May 27th, 2017

Formal theorizing in the social sciences is today in some danger of becoming baroque. A frequent scenario seems to be the following. In a first stage, there exists a theoretical problem with immediate economic, social or political significance. It is, however, ill-understood, perhaps even ill-defined. In the second stage, a proposal is put forward to conceptualize the problem in a way that dispels confusion and permits substantive conclusions to be drawn. In a third stage the conceptual apparatus ceases to have these liberating effects, and becomes a new, independent source of problems.

Jon Elster & Aanund Hylland, ‘Introduction’, in Foundations of Social Choice Theory, Cambridge, 1986, p. 1

May 23rd, 2017

Since so much of Bentham’s critique of European colonial policies remained unpublished or difficult of access until recent times his contribution to the evolving debate on them has been seriously underrated. His Spanish writings were published only fifteen years ago and have yet to be properly evaluated: but, as this article has tried to show, they took his own earlier analysis of the roots of policy, and that of his predecessors, much further than before. Indeed, […] in many ways, these writings, especially those that give a close analysis of the benefits that elites received from colonialism, represent the most acute and innovatory aspects of his thought in this field. When they are added to his better-known economic analyses of colonialism written between the 1780s and early 1800s, and set against the broad currents of liberal and radical questioning of the causes and consequences of empire across two centuries, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bentham made one of the greatest contributions to anti-colonial literature anywhere in the Western world and one which in some ways was never improved upon in Britain. His work has much to offer historians in their quest for a better understanding of Europe’s imperial past.

Peter Cain, ‘Bentham and the Development of the British Critique of Colonialism’, Utilitas, vol. 23, no. 1 (March, 2011), p. 24

May 19th, 2017

In early youth I knew Bennet Langton, of that ilk, as the Scotch say; with great personal claims to the respect of the public, he is known to that public chiefly as a friend of Johnson; he was a very tall, meagre, long-visaged man, much resembling, according to Richard Paget, a stork standing on one leg, near the shore, in Raphael’s cartoon of the miraculous draught of fishes. His manners were, in the highest degree, polished; his conversation mild, equable, and always pleasing. He had the uncommon faculty (’tis strange that it should be an uncommon faculty), of being a good reader[.] […]

I formed an intimacy with his son, George Langton, nearly of the same age as myself, and went to pay him a visit some years later, at Langton, where he resided with his family. and went to pay him a visit at Langton. […] After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, “Poor, dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined ‘to take a roll down.’ When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, ‘he had not had a roll for a long time;’ and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them–– keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife, and laying himself parallel with the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.”

Henry Digby Beste, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, pp. 62, 64-65

May 12th, 2017

Once when I asked him why he had never ventured on a Treatise he answered, with his characteristic smile and chuckle, that large-sclae enterprise, such as Treatises and marriage, had never appealed to him. It may be that the deemed them industries subject to diminishing return, or that they lay outside his powers or the limits he set to his local universe.

John Maynard Keynes, ‘Francis Ysidro Edgeworth’, in Essays in Biography, London, 1933, p. 232

May 9th, 2017

The [Essay] can claim a place amongst those which have had great influence on the progress of thought. It is profoundly in the English tradition of humane science—in that tradition of Scotch and English thought, in which there has been, I think, an extraordinary continuity of feeling, if I may so express it, from the eighteenth century to the present time—the tradition which is suggested by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Paley, Bentham, Darwin, and Mill, a tradition marked by a love of truth and a most noble lucidity, by a prosaic sanity free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit.

John Maynard Keynes, ‘Robert Malthus: The First of the Cambridge Economists’, in Essays in Biography, London, 1933, p. 120

May 9th, 2017

A leader of still another type might be mentioned here, Carlyle. For economists he is one of the most important and most characteristic figures in the cultural panorama of that epoch—standing in heroic pose, hurling scorn at the materialistic littleness of his age, cracking a whip with which to flay, among other things, our Dismal Science. This is how he saw himself and how his time saw and loved to see him. Completely incapable of understanding the meaning of a theorem, overlooking the fact that all science is ‘dismal’ to the artist, he thought he had got hold of the right boy to whip. A large part of the public applauded, and so did some economists who understood no more than he did what a ‘science’ is and does.

Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, London, 1954, pp. 386-387

May 8th, 2017

Economic science […], if it be a science, differs from other sciences in this, that there is no inevitable advance from less to greater certainty; there is no ruthless tracking down of truth which, once unbared, shall be truth to all times to the complete confusion of any contrary doctrine.

Alexander Gray, The Development of Economic Doctrine: An Introductory Survey, London, 1931, p. 12

May 8th, 2017

Innate mechanisms are important not because everything is innate and learning is unimportant, but because the only way to explain learning is to identify the innate mechanisms that make learning possible.

Steven Pinker, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles, New York, 2013, p. 2

May 2nd, 2017

An em might be fooled not only by deceptive inputs about its environment, but also by misleading information about its copy history. If many copies were made of an em and then only a few selected according to some criteria, then knowing about such selection criteria is valuable information to those selected ems. For example, imagine that someone created 10 000 copies of an em, exposed each copy to different arguments in favor of committing some act of sabotage, and then allowed only the most persuaded copy to continue. This strategy might in effect persuade this em to commit the sabotage. However, if the em knew this fact about its copy history, that could convince this remaining copy to greatly reduce its willingness to commit the sabotage.

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, Oxford, 2016, p. 112

May 2nd, 2017

Wenn ich versuche, für die Zeit vor dem Ersten Weltkriege, in der ich aufgewachsen bin, eine handliche Formel zu finden, so hoffe ich am prägnantesten zu sein, wenn ich sage: es war das goldene Zeitalter der Sicherheit. Alles in unserer fast tausendjährigen österreichischen Monarchie schien auf Dauer gegründet und der Staat selbst der Oberste Garant dieser Beständigkeit. Die Rechte, die er seinen Bürgern gewährte, waren verbrieft vom Parlament, der frei gewählten Vertretung des Volkes, und jede Pflicht genau begrenzt. Unsere Währung, die österreichische Krone, lief in blanken Goldstücken um und verbürgte damit ihre Unwandelbarkeit. Jeder wußte, wieviel er besaß oder wieviel ihm zukam, was erlaubt und was verboten war. Alles hatte seine Norm, sein bestimmtes Maß und Gewicht. Wer ein Vermögen besaß, konnte genau errechnen, wieviel an Zinsen es alljährlich zubrachte, der Beamte, der Offizier wiederum fand in Kalender verläßlich das Jahr, in dem er avancieren werde und in dem er in Pension gehen würde. Jede Familie hatte ihr bestimmtes Budget, sie wußte, wieviel sie zu verbrauchen hatte für Wohnen und Essen, für Sommerreise und Repräsentation, außerdem war unweigerlich ein kleiner Betrag sorgsam für Unvorhergesehenes, für Krankheit und Arzt bereitgestellt. Wer ein Haus besaß, betrachtete es als sichere Heimstatt für Kinder und Enkel, Hof und Geschäft verübte sich von Geschlecht zu Geschlecht; während ein Säugling noch in der Wiege lag, legte man in der Sparbüchse oder der Sparkasse bereits einen ersten Obolus für den Lebensweg zurecht, eine kleine Reserve für die Zukunft. Alles stand in diesem weiten Reiche fest und unverrückbar an seiner Stelle und an der höchsten der greise Kaiser; aber sollte er sterben, so wußte man (oder meinte man), würde ein anderer kommen und nichts sich ändern in der wohlberechneten Ordnung. Niemand glaubte an Kriege, an Revolutionen und Umstürze. Alles Radikale, alles Gewaltsame schien bereits unmöglich in einem Zeitalter der Vernunft.

Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, Stockholm, 1942, ch. 1

April 26th, 2017

My revered friend walked down with me to the beach, where we embraced and parted with tenderness, and engaged to correspond by letters. I said, “I hope, Sir, you will not forget me in my absence.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, it is more likely you should forget me, than that I should forget you.” As the vessel put out to sea, I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London, 1791, vol. 1, p. 257

April 25th, 2017

Wittgenstein contrived to quarrel, not only with Frank, but also with Lydia. Some years later she remembered the incident in a letter to Keynes. ‘What a beautiful tree’, she had remarked. Wittgenstein glared at her and asked, ‘What do you mean?’ so fiercely that she burst into tears.

Margaret Paul, Frank Ramsey (1903-1930): A Sister’s Memoir, Huntingdon, Cambs, 2012, p. 213

April 18th, 2017

Today, we take far more effort to study the past than the future, even though we can’t change the past.

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, Oxford, 2016, p. 31

April 17th, 2017

[G]entlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him[.]

Thomas De Quincey, ‘On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. 21, no. 122 (February, 1827), p. 203

April 17th, 2017

The first murder is familiar to you all. As the inventor of murder, and the father of the art, Cain must have been a man of first-rate genius. All the Cains were men of genius. Tubal Cain invented tubes, I think, or some such thing. But, whatever were the originality and genius of the artist, every art was then in its infancy; and the works must be criticised with a recollection of that fact. Even Tubal’s work would probably be little approved at this day in Sheffield; and therefore of Cain (Cain senior, I mean) it is no disparagement to say, that his performance was but so so. Milton, however, is supposed to have thought differently. By his way of relating the case, it should seem to have been rather a pet murder with him, for he retouches it with an apparent anxiety for its picturesque effect:—

Whereat he inly raged; and, as they takl’d,
Smote him into the midriff with a stone
That beat out life: he fell; and, deadly pale,
Groan’d out his soul with gushing blood effus’d.

Par. Lost, B. XI.

Upon this, Richardson the painter, who had an eye for effect, remarks as follows in his Notes on Paradise Lost, p. 497:—”It has been thought,” says he, “that Cain beat (as the common saying is) the breth out of his brother’s body with a great stone; Milton gives in to this, with the addition, however, of a large wound.” In this place it was a judicious addition; for the rudeness of the weapon, unless raised and enriched by a warm, sanguinary colouring, has too much of the naked air of the savage schoool; as if the deed were perpetrated by a Polypheme without science, premeditation, or anything but a mutton bone.

Thomas De Quincey, ‘On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. 21, no. 122 (February, 1827), p. 202

April 17th, 2017

Finding fault with yourself is […] the key to overcoming the hypocrisy and judgmentalism that damage so many valuable relationships. The instant you see some contribution you made to a conflict, your anger softens—maybe just a bit, but enough that you might be able to acknowledge some merit on the other side. You can still believe you are right and the other person is wrong, but if you can move to believing that you are mostly right, and your opponent is mostly wrong, you have the basis for an effective and nonhumiliating apology. You can take a small piece of the disagreement and say, “I should not have done X, and I can see why you felt Y.” Then, by the power of reciprocity, the other person will likely feel a strong urge to say, “Yes, I was really upset by X. But I guess I shouldn’t have done P, so I can see why you felt Q.” Reciprocity amplified by self-serving biases drove you apart back when you were matching insults or hostile gestures, but you can turn the process around and use reciprocity to end a conflict and save a relationship.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, New York, 2006, p. 22

