxism, it’s against coercive, statist, neomanic do-goodery.

    The language and implied categories in this sentence are 20th-century constructions that actually postdate the period (roughly 1910-1950) in which the anti-Marxist alliance between cultural conservatives and classical liberals formed. They reflect classical-liberal ideas that had little play in conservatism before that.

    I think you, like most present-day American conservatives, have only a rather dim notion of what cultural conservatism before that alliance was made. You back-project today’s semantic frames on yesterday’s wars. TheDividualist is less prone to that because the older strain of conservatism is still a live political force outside the Anglosphere – which is why, for example, in Germany the Free Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union are separate parties.

    The older, pre-alliance conservatism was not actually anti-statist at all, provided the right people were running the state. Nor was it pro-free-market; in fact it tended to view free markets as corrosive of the proper established order, and merchants as untrustworthy.

  183. @Rich Rostrom

    >What they think is that if people are left free to choose, they will generally stick with traditional ideas and ways of life, rather than the clever-dick “upgrades” pushed by the Left.

    This is really what Rao’s model is so eloquently challenging, the best summary of Schumpeterian creative destruction so far. Every stage of capitalism or market dynamism creates a new closed system, in the sense of new rules of the game and new loyalties and a temporary, how to put it, tranquility and business-as-usual. But it also creates new choices outside that which will erode it. My go-to example is a farmer who wants his son to take over the farm but he finds the city jobs better. The farm gets sold to a faceless agricorp or redeveloped as a golf range. Things of this type obviously happen, and people of a conservative disposition don’t like them much.

    I don’t like them much either, from afar, in general, not just as preference but even something sort of a hypothesis that stability of this kind, sticking to family, local community etc. is a useful hedge against black swan events, it is certainly anti-fragile, and people totally did this during the Great Dee, but in practice it may be that I too would get tired of shoveling pig muck and take the clean city job. Alas, I have a clean city job. I don’t even know what shoveling pig muck is like. I am probably not the right judge of this.

    My challenge – not a hostile one, just thought provoking – to highly technophile, neophile, dynamism-approving libertarians would be how to properly balance out tech progress and anti-fragility. When new choices on the market erode loyalty to former vendors, partners, communities, professions, whatnot, we also get more fragility, right? And yes of course individual choice is a good start, the neophiles choose to become startup ninjas in the Valley while the more stability-oriented types choose to stick to the family pig farm in Indiana or Bavaria. But the issue is, when black swans, unpredictable crashes don’t happen, the oldies get steadily outcompeted. When black swans do happen, the newies crash harder.

    Does anyone remember the Dallas TV series? It was ages ago, but. Having both a fairly high-tech business and an oldie ranch at the same time kinda sounds exactly like a Taleb type bimodal (barbell) distribution anti-fragile strategy. Can this be created on a pure individual choice level?

    And that was the easy mode, strategies for people who already have it good, the hard mode is figuring the same out for, say, the third world.

  184. @ESR a bit of a correction: the older strain survived in Britain quite long. It is more of an American thing that it didn’t, not a generic Anglosphere thing. Specifically I mean the Tories who didn’t like Gladstone’s economics. Late 19th century, right? And then the Whigs collapsed from the pressure of getting picked on both from the right and emerging left, Labour became the other big party, I think that is already 20th century, and Tories going fully Economic Whig happened only in the 1970’s with Thatcher. Was not much of that in say 1945-55. For example, Churchill supported the creation of the NHS (which is even to the far left of Continental European healthcare systems, e.g. Germany or especially The Netherlands has always been more market based, more mixed in healthcare, frankly the NHS with its gigantic centralized every-egg-in-one-basket bureaucracy has a stronger Soviet smell than the Continental ones).

    Similarly there was a group in Canada sarcastically called Red Tories, although not sure how big given that big things don’t get remembered by sarcastic nicknames, I figure.

    I would also propose a wild guess that the Cavaliers-turned-slaver-planters that got crushed in the Civil War may have been of the older strain. You see, the older strain tends to be more linked to landowners than industrialists…

  185. @esr:
    >I think you, like most present-day American conservatives, have only a rather dim notion of what cultural conservatism before that alliance was made.

    Quite possibly, but I think the mixing between the two began earlier than you think, and as more than just a reaction against Marxism. You can’t have a nation with classical liberal traditions without classical liberalism influencing how traditionalists in that nation think.

    On another note, I think the interaction of conservatism and classical liberalism with Marxism goes beyond just shared reaction against Marxism. I think there may also be an element of Marxism having an easier time performing memetic hijacking on either philosophy on its own than on the two combined, with the result that the shared reaction is stronger when classical liberalism and conservatism actually mix than when either stands alone, and the defection rate from either philosophy in favor of Marxism is higher when the two don’t mix than when they do.

  186. @Jon Brase

    > I think there may also be an element of Marxism having an easier time performing memetic hijacking on either philosophy on its own than on the two combined

    I second this. The hijacking of pure classical liberalism by left-liberalism is a simple fact, and the hijacking of conservative thought did happen in the early 20th century Europe although less clearly demonstrated but there was a certain process of some folks drifting from conservative to nazoid to red-brown. I occasionally see this on the periphery of the West to this day, people starting with conservative ideas then reading Dugin etc.

    So this is a very useful idea. Let’s explore it further. What was the most resilient aspect of the “merger”? I mean I am aware that Buckley came up with Fusionism which he defined as “conservative virtue orientation matters, but it is only virtue if freely chosen” but I think that was mostly just a toy idea, an after-the-fact intellectualization of the process. So it was probably not this. What could it be?

  187. >I would also propose a wild guess that the Cavaliers-turned-slaver-planters that got crushed in the Civil War may have been of the older strain. You see, the older strain tends to be more linked to landowners than industrialists…

    They were. That’s a good guess from someone not intimately familiar with U.S. political history.

    Google for “Southern Agrarians” to learn about an odd remnant of the older tendency.

  188. >he answer is that there is a bargaining range: there is a range of possible trades that both parties would agree to, so for any trade that is made within that range, each party could point to another possible trade within that range that would have given them a better deal (in the sense of more net value from the trade).

    This is starting to sound like quantum mechanics. Before the trade takes place, there’s a probability function that collapses to a single actuality. But that actuality is what counts. The parties agree to the trade because they both believe it’s the best deal available to them. If they thought they could do better trading with someone else, they would do that.

  189. The temporal robustness of nations and cultures is not the same phenomena as the robustness of species that emerge via ancestral evolutionary forces. In other words, the genetic and memetic selection paradigms are fundamentally different. We have about a billion years of data on the former mechanism, but only a few millennia for the latter. More significantly, the rate of change is increasing exponentially, but our generational reproductive cycle is still just a few decades long. The point of this is that the study of history may not be as useful a tool as it once was. Almost all of the hard sciences now rely on modeling to push back the darkness.

  190. @TomA

    Sounds a bit like the nature-nurture problem? Because of twin studies, e.g. http://www.xenosystems.net/twin-discoveries/ and (anthro) Donald Brown’s human universals, I am about 80% on the nature side. That means, biology is more useful than history. And I don’t even like this result, I like (hi)stories far more than gene-math, I was never a hard-sciences type. So it is certainly not wishful thinking making me say so. I’d rather err towards the importance of (hi)stories, if I saw a honest way to do so.

  191. >I second this. The hijacking of pure classical liberalism by left-liberalism is a simple fact, and the hijacking of conservative thought did happen in the early 20th century Europe although less clearly demonstrated but there was a certain process of some folks drifting from conservative to nazoid to red-brown.

    Interesting discussion. I would have to agree, because before I read this post I was about to point out that the older strain (call it ‘old world’?) of conservatism didn’t seem to have much trouble allying with (real) fascism.

    And that Cavalier-turned-slave-planter class in the US, it is an interesting thing that one of their leading intellectual apologists was a socialist. Yes, really. (George Fitzhugh)

  192. In the US, I would offer that our equivalent of ‘old world conservative’ is in fact what we call a ‘limousine liberal’.

  193. >the older strain (call it ‘old world’?) of conservatism didn’t seem to have much trouble allying with (real) fascism.

    But only with one kind of fascism – the less important Francoite kind that is basically armed reactionaries. The main current of Fascism, as expressed in Naziism and late Italian Fascism, never got along well with old conservatism; it was too revolutionary, too centralizing, too leveling. But the Old Right opposition to fascism wasn’t in any real sense individualist or classical liberal; they actually despised the classical liberals. It had more the character of a defense of tradition, localism, and aristocratic privilege.

