Politicians are not optimized for persuasiveness

I once heard someone say that politicians are optimized for persuasiveness. This isn’t true. In a first past the post system like the UK or US, you don’t have to be electable to get into office. If you have good ties in a party you can get a seat in a constituency which is overwhelmingly likely to vote for your side. Manage this and you are essential guaranteed to win every election. From then onward, your ability to gain power is less a matter of getting normal people to like and vote for you and more a matter of your ability to manage patronage networks and relationships with important people within the party. They’re the ones who decide who gets a minister/committee post, not the voters.

Many people were surprised that Donald Trump, a sleazy businessman, could win the US primary, let alone the election. It’s not that surprising when you remember that the people he was competing against were career politicians selected for patronage management, not public speaking.


I’ve head people say that the existence of evil proves there is no God.

The conclusion is good. The argument is not.

Evil may serve a purpose. Some virtues are exist in opposition to suffering and evil. Courage, struggle, bravery, martyrdom. A world without evil could be a world without virtue, a world without sacrifice. For some, that is worse than any hell.

Evil may be a necessary consequence of free will.

Evil may be an illusion. It could be that suffering minds are transported to a heaven the moment their suffering becomes such that they would rather cease existing, their physical bodies taken over by a philosophical zombie.

As SSC said, it could be that God creates all possible universes where goodness outweighs badness. Most are perfect. Some are farther from perfection. Some lie just over the knife edge, just the point at which their non-existence would be better than their existence.

Against singular conceptions of the good

The most popular theories of ethics tend to have a singular conception of the good. They say there is one thing, and one thing alone, which determines whether an action/person/system is just.

  • Utilitarianism:  pleasure maximization.
  • Libertarianism: non-coercion (by other humans)
  • Deontology: the decision making process, not the real world outcomes of that process
  • Egalitarianism:  equality
  • Rawls: The difference principle. (In reality the idea that justice is the overriding concern of society rather than other things like not starving to death)

All these theories are wrong. They run counter to our moral intuitions in obvious ways.

Utilitarianism says an action or outcome is good insofar as it maximizes utility, usually meaning pleasure. This does not match our intuitions. Most of us would trade off some pleasure for some amount of knowledge, freedom or justice. Utilitarianism has only two defenses to this. First, ever expanding definitions of utility. This fails because as the definition of utility moves towards “things we like”, utilitarianism nears the trivially true claim that we should maximize good things and minimize bad things. Second, to claim that we value other goods solely because they give us utility. This is unfalsifiable and hence unacceptable.

Deontology says only the process matters, not the outcome. Lying is wrong regardless of the consequence. Rape is always bad. It fails because, while the process does matter to us, the outcome does too. Murder is wrong but murdering one person to save a whole galaxy worth of lives seems right. Lying is wrong but lying to the Gestapo to save a Jewish familly is less wrong. Caring about process alone means that your moral reasoning is detached from reality. Our intuitions aren’t.

Egalitarianism thinks that equality is all that matters yet a world of starving slaves seems worse than a world split between millionaires and billionaires.

Rawls thinks maximizing the minimum is our duty. I’ve already written about this. He’s wrong. Trading a universe of happy, meaningful lives where a few starve for a universe where everyone starves but slightly less is not right, nor a world any of us would choose if placed behind the veil of ignorance.

All of these theories are based on a singular conception of the good. They all claim that we value only one moral good, absolutely and to the exclusion of all others. We don’t. We value many moral goods and to different extents in different circumstances. Our ethical universe is not simple. It is complex. Our morality is not the product of a single value but of a complex optimization process which maximize for many different things. Refusing to see this is putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s refusing to look at the difficult question of how we trade off competing values and instead denying that such trade-offs exist.

Simplicity is not truth. Morality is not monolithic. Any theory or philosopher who says otherwise is wrong.

Being good and doing good.

