When is a cause not a cause?

Maybe you've heard the principle “correlation is not causation”. To put it another way, just because two things tend to happen together, that doesn't mean one of them causes the other. For example:

“Thunder and fires often originate in the same place. Therefore, thunder causes fires.” (No, lightning causes both of them separately.)

“People who are taking medicine are more likely to be sick. Therefore, taking medicine causes you to be sick.” (No, being sick causes people to take medicine.)

This principle is a warning to be careful about drawing conclusions that aren't supported by the evidence. It's especially important in [...]

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About grouping mental illness with violence...

(Content warning: Discussion of abusive relationships and other violence.)

For a long time, I've had two conflicting ideas, and I've been looking for a way to reconcile them:

  1. When we're talking about abusers and spree killers, we shouldn't call them “psychos”. We shouldn't call them mentally ill in general, because that stigmatizes mental illness. Mentally ill people are disproportionately the targets of violence, rather than the perpetrators. If you imply that they're violent, that isolates them further and prevents them from getting the care they need. So we should treat violence and mental illness as completely separate issues.
  2. Punishment isn't the most effective way to reduce violence. As a society, we should take an epidemiological approach to violence. We should research the causes of violent behavior and remove those causes, rather than just punishing individual people who did violent things. In a sense, we should treat most violence as mental illness.

Obviously, these two beliefs have a conflict of each other. But yesterday, I finally found a way to reconcile them.

The difference is [...]

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When is it justified to ask whether violence is justified?

I was thinking of writing a post called “When is violence justified?”, but then I decided to write this post instead.

Here's the ideal case: Joan is thinking of doing something violent. However, that violence is bad. You ask whether it's justified, and Joan realizes it's bad and decides not to do it.

But that's not the only thing that happens when you ask the question.

  • If you ask in public, other people make their own decisions about whether Joan's violence is justified. This can be good, if they are well-informed and make the right decision. But it can also be bad. A lot of people will jump from “Joan made a bad choice” to “Joan is a bad person who deserves less help”. They might even want to punish Joan, even though punishment is also violence and might also be unjustified.

    This is less of a worry if you ask Joan privately, rather than in public. But it's not totally gone, either. If Joan decides that the violence was unjustified, ze might mistreat other people who do similar violence in the future.
  • A lot of people have unhealthy moral beliefs about their own actions, too. Joan might feel excessively bad, or even punish zemself, if ze thinks ze's done something bad. This can be especially harmful if Joan decides the violence is bad but then does it anyway (which can happen for a lot of different reasons).
  • Maybe Joan makes the wrong decision. Maybe the violence was necessary to prevent a greater evil, but you talked zem out of it. Or maybe it was a bad idea, but talking about it made zem get attached to the idea of doing it. I'm not too worried about these cases, because it's generally easier to make the right decision if you talk about it than if you don't. But if neither of you has all the facts, it's not so good. If you ask for a justification too early, Joan will come up with one based on zir current knowledge. Then ze might think ze's found the right answer, and be less receptive to learning new facts that might change the answer.
  • By asking the question, you imply that Joan's violence is an important thing to worry about. Like any other statement, this implied one – “Joan's violence is an important concern” – can be correct, incorrect, or misleading.

Let me elaborate on that last one. If you talk about [...]

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Bad actions and punishment

“If you do something bad, you should be punished.” That's something a lot of people believe. But it's much more complicated than that. In this post, I'm going to explore the morality of punishment.

Since I'm going to be talking about morals, let me be precise about my terms. If I say an action is good, I mean it ultimately causes more good than harm. Bad means it ultimately causes more harm than good.1 For clarity, I'll try to avoid using other meanings of those words. Also, punishment can include any action intended to punish. Prison, social censure, physical violence, “time-outs” – anything. Each have their own issues, but some things are common to all of them.

Costs and benefits of punishment

Punishment is inherently a form of harm, so it's always bad unless it also causes more good. I think of this as a moral cost. You don't want to pay the moral cost unless you get a big enough moral benefit. So what are [...]

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How will creative workers be paid?

Suppose you work all day building tables, and you want to get paid for your work. You can have a pretty straightforward business model. You can show people your tables, and say, “Give me X dollars, and I will give you one table.” People need tables, and they can't pull free tables out of thin air, so you'll probably be able to find people to buy them.

If your work is ideas, things are different. A good idea can be shared with everyone for free. Indeed, that's what should happen, to make the world better for everyone. But how will the worker get paid? Even if you tried to hoard your ideas and sell them, you wouldn't be able to show them to potential buyers without giving them away.

When I talk about “creative workers”, you might think of artists, writers, and musicians. But I also mean any [...]

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Does the law control personal relationships?

Laws often try to regulate personal things. The law has its own opinions about what your name is, who your family is, where you live, and so on. But these don't always match reality. You might go by a different name. You might live with a different family. You might spend most of your time in a different place.