    This is difficult to notice because during and after WWII the Soviets spent a lot of propaganda effort obscuring it. Their memetic victims still deny that the Nazis were a socialist party.

    An interesting development in Europe today is that the successor parties to Italo/German fascism are moving, by fits and starts, towards Old Right positions – becoming more Francoite in style. This is most obvious in France and Italy.

  194. @The Monster: The parties agree to the trade because they both believe it’s the best deal available to them.

    Agreed. Another way of putting it would be that both parties believe that they will not be able to get a better deal by continued bargaining–that is, that the price at which they actually trade is the best price that the other party will accept. But it is still true that, if there is a bargaining range, that belief must be false for at least one of the parties.

    One answer to the obvious question of why the bargaining does not continue is transaction costs: continued bargaining has a cost, as does failing to make the trade–the deal that does get made is better than no deal at all. The other answer is that the price at which the trade actually takes place might be a Schelling point. TheDividualist mentioned upthread that cultures where there are customary prices for a lot of things tend to be richer; this is an example of avoiding transaction costs by creating Schelling points.

  195. >TheDividualist mentioned upthread that cultures where there are customary prices for a lot of things tend to be richer; this is an example of avoiding transaction costs by creating Schelling points.

    This also ties in with investment. Cultures without customary prices for things don’t seem to have any.

  196. >And that Cavalier-turned-slave-planter class in the US, it is an interesting thing that one of their leading intellectual apologists was a socialist. Yes, really. (George Fitzhugh)

    You really shouldn’t describe Fitzhugh as a socialist without heavy qualification. Doing so misleads modern audiences, which identify socialism with Marxism for the very good reason that after 1860 Marxian socialism either killed off or co-opted all the pre-Marxist versions like Fourierism snd the ideas of St. Simon and Robert Owens.

    Thus Fitzhugh was basically untouched by what moderns think of as socialism; indeed, he was quite snarky about it, writing in 1854 “Our only quarrel with Socialism is, that it will not honestly admit that it owes its recent revival to the failure of universal liberty, and is seeking to bring about slavery again in some form.”

    Remember that this guy thought that slavery was a a good thing. He was, essentially, an Old Right authoritarian who was “socialist” only in the loose pre-Marxist sense of being emotionally opposed to classical-liberal individualism. He advocated nothing like a socialist revolution or socialist political economics as we now think of it; his ideas has more in common with the “distributionism” that Chesterton and others were flirting with around the time.

    When I first learned of Fitzhugh a few years back, I remember thinking this: I don’t remember if Fitzhugh was supposed to have been a contributor to the ideology of the Draka in the nasty alternate history of S.M. Stirling’s Marching Through Georgia – but if he wasn’t, Steve missed a trick.

  197. >This also ties in with investment. Cultures without customary prices for things don’t seem to have any.

    I don’t think this is direct causation. Rather, the underlying driver of both traits is the level of social trust of strangers. In a high-trust culture you can believe that “customary pricing” will be reciprocal (as in the Swiss construction industry) and make investment deals with some confidence that the money you hand over to a stranger won’t be stolen or embezzled. Almost everyone is playing a long-tern game for positive-sum returns.

    Low-trust cultures aren’t like that. They’re sinks of theft and lies. This affects a lot of things.

  198. >One answer to the obvious question of why the bargaining does not continue is transaction costs:

    Indeed, I alluded to this before. The various regulatory regimes, most notably Securities, inflate the transaction costs such that many potential better alternatives cannot form.

    As far as “customary pricing” goes, it’s actually a violation of antitrust law for such a thing to exist, except when it’s known as “union scale”, because unions are explicitly exempt from those laws. (Or if it’s the government itself creating the price list) Knowing that they can hire extra union electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. at a certain cost, if needed to get a job back on schedule, gives general contractors the confidence to place a bid for a large project that they might not otherwise feel capable of performing. But over time, “scale” is likely to be found to encourage either insufficient or excessive numbers of people from entering the trade, and it’ll have to be adjusted or become irrelevant..

  199. @ESR

    I don’t have much time now, travelling, but as a quick remark: any proposed tie between pro-slavery and Chestertonian Distributism should ring a big “implausible” bell. D. is all about everybody becoming self-employed, they don’t even approve of “wage slavery”. Modern version: John Medaille’s Toward A Truly Free Market. Check it out – Medaille may not fully be a Libertarian-supporting Distributist but he is clearly aware of the L. econ. He also writes on Front Porch Republic.

    And if and when taking a position in economics is not the central part of the identity of a political force, they can’t really be classifed economically with any accuracy. Franco flirted with basically all: big landowners, nationally socialist left-Falange, capitalistic Opus Dei… guess what worked.

  200. @Greg

    >In the US, I would offer that our equivalent of ‘old world conservative’ is in fact what we call a ‘limousine liberal’.

    I’m triggered :-D

    Seriously, class and statism is not everything. Actual ideas matter. Devils and details.

  201. >As far as “customary pricing” goes, it’s actually a violation of antitrust law for such a thing to exist

    Is the Atlantic really so wide? It sounds almost like foreign-planet to my Euro mind. In the absence of them, how do I know I am not getting taken advantage of, screwed over i.e. not offered a worse price than most other customers? Surely at least customary ranges exist in the US?

    This ties in to my fairness definition. Too expensive means: more expensive than the offer most of my friends got. What else?

  202. >Seriously, class and statism is not everything. Actual ideas matter. Devils and details.

    Agreed.

  203. @TheDividualist: In the absence of them, how do I know I am not getting taken advantage of, screwed over i.e. not offered a worse price than most other customers?

    This may be partly an issue of terminology. If by “customary prices”, you just mean “prices that are visibly the same for everybody at a given time”, we certainly have those in the US; when I go into a grocery store, say, I know that everyone else is going to pay the same prices as I do for all the items on sale. But those prices can change from day to day in response to market forces.

    The kind of “customary prices” that The Monster is talking about are “customary prices” that, once established, are *not* allowed to change in response to market forces–or at least, are only allowed to change a lot more slowly than the market forces change. The costs associated with that inefficiency can more than wipe out any gains from having a Schelling point to lower the transaction costs associated with bargaining.

  204. >You really shouldn’t describe Fitzhugh as a socialist without heavy qualification. Doing so misleads modern audiences, which identify socialism with Marxism for the very good reason that after 1860 Marxian socialism either killed off or co-opted all the pre-Marxist versions like Fourierism snd the ideas of St. Simon and Robert Owens.

    I think you’re overreaching and possibly overly fixated on Marxism. ISTR this sort of thing has come up before, it’s almost as if you have an overly powerful Marxist filter that causes you to downplay non-Marxist socialism, or non-Marxist leftism in general.

    Several points:

    The co-option of other forms of socialism by Marxism was never universal or complete. Other forms of socialism could and did coexist with Marxism for a time, like European Social Democracy, or American New Deal Liberalism. Ignoring those, or treating them as ‘not really socialism’ (because not, or not yet, Marxist) is odd. Worth remembering that ‘Not True Socialism’ (because not Marxist) could still be quite dangerous in its own right (it’s socialism!), and also because, as you point out, if it’s not Marxist now, it will be. That the socialist-but-not-Marxist population has poor defense against Marxist co-option.

    >Thus Fitzhugh was basically untouched by what moderns think of as socialism; indeed, he was quite snarky about it, writing in 1854 “Our only quarrel with Socialism is, that it will not honestly admit that it owes its recent revival to the failure of universal liberty, and is seeking to bring about slavery again in some form.”

    And yet he called himself a Socialist, and spoke of slavery as the highest form of Socialism. IDK.

    >Remember that this guy thought that slavery was a a good thing. He was, essentially, an Old Right authoritarian who was “socialist” only in the loose pre-Marxist sense of being emotionally opposed to classical-liberal individualism. He advocated nothing like a socialist revolution or socialist political economics as we now think of it; his ideas has more in common with the “distributionism” that Chesterton and others were flirting with around the time.

    As someone pointed out, distributionism is a bad fit. Someone advocating slavery isn’t exactly a proponent of a romanticized ‘sturdy yeoman’ revival of small land owners, small business owners, etc, not ‘owned’.

