Timothy Chan

643 karmaJoined Aug 2021



    A while back I wrote that I agreed with the observation that some of (new wave) EA’s norms seem similar to those of the religion imposed on me and others as children. My current thinking is that there may actually be a link connecting the culture in parts of Protestantism and some of the (progressive) norms EA adopts, along with an atypical origin that probably deserves more scrutiny. The "link" part might be more apparent to people who've noticed a "god-shaped hole" in the West that makes some secular movements resemble certain parts of religions. The "origin" part might be less apparent but it's been discussed by Scott Alexander before. So, this theory isn't all that original.

    Essentially: Puritans, as one of four major cultures originating from the UK, exert huge founder effects on America, which both influences parts of itself as well as other countries for better or worse → Protestant culture gradually changed to be more socially judgmental in some ways etc. → More recently, people increasingly reject the existence of a God but keep elements of the culture of that religion → EA now draws heavily from nth generation ex-Protestants/Protestant-adjacents who also tend to be more active in trying to change society (other people's actions) and approach it with some of the same inherited attitudes

    That is one causal chain but a tree might show more causes and effects. For example, the Puritan founder effects probably also influenced modern academia (in part, spearheaded by a few institutions in New England) which again, EA heavily draws from. Other secular institutions might also be influenced by osmosis, and produce downstream effects.

    It seems difficult to believe these attitudes just disappeared without affecting other movements, culture, and society. The Puritan legacy also seems to have a track record of being quite influential.

    From the study it looks like participants were given a prompt and asked to "free-list" instead checking boxes so it might be more indicative of what's actually on people's minds.

    The immoral behaviors prompt being:

    The aim of this study is to learn which actions or behaviors are considered immoral. Please provide a list of actions and behaviors which, in your opinion, are immoral. Please list at least five examples. There are no correct answers, we are just interested in your opinion.

    My impression is that the differences between the American and Chinese lists (with the Lithuanian list somewhat in between) appear to be a function of differences in the degree of societal order (i.e., crime rates, free speech), cultural differences (i.e., extent of influence of: Anglo-American progressivism, purity norms of parts of Christianity, traditional cultures, and Confucianism), and demographics (i.e, topics like racism/discrimination that might arise in contexts that are ethnically diverse instead of homogenous).

    Oh, I see. Do you know if she is ok with eating lamb/mutton/goat? I suspect there are also grazing effects (that might reduce wild-animal suffering overall) but I don't know whether they are as significant. Maybe @Brian_Tomasik knows?

    Beef consumption directly costs less suffering/kg because of the amount of meat provided per cow. It also plausibly reduces wild-animal suffering by taking up land.

    Not sure why your question was downvoted.

    Brian Tomasik has written a few articles on this, including

    Overall, he thinks its unclear but urges erring on the side of caution: 

    "This piece surveys reasons why the harvesting of wild fish might reduce as well as increase the suffering of oceanic creatures. The net impact is extremely unclear. (...) That said, I would probably err on the side of not eating fish, especially because wild-catch fishing may increase the amount of fish farming in the future."

    Regarding the TCS PhD, is it possible to work on it remotely from London?

    Another relevant article on "machine psychology" (interestingly, it's by a co-author of Peter Singer's first AI paper)

    You seem to have written against proposing norms in the past. So apologies for my mistake and I'm glad that's not your intention. 

    To be clear, I think we should be free to write as we wish. Regardless, it still seems to me that voicing support for an already quite popular position on restricting expression comes with the risk of strengthening associated norms and bringing about the multiple downsides I mentioned.

    Among the downsides, yes, the worry that strengthening strong norms dealing with 'offensive' expression can lead to unfair punishments. This is not a baseless fear. There are historical examples of norms on restricting expression leading to unfair punishments; strong religious and political norms have allowed religious inquisitors and political regimes to suppress dissenting voices.

    I don't think EA is near the worst forms of it. In my previous comment, I was only pointing to a worrying trend towards that direction. We may (hopefully) never arrive at the destination. But along the way, there are more mild excesses. There have been a few instances where, I believe, the prevailing culture has resulted in disproportionate punishment either directly from the community or indirectly from external entities whose actions were, in part, enabled by the community's behavior. I probably won't discuss this too publicly but if necessary we can continue elsewhere.

    It seems that you, correct me if I'm wrong, along with many who agree with you, are looking to further encourage a norm within this domain (on the basis of at least one example, i.e. the one example from the blog post, that challenged it).

    This might benefit some individuals by reducing their emotional distress. But strengthening such a norm that already seems strong/largely uncontroversial/to a large extent popular in the context of this community, especially one within this domain, makes me concerned in several ways:

    • Norms like these that target expression considered offensive seem to often evolve into/come in the form of restrictions that require enforcement. In these cases, enforcement often results in:
      • "Assholes"/"bad people" (and who may much later even be labeled "criminals" through sufficient gradual changes) endure excessive punishments, replacing what could have been more proportionate responses. Being outside of people's moral circles/making it low status to defend them makes it all too easy.
      • Well-meaning people get physically or materially (hence also emotionally) punished for honest mistakes. This may happen often - as it's easy for humans to cause accidental emotional harm.
      • Enforcement can be indeed more directed but this is not something we can easily control. Even if it is controlled locally, it can go out of control elsewhere.
    • Individuals who are sociopolitically savvy and manipulative may exploit their environment's aversion of relatively minor issues to their advantage. This allows them to appear virtuous without making substantial contributions or sacrifices.
      • At best, this is inefficient. At worst, to say the least - it's dangerous.
    • Restrictions in one domain often find their way into another. Particularly, it's not challenging to impose restrictions that are in line with illegitimate authority as well as power gained through intimidation.
      • This can lead people to comfortably dismiss individuals who raise valid but uncomfortable concerns, by labeling them as mere "assholes". To risk a controversial, but probably illuminating example, people often unfairly dismiss Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an "Islamophobe".
      • This burdens the rest of society with those other restrictions and their consequences. Those other restrictions can range from being a mere annoyance to being very bad.

    I'd be less worried (and possibly find it good) if such a norm was strengthened in a context where it isn't strong, which gives us more indication that the changes are net positive. However, it's evident that a large number of individuals here already endorse some version of this norm, and it is quite influential. Enthusiasm could easily become excessive. I sincerely doubt most people intend to bring about draconian restrictions/punishments (on this or something else), but those consequences can gradually appear despite that.

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