When the law is wrong about your life, that can cause problems. Some are minor inconveniences, but others are much worse. I've heard of laws giving “family members” the right to make decisions for someone, even after the person severed all ties with them for being abusive. And of course, the law can endanger trans people by outing them by using an incorrect gender marker.

For this post, I'm going to use the example of gay marriage. I'm not a huge fan of marriage, but I think it makes a good example here. In many countries, there are laws that give certain privileges to straight couples, but don't give those privileges to gay couples. This is absolutely unfair. But I'm going to look at a much subtler question: do these laws prevent gay people from getting married?

The argument for “no”

When people say “marriage”, they're usually talking about a [...]

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Whoops, we are violating people's freedom of speech all the time

“Freedom of speech” can mean a lot of different things, but mostly boils down to this: Don't punish people for what they say. Different people have different reasons for thinking this is important. Here are a few perspectives:

  1. People benefit individually from saying what they want to.
  2. Society as a whole benefits from people saying what they want to.
  3. Punishment causes material harm to people (regardless of whether there's a justification for it).

For C, the size of the punishment is important. Killing someone for denouncing the tyrant is much worse than yelling at someone for denouncing the tyrant. But for A and B, the only thing that matters is what speech actually happened. If 10 people stay quiet because they're afraid of being yelled at, that has the same effect as 10 people staying quiet because they're afraid of being killed, or 10 people having their messages blocked by official censorship. This will be important later.

Here's one way we screw it up

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario #1: If you're caught denouncing the tyrant, the tyrant's soldiers will throw you in a hole until you starve.

Scenario #2: You are already in a hole. The tyrant's soldiers don't care what you say. A few people are willing to feed you, but only in exchange for you consistently praising the tyrant.

Do you have more freedom of speech in scenario #2? Of course not. For [...]

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Why should knowledge be correct, anyway?

Let me tell you a fable about how we come to understand things:

One time, long before geometry was invented, Uzoma and Carmen were standing at the corner of a square racetrack.

“I wonder what shape this racetrack is,” said Carmen.

“Well,” said Uzoma, “I have run along it many times, and I always get back to where I started. So it must be a circle.”

“You fool!” exclaimed Carmen. “It has a corner right here! Circles do not have corners!”

“I guess that's strange, but I still think it's a circle,” said Uzoma.

“Hmph,” said Carmen. “You're being unscientific. None of our theories fits the evidence, so we can only conclude that we do not know what shape it is.”

A few months later, the rainy season came. There was a lot of flooding. Uzoma and Carmen built a wall to block the flood, but [...]

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Gods and atheism

I'm not writing this post to convince anybody, but many people have found my beliefs about gods interesting, so I figured I'd describe them here.

If someone asks, “are you an atheist?”, I can comfortably say “yes”, because I don't specifically believe in any gods. But if they ask “are you an atheist or an agnostic?”, it gets more complicated. That's because the idea of a “god” can actually mean several different ideas, and I have different beliefs about each of them.

People often lump these ideas together, but they are quite distinct:

The Big Guy

This god goes around smiting people, performing miracles, making commandments, and so on. It's basically an immortal human with magic powers.

Most old religious books describe gods like the Big Guy. However, most religious people I've met don't really believe in a Big Guy – they believe in a different version of God. For instance, modern Christianity isn't really [...]

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On Virtues

It is better to be a coward and avoid fighting than to be brave and commit murder.

It is better to dishonorably betray a tyrant than to loyally serve one.

It is better to lazily stay at home than to be a hard-working employee for a fossil fuel company.1

It is better to selfishly hoard your money than to generously donate it to certain organizations.

It is better to dishonestly hide the fact that you're hiding the refugees than to honestly admit to it.

It is better to show disrespect for immoral authorities than to show respect for them.

It is better to hypocritically help people than to stick to your principles and hurt them.

The only thing I call “virtuous” is to accomplish good. The other “virtues” are merely traits. Sometimes, they lead people to do good, but sometimes, they lead people to do evil. But the way people talk about them is much different. People tend to value “good” traits more than the actual amount of good or evil you do. They act like being a coward is just as bad as being an abuser.

So how should we talk about them instead? I've given a lot of thought to this:

Some of these things are abilities. Bravery gives you the ability to face your fears, in the same way that knowing Chinese gives you the ability to read things that are written in Chinese, or that having a full bank account gives you the ability to buy a sandwich. Having these things is good in the practical sense of “good”, just not in the moral sense of “good”. It's okay to be proud of your abilities, and to admire other people who have great abilities. And of course it's good – in the practical sense – to develop your abilities further, if you can. The problem comes when we treat people worse for having fewer abilities, even though it's probably better to give more help to people with fewer abilities. And it can also be a problem to revere someone's abilities so much that you ignore the ways they are hurting other people. They are just material abilities. They have no inherent relationship to morality.