    >When I first learned of Fitzhugh a few years back, I remember thinking this: I don’t remember if Fitzhugh was supposed to have been a contributor to the ideology of the Draka in the nasty alternate history of S.M. Stirling’s Marching Through Georgia – but if he wasn’t, Steve missed a trick.

    He strikes me as a good fit with and more than likely inspiration for, the modern American liberal patron-client system with its elite class of patrons rather paternalistically caring (through control of the state) for its dependent client class, still on their plantations, just this time the plantations are subsidized public housing vote plantations. If Steve missed a trick, LBJ certainly didn’t.

  205. >Other forms of socialism could and did coexist with Marxism for a time, like European Social Democracy, or American New Deal Liberalism. Ignoring those, or treating them as ‘not really socialism’ (because not, or not yet, Marxist) is odd.

    Bzzt! The European social democratic parties were genetically descended from Marxist organizations. The program of American New Deal ‘liberalism’ was derived from, and a response to, American Marxists such as Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. As opposed to, say, being Owenist or St.-Simonian or deriving from any of the other pre-Marxist versions of socialism.

    >And yet he called himself a Socialist, and spoke of slavery as the highest form of Socialism. IDK.

    That’s right. In 1854 it was still possible to think of oneself as a ‘socialist’ without having been doctrinally influenced by Marx, because the older pre-Marxist currents still had some independent life in them. By the time of Fitzhugh’s death in 1881 that was no longer true.

    When Fitzhugh spoke of “the current revival”, he was talking about the Marxian reinvention of socialism, which he was not part of.

    >Someone advocating slavery isn’t exactly a proponent of a romanticized ‘sturdy yeoman’ revival of small land owners, small business owners, etc, not ‘owned’.

    You’d think not, wouldn’t you? Except that’s how Fitzhugh seems to have thought the masters should be organized. He wasn’t a proponent of a redistributive centralized state – that, again, is a Marxist idea, and one of the reasons tagging Fitzhugh as a socialist will mislead almost anyone but a specialist historian

  206. @esr:
    The main current of Fascism, as expressed in Naziism and late Italian Fascism, never got along well with old conservatism; it was too revolutionary, too centralizing, too leveling. But the Old Right opposition to fascism wasn’t in any real sense individualist or classical liberal; they actually despised the classical liberals. It had more the character of a defense of tradition, localism, and aristocratic privilege.

    The Nazis didn’t get along well with the conservative elites in Germany, but they got along well enough with both the conservative base and the left-wing base that the conservative elites thought they could leverage the Nazis to maintain the votes to crush the Marxist threat, then throw them away.

  207. >for a rule to be an universal ethical imperative it is not required that everyone do it consistently, it’s only that the rule be demonstrably optimal for the purpose of ethics

    Well, you’re too slippery for me :-). I can see (and applaud) the attempt to do an end-run around the whole “Is it good because God wills it, or does God will it because it’s good?” tar pit. But I’m still convinced that what most people mean by “objective ethical rule” is something less contingent than “happens to work out for the best”. (Perhaps it should not be, but I claim it is.) With

    >which is to enable agents with different (and often conflicting) utility functions to sustain positive-sum outcomes

    you are coming dangerously near straightforward utilitarianism, with all the trolley-car perils that entails.

  208. >you are coming dangerously near straightforward utilitarianism, with all the trolley-car perils that entails.

    I’m aware of the problem. But the other jaw of that vise is that I don’t think being other than a utilitarian is actually possible – you can face up to that, or you can fool yourself that you’re not evaluating a utility function, but the choice of not evaluating a utility function does not seem to me to be open.

    I mean, cognitively, what else could we be doing – “And then a miracle occurs?” The most one can really argue is what the inputs the logic of the function are.

  209. @esr – utilitarianism as generally actually discussed by those who claim to practice it embodies a number of assumptions other than mere “evaluating a utility function”, such as, for example, that the effect of orthogonal events on the utility function result can be linearly combined.

  210. For example, the “shut up and multiply” example occasionally cited by the LessWrong folks embodies an assumption that the utility function result as evaluated against increasing numbers of people getting a dust speck in their eye diverges (and therefore that a sufficiently high number can be chosen at which the negative utility is larger than that of a single person being tortured for fifty years)

  211. I think you, like most present-day American conservatives, have only a rather dim notion of what cultural conservatism before that alliance was made…

    The older, pre-alliance conservatism was not actually anti-statist at all, provided the right people were running the state. Nor was it pro-free-market; in fact it tended to view free markets as corrosive of the proper established order, and merchants as untrustworthy.

    Of course I know that. 19th-century conservativism was authoritarian and therefore statist and elitist. That’s why some Latin American army officers went from conservative to full-bore Red, rather than “liberal”. European “throne and altar” conservativism was flat-out reactionary. “Radicals” in the 19th century were often wealthy bourgeois capitalists.

    However, I don’t see much of authoritarian conservatism in the U.S., except maybe the High Federalists in New England in 1790-1820.

    … the period (roughly 1910-1950) in which the anti-Marxist alliance between cultural conservatives and classical liberals formed.

    I think you overestimate the importance of Marxism in in the Left. There was lots of intrusive, well-meaning, wrong-headed statism in other sectors of the Left. The “We know how to fix everything because science” meme was endemic. I see you describe the New Deal as “derived from… Marxism”; I don’t see how. Yes, some of the Eurosocialist parties had some Marxist influences. That would be unavoidable, even though Marxism was far from the only socialist ideology of that period. But the Fabians weren’t Marxist.

    And I would also point out that the “classical liberals” split: some became libertarians, holding to the doctrines of economic freedom. But others stayed focused on such principles as anti-religion, feminism, anti-militarism, and (in Europe) republicanism (i.e. abolishing aristocracy and monarchy). Their drive to remake the social fabric of society (not just the economic system) ran into the natural conservatism of just about everybody else, and they became increasingly authoritarian. It also led them into foolish alliances with the Red Left (as in Spain in the 1930s).

  212. > Except that’s how Fitzhugh seems to have thought the masters be organized.

    This leads me to think about how I suggested earlier that non-numan, but sophonts, might have different “universal ethics” incompatible with ours. Provided that those differences can be compartmentalized as Fitzhugh did, such that a Bugger Queen is comfortable with her brood being slaves by our standards, but when dealing with other hives/species and focusing on how we treat other “masters” there’s no expectation of such a master/slave relationship, and we can be comfortable with her having “slaves”, it may indeed be possible for a truly universal objective ethics [for treating “outsiders”] to exist.

  213. >I don’t think being other than a utilitarian is actually possible…not evaluating a utility function does not seem to me to be open

    I think we are actually closer than you suppose. I unashamedly admit I am applying a utility function. I acknowledge that my firm belief that some things are Right and other things are Wrong was the product of evolution, and I accept at least for the sake of argument that the belief was evolutionarily successful. I am an atheist and find most flavors of moral realism hard to swallow, so you might expect I would like your story.

    (I do have to ask about all the philosophers and ethicists who have thought deeply on the subject and claimed not to be utilitarians. Were they all just deluded? Or is there a difference between having a utility function and being a utilitarian?)

    >I mean, cognitively, what else could we be doing – “And then a miracle occurs?”

    Exactly right. But where do you get the “ought” from this? Lots of strategies are evolutionarily successful. Is that all there is to being “objectively moral”? If so, the fact that the silent auction occurs so universally would hold some weight. But what if humans had evolved on a planet many times larger, or with a larger variety of terrains or phenotypes or something, and you learned that the silent auction only developed in a small subset of possible circumstances? Would it still represent an objective moral truth?

    For that matter, that’s really where we are anyway. How many distinct silent auctions were there over all of history, compared to the number of occasions when one tribe simply overran and slaughtered another? So what makes you take one as revealing an objective moral truth and not the other?

    In an earlier reply, you said in passing that the purpose of ethics “is to enable agents with different (and often conflicting) utility functions to sustain positive-sum outcomes” (and I think you later allowed as how you really meant win-win outcomes), so I guess your answer is that that’s just how it’s defined — one is moral because it’s win-win and the other is immoral because it’s not. But in that case observing the universality of the silent auction doesn’t “give us grounds” for concluding anything about morality — it’s just an example of behavior you have previously defined as moral, and evidence that we are capable of achieving, through evolution, moral behavior thus defined.

