Self-reflection on what drives moral outrage and why I am not an effective altruist
I’ve been reading you for a long time and this is one of the most mind-blowingly original things I’ve ever read.
As one of your rationalist/EA readers, this essay perfectly encapsulates both what I respect and dislike about you. Your commitment to truth seeking and introspection are great; your commitment to defending your aesthetic preferences/instincts (which I am often personally repulsed by) unless faced with overwhelming counter-evidence is not.
I appreciate the honesty and transparency Dr. Hanania. In fact, I think that's why many of us come here. I'd be fascinated to see what the results of you taking the "Big Five" personality test might be. (I assume you're low in Agreeableness.)
I would raise two, small objections to things you wrote. 1) The banning of all personal-life talk from teachers as a mask for homophobia. That's probably true. But I can think of good reasons why heterosexual teachers should be banned from talking about it as well. In my 3rd grade class, my teacher got pregnant. Naturally, we asked how a woman can get pregnant and her (wise) response was, "Go ask your parents." I'm grateful she didn't go into detail about getting nailed by her husband.
2) I have an intense dislike for Claire Lehman, so (cards on the table) this might be my own bias against her--but, her point about Autism and high IQ doesn't disprove your notion about mental illness. (Many, highly intelligent people can still be crazy and unfit for high office).
I appreciate your candor and willingness to discuss these things, Dr. Hanania. Though, I share all your instinctual biases, so I suppose I just enjoy the comradery of being the same boat too.
Very good article. I've know for a long time that it was human nature for most of us to put more energy into trivial political issues instead of more impactful ones, but I've never really know why. This framework of two systems of morality is very clarifying.
Since I'm a 1-in-75 IQ guy instead of a 1-in-1000 one, I don't have much more to add. So I'll use a quote from a middlebrow writer making a sports metaphor that explains how I and so many others feel about the woke:
"As a 76ers fan, I hate Larry Bird. Not in the same way I hate Hitler, but more often".
Great article, Richard. I felt like I was reading early Slate Star Codex from a right-wing perspective.
One of the deeply valuable things that conformance to social standards, even (or even especially) arbitrary and silly standards does is signal a strong willingness to work with the group. Conversely, a ready defiance or challenge of social standards signals an unwillingness to work with the group, a feeling that the individual's needs and feelings are being prioritized over the group's.
When I go to meet with my child's teacher at school, I shave and replace my T-shirt with a nice shirt. When I go to court I put on a suit and tie, and I address the judge as "Your Honor." I may find any of these things deeply silly, or even mildly offensive. Like: how is it functional for me to be required to address a judge in 2022 as if I was a peasant addressin his feudal lord? Is that not probably corrosive of the ideal of equality before the law, of republican self-government, et cetera? I can easily make the argument that it is.j I don't like wearing ties, they seem silly and get in the way. Who decided this stupid fashion? Why am I as a man more constrained than a woman, who could choose a variety of styles of dress that suit her individual taste? Why can't I just wear something *I* think looks good on me, why must I conform to the silly standard that men should wear dark coats and dull colored strips of cloth tied elboratedly around their necks?
But I *do* them, nevertheless, because I am signalling that I acknowledge the group has spoke on these (perhaps trivial) markers, and by conforming to them I agree what the group has decided has weight and currency with me, that I do not necessarily assert my own interests and tastes come first, always. I'm OK with compromise, I see that other people have needs and interests, that may conflict with mine, and I am open to some kind of negotiation and compromise.
These are extremely valuable signals. In general, entropy and bad luck and our very high ambitions makes it darn hard to achieve general success. The only way we can all enjoy the pretty good life the hard work of our ancestors made possible for us is to work together, to cooperate, to be willing to acknowledge that sometimes we have to compromise our individual ideas and tastes for the sake of the group enterprise -- success at keeping the ship 'o' progress sailing along well, avoid the shoals and rocks of disunion, fratricide, misunderstanding, mistake, confusion.
So when I see other people who signal "Hey, I recognize I'm part of a group, and I issue these signals to let you know that I'm willing to work with the group, I do not insist on getting my way all the time, even at the cost of group success" that makes me happy and I trust them more.
When I see people who deliberately signal "Hey, I recognize the group feelings/decisions on these assorted matters, and I deliberately flout them, which is a signal to you that I consider my personal aims and tastes much more importan than the group goals, and I will probably insist on my personal goals even at the cost of group success" then, not surprisingly, I feel distrustful and hostile. This is not a person who will *ever* be of assistance to me, or to the group. This may very well be a social parasite, who will subtract from the group endeavour, dead weight that must be dragged along.
The pronoun debate reminds me curiously of the fact that new jarheads are trained to never use the personal pronoun at all -- they are required to refer to themselve as "this Marine" and aren't allowed to say "I". We can see why: by compelling a new language, they compel the new Marine to think constantly about his role in the larger endeavour. Is that I'm doing constructive for the group endeavour? We think, not unreasonably, that enforcing that kind of reflection (and group signaling) improves the ability of the group to get shit done. If I'm a fellow Marine, I trust the guy who speaks this way maybe a little more, because I feel like he's telling me if the situation goes pear-shaped he's *not* going to be thinking just about himself, there's a chance he'll think about me, and us, also. Conversely if the guy insisted on having his own special pronoun, I'd tend to think he would be likely to put his own welfare above mine, or anybody's, and my trust level would go down.
