Why we need a new word for “lazy”

The other day on Twitter I said:

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Here’s why this is important. In an ideal world, I claim, the way you would make decisions about how to spend your time would be something along the lines of:
– Think about what you like / dislike
– Think about the most efficient ways to get the things you like while minimizing the things you dislike
– At the same time, consider how tractable it is to modify your likes and dislikes

For example, some people really like attention and prestige; other people don’t care for those things and prefer pleasure, or autonomy, or discovery. Some people really dislike pain, or tedium. Other people don’t mind those things as much, but especially dislike risk, or being disrespected, or compromising their principles. We all have different bundles of likes and dislikes, so the ideal lives we choose for ourselves will be different.

And some people find it more aversive to work hard than other people do. In theory, that should just be one of the terms in your decision calculus — Could you get a lot more of the things you want, if you self-modified to be more tolerant of work? How tractable it is for you to self-modify in that way?

But if we only have a morally judgmental word like “lazy” to refer to a dislike of work, then that screws up your decision process. It becomes hard to think objectively about the questions in the previous paragraph.

Instead, you feel pressure to choose a life that involves a lot of work, because that “should” be fine with you, even if it isn’t. Or you feel pressure to self-modify to become more tolerant of work — even if that’s not very tractable for you, or even it’s actually possible to get the things you want without working hard. Or you still end up choosing the optimal life for you, but you feel unnecessarily guilty about the fact that you chose to optimize for avoiding work.

When I advocate for finding a non-judgmental term for “lazy”, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t work hard, or that they shouldn’t learn to be tolerant of work. I’m saying that whether you should do those things depends on your utility function, your specific bundle of likes and dislikes. And I’m saying that it’s easier to think about those questions if you strip them of their normative undertones.

(NOTE: This new word for “lazy” doesn’t need to become widely used in our culture. I agree that’s a hard problem, and subject to connotation creep, as many people have pointed out. I was more imagining some individuals choosing to use the new word when thinking about their own lives, or discussing their choices with close friends / partners. Simply deciding to strip the normative connotations from “lazy” could also work.)

Insightful articles on free speech & social justice

This is a collection of articles that I think contribute some useful insight to the discourse on free speech and social justice.

I find that most articles on this topic only argue for the importance of the one good the author cares most about — for example, “Free speech is important because that’s how we get a marketplace of ideas,” or “Students should have the right to feel safe on campus.”

Those approaches tend to be unsatisfying to me. In this case, as in most cases, there are multiple, competing goods that matter. It’s not enough to simply argue that one of the goods is important — you have to acknowledge that a tradeoff exists (or alternately, make a case that it doesn’t) and argue for why your policy does a good job of navigating that tradeoff.

So these are all articles that I think contribute something useful to the discourse on free speech and social justice, by proposing a principled way to navigate tradeoffs, or by helping explain the dynamics that are producing our current situation. I was looking for articles that made me go, “Oh, huh, that’s a good point!”

Below, I’ve included a link to each article and a brief description of it. Note that in some cases I am quoting directly from the author, and in other cases I am trying to paraphrase their argument. Articles are listed in no particular order. I didn’t want to alphabetize or anything like that, because I’ll probably add additional articles over time and I want people to be able to just check the bottom of the list to see if there’s anything new to them.

Self-censorship in public discourse: a theory of ‘political correctness’ and related phenomena, by Glenn Loury.

If you express dissent with your political alllies, they will rationally increase their credence that you aren’t a true ally. And this phenomenon is self-reinforcing: the more that true allies avoid dissent so as to not be incorrectly deemed a false ally, the more rational it becomes for people to assume that dissent = not a true ally.

Sacred principles as exhaustible resources, by Scott Alexander.

“I think of respect for free speech as a commons. Every time some group invokes free speech to say something controversial, they’re drawing from the commons – which is fine… But if you draw from the commons too quickly, then the commons disappears. When trolls say the most outrageous things possible, then retreat to ‘oh, but free speech’, they’re burning the commons for no reason, to the detriment of everybody else who needs it.”

What you can’t say to a sympathetic ear, by Katja Grace.

Social sanctions on speech are even stickier than you might think, because of coordination problems. “Even if everyone comes to privately believe that onions are indeed fruit, and also thinks that nobody should be punished for saying this, and they can all talk to each other, everyone might still end up saying that onions aren’t fruit forever.”

Social gentrification, by Simon Penner.

Toxic cultures are analogous to gritty neighborhoods. They’re unpleasant and unsafe in a lot of ways, but they’re also places that people with very little social capital can call home. Pressure to “clean up” toxic cultures, and make them nicer and more welcoming, is akin to gentrification — it’s good for the newcomers who want to “move in” to that culture, but rough on the old-timer geeks who already have roots there, don’t have the social skills to adjust, and don’t have enough social capital to thrive elsewhere.