April 15th, 2017

Regarded objectively, as an espisode in the development of life on earth, a nuclear holocaust that brought about the extinction of manking and other species by mutilating the ecosphere would constitute an evolutionary setback of possibly limited extent—the first to result from a deliberate action taken by the creature extinguished but perhaps no greater than any of several evolutionary setbacks, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, of which the geological record offers evidence. […] However, regarded subjectively, from within human life, where we are all actually situated, and as something that would happen to us, human extinction assumes awesome, inapprehensible proportions. It is of the essence of the human condition that we are bornm live for a while, and then die. Through mishaps of all kindsm we may also suffer untimely death, and in extinction by nuclear arms the number of untimely deaths would reach the limit for any one catastrophe: everyone in the world would die. But although the untimely death of everyone in the world would in itself constitute an unimaginably huge loss, it would bring with it a separate, distinct loss that would be in a sense even huger—the cancellation of all future generations of human beings. According to the Bible, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge God punished them by withdrawing from them the privilege of immortality and dooming them and their kind to die. Now our species has eaten more deeply of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and has brought itself face to face with a second death—the death of mankind. In doing so, we have caused a basic change in the circumstances in which life was given to us, which is to say that we have altered the human condition. The distinctiveness of this second death from the deaths of all the people on earth can be illustrated by picturing two different global catastrophes. In the first, le ut suppose that most of th people on earth were killed in a nuclear holocaust but that a few million survived and the earth happened to remain habitable by human beings. In this catastrophe, billions of people would perish, but the species would survive, and perhaps one day would even repopulate the earth in its former numbers. But now let us suppose that a substance was released into the environment which had the effect of sterilizing all the people in the world but otherwise leaving them unharmed. Then, as the existing population died off, the world would empty of eople, until no one was left. Not one life would have been shortened by a single day, but the species would die. In extinction by nuclear arms, the death of the species and the death of all the people in the wold would happen together, but it is important to make a clear distinction between the two losses; otherwise, the mind, overwhelmed by the thought of the deaths of the billions of living people,  might stagger back without realizing that behind this already ungraspable loss there lies the separate loss of the future generations.

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, New York 1982, pp. 114-115

April 15th, 2017

Early in life I had three ambitions: to be the greatest economist in the world, the greatest horseman in Austria, and the best lover in Vienna.

Joseph Schumpeter, quoted in Richard Swedberg, Schumpeter: a Biography, Princeton, New Jersey, 1991

April 14th, 2017

Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fall into the new that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, New York, 2006, p. 22

April 14th, 2017

If a catastrophe should really dominate our thinking, it will not be because of the people it kills. There will be other harms, of course. But the effect that seems the most potentially harmful is the huge number of people whose existence might be prevented by a catastrophe. If we become extinct within the next few thousand years, that will prevent the existence of tens of trillions of people, as a very conservative estimate. If those nonexistences are bad, then this is a consideration that might dominate our calculations of expected utility.

John Broome, ‘A Small Chance of Disaster’, European Review, vol. 21, no. S1 (July, 2013), p. 830

April 14th, 2017

[T]he mere risk of extinction has a significance that is categorically different from, and immeasurably greater than, that of any other risk, and as we make our decisions we have to take that significance into account. Up to now, every risk has been contained within the frame of life; extinction would shatter that frame. It represents not the defeat of some purpose but an abyss in which all human purposes would be drowned for all time. We have no right to place the possibility of this limitless, eternal defeat on the same footing as risks that we run in the ordinary conduct of our affairs in our particular transient moment of human history. To employ a mathematical analogy, we can say that although the risk of extinction may be fractional, the stake is, humanly speaking, infinite, and a fraction of infinity is still infinity. In other words, once we learn that a holocaust might lead to extinction we have no right to gamble, because if we lose, the game will be over, and neither we nor anyone else will ever get another chance. Therefore, although, scientifically speaking, there is all the difference in the world between the mere possibility that a holocaust will bring about extinction and the certainty of it, morally they are the same, and we have no choice but to address the issue of nuclear weapons as though we knew for a certainty that their use would put an end to our species.

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth, New York 1982, p. 95

April 13th, 2017

One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves.

Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth. We ought to transfer to these people […] at least ten per cent of what we inherit or earn.

What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and we are discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.

Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would have given us all, including those who suffered most, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Volume Three, Oxford, 2017, pp. 436-437

April 13th, 2017

The main reason to focus on existential risk generally, and human extinction in particular, is that anything else about posthuman society can be modified by the posthumans (who will be far smarter and more knowledgeable than us) if desired, while extinction can obviously never be undone.