    I don’t deny that’s interesting, but I thought you were claiming rather more.

  214. Suppose you have an ethical system that is non-utilitarian, System X.

    Let’s say that System X says “Blowing up a star system and killing ~300,000 people to give uncounted trillions a chance to survive an invading enemy, is wrong”, and lets say that this is true.

    Unless System X is freaking magic it does not change the actual situation (if it does it isn’t so much ethics as a promise from god); you still have to make the blow up / don’t blow up decision and receive the consequences thereof. If you decide to follow System X, fine, well not-fine actually, but whatever, however you should not try to hide the fact that you are guaranteeing that those trillions of people are going to die horribly. Not being crystal clear on the consequences because “I meant well” will leave you more and more detached from reality, until eventually it becomes impossible to distinguish good from bad at all. You can never escape the consequences, unfortunately, many people’s ethical systems are based entirely around frantic attempts to ignore the costs of their decisions.

    [insert essay about Economics being a Sexy, Vindictive Bitch who always gets the last laugh, more often than Murphy in fact]

  215. Doctor Mist: “But where do you get the “ought” from this?”

    That’s a red herring. Any real “ought” lives purely in the conditional realm of facts and goals; the so-called “moral ought”, on the other hand, isn’t really a thing at all, it’s a hole where Divine Command used to be.

    IOW, the search for the moral ought (the thing Hume rightly says you can’t derive from an “is”) in the form of “but what makes you choose moral goal A” is a search for something to replace the thing that formerly “made you” behave a certain way, i.e. God’s commandments.

    But an objective ethics doesn’t need that. We have sets of goals (we could start out with any random set of goals), over time and with interaction (the long IPD of biological and cultural evolution) reason filters out which of those goals are compossible (both within the individual – ethics – and between multitudes of actors interacting – morality). You end up with something like, “that set of rules (or that basket of closely-related rulesets) out there in possibility space, which most conduces to human flourishing, happiness, etc., including my own (again, a bunch of closely-related goals).”

    That set of rules are “oughts” in an entirely conditional sense – “if your aim is A, then do x”, with the lower level rules being more subject to faster change (and often being relative to new questions about what to do morally that open up with technology), and the higher level rules changing only very slowly over time, and eventually settle down to a few very simple, but highly abstract and closely-related goals (e.g. human flourishing, happiness, etc.).

  216. @Foo Quuxman – and do you have a promise from God that they don’t have a chance to survive if you don’t blow up the star system? That the chance they do get has a high enough probability to make it worth it?

    What if they’re not going to die? What if they only lose their political independence (does it make a difference whether their political system is better or worse than the one they’re to be conquered by)? What if they only get dust specks in their eyes?

    You’re cheating by comparing deaths to deaths, the problem with “utilitarianism” as most people formulate it is the assumption that there is some number of dust specks that adds up to 50 years of torture.

  217. There was a time during the evolution of our species when the dichotomy of right versus wrong (or good versus bad, if you prefer that locution) was resolved in a rather direct existential fashion. If your decision in the moment kept you alive (or aided your reproduction), then it was tangibly right/good. Conversely, if your decision/conduct got you killed, then those left around you (and who observed your fate) would conclude that it was wrong/bad.

    Over time (and repetition), these life lessons coalesced into habitual mental patterns and it become advantageous to pass this wisdom onto succeeding generations. Genetic encoding of favorable mental habits is very slow, but the development of complex language precipitated a new memetic mechanism for reprogramming human wetware. As our social sophistication increased with the advent of civilization, this wisdom became codified as morals and ethics.

    Change is the only constant in the biosphere, and living things will always either adapt or die out. The wisdom of today is not the same as the wisdom of our ancestral forebears, and the future is an unknown.

  218. >I don’t deny that’s interesting, but I thought you were claiming rather more.

    Well…I think I am. I’ve already argued that everyone has to be trying to maximize a utility function, because what else could possibly be going on? (Whether such utility functions are necessarily orthogonal in the sense Random832 is talking about is a different question.) The corresponding macro question is this: if one rejects the definition of ethics as strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents, what else could be going on?

    My larger, implied claim is this: opposing definitions are not merely wrong in some contingent sense, they’re full of pseudo-essential spooks that vanish under language analysis. Either that or they completely fail to capture the folk/natural-language sense of “ethics”. Usually they fail both ways. It’s a lot like trying to have a theory of “truth” that doesn’t reduce to predictivism – it’s futile, the effort just leaves you terminally snarled up in your own map/territory errors.

    Which is where all of philosophy was stuck before 1878 (C.S. Peirce: How to Make Our Ideas Clear) and, alas, where 99% of it is still stuck. Mistaking the spooks for real problems, thrashing endlessly.

  219. > if one rejects the definition of ethics as strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents, what else could be going on?

    Utilitarianism rejects win-win outcomes too, by allowing for a “bigger” win for a single agent (a “utility monster”) to offset a loss by another agent.

    I think the problem is that you’ve accepted a vacuous definition of utilitarianism (i.e. ‘any decision making based on evaluating a utility function’) and ignored that the term “utilitarianism” implies specific things about those utility functions (in this case, the problem of an objective way to compose the utility functions of multiple agents).

  220. You don’t even need a utility monster to show a problem with this. Utilitarianism clearly requires communism – total utility is maximized by requiring people who have more (and therefore receive less marginal utility from each unit) to give up resources to people who have less, for nothing in return.

  221. >if one rejects the definition of ethics as strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents, what else could be going on?

    If you limit the definition of “ethics” to the interactions among several agents, the intuition that one ought not to injure oneself (which is universal among humans) fails to be part of ethics, though its logical status is the same as propositions which are part of ethics so defined. Which means that defining ethics as “strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents” does not reflect the folk/natural concept of ethics. The judgement that a man who spends his time drinking himself blind is worse as a human being than one who spends his time training to run marathons is clearly an ethical one by common definitions; by yours it would have to be considered something else – aesthetic, perhaps?

    Similarly, the person who voluntarily dies in order to save the lives of other people is universally praised; the judgement that one ought to sacrifice oneself for such purposes is clearly part of ethics. Yet it can’t be derived as a “strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents” – the self-sacrificing person, after all, loses everything that can be lost by a selfish agent. So again your definition doesn’t match the natural idea of ethics.

    (Needless to say, on the assumption that there is an objective human essence and telos, both of these judgements, as well as the judgement that agents should seek mutually beneficial outcomes, can be validated – just as the assumption that final and formal causation are real features of the universe validates Bayesian inferences and the scientific method.)

  222. > the intuition that one ought not to injure oneself (which is universal among humans) fails to be part of ethics,

    Please. This case is not even difficult. The person who self-harms is judged ethically deficient because he reduces the quality of the interactions others can have with him.

    >Yet [self-sacrifice] can’t be derived as a “strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents”

    Yeah, you need to get out more. Google for “Becker altruism”.

  223. > The person who self-harms is judged ethically deficient because he reduces the quality of the interactions others can have with him.

    If that were true, the hermit who withdraws from nearly all social interaction to meditate on the nature of the divine would be as universally condemned as the drunkard – which is certainly not the case; most cultures praise the hermit, in fact. Moreover, people condemn self-harm even in those who cannot interact with others for unrelated reasons, such as people shipwrecked on deserted islands. Self-harm is judged an ethical lapse regardless of its effects on other agents, and thus can’t be derived from those effects.

    >Google for “Becker altruism”.

    Come now. Gary Becker’s “rotten kid theorem” assumes that some agents are not selfish; it doesn’t even try to explain how altruistic agents come to exist. And the theorem applies only when the altruists can decide who benefits from their actions, which a man who gives his life to save others’ lives doesn’t normally get to do.

  224. >Mistaking the spooks for real problems, thrashing endlessly.

    I can accept this, and I believe that’s essentially what I was saying when I said I found moral realism hard to swallow.

    But I submit that you are (unconsciously?) trying to attach weight to your position by co-opting the weight associated with moral realism. If you honestly disavow that, then there are already words for what you are describing: strategy, heuristic, optimization. Prefix with “universal” if you feel like it.

    George P Stewart said above:

    >the so-called “moral ought”, on the other hand, isn’t really a thing at all, it’s a hole where Divine Command used to be.