Safe spaces as shield, safe spaces as sword, by Ken White.

“This may come as a surprise, but I’m a supporter of ‘safe spaces.’ I support safe spaces because I support freedom of association. Safe spaces, if designed in a principled way, are just an application of that freedom… But not everyone imagines “safe spaces” like that. Some use the concept of “safe spaces” as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms. That’s not freedom of association.”

Safe spaces and competing access needs, by Kelsey Piper.

Safe spaces are very important, but it is usually the case that the norms some people need to feel safe when discussing a given issue are incompatible with the norms other people need when discussing that issue. This doesn’t make either set of norms “wrong.” The internet, with its porous boundaries, makes it especially tricky to compartmentalize norms.

The moderator’s dilemma, by Chris Leong.

“Once you’ve intervened, your decision not to intervene in another situation will be taken to mean that you don’t consider a particular ideology hateful.” True not just for moderators of online communities, but also companies, universities, etc. In the comment section, some solutions to the moderator’s dilemma are proposed.

Tolerate tolerance, by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

It’s tempting to want to punish people for not punishing people we think deserve punishment. Think of someone complaining, “I can’t believe Bob still associates with John, a known bigot” (my example, not the author’s). But we should resist this temptation, because a norm of punishing non-punishers locks us into harmful equilibria.

Comments on a panel at Harvard, by Steven Pinker

There are some facts that are objectively true, but treated as unsayable by progressives because people could follow them to bad (and unwarranted) conclusions. But then the only exposure people have to those facts is from the alt-right, which does follow the facts to the bad and unwarranted conclusions.

The wonderful thing about triggers, by Scott Alexander

“Trigger warnings aren’t censorship… They’re one of our strongest weapons against the proponents of censorship. The proponents say ‘We can’t let you air that opinion, it might offend people.’ Trigger warnings say ‘I am explaining to you exactly how this might offend you, so if you continuing listening to me you have volunteered to hear whatever I have to say, on your own head be it.’”

The rules about responding to call-outs aren’t working, by Ruti Regan

“Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality… ‘Shut up and listen to marginalized people’ isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way.”

Is it possible to have coherent principles around free speech norms? by Scott Alexander

“Social norms about free speech risk collapsing into the incoherent Doctrine Of The Preferred First Speaker, where it’s okay for me to say that the President sucks, but not okay for you to say that I suck for saying that. This is dumb, and I don’t know if free speech supporters have articulated a meaningful alternative. I want to sketch out some possibilities for what that sort of alternative would look like.”

The enemy control ray, by Ozy Brennan

“Imagine your worst ideological enemy…  Now, imagine that a mad scientist has invented a device called the Enemy Control Ray. The Enemy Control Ray is a mind-control device: whatever rule you say into it, your enemy must follow… However, because of limitations of the technology, any rule you put in is translated into your enemy’s belief system.”

Who should be shamed, and who not? by Tyler Cowen

Not a proposal per se, but an observation that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of logic to which types of crimes we deem worthy of shaming someone for. Do we shame based on ideas, or behavior? Do we shame with the purpose of deterrance, tribal signaling, something else?

How I think about free speech: four categories, by Julia Galef

Indulging myself here, but I think it’s important to distinguish between different levels of “silencing” speech: no consequences, individual social consequences, official social consequences, and legal consequences. Different levels are appropriate for different kinds of speech.

Civility is never neutral, by Ozy Brennan

“There are a lot of people I know who say something like ‘the free market of ideas is really important and we need to seek truth… So what we’re going to do is not shame anyone for expressing any belief, as long as they follow a few common-sense guidelines about niceness and civility.’ I am very sympathetic to this point of view but I don’t think it will ever work… Civility norms will always be enforced disproportionately against viewpoints that the people in power don’t like.”

Be nice, at least until you can coordinate meanness, by Scott Alexander

“Society punishes people for crimes, including the crime of libel. Punishment is naturally not-nice, but this seems fair; we can’t just have people libeling each other all the time with no consequences. But what makes this tolerable is that it’s coordinated – done through the court system according to carefully codified libel law that explains to everybody what is and isn’t okay. Remove the coordination aspect, and you’ve got the old system where if you say something that offends my honor then I get some friends and try to beat you up in a dark alley. The impulse is the same: deploy not-niceness in the worthy goal of preventing libel. But one method is coordinated and the other isn’t.”

Unpopular ideas about children

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best).

Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories. Below, I focus specifically on ideas about children. (Here are my previous lists, on social normspolitical & economic systems, and crime & punishment.) I’ll be posting similar lists on other topics and adding to each one over time as I find new examples.

Why am I making these lists? Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem.

And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional “common sense,” and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.

[Because some people have missed this disclaimer in the past, I’m going to say again that I’m not endorsing these ideas, merely collecting them, and I disagree with many of them.]