Other “virtues” are merely habits. Some of them are generally good – if you have a habit of being nice to everyone, that's usually better than having a habit of being mean to everyone. But some of them are more of a trade-off. A hard-working person might get more work done, but a lazy person might find ways to get work done more efficiently. A person with the habit of loyalty might help zir friend through hard times, but ze might also help zir friend do something evil. If you know that you have a certain habit, it can be good to think “Is there any way this might end up causing problems? If so, can I change my habit in those situations? If I can't, can I avoid getting into those situations? On the other hand, if I I've been told it's a bad habit, is there any good this habit brings that I just haven't recognized yet? Might there be a good way to work with it, rather than just trying to suppress it?”

(One interesting note: the difference between an “ability” and a “habit” isn't always well-defined. More on this in another post, though.)

A lot of the “virtuous” habits have something in common: they involve self-sacrifice. Hard work is hard. Being loyal means you support someone even when you have to make sacrifices. Being honest to someone who can hurt you may be a sacrifice. Self-sacrifice isn't bad, but it isn't good unless you get something good out of it. People usually don't want to believe that suffering happens pointlessly, so it can be more comfortable to believe that it is virtuous.

I have a completely different perspective: almost all suffering is pointless. We should focus on preventing it, not justifying it. I find it much more comforting to think that my suffering was completely unnecessary and preventable.

I've met a lot of people who make themselves suffer for the sake of others, but don't do it in a way that actually succeeds in helping others. If you're ever making yourself suffer, you should always take at least a moment to think: “What are my alternatives to doing this? If I stopped, what effect would it have on the other person? Are there other ways I could accomplish something similar without hurting myself as much? If I didn't spend these resources on this, what other good things could I do with them? Would the other person still want me to do this if they knew how much it was costing me?”

Our culture's ideas about goodness don't always match what's actually good. It can be useful to learn from them, but we shouldn't rely on them to define our sense of morality.

– Eli

  1. If you can afford to, that is. Please don't take this as an excuse to judge working-class people. The choice to avoid starvation is likely the greater good, and even if it isn't, it's no use to judge someone in that position. back

A Critique and Defense of Equality

Suppose a genie appeared and offered to save the lives of 100 white people, and also save the lives of 5 black people. Should you accept? Of course you should.

That's a critique I've heard a few times. It says: “Equality has no inherent value. What really matters is doing as much good as you can, for as many people as you can.” I can't completely disagree with that – it was even one of the assumptions in my mathematical model. But it's much more complicated than that.

At worst, the genie example proves that equality isn't an end in itself. Increasing equality might still cause good things to happen. In philosophy terms, it doesn't have intrinsic value, it only has instrumental value.

Usually, when I've seen other people use this argument, they've tried to twist it farther than that. They've implied: “Because equality doesn't have intrinsic value, we don't need to care about it at all.” But there are many reasons to care about it. That's why I'm writing this post. In case you run into this argument somewhere yourself, let me prepare you with a defense:

The Defense

1. Equality as a rational incentive

Suppose my neighbor and I are gathering firewood. I want to get as much firewood as [...]

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Game theory, contracts, altruism

In my story Capitalism Sat, “Mathematics” says a few things about game theory that I've worked on myself. I'll discuss them here. Knowing some game theory helps, but you might be able to understand without any prior background.

The classic paradox from game theory is the Prisoner's Dilemma, or the more general tragedy of the commons – a situation where players can either cooperate or betray each other, and benefit from betraying, but are better off if everyone cooperates instead of everyone betraying. There are a lot of attempts to “solve” the Prisoner's Dilemma – that is, to find a reason why purely self-interested players should cooperate. Superrationality is one of them, but it only works for a limited set of situations. A more effective solution would be [...]

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In the world of the game Dungeons and Dragons, people are grouped into nine “alignments”. Each person is Good or Evil (or Neutral), and also Lawful or Chaotic (or Neutral). What do those mean? There are as many interpretations as there are D&D players. This post describes mine.

First, what are Law and Chaos? In D&D, these are called the “ethical axis”. The story goes that lawful people are honest, honorable, respect authority, and value order above freedom. But which honor, which authority, and which order? And why [...]

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How I don't get frustrated at anything

Some moderately bad things happened, and I ended up dropping the English Composition class that I was taking. (I'm still considering what to replace it with – maybe another English Comp from a different professor, maybe another class entirely.) I'm not going to go into the details, but it was bad. So you might assume that I'd still be frustrated about it. But, I'm totally not! This post is about how I manage to not stay frustrated about things.

Now, you might be thinking “Aha! Eli probably has some sort of magical brain difference where ze just doesn't get frustrated in the first place!”, which would be a good guess because [...]

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