Alyssa Vance, Comments on A Proposed Adjustment to the Astronomical Waste Argument, LessWrong, May 27, 2013

April 12th, 2017

There have been great advances in the human condition due to science: recollect the horrors of childbirth, surgical operations, even of having a tooth out, a hundred years ago. If the human race is not extinguished there may be cures of cancer, senility, and other evils, so that happiness may outweigh unhappiness in the case of more and more individuals. Perhaps our far superior descendants of a million years hence (if they exist) will be possessed of a felicity unimaginable to us.

J. J. C. Smart, Ethics, Persuasion, and Truth, London, 1984, p. 141

April 10th, 2017

Is there anything we can do about animal suffering in wildlife? There was a time when many said that nothing should be done to obviate human suffering, since attempts to establish a welfare state would either be in vain, jeopardise what kind of welfare there happens to exist, or produce perverse (even worse) results. We rarely meet with that reaction any more. However, many seem to be ready to argue that wildlife constitutes such a complex system of ecological balances that any attempt to interfere must produce no good results, put into jeopardy whatever ecological ‘balances’ there happen to exist, or perversely make the situation even worse. This is not the place to settle whether they are right or not, but, certainly, there must exist some measures we could take, if we bothered to do so, rendering wildlife at least slightly less terrible. If this were so, we should do so, according to utilitarianism.

Torbörn Tännsjö, Taking Life: Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing, Oxford, 2015, pp. 260-261

April 1st, 2017

Not every method of creating human-level intelligence is an extendible method. For example, the currently standard method of creating human-level intelligence is biological reproduction. But biological reproduction is not obviously extendible. If we have better sex, for example, it does not follow that our babies will be geniuses.

David Chalmers, ‘The Singularity: A Philosophical Analaysis’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 17, nos. 9-10 (2010), p. 18

March 19th, 2017

It is surprising and somewhat disappointing that movements aiming at the prevention of nuclear war are regarded throughout the West as Left-Wing movements or as inspired by some -ism which is repugnant to a majority of ordinary people. It is not in this way that opposition to nuclear warfare should be conceived. It should be conceived rather on the analogy of sanitary measures against epidemic.

Bertrand Russell, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, London, 1959, introduction

March 18th, 2017

Clearly, Eliezer should seriously consider devoting himself more to writing fiction. But it is not clear to me how this helps us overcome biases any more than any fictional moral dilemma. Since people are inconsistent but reluctant to admit that fact, their moral beliefs can be influenced by which moral dilemmas they consider in what order, especially when written by a good writer. I expect Eliezer chose his dilemmas in order to move readers toward his preferred moral beliefs, but why should I expect those are better moral beliefs than those of all the other authors of fictional moral dilemmas? If I’m going to read a literature that might influence my moral beliefs, I’d rather read professional philosophers and other academics making more explicit arguments. In general, I better trust explicit academic argument over implicit fictional “argument.”

Robin Hanson, comment to Eliezer Yudkowsky, Epilogue: Atonement, LessWrong, February 6, 2009

March 13th, 2017

The threshold between a machine which was the intellectual inferior or superior of a man would probably be reached if the machine could do its own programming.

I. J. Good, Review of D. R. Hartree, Calculating Instruments and Machines, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), vol. 114, no. 1 (1951), p. 107

March 13th, 2017

Once a machine is designed that is good enough, […] it can be put to work designing an even better machine. At this point an “explosion” will clearly occur; all the problems of science and technology will be handed over to machines and it will no longer be necessary for people to work. Whether this will lead to a Utopia or to the extermination of the human race will depend on how the problem is handled by the machines. The important thing will be to give them the aim of serving human beings.

I. J. Good, “Speculations on Perceptrons and Other Automata”, IBM Research Lecture, RC-115 (1959), p. 17