    I’m totally good with this approach. If that’s what ESR meant, more power to him. But in that case, it’s obfuscatory to describe what he’s talking about as a “moral ought”. His position obviates the Humean guillotine not by actually deriving “ought” from “is”, but by denying the existence of “ought” in the first place.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. :-) But grasp the nettle!

  225. >Self-harm is judged an ethical lapse regardless of its effects on other agents, and thus can’t be derived from those effects.

    You have not demonstrated this. Religions that revere hermits believe they are achieving something important for members of the religion; the behavior of castaways is evaluated through the assumption that they will or might rejoin civilization.

    You have also failed to understand Becker altruism. The moment one notices that another person’s survival or happiness can be an input to one’s utility-scoring function, self-sacrifice is no longer remarkable.

  226. >But I submit that you are (unconsciously?) trying to attach weight to your position by co-opting the weight associated with moral realism.

    I suppose this is possible, except that I don’t know what you mean by “moral realism”. And my best guess about what it might mean is a position I would reject as dumbshit essentialism, a very basic ontological mistake.

  227. Ah. It sounds like I have caused you to lose patience with me, which pains me because I am a great fan and the point I’m trying to pin down is so very small.

    Since you made a point of referring to the “is-ought” problem, I assumed that moral realism — the position that moral statements refer to objective facts about the world, whose truth is independent of whether most or all humans believe them or would benefit from believing them — was part of the context. I would not have phrased it quite as you did, but “dumbshit essentialism” does capture most of what I meant by “hard to swallow”.

    Still, I submit that most of the world are moral realists. They would say that our deep and ineluctable feelings about virtue and justice turn out to promote survival because they are correct, not that they are definitionally correct because they promote survival. They would say that we have evolved (or were created) to recognize ethical facts as we recognize physical facts, but those facts would remain facts even if we had evolved differently or not at all. This is the distinction I thought you were trying to make by talking about “universal objective ethics”.

    You said

    >The silent trade gives us grounds for a very strong claim: there is a universal objective ethics, and its building blocks include (a) nonaggression, (b) Schelling points, (c) honesty, and (d) voluntary reciprocal exchange.

    Here is my tiny point. The history of the silent trade is not why you (or I) believe that these are the building blocks of ethical behavior. Believing that is just a thing we do, and the story of the silent trade is satisfying because it is in harmony with that belief.

    Here is the proof of my tiny point. If we hear of an attempted silent trade that ended with natives getting raped or sailors getting ambushed and killed, we do not take it as evidence that our theory of ethics needs adjusting; we say, “Huh, that went wrong.” If historians review the record and discover that most attempts at the silent trade ended badly, it will not change our feelings about ethics one iota. If historians review the record even more deeply and conclude that the silent trade was a myth, and there has never been even one successful execution of the silent trade, we will still shrug and say, “Even so, it seems like a good idea. I wonder why it never worked out.” If the nature of the evidence does not affect our belief, then it is not evidence for our belief.

    You and I like nonaggressive, honest, voluntary exchange. We like the silent trade because it embodies these things, and (more importantly) because we perceive it as embodying these things. Other people might look at a silent trade and say “Ecch, the thin end of the wedge, it wasn’t win-win at all, in the long run it just led to colonialism and subjugation. The natives would have been better off if the sailors never found out there was anything of value there.”

  228. > Religions that revere hermits believe they are achieving something important for members of the religion

    If you mean “hermits are supposed to be doing work that benefits other members of their culture”, then I must flatly contradict you. Hermits isolate themselves from human society, so far as they can, to master their passions and purify their souls, and are revered for doing so. No one praises a hermit for doing great services for other people; the very idea is absurd.

    If on the other hand you mean “hermits are supposed to be achieving a goal to which a member of their culture aspires”, you are conceding the point at issue. Hermits and addicts both make choices that drastically limit their interactions with other agents; they are judged very differently because the hermit tries to attain the human ideal, while the addict degrades himself below the human norm. They are judged by the effects their choices have on themselves; what effect they have on others is immaterial.

    > You have also failed to understand Becker altruism. The moment one notices that another person’s survival or happiness can be an input to one’s utility-scoring function, self-sacrifice is no longer remarkable.

    On the contrary, you are reading into Becker altruism much more than is actually there. Becker’s paper says that an altruistic agent can induce selfish agents to behave as altruists, to some degree at least, just by disposing his resources to help persons injured by selfish behavior. It’s an interesting observation, but not in any sense an explanation of altruism, and it doesn’t pretend to be. A society of selfish agents only will not induce any agents to behave as altruists for the reasons Becker lays out; you need at least one genuine altruist for the egoists to notice and be influenced by.

    And I’ll restrict my example a bit. A person who volunteers to join his nation’s army in wartime is clearly prepared to sacrifice his life to save others’ lives. But he is not a Becker altruist, for he has no control over who gains from his actions. If he dies in a battle that keeps an enemy army from invading, the people who benefit from his death are those who would otherwise have been conquered – but that depends on where the battle takes place, which is not up to him.

    Finally, if you include as “selfish agents” persons who consider the well-being of another person to be an important goal, the word “selfish” has lost all meaning and had better be discarded lest it confuse your thinking.

  229. >Ah. It sounds like I have caused you to lose patience with me

    No, not in the least.

    >Still, I submit that most of the world are moral realists.

    You are almost certainly right. But my position about moral realism is like my position about ontological realism – it’s a place to end up after a lot of careful phenomenological analysis, not a presupposition you can drag in early without dooming yourself to a lot of pointless tail-chasing.

    We think of objective material “reality” as what has causal power over what we experience independent of our thoughts and desires about that experience. We only know what material reality is because we observe causal regularities and can make predictions based on them.

    Objective ethical reality is exactly the same sort of thing. We know about it exactly to the extent that we can observe causal regularities, like tit-for-tat winning in IPD simulations.

    >If the nature of the evidence does not affect our belief, then it is not evidence for our belief.

    It affects my belief, because I view the silent trade as Axelrod’s tit-for-tat stepping into the real world. Or, conversely, it gives me confidence that the extreme abstraction of the IPD simulations has not stripped away something crucial that makes them inapplicable to human behavior.

  230. >It affects my belief, because I view the silent trade as Axelrod’s tit-for-tat stepping into the real world.

    Fair enough. Obviously I can’t read your mind. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I agree that the silent trade shows that a real-world situation can be enough like the laboratory context of Axelrod’s results as to produce analogous outcomes.

    When I say that, it doesn’t sound to me like an ethical breakthrough, but we’re all different.

  231. @ESR

    My views on ethics and even economics changed enormously when I discovered the emerging field of status-psychology, and generally the importance of status competition in the human mindset.

    For example, concepts like selfishness or altruism changed completely. If being unselfish about some material thing leads to gaining status by signalling this altruism, it it simply nothing more than just a different way of gaining status. Selfishly getting and controlling a lot of material resources is a more immediately obvious strategy for that, but in more refined circles that makes better. The vast majority of people who contribute to charity are basically just making a calculated choice about their social standing, even if this calculation is largely subconscious and not consciously known.

    And even when an altruistic act does not lead to an actual increase in social status, but it almost inevitable leads to an reward in _internalized_ status, the warm glow of being content with yourself, a balm for ones self-esteem. I think this comes from the fact of the West being a guilt culture. A shame culture like China is simple: whatever makes you lose face is bad. But the West has internalized social shaming into guilty conscience, and the weird part is that while it is almost obvious that guilt and conscience is just internalized status (because it makes you feel ashamed and shame comes from social status loss), people generally not admit it to themselves openly, because of course the very conscience it self demands that that you can only allow yourself to feel high status if you really have high moral ideals and not merely the internalized voice of social shaming!

    So there is this gigantic delusion right at the heart of the Western mind, we need to feel we have high moral ideals or feel ashamed i.e. our conscience enacts internal status loss, and thus this does not let us realize we don’t really care that much about high moral ideals.

    And a similar aspect is that while some kinds of status seeking lend themselves easily to being conscious about them, and admitting them at least to yourself honesty, for example, wanting to win a marathon, altruism-status and smartness-status, precisely the two most popular ones in todays educated elites, require a doublethink, of hiding the motive from your own conscious mind. You can train for a marathon for the glory it brings, but reading books just to show off to others, or donating to charities just to show off to others would be a big no-no, so our conscious minds constantly ignore and suppress the status motives about this into the subconscious.