  1. Anti-natalism: it’s morally wrong to have children because it condemns them, without their consent, to an existence that will include suffering (1)
  2. Pro-natalism: you have a moral obligation to have children if you are able to, and if those children’s lives are likely to be worth living (1)
  3. It’s morally preferable not to have children, because of the harmful impact of additional people on the environment (1)
  4. Parenting has little influence on children’s long-run personalities or fortunes (1)
  5. People should be able to sell parental rights to their infants (1)
  6. Infanticide is no worse than abortion (1)
  7. It’s immoral to circumcise male infants – it’s medically unnecessary, and it’s immoral to remove a piece of a person’s body without their consent (1)
  8. Children are an oppressed group; it’s unfair to deny a person rights based solely on their age (1, 2, 3)
  9. Attachment theory: It’s vital for children’s long-term emotional health to have their primary caregiver available 24/7 during their early years to reassure them emotionally (1, 2)
  10. Once it becomes possible to exercise some choice over the traits of our babies, we will have a moral obligation to do so, choosing traits like IQ and self-control that give our children the best chance at a good life. (1)
  11. Anti-child-labor laws are unfair to children and their families (1)
  12. People who want to raise children – including their own biological children – should be required to get a license from the state to show they are competent to do (1)
  13. It’s morally wrong for parents to be their children’s only source of care. Society has an obligation to provide, and require, institutional child care as a supplement to parental care. (1)
  14. Some kinds of corporal punishment for kids are good (1)
  15. Sexual contact between adults and children is not as harmful as generally believed (1)
  16. Parents should not be legally required to care for, or even feed, their children (1)

Nature shouldn’t have apologized for their editorial

I didn’t fully agree with Nature‘s editorial this week, which argued that instead of removing statues of scientists who did cruel or racist things, we should leave them up, and add plaques discussing why those scientists are problematic.

But I hate the response to the editorial even more. People called it offensive and said it shouldn’t have been printed, and Nature quickly capitulated:

“The original version of this article was offensive… we apologise for the original article and are taking steps to ensure that we do not make similar mistakes in the future.”

The editorial was “offensive”? Really? Can’t people just argue it was wrong, or misguided, or neglected considerations X, Y, and Z? Why do we have to label it “offensive” and say it never should’ve been printed in the first place?

I’m not claiming that it’s never valid to object to something for being offensive. If someone’s outright defending racism, then yeah, call that offensive and decry the publication that printed it.

But if someone simply has a different opinion from you about the correct way to fight racism, and we decry that with the same fervour that we formerly used to decry racism itself… that’s defining the boundaries of “opinions that reasonable people are allowed to voice in public” incredibly narrowly, in a way that makes me nervous.

C’mon, not all disagreements are opportunities to change your own mind

Yesterday I tweeted about some of the reasons I engage in online arguments with people, even if there’s no real hope of swaying them:

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The most common objection I got was this: “You didn’t mention the motivation of changing your own mind. Shouldn’t you always be approaching arguments with open-minded curiosity, motivated by a desire to learn?”

This is kind of a funny thing for me to be pushing back on, since I so often write and speak about the virtues of trying to change your own mind. But I want to push back on it anyway.

I think that “trying to change your mind” is a great goal we should be striving for, but that most debates have a pretty low probability of succeeding at that, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Here are some examples to illustrate the difference:

1) Arguments I engage with in hopes of changing my own mind

  • Arguments that sound wrong, but the person making them seems smart and intellectually honest, so maybe I’m missing something
  • Arguments that sound wrong but were shared approvingly by people whose judgment I respect
  • Novel arguments I haven’t heard before, that sound wrong on first pass but are interesting and worth considering more

2) Arguments I probably just wouldn’t bother with, if my main goal was changing my own mind

  • Arguments I’ve already heard a bunch of times
  • Arguments that seem obviously fallacious, and there’s nothing promising about the source to suggest I might be missing something
  • Arguments by someone who gives signs of being a bad thinker. For example, if they’re being rude and twisting other people’s words uncharitably, that’s not an encouraging sign that I can learn from them
  • Arguments by people who don’t share some of my core premises (like, I’m secular and they’re making a religious argument about ethics)

What I was trying to do in my tweet yesterday was talk about why I still sometimes engage with arguments in category (2). Of course I strongly endorse seeking out debates in category (1), for the purpose of changing your own mind, and I talk about that a lot. I just hadn’t seen anyone making a good case for why (2) could also be a worthwhile use of time, and I thought that was the more interesting point to highlight.

Also… I strongly suspect that when we insist, “You should always be open to changing your mind!” we just end up undermining our own case. Because when we say that, people think of arguments in category (2), and our lofty rhetoric about changing your mind just seems naive at best, disingenuous at worst. Like, you tell people “Remember, a disagreement is an opportunity to learn!” …and they think of that person in their Facebook feed yelling “Trump kicks ass and we should deport all brown people,” and they inwardly roll their eyes at you.

