Oxford Languages defines enantiodromia as “the tendency of things to change into their opposites, especially as a supposed governing principle of natural cycles and of psychological development”. While Plato’s works are so influential that the project of Western philosophy is sometimes described as footnotes to Plato, his discussion of enantiodromia is not part of our standard Western worldview. To the extent that the principle of enantiodromia exists, it matters individually, it matters for choosing the right public policy and it matters for AI safety. 

Enantiodromia in Jewish college admissions

One practical example of enantiodromia is a public policy with the goal of creating racial equality. In the 20th century, elite universities found that they admitted a higher proportion of Jewish people than people of other backgrounds. They were admitting more Jewish people because Jewish people scored on average higher than non-Jewish people. To cut down the number of Jewish admissions they thought up a clever way where they added subjective character judgments as an admission criterion which allowed them to cut down the percentage of Jewish admission.

In a world where the performance of a lawyer or doctor correlates with their SAT score if the SAT score is the only thing that matters for admissions, whether or not a lawyer or doctor is Jewish is not going to correlate strongly with their SAT scores. Once you have a policy, where Jewish people need a higher SAT score to be accepted, the Jewish lawyers and doctors will on average have a higher SAT score and thus higher competency. 

This competency difference in turn reinforces stereotypes. In a world, where the admission criteria result in Jewish lawyers being on average more competent than non-Jewish lawyers the stereotype of Jewish lawyers being more competent is justified. A smart person who seeks a competent lawyer has an easier time determining whether the last name of the lawyer sounds Jewish than determining the SAT score of the lawyer.  

In the end, the policy to create equality between Jewish people and non-Jewish created stereotypes about how Jewish people are unequal. This is enantiodromia.

Given that the dynamic of enantiodromia does not exist in the public consciousness it’s very hard to talk about enantiodromia plays out with modern social justice policies, so it’s left as an exercise for the reader to think through the details. 

Examples in society

Celibacy as a means to reduce sexually driven misbehavior provided fertile ground for an environment of sexual abuse scandals. 

Over in Buddism which has its own celibacy expectations for ordained monks we see an abundance of sex scandals as well even when they are of a different nature than the scandals of the catholic church.

Research driven by the desire for pandemic preparedness led to Chinese researchers doing gain-of-function experiments on Coronaviruses under biosafety level II (not suitable for protecting researchers against airborne viruses) in Wuhan. Shortly afterward we see an airborne Coronavirus emerging from Wuhan which a genome that looks at first glace inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory which causes a global pandemic.

In my native country of Germany, our population cares very deeply about climate change. While you might expect that this leads to lower CO2 output as other European countries like Great Britain or France where environmentalism is weaker, the opposite is the case. German environmentalism managed to shut down nuclear power plants which in turn led to higher CO2 emissions. While unsuccessful German environmentalists even fought the newly created Tesla plant near Berlin. 

Enantiodromia clashes with enlightenment values. In the protest work ethic, hard work is supposed to pay off. Exerting effort is seen as a value in itself. In popular society, nobody wants to hear that efforts at Social Justice have enantiodromic effects. Investing effort into the program of Social Justice is seen as virtuous and discussions of the enantiodromic effects of those programs are seen as unvirtuous.

Examples closer to home

Eliezer’s efforts to reduce the discussion of the basilisk led to the concept spreading widely and now having a big section on the LessWrong Wikipedia page. 

Closer home, in the EA community, we have no public discussion about enantiodromic effects either. In private conversation, I heard that the forces that Anna Salamon describes in her recent posts and comments on LessWrong, led to CFAR having some enantiodromic effects.

OpenAI which was founded partly to reduce AI X-risk might have increased risk by accelerating capability building.

A sense of treating numbers about problems very seriously makes it harder to talk about problems in numbers because there’s more at stake. This dynamic might have Marc Lipsitch when he talked about biosafety at EA global not talked about his numbers about the likelihood that lab accidents create a pandemic. Numbers that were comfortably shared in peer-reviewed articles were not comfortable to be shared on the stage of EA global. 

Years ago, at one LessWrong meetup, we discussed how valuable it is to become a vegan. If I remember the numbers correctly, at the time Animal Charity Evaluators calculated that it costs roughly 43 Euro to offset not being vegan for a year. For anyone who felt that they were gaining more than 43 of value from not being a vegan, this provided a good argument for not being a vegan from an EA standpoint.

Animal Charity Evaluators got to a number that low because they wanted to convince people to donate, but in the process, they also signaled that the personal choice of becoming Vegan has a relatively low impact. 

More generally, the commitment to EA as a brand makes it harder to talk about problems created by EA organizations. Self-identification with EA makes it harder to accept problematic aspects because they conflict with wanting to self-identify in a positive way. 

Discussion

Whenever we spend a lot of energy on interventions, we hope that those are effective and spend a lot of time discussing whether or not the intervention has the desired effect. Currently, we however don’t discuss the potential enantiodromic effects of our interventions. I hope that having a word for it, might make it easier to have discussions and hopefully easier to counteract the effects. 

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