    And the most interesting aspect is that the emerging psychology and economics of status, perhaps the most imporant social science of our times, Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan etc. doesn’t even require that much research and work, mostly it is done on blogs, because it is not about getting new information, it is about saying things we always knew just repressed in our own minds. Typically these blog posts affect most readers as a “damn it, yes, I am doing this” without even requiring much evidence. E.g. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/09/politics-isnt-a.html

    Anyway, if you want to build any moral theory on facts of psychology, start with the psychology of status.

  232. >If you mean “hermits are supposed to be doing work that benefits other members of their culture”, then I must flatly contradict you. Hermits isolate themselves from human society, so far as they can, to master their passions and purify their souls, and are revered for doing so. No one praises a hermit for doing great services for other people; the very idea is absurd.

    No? What’s going on here is that they are virtuous so that ordinary people, less capable of it, don’t have to be. This is why a hermit who fasts and prays is revered, but a hermit who (say) tortures small animals is not.

    >On the contrary, you are reading into Becker altruism much more than is actually there.

    If you’ve only read the one paper you are not in a good position to comment. Becker altruism has been much further developed by Becker himself and others, including occasional A&D commenter David Friedman. See for example Utility-Based Altruism: Evidence in Favour Gary Becker

    >Finally, if you include as “selfish agents” persons who consider the well-being of another person to be an important goal, the word “selfish” has lost all meaning and had better be discarded lest it confuse your thinking.

    I don’t think I’m the confused one here. “Selfish” has the exact meaning in a rational analysis of ethics that it does in the phrase “selfish gene”, and for exactly the same reason. Ethical altruism has exactly the same function as the reciprocal altruism associated with kin selection.

  233. >Anyway, if you want to build any moral theory on facts of psychology, start with the psychology of status.

    Man, have you even read Homesteading the Noosphere? I got there in 1999, well ahead of almost everybody else. Credit where credit is due: I developed my ideas from an insight of W. Keith Henson’s about the importance of superstimulating the status-reward mechanism in the dynamics of religious cults.

  234. @ESR

    > I’ve already argued that everyone has to be trying to maximize a utility function, because what else could possibly be going on? (Whether such utility functions are necessarily orthogonal in the sense Random832 is talking about is a different question.) The corresponding macro question is this: if one rejects the definition of ethics as strategy for maximizing the incidence of win-win outcomes among selfish agents, what else could be going on?

    Well, one idea I picked up from another commenter on another blog is that the intuitive way most people actually process ethics most of the time is virtue ethics. That is, when for example one gets a potential chance to steal something valuable, what usually tends to cause not doing so – beyond the fear of getting caught – is something along the lines of “But am I really that low? Could I look in the mirror if I knew I am just a common thief?” so it is not the consequences for the victim/everybody (textbook utilitarianism) nor is it it a sense of inviolable command, but generally this kind, of how to put it, *self-image*. While people do engage in the other two as well, this is perhaps the most common and most intuitive.

    And yes, it is probably internalized social status. Partially how our parents scolded and shamed us when we were children and nicked something, and partially from seeing how people see criminals. This got, due to the guilt culture of the West, internalized as conscience or self-shaming.

    In a shame culture, ethical calculus could be simply social calculus. Maxing out face gained, minimizing face lost. Of course, it would be not ethical in the strictest sense, but that is the point, not really that sure if actual ethics are that universal. Guilt cultures internalize this.

    Now, if your point is one level deeper, namely win-win outcomes of selfish agents being the _reason_ why social shaming exists, that is an interesting proposal, mine is simply that people usually don’t run that calculus directly, but indirectly, as above.

    However, I think that one level deeper is probably not so much about individual agents but more like group survival. Individualism is a historical anomaly probably coming from the churches being surprisingly effective at enforcing the ban on cousin marriage in NW Europe, and thus the nuclear family was born.

  235. >Man, have you even read Homesteading the Noosphere?

    Oh. Indeed. And then I promptly managed to misunderstand your reputation-theory as one of the interesting details of hacker culture, instead of seeing it as one of grand universal human motives. I didn’t really understand the full scope of your idea. You certainly deserve credit for raising it and working out one aspect of it so early.

    What seems to be clear today is that this thing is seriously huge. Reputation is just one aspect of status, and the good workmanship kind of reputation of hacker culture is just one aspect of that. To have a glimpse at how huge it is,Theodore Kemper raised in Social Structure And Testosterone, that two social things give a big kick to testosterone production: gaining dominance status, and gaining eminence or prestige status. That was in 1990, already a summary of pre-existing research done and sadly nobody cared because I think it was precisely that period when sociobiologists were unpopular? Anyway, if you look at prestige or eminence, consider how almost the whole human history of art as such has something to do with, how almost everything about morality and ethics had something do with it, and how in the last couple of hundred years everything about being smart or stupid, educated or not, had something to do with prestige. A reputation of good workmanship is similar to an artist’s prestige except that it has to functionally work. And then you add dominance status to it, which practically means adding all wars, all social ranks of former societies, like duke or daimyo, male horn-locking behavior, and even property in the sense that owning a place and making rules of behavior in that place certainly relates to it. And then the fact that both prestige and dominance have something to do with mating. This is HUGE. This is not a new theory, it has to become a whole new discipline, and a big one, like econ.

  236. >Now, if your point is one level deeper, namely win-win outcomes of selfish agents being the _reason_ why social shaming exists, that is an interesting proposal, mine is simply that people usually don’t run that calculus directly, but indirectly, as above.

    That is exactly my point. I think we should expect the same emergent behaviors of shame, guilt, and internalization to virtue ethics in any social sophont. Or, to put it in a more constructive way: there’s a short, straight path from social status as a fitness gain to shame, to guilt, then to virtue.

    But I think you are also right that people usually don’t run that calculus directly. These adaptive mechanisms formed in the EAA and run parallel to or beneath conscious mentation rather than within it.

    We are only confused about this, historically, because evo-psych is so recent and so many people want “virtue” to be about religion or some closely-related unicorn fart. I got a bit ahead of the game, pre-sociobiology, by reading classic SF in which adaptationist accounts of sophont behavior are taken for granted.

  237. >What’s going on here is that they are virtuous so that ordinary people, less capable of it, don’t have to be.

    So now you’re ascribing reverence for saintly hermits to the belief that divine vengeance might strike down a sinful population, if not for holy men and women praying on their behalf? How, then, do you explain such reverence among people who, having been trained from birth to believe in scientific materialism, categorically deny the possibility of divine providence? Are the atheists in Europe who venerate the Dalai Lama just stark raving mad?

    >If you’ve only read the one paper you are not in a good position to comment. Becker altruism has been much further developed by Becker himself and others, including occasional A&D commenter David Friedman. See for example Utility-Based Altruism: Evidence in Favour Gary Becker

    You cite as an example of development of Becker’s theory a paper which, in fact, tries to test that theory against variations that reduce utility to income? Either you had a completely different paper in mind and cited this one by accident, or you’re trying to snow me with a fallacious appeal to authority.

    >“Selfish” has the exact meaning in a rational analysis of ethics that it does in the phrase “selfish gene”, and for exactly the same reason.

    Calling genes “selfish” never was more than a rhetorical figure. Since Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase “selfish gene”, has recently acknowledged that it’s a badly misleading description of the concept he was explaining, applying the already-weak metaphor from biology to ethics can only drain it of what dregs of meaning and validity it possessed.

  238. >Are the atheists in Europe who venerate the Dalai Lama just stark raving mad?

    No, they’re noticing some qualities in the man which his religion happens to produce but which are worthy independent of the religion. He does nothing good for your case, anyway, since he is not a hermit but very engaged with world in a positive-sum way. And this is an especially bad example for you to bring up because many atheists (including myself) have Buddhist sympathies.

    >You cite as an example of development of Becker’s theory a paper which, in fact, tries to test that theory against variations that reduce utility to income?

    Sure. Why not? My point is that your notion of Becker altruism is too limited; the authors are, in their own way, making a very similar point. But any paper supporting Becker’s utility-driiven model would have done.

    >Calling genes “selfish” never was more than a rhetorical figure.

    OK, feel free to substitute some other verbal tag, or omit that one, rather than getting so hung up on the map that you miss the territory. The territory is that all forms of altruism, from the most biologically grounded to the most abstract and ‘ethical’, are driven by the agent’s private utility-maximization function, which has been shaped by adaptation to do things like reciprocal altruism to kin and tit-for-tat reciprocity with everybody.