Instead I’d rather tell people, “You should put some effort into changing your own mind, and here are a few tips on how to find arguments that might have a chance at doing so.” Those won’t be the majority of arguments. But if you’re finding arguments in category (1) even a small fraction of the time, you’re already doing amazingly well.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best).

Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories. Below, I focus specifically on ideas about crime and punishment. (Here are my two previous lists, on social norms and political/economic systems.) I’ll be posting similar lists on other topics and adding to each one over time as I find new examples.

Why am I making these lists? Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem.

And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional “common sense,” and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.

[Because some people have missed this disclaimer in the past, I’m going to say again that I’m not endorsing these ideas, merely collecting them, and I disagree with many of them.]

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment:

  1. Juries should be replaced by judges, especially in cases that are complex or subject to bias. (1)
  2. Non-retributive justice: Criminals are purely victims of genetics and circumstance. We should abandon punishment as a goal and instead focus only on preventing future harm. (1)
  3. We should provide prisoners, especially those serving a life sentence, with the means to commit suicide, and encourage them to do so. (1)
  4. We should send destructive drug addicts to towns away from society with free birth control, food, shelter and drugs. It would be less expensive to society than the crimes they commit and the cost of imprisoning them.
  5. Our current prison system mixes punishment with rehabilitation, and therefore does an ineffective job of both. We could get better results either by focusing solely on punishment, or solely on rehabilitation.
  6. Prison labor is just slavery, repackaged. (1, 2)
  7. Pre-punishment (like in Minority Report) would be effective and morally acceptable. (1, 2, 3)
  8. The death penalty is broken only in practice, not in principle. It wouldn’t be difficult to fix and should be kept in place for the worst criminals. Life imprisonment is extremely costly, dangerous to other inmates, and not much more humane than death anyway. (1)
  9. Prison abolitionism: We should get rid of prisons altogether, or reduce the size of the prison population to about five percent of its current size. (1, 2, 3)
  10. Police abolitionism: The benefits the police provide are not great enough to justify the harms and injustices they cause. (1)
  11. We should flog criminals instead of imprisoning them. Variant: we should offer convicts the choice between flogging and imprisonment. (1)
  12. Public shaming is often a more effective solution to crime than imprisonment, and should be more widely used. (1, 2)
  13. It should be legal to blackmail people over crimes they committed. This would provide an extra deterrant for criminals, and be cheap relative to policing. (1)

Unpopular ideas about politics and economics

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best).

Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories. Below, I focus specifically on ideas about political and economic systems. (Here’s my previous list, on social norms.) I’ll be posting similar lists on other topics and adding to each one over time as I find new examples.

Why am I making these lists? Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem.

And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional “common sense,” and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.

Unpopular ideas about political and economic systems:

  1. Many people have a moral duty not to vote. (1)
  2. We should institute futarchy, in which market predictions determine policy. (1)
  3. Chinese governance is superior to American governance. (1)
  4. Singaporean governance is superior to American governance. (1)
  5. Political leaders should be selected at random, rather than by voting. (1)
  6. There should be no minimum voting age. (1)
  7. Votes should be sellable/tradeable with enforceable contracts. (1)
  8. Transparency in politics is actually making things worse. (1, 2)
  9. “Pork barrel politics” gets blamed for corruption and bloat, but it was actually good and we shouldn’t have banned it. The ability to add pork is what allowed for political dealmaking and compromise; without it, we’re stuck in gridlock. (1)
  10. Ethnically homogenous societies work better — are happier, more trusting, etc. (1, 2)
  11. We should institute a global democracy. (1)
  12. Anarcho-monarchism would work better than democracy. (1)
  13. On the margin, economic development is bad because it increases technological progress, which increases the risk of various global catastrophies. (1)
  14. The United States should institute open borders, allowing in billions of poor and uneducated immigrants. (1)
  15. The government should sell US citizenship. (1, 2)
  16. Individual citizens should be able to trade or transfer their citizenship to another person. (1, 2)
  17. Large-scale philanthropy undermines democracy, because it allows billionaires too much influence over policy. (1)
  18. Economic growth isn’t an effective way to improve human well-being, because people’s happiness level quickly adapts to higher standards of living. (1)
  19. We should replace democracy with epistocracy, in which voting rights are restricted to those who meet a minimum level of knowledge or competency. (1)
  20. Old people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, or their vote should count less. (1)
  21. People worry about overpopulation, but underpopulation is a bigger risk. (1)
  22. Brexit would be good for the UK and the world. (1, 2)
  23. We should aim for a steady state economy, one that’s not growing but staying the same size. Getting our economy to the right size may even involve making it smaller. (1)