I wonder if you underestimate the general social cost of people constantly signaling their wish to put their individual narcissistic needs above the group goals. We look around and see gee, we seem more fratricidal, more tribal, less cooperative, more confrontational than before, and by gum these things have real and substantial costs. Should we not *connect* that to the unwillingness of the majority to judge (negatively) those individuals who insist on issuing signals that give the finger to the decisions and traditions of the majority -- even those which are silly and arbitrary?
I fall into the ea camp and not into the conservative camp. This is a truly incredible article--one of the best I've read in years. While I hate genocide more than pronouns (by quite a lot), this was a remarkably clear look into your psychology and the psychology of other conservatives.
This post reflects my own thoughts on politics very closely. I’m probably a little bit more tolerant of differences, and have a lower disgust reaction, but otherwise very similar.
A minor quibble: if one has a 1 in 1,000 IQ (which mine is based on standardized tests), then I think a 1 in 10 or 1 in 100 level of nonconformity is sufficient to explain extreme anti-wokeness. A big motivator is just intellectual hygiene, which you mention in your article.
"She said a man had molested a little girl, a judge gave him a light sentence, and society was outraged.
This made me wonder why something like that is never the Current Thing in America."
I'd say the Brock Turner saga was somewhat in that vein. That was in the transitory times between gender being the most important thing in the world to race being the most important thing and it had a bit of both.
Liberal EA anti-woke professor here. There’s a good System 2 reason for moral outrage at wokeness: it makes the liberal agenda, which I endorse, look silly and alienates potential allies. As far as androgyny you might do better to get in touch with your inner System 2 and try to suppress your instinctual disgust. The issue isn’t ‘hulking trans women’ or plus-size models on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but ordinary unattractive women like myself who lose out on professional opportunities where appearance isn’t a legitimate job-related requirement—and from time to time are ridiculed and humiliated just for the heck of it by people with their System 1 in gear.
It has been a few years since I read something that so accurate represents exactly how I feel about leftism. As a scientist and academic (about to leave) I feel the exact sentiments expressed in this piece, but don't have the ability to express my horror outwardly. Thank you for (probably) screaming uselessly into the wind, for those of who can't - but still want to.
"Intellectuals who become obsessively anti-woke care about truth"
I don't think that's a good description of James Lindsay. He'll fall for hoaxes that flatter his ideology, and not feel bad but instead say it proves how bad his opponents are that the hoax seems so plausible.
I want to push back against one assertion -- that academics are an exception to the norm of professions policing themselves and holding their own members to high standards.
This doesn't strike me as the case. Indeed, it seems an aspect of almost every scandals is members of a profession protecting their own, whether it's the clergy, teachers, police officers, or any other profession. There is a tendency to circle the ranks, and profession as an identity has a stronger pull than something more abstract like "truth seeker" or "non-molester."
Now, many of these groups do enforce a high standard for entry. Think about boot camp, medical school, etc. But once you're in, you're in.
This is especially true if the criticisms originate from outside the profession. Maybe an internal audit would be justified. But if someone from outside starts lobbing criticisms, the ranks close pretty quickly.
I would like to suggest another aspect to why objectively lesser offenses can generate more emotional heat than greater ones.
Let's say one has been arguing with one's wife over something small, such as forgetting to throw ones' dirty socks in the hamper. The man then forgets to pay the electric bill and the power gets shut off for a few hours. Which is the worse offense, failing to pay the bill or leaving dirty socks on the floor again? Clearly forgetting to pay the bill is objectively a bigger deal. But which of the two offenses is more likely to result in a big blow-up and a week in the doghouse? I submit that it is the one that the couple have been arguing about.
Pronouns are on the leading edge of the fight. Genocide is not. The genocide battle has largely been won, so when one comes into contact with a holocaust denier, one need not treat them very seriously. They are just the remnants of a lost cause and will inevitably fade into history. But pronoun deniers are still very much kicking and might yet win the war, hence it is worth expending one's energies and vitriol upon them.
> It is unhealthy that one of the most relevant cleavages in our politics is based on the style in which people present their ideas, regardless of quality. It would be better if more members of the governing class saw themselves as part of the truth-seeker tribe rather than that of “individuals with degrees who write a large number of grammatical sentences with references.”
Isn't this simply a matter of low-hanging fruit? Determing the "quality" of ideas (however we define it) is no easy feat - even if the question is truth-apt (and many aren't). Determining who has a degree and writes a large number of grammatical sentences with references, on the other hand, is child's play.
I think you're being too hard on yourself. It's simpler to say we live in an age where normative, evolutionarily derived behaviors are under attack. I'm willing to say that I will not oppose "puppy play" among consenting adults, but I will not recognize it as anything other than a fringe fetish that is far out of the norm. I'm so weary of having to celebrate every kink that raises its exotic head. The human race didn't suddenly re-invent itself.