I’ve always thought that the inability to hold contradictory thoughts was bad. I think only small minds cannot hold two horizons. There are many reasons I hold this belief, and many arenas I think it applies. When trying to find the truth, you can never truly understand a different paradigm/worldview from your own without truly believing it strongly enough to step into it. When trying to decide what person you should be, you cannot adopt only one persona. If you do, you only see one side of the world. The prophet sees hope. The politician sees a far grimmer reality. Both are right. I’ve come to believe the same of good and evil. I think being good, truly good, isn’t easy. The evil is so deeply ingrained. It requires burning away everything you are. Burning away the desire to hate and punish. In doing so, you become something else. You rise above caring for yourself or the consequences of your actions. You rise above hate or revenge. You become a pure being. The problem is that purity is so easy to take advantage of. If you want to actually change the world for the better, brutality, cruelty and hard, cynical realism are necessary. I used to think that that was the true cost of doing good. By choosing to wage the war against evil, you gave up your soul and your purity, your chance to be good.

I still think that’s true. You can’t be an angel/prophet and a leader. The latter requires compromise, both with your morals and with reality. That being said, I think the path of the leader has a risk and that risk is that, step by step, you give up the very values you gave up your soul to fight for. Every compromise with your morals, every step in to the dark is a step closer to loosing yourself and, in doing so, loosing your capacity to do good. I think there is a a way to help guard against this. Be in two minds. Don’t be the leader or the prophet. Be both. Be a leader when you need to but every once in a while step out of yourself and into another role, another person and another way of being. I don’t think drawing walls around your actions in this ways stops the corruption. I do think it slows it.

And as always, remember that if you wear the mask long enough and it will consume you.

The moral arc of the universe tends toward evil.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King

I think nature makes us evil. Evolution is merciless. It optimizes for one thing: survival, of you and yours. If willingness to kill helps you survive, that trait is passed on. If cowardice, reluctance to challenge the group or, worse, gradual adoption of whatever those around you believe helps you survive, evolution will pass it on. (Too simple. not all traits heritable. maybe goodness is selected for at the group level? No. wishful thinking. Group level selection selects for groups that survive and expand. Group effects also too weak to overcome individual level effects). All we are is a bundle of systems and somehow, as if by magic, a self aware conscious mind on top. Yet our mind’s aren’t free from the constant corrupting influence of nature. They are a product of it. Every evil instinct we have, every urge to tribalism, to hate, to love and agree with the strong and impose our will on/demand submission from the weak are a reflection of our base origins. Even our conceptions of good and evil, and the many evil things we wrongly see as good, are due to it. I think the foundational question of the struggle to be good is how to overcome the slow rot. I’m not sure, but I think it requires simultaneously walking two paths which lead in very different directions. In the longer run, individual action cannot suffice. We have to find some way to stop evolution.

Two sides of goodness

When I was younger, I spent a long time thinking about what it meant to be good. There were two definitions I could see. One was that being good meant doing things which were good. There other was that being good meant having good intentions.

(It might seem like this is just a different way of phrasing the consequentialism vs deontology debate. It isn’t. What makes an action right or wrong is different from what makes a person good or evil)

If you judge people by their intentions, a person who consistently does evil things but believes them to be good is good. A zealot who kids unbelievers in the belief that doing so saves their souls is good. This is wrong.

If you judge people by their actions, someone who tries to do evil but accidentally ends up doing good is good. A man who tries to kill a stranger by injecting then with what they think is aids, but what is actually a cure for cancer, is good. This is also wrong.

It’s difficult to judge a person. I think the reason both intentions and actual effects appeal as ways of judging is because when we ask whether a person is evil, we actually mean two things. First, whether they are a force for good or evil in the world. Second, whether they as a person are good or evil, whether they strive do what is right or choose not to. In recognising this distinction, clarity is achieved.

A good man is one who genuinely tries to do what is right. Even if he’s mistaken, he is still good. Even a retard who kills a child by feeding them medicine is good. Ignorance alone does not deprive you of your moral worth. 

A man in the service of good is one whose actions further the light more than the dark. Even if his motives are as black as sin, as a piece on the playing board he is a piece on our side.