    It’s all “selfish” in that there’s a ground-up account of it from adaptations to maximize germ-line survival. No God-spooks or presuppositions about “natural kinds” are required to explain it. There’s no telos anywhere except the Darwinian one.

  239. >Man, have you even read Homesteading the Noosphere? I got there in 1999, well ahead of almost everybody else. Credit where credit is due: I developed my ideas from an insight of W. Keith Henson’s about the importance of superstimulating the status-reward mechanism in the dynamics of religious cults.

    Have you come across Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed?

  240. > I think we should expect the same emergent behaviors of shame, guilt, and internalization to virtue ethics in any social sophont. Or, to put it in a more constructive way: there’s a short, straight path from social status as a fitness gain to shame, to guilt, then to virtue.

    That such a path exists can hardly be denied; but history doesn’t show that it’s an easy one. Shame-based cultures include the majority of human beings even today; individuals who are more concerned about guilt and virtue than shame and reputation appear everywhere, but they’re unusual in most places. And while the guilt-based cultures are, in the long run, more productive, more fulfilling and happier than the shame-based cultures, that long-term success doesn’t seem to inspire emulation.

    Also (and I know you won’t be comfortable with this) the main thing that helps people and cultures follow the path from shame to guilt has been a belief in the supernatural – either in an all-knowing divine judge who rewards virtue and punishes vice after death, or in the continued existence of one’s ancestors as ghosts whose approval or condemnation can have practical effects on oneself. Moreover, cultures that deny all such beliefs show a distressing tendency to regress from guilt back to shame to enforce ethical conduct.

  241. >There’s no telos anywhere except the Darwinian one.

    Agreed. But I’m still trying to puzzle out what your next step is. It’s not simply that anything promoting my germ-line survival is by definition moral. And indeed, as you have described, we have evolved certain preferences for win-win outcomes or altruistic self-sacrifice that occasionally run counter to individual germ-line survival. (Arguably these can be explained as accidental applications of behaviors evolved when everybody close to us was near kin, but let that pass.) But you are also not arguing anything as simplistic as “The telos of Darwinian evolution is smarter than you or me [which may well be true enough] and whatever it has evolved us to believe about right and wrong must therefore be treated as true.” People deeply believe many nasty and contradictory things about right and wrong. (I see I’ve skipped over the even more simplistic “What we have evolved to believe is true is perforce what we will believe is true, so we might as well claim it is true.”)

    None of this is what you are saying. So what are you saying? I guess what I’m requesting (with no right to do so) is that you go ahead and develop the argument you explicitly say is beyond the scope of this essay.

    Start with a simple question. We see that there is a difference between positive-sum outcomes (which it seems strict utilitarianism implies) and win-win outcomes (exemplified by the silent trade). Is the latter always preferable? Note that the existence of the American Republic is much easier to justify with the former than with the latter.

  242. >Have you come across Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed?

    Yes. Not sure I see the relevance.

  243. >Note that the existence of the American Republic is much easier to justify with the former than with the latter.

    OK, I thought I knew where you were going until I read that. Explain, please?

  244. I think we should expect the same emergent behaviors of shame, guilt, and internalization to virtue ethics in any social sophont.

    Does this claim come from generalizing the one data point of a single species (or rather, a fraction of one, as Michael Brazier observes) or from someplace like Axelrodian game-theory math? Neither seems to provide particularly strong support; is there a third source?

  245. Regarding the American republic: we are agreed, I hope, that its creation was a net win for humanity. It seems clearly a net loss for the original inhabitants.

    Perhaps not for their descendants; I won’t try to argue that, though I think one could try. But if the first Europeans had morally insisted on win-win outcomes, it’s hard for me to imagine significant settlement in the first place, let alone in such numbers as to produce an independence-minded European offspring culture. Am I wrong?

  246. I thought I knew where you were going until I read that.

    I should add that I’m not really “going anywhere”. At least, I’m not trying to get you to agree to something so I can pounce on it.

    I see the problems with strict utilitarianism, and I’m intrigued by the prospect of getting around them by insisting on win-win’s primacy over positive-sum (if that’s in fact where you are going). But it seems to me that win-win precludes a lot of outcomes that we would consider desirable, at least with the perspective of time. It reminds me of L. Neil Smith’s alternate history of a hyper-libertarian America that turns out to have happened because Jefferson wrote that governments derive their powers from the unanimous consent of the governed, which might sound fine in theory, but c’mon. :-)

  247. The territory is that all forms of altruism, from the most biologically grounded to the most abstract and ‘ethical’, are driven by the agent’s private utility-maximization function, which has been shaped by adaptation to do things like reciprocal altruism to kin and tit-for-tat reciprocity with everybody.

    TL;DR: *(atlasShrugged->text); // :D

    That is exactly my point. I think we should expect the same emergent behaviors of shame, guilt, and internalization to virtue ethics in any social sophont.

    I’m not sure we even need full sophonce, I’ve observed cats doing the same kind of eye contact avoidance when they are in trouble that a human would do. Note that this was explicitly not the standard cat refusal to make eye contact.

  248. >Does this claim come from generalizing the one data point of a single species (or rather, a fraction of one, as Michael Brazier observes) or from someplace like Axelrodian game-theory math?

    It can come from thinking about sophont behavior in a game-theoretical way inspired by Axelrod and a few other cases where we know how to solve Nash-equilibrium problems. An example, just to show the category is not limited to Axelrod’s demonstration, is the rule for incentivizing fair behavior in a 2-player divide-the-pie game; one party gets to slice, the other party chooses a portion first.

    I think there is good reason to believe that rule, and Axelrod’s tit-for-tat equilibrium, is going to work even if the sophonts involved breathe methane, have eyestalks, or run on a silicon substrate. The implied general program is to look for interaction rules, and phenomena emergent from them, that don’t seem to be contingent on anything that we reasonably expect to vary across sophonts.

    So, for example, if we consider what we mean by “social sophont”, what that seems to cash out to is one in which an ability to form alliances with others is an important driver of survival and reproductive success. This straightaway leads to the conclusion that your sophonts have to scoreboard in their minds a representation of how valuable other sophonts potentially are as allies, not only for their own capabilities but for their ability to form larger coalitions. Boom, you’ve just discovered “social status” and why it emerges naturally from sociality.

    Similar steps get you from status to status-seeking, social competition and shame. Now, if you notice that the result of this competitive race is to select for the ability to detect social deception (and project an agent’s potential for deception) then the step to virtue is not difficult. Some agents will discover and execute strategies in which they internalize behavioral norms to the point of short-term losses in order to present stable behavior and score higher on other agents’ trustworthiness evaluations.

    This is “virtue”, and again the argument that it ought to arise seems to be a straightforward implication of selective competition. Virtue gives you guilt; we don’t have to know anything about the sophont’s accidental characteristics to predict that. There may be other factors: on purely logical grounds we should expect, for example, the sophont’s “virtue” to be inversely proportional to his time preference.

    Then again, time preference is a selectable trait that co-evolves with others; it is almost certainly entailed that, for example, there is a positive feedback between average time preference and levels of social trust – which is, again, going to obtain even if your sophont is a sentient fish or a plasma ball in a stellar photosphere.

    No prize for guessing that I originally learned to think this way from reading SF. Game theory and sociobiology ratified and systematized what I already thought I knew from thinking hard about, for example, first-contact scenarioos and ecological-puzzle stories.

  249. >And this is an especially bad example for you to bring up because many atheists (including myself) have Buddhist sympathies.

    Actually the Buddhist sympathies of atheists are an excellent example of what I’m talking about. The Buddha was, after all, a prince who walked away from a life of ease and luxury to become a wandering sage when he realized what it was to suffer. One would expect atheists to prefer that he had stayed and used his wealth to relieve the pains of his subjects – but they don’t; they admire him for doing just what he did. Why should he be admired, except on the basis that a life of discipline and contemplation is better than one of sensual indulgence or benevolent despotism?

    >But any paper supporting Becker’s utility-driiven model would have done.

    Then you have entirely misunderstood me. Again, Becker’s model does not explain altruism. It assumes altruism and explains other things in terms of it. You are doing the equivalent of saying that dropping a ball and seeing that it falls down serves to explain the law of gravity.