A culture of poverty, russia and the west, Barriers to AI.

Is computational complexity a barrier to AI?

Computational complexity theory describes the steep increase in computing power required for many algorithms to solve larger problems; frequently, the increase is large enough to render problems a few times larger totally intractable. Many of these algorithms are used in AI-relevant contexts. It has been argued that this implies that AIs will fundamentally be limited in accomplishing real-world tasks better than humans because they will run into the same computational complexity limit as humans, and so the consequences of developing AI will be small, as it is impossible for there to be any large fast global changes due to human or superhuman-level AIs. I examine the assumptions of this argument and find it neglects the many conditions under which computational complexity theorems are valid and so the argument doesn’t work: problems can be solved more efficiently than complexity classes would imply, large differences in problem solubility between humans and AIs is possible, greater resource consumption is possible, the real-world consequences of small differences on individual tasks can be large on agent impacts, such consequences can compound, and many agents can be created; any of these independent objections being true destroys the argument.


Will the breakdown of Moore’s law delay AI?

Brain emulation requires enormous computing power; enormous computing power requires further progression of Moore’s law; further Moore’s law relies on large-scale production of cheap processors in ever more-advanced chip fabs; cutting-edge chip fabs are both expensive and vulnerable to state actors (but not non-state actors such as terrorists). Therefore: the advent of brain emulation can be delayed by global regulation of chip fabs.


Russia in Syria. Next steps in the game.

It is not going to be a trivial fight by any stretch of the imagination:

  • There are two S-400 complexes guarding Khmeimim, and several Pantsir systems.
  • Though composition varies from month to month, there are usually around a dozen air superiority fighters (Su-35, Su-35) and a dozen other fighters, as well as a few military helicopters.
  • Around 4o Pantsir systems total in Syria
  • Two Kilo submarines are currently in the region, though not the formidable Moskva cruiser, with its S-300 system
  • Two Bastion anti-ship coastal defense systems
  • Stand-off cruise missiles (Kh-32, Kh-50, Kalibrs) can be fired from deep within Russia, or from Caspian/Iranian airspace

But here are the forces ranged against them:

  • A single carrier such as the USS Harry S. Truman has around four to five dozen F-18s
  • Hundreds of F-15s and F-16s in US bases in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE
  • Hundreds of Tomahawks can be fired from US Navy ships
  • The air forces of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and Britain, and possibly that of Israel and Turkey
  • B-52 bombers from half a world away

This is a totally lopsided match, which even the optimistic Russian military analyst Andrey Martyanov acknowledges


A culture of poverty.

But just before the first exam, the daughter, Eliza, is physically assaulted outside the school. She takes the test despite having a sprained wrist, and being shaken up. She doesn’t think she did well on it — and this puts Dr. Aldea in a difficult position. He is a basically honest man, but he’s so desperate for his daughter to escape life in Romania — which he regards, basically, as a shithole country — that he enters into the world of corruption to attempt to guarantee her a way out. In other words, he becomes the kind of man he wants her to escape. TAC alumnus Tim Markatos reviews the film in the new Fare Forward. Caution: the review contains spoilers. Here’s an excerpt:

Eliza doesn’t want any part of this rule-breaking, but in the warped logic of this universe Romeo’s exhortation to vice is practically a virtue. For in the slice of Romanian society depicted in Graduation the adults have effectively grown so used to corruption and responding to their circumstances immorally that they have all forgotten what it looks like to do good in the first place. Critic Victor Morton has astutely called the film’s world a “Structure of Sin,” an apt description for the web of rationalized bad behavior that [director Cristian] Mungiu spins tight across each one of the movie’s 128 minutes. According to Morton, “Graduation is not the story of a good man corrupted but a corrupt man trying to do ‘good’ (when it serves him and his) because society runs on corruption.”

Indeed, while Mungiu’s shaky cam and tight editing keep our anxieties high, society here appears to be getting along just fine—with the caveat that the only way anyone in it knows how to respond to sin is through the logic of sin.