    And you have done nothing to show that Becker’s model has anything to say about such cases as the volunteer soldier in wartime, when an agent puts his life at risk for others’ sakes.

    >all forms of altruism, from the most biologically grounded to the most abstract and ‘ethical’, are driven by the agent’s private utility-maximization function, which has been shaped by adaptation to do things like reciprocal altruism to kin and tit-for-tat reciprocity with everybody.

    >It’s all “selfish” in that there’s a ground-up account of it from adaptations to maximize germ-line survival. No God-spooks or presuppositions about “natural kinds” are required to explain it.

    Well, now. Just what do you mean by “germ-line survival”? What is it that survives when an organism reproduces, or helps its close relatives to reproduce? “Its genes” is true enough, but hardly complete – a gene, considered in isolation, is no more than a sequence of nucleotides, and in isolation a sequence of nucleotides does nothing at all, not even copy itself. It takes the full apparatus of a cell to interpret a strand of DNA. And a single gene can’t be successfully copied except as part of the whole bundle of instructions for making the cell that copies it.

    Which is to say, a gene is not a gene if it’s removed from the organism that carries it; it has no meaning or purpose except as part of that greater whole. What survives when an organism reproduces, what perseveres in its relatives after it has died, is not just its genes but its species, the totality of which its genes are merely component parts. And as you must know “species” is just the Latin for “kind”.

  250. >>Have you come across Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed?

    >Yes. Not sure I see the relevance.

    Tangentially. It could almost be described as exploring the importance of stimulating the status reward mechanism in the workings of a particular political ideology. First came out in 1996.

  251. Re: The last few dozen posts on transcendent traits.

    This entire field is being actively analyzed via computer-based simulation modeling in abstract space; as opposed to the empirical investigations and logic based deduction that typifies psychological and sociological studies as referenced above. The former does not require the existence of organic life forms (and is therefore truly transcendent), whereas the latter is muddied by chaos in human interaction and therefore endlessly argumentative.

    Even with the revelation of potentially universal and objective laws governing social dynamics, there is no assurance that our species will evolve to this endpoint.

  252. @Michael Brazier

    >Actually the Buddhist sympathies of atheists are an excellent example of what I’m talking about. The Buddha was, after all, a prince who walked away from a life of ease and luxury to become a wandering sage when he realized what it was to suffer. One would expect atheists to prefer that he had stayed and used his wealth to relieve the pains of his subjects – but they don’t; they admire him for doing just what he did. Why should he be admired, except on the basis that a life of discipline and contemplation is better than one of sensual indulgence or benevolent despotism?

    Because the Buddha claimed to have invented a set of mind-training methods that helps people who practice them in various ways. This is remarkably similar to a verifiable, testable, falsifiable claim about psychology, doesn’t have the accuracy of modern science but it is within the realm of empirical sanity. Debugging software in human brains by putting in special codes and signals that change how information is processed does not sound too insane. Also, the philosophy behind it feels remarkably modern, for example pointing out the map-terrain problem or impermance or the fact that our ego is probably composed of changing parts, is not a monolithical kernel, which actually does sound at least possible, and also quite modern.

    My point is that it seems you are confusing atheism with something else, a form of simplified materialism or I don’t even know what is the proper word for that something else. But I actually admit that especially amongst the young, not too smart “militant atheists” i.e. Reddit Dawkins fanboys that something else is actually quite widespread. So that something else, simplified materialism or what is the name, is the attitude that physical things are far more important than psychological or mental things. That it is always better to give people tangible things that to give them psychotherapy. They feel at some level that psychological or mental things aren’t really really, just something fluffy. That is wrong. Psychological or mental things are different kinds of real, physical things, they just happen to live inside skulls. And they are in the sense even more real. If I like a toy, it is not the physical aspect of it that makes my brain happy but the information generated by my interaction with its physical aspect that gets into my brain. My brain senses this information, not the physical thing. It is the information input that makes me happy. So anything psychological that manipulates information input or information already in the brain is working with that it far more directly and in this sense it is even more intimately real.

    I admit that simplistic materialism is common amongst less thoughtful atheists. Like they do the same with theists, why doesn’t the Pope give that immense wealth to some good cause? And then I think this claim would be far more valid if they at least made some attempt at evaluating the utility of the psychological effect of religious services on people. If they think it is neutral or harmful, then it is a good claim but if this could be something useful then not so clear. My point is, it is wrong to just assume away that all those things are unimportant because it just happens inside people’s heads. Everything truly important happens inside people’s heads, where else does suffering happen? I think it is some kind of a visibility fallacy, if I can see truckloads of food going to Haiti that is something visibly good, while we don’t see effects of psychological stuff so clearly as it happens inside.

    Interesting tidbit: while not in the West, but in Eastern Europe Marxists were very good examples of this kind of simplistic materialism. Like a true proletarian hero does not care about funny stuff going on in people’s heads, he cares about iron and steel and production numbers so something “real”. I suspect that the fact that in the US sometimes you see this in more libertarianish circles is the influence of Ayn Rand. She too was a bit too much into “real” stuff only. And I think it is also something slightly autistic, hence the stereotype of the Aspie militant atheist neckbeard: if I suck at figuring out what is happening in other people’s heads, let’s pretend it doesn’t matter and focus on “real” things!

    So yeah it is common in atheist circles, unfortunately, but is a mistake and not intimately connected to it.

    It is also true that many US atheists are engaged in progressive virtue signalling and unfortunately Buddhism got tied up in that, read this absolutely excellent post: https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/buddhist-ethics-is-advertising/

  253. I think the reason Rand was so into the “real” stuff was that she was fighting against “philosophy” that existed in a vacuum, explicitly divorced from reality, with the resultant epicycles to reconcile the original mistake. Rand rejected the premise behind the great debate over universals, and in doing so dispensed with a great deal of nonsense that frankly gave philosophy a bad name.

    Reality exists.
    We perceive reality (imperfectly).
    We form concepts from our perceptions, about how reality works, which are useful to the extent that they correspond with reality.
    When reality disagrees with our concepts, reality is right, and our concepts are wrong and in need of update.
    It’s not that our internal mental states are not real; it’s just a matter of which one counts when they diverge.
    If this all sounds like Aristotlean realism and the Scientific Method, it’s because it is. (And if this sounds like Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, well duh. And if you haven’t read it yet, you should.)

  254. IMHO Objectivism has good stuff, “omission of measurement” matches object-oriented programming / thinking very well and so on, but the issue is that as a philosophy it is small, it is kind of oversimplified, it is closed, and tends to attract cultish types. If you want philosophy very firmly grounded in empirical reality, but something big and open and generally academically-level acceptable, biology, look up Ruth Millikan.

    https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/43848-millikan-and-her-critics/

    The authors of this review write:

    “When I studied philosophy in graduate school, my peers and I went to classes where we were made to read Kripke and Davidson and Quine and Putnam. Then, duty done, we met together at a coffee shop and discussed the latest paper from Millikan, pens in hand, arguing passionately. I cannot even recall how we found her work and knew we had to study it, but somehow there was consensus among us that she was producing the most exciting philosophy happening right then. Sometimes we were convinced that Millikan got a problem wrong (on one memorable occasion there was a mutual shout that Millikan was “nuts” to claim a beaver tail slap is an articulated representation); more often we felt she had offered a solution to some problem that other philosophers had mostly just obscured. But that was not what made us study her work so eagerly. The important thing was that Millikan gave us tools. Her theory of proper functions was something we could actually use. It had wide and general utility. Even those of us who disagreed with her theory of proper functions found ourselves struggling to develop an alternative that could be as valuable.”

    I think both Rand and Millikan were/are the “toolmaker” kind of philosopher and that is the best kind, but Rand’s system is IMHO too small and closed.

  255. Heinlein definitely knew about this – he described it in Citizen of the Galaxy (as mentioned above by Irving Rivas, who did recall correctly). I always though it an excellent method of trade between cultures that might not be able to communicate in other ways. (I’m not sure the cannon blast is necessary, though. A few spears thrust into the ground nearby should suffice.)

  256. The Dutch-Lenape deal seems to have been no contract at all by modern standards. The Lenape thought they were selling (fairly cheaply) the right of the Dutch to access the land. The Dutch thought they were buying (very cheaply) the right to exclude the Lenape. No meeting of the minds, no contract.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *