A Trolley Problem Dialogue

Oberstein: The ethical thing to do is to pull the lever. The result is one dead person instead of five.

Kircheis: I guess. But who set up this situation? Why should I, if I have any agency at all, use it to indulge some psychopathic moral psychology experimenter's fancies?

Oberstein: Regardless of how you got into the situation, you should operate in the manner that results in the most lives saved.

Kircheis: I'm sure it's not right to treat human lives as tokens to be traded...

Oberstein: This is the same situation. You take the action that results in one corpse rather than five.

Kircheis: It's completely different! When you have to do it with your own hands, the emotional impact of that action will haunt you for the rest of your life! You know as well as anyone how much easier it is to kill someone with the push of a button.

Oberstein: Suppose the permanent emotional impact is so great that it's just as bad as dying. Then there's still the equivalent of two corpses, instead of five. Would you not sacrifice your precious feelings for the greater good?

Kircheis: You know I would.

Oberstein: Yes.

Kircheis: It's a different situation. But even if it weren't, my notion of justice doesn't allow killing people to save others. It's barbaric, or heartless. People like you can never understand it, because you think it's as simple as setting certain utilitarian weights to infinity, to the detriment of consequences. But it's not. You'll never understand deontology if you think of it as a perverse form of utilitarianism.
 At this point, Grognor materializes in a puff of manliness
Kircheis: What the hell? Who are you?

Grognor: I know it is gauche for an author to appear in his own platonic dialogue, but Kircheis is right, but he isn't smart enough to understand why. So I'm going to enhance his intelligence so he can see it. *BZZHORT* Okay Kircheis, now you can explain it to him.

Oberstein: Kircheis's position always leads to absurdities. Mine only leads to repugnances. I don't see how his can be right.
SuperKircheis: I see. Part of the reason people have different intuitions about what to do in trolley problems is that they fight the hypothetical to different degrees. People like Oberstein allow themselves to work within the assumptions of the philosopher's case, whereas people like me do not. And we are right not to, even though we usually don't know it or even realize we are doing it. Because decisions don't happen in a vacuum, and we shouldn't pretend they do.

Oberstein: Even if you can't see all the consequences of your actions, you should still act in the best interests of all within the consequences you can see, subject to your own moral and empirical uncertainty.

SuperKircheis: You are always so proud of seeing everything with those mechanical eyes. When you decided to let millions die at Westerland, did you foresee the long-term consequences of such a precedent? Did you not think of the stain it would leave on His Majesty's honor?


SuperKircheis: If you say you did foresee, and sincerely believed it was worth the price, I'll believe you. But you're not seeing all the consequences of killing people in trolley problems. Your robot eyes have a myopic dysfunction.

Oberstein: Oh?

SuperKircheis: By setting a precedent where fat men are pushed off of overpasses, you make fat men afraid to cross overpasses. By being the sort of person who plays along with trolley problems, you give psychopathic moral psychology experimenters an incentive to give you trolley problems. In general, when you let yourself be exploited, you let yourself be exploited.

Grognor: So the correct action in the trolley problem where you're just flicking a switch depends on whether this implies some sort of submission to a hostile agent. Those unfortunate enough to just happen to find themselves in the position of having to choose between one death and five deaths should choose one, in situations where refusing to choose would be like refusing to allow time to pass. However, I find the epistemic state where I know exactly how many corpses will result from a decision pretty unlikely. I'm pretty confused in general.

Oberstein: I have no morals, only goals. I don't understand how I ended up in a dialogue about ethical philosophy. But, since I'm here. From an ethical point of view, don't you have a responsibility to make the best of your situations, regardless of how you got into those situations?

SuperKircheis: No, because how you respond to situations influences whether or not you get into those situations, in worlds where there are other agents who do not have the same goals as you do. I think your failure to appreciate this is why you lied to Reinhard that day. He should have punished you severely for it.

Oberstein: So you're saying evil agents who set up inevitable deaths can't simply shift culpability onto people involved in the situations they create? That is interesting. But the people involved must still choose. Refusing to choose is like refusing to allow time to pass. And they should choose based on the expected consequences.

SuperKircheis: I won't say, "To hell with the consequences!" because I'm smart enough now to know that they matter. I can't explain updateless decision theory to you right now, so let's stick with the framework where the expected consequences are the only thing that matter. If you'll allow it, the whole reason our ethical intuitions and ratiocinations take the form of strong rules instead of just figuring out what's going to happen is because we can't figure out what is going to happen. And I'm smart enough now to know that there is no amount of intelligence sufficient to figure it out. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. Well, that's half of the reason. The other half is that we constantly delude ourselves about the consequences and need strong injunctions to prevent self-serving biases from taking over our decision process. Anyway, you need an incredibly high standard of certainty before making decisions on a naive utilitarian basis is justifiable, one that mere humans, even ones as smart as I currently am, cannot attain.


SuperKircheis: You're also not even taking into account structural uncertainty and metamoral uncertainty.

Oberstein: You'll have to explain what those are.

SuperKircheis: Even that wouldn't be enough, you still have to have at least a cursory understanding of the game-theoretic foundations of morality, the etiology of...
 Grognor presses the button on his device again. *BZZORRRT*
SuperOberstein: Ah. I understand now. You were right all along.

Grognor: Isn't it nice when one of these doesn't end in aporia!


A History of Weird Sun Twitter

As Baccano! admirably demonstrates, deciding where to start a story can be a tricky matter. The obvious place to begin a history of Weird Sun Twitter is the appearance of Instance Of Class, the primeval sun from which imitators later emerged. Instead I'm going to tell you about something seemingly unrelated.

In early 2011 a YouTube account called ImmaVegeta appeared, having named itself after an old meme whose syntax was IAMX, where X was some person. IAMVEGETA was taken. It posted clips of Vegeta from Dragonball Z, which were somehow timed to be hilarious. At the time you could have public tags on videos, and he exploited that for further humor. I found this content addicting and watched all the videos.

Beginning around summer of that year, I started seeing more accounts. ImmaPiccolo. ImmaGoku. A lot of them were pretty good as well, but none matched the original. After all, how could anyone? You can't become the best at something someone else invented. I could tell you a lot more about this, but that's not what you're here for.

Before I move on to weird sun twitter proper, another phenomenon. Popular youtube user Kripparian posts lots of Hearthstone videos. Their format was usually him talking about the game, followed by clips of himself playing the game. In the comments section appeared an account called Skipperino Kripperino who just posted the timestamp of when the game clips start. Betcha thought the imitators were going to be of the youtuber. Not this time!

This doesn't explain anything. I have no idea why there were so many ImmaVegeta clones or Skipperino clones. Knowing that there's more than one example of a bizarre phenomenon doesn't explain that phenomenon. However, I noticed the comparison and want credit for that. Give it to me.

Before beginning the story proper, I will digress with one last preliminary.

In August 2012, twitter user @aristosophy appeared, along with less-filtered account @tipsfromkatee, creating a minor sensation with her extremely good tweets that displayed very high intellect and knowledge of the extended Less Wrong memeplex. This will prove relevant later.


Anecdotes from my Past

When I was a child, I befriended a black kid named Justus. I can't remember much about him, but I remember one time I saw him getting the shit beat out of him by three other kids. I rode my kick scooter up to them and immediately started attacking them with the scooter. Justus got up and I don't know what he started doing. The assailants called me a coward for using a weapon, so I threw it on the ground and kept attacking with my fists. I remember thinking of the situation at the time as 2 vs. 3, so of course, we as the 2 were going to win, since we were the protagonists. Now I realize, Justus probably didn't want to keep fighting after being beat up so bad, so it was more like 1 vs. 3. Odds in that case were even better for me. They didn't want to fight me and just sort of went away. Justus reunited with his mother. I can't remember anything about what caused this incident, or what the repercussions, if any, were.

In middle school one of our assignments was to make a powerpoint presentation about any writer and present it to the class. One of my screen transitions was a fist coming out of nowhere and punching the screen, complete with sound effect. One of the girls in the class freaked out about this. I probably made fun of her for that at the time, and genuinely disdained her fearing something on a screen. Now that I'm an adult I can see that she had probably been abused.

Also in middle school I had this group of four girls who would sometimes find me and harass me. Can't remember much of what they did, but I remember the teasing being relentless and encountering them was one of the most unpleasant things about my life at the time. I remember one question, "do you want to be the friction in her pants", one girl asking of me of another, which even in retrospect I don't really understand (like, if I'd been suave about saying yes, would I have been able to... well, nevermind). One morning my wonderful lutino parakeet, Pashmina, died in my hands. I was a broken mess that day. The girls found me crying by myself in the cafeteria. They switched from bullying to asking me what was wrong. I told them, and flustered and crying, told them to leave me alone. They kept trying to offer comfort, having discovered some humanity in themselves, but I just kept saying "leave me alone!" They never bothered me again.

Also in middle school, in P.E. class there was one kid who bullied me every day. One day I couldn't take it anymore and punched him in the neck. I got punished with in-school-suspension, basically two days of even more boredom than regular school, but he never bothered me again. It was easily worth it. You know, when you report someone for bullying you, the authorities don't fucking do anything. You have to make them stop yourself, and then you're the one who gets punished. That was my entire life for years and years. Fuck school.

In high school there was a moment where I had to walk through the narrow space between two tables and there were two dudes looking at me from one of the tables. Some part of me must have sensed their hostility and upped my reaction speed, or something, because when I walked through they tried to startle me with a sudden loud scream and movement, like a gimmick in a haunted house. But instead of flinching back I just automatically struck one of them with my outstretched and bent hand. It was a really slow arm movement that did no damage. All three of us laughed about it.

There's no purpose to this post, but if there were one, it would be: schools need to be burned down. The suffering of young people is great and it matters.


When Incapacity is an Advantage

Suppose X and Y are skills, and that Person A has skill X and person B has skill X and skill Y.

If A and B are working together, it makes sense for A to specialize on X and B to specialize on Y. That is how comparative advantage works. However, it's rather unfair to B if Y happens to be a lower prestige activity.

This happens all the time. Someone who is really great at coming up with new ideas gets more renown than someone who is good at explaining those ideas, for instance. You should think of your own examples before proceeding.

(The above insight is 100% stolen from someone else, but since their post isn't public, I summarized it in my own words.)

This dynamic means that if prestige is among your goals, you have an incentive not to learn skill Y, to prevent yourself from being able to learn skill Y, and to invent rationalizations for why skill Y is either useless or something only bad people would want to learn. It's another example of a game-theoretic situation where being less capable is an advantage, which will come as no surprise if you've read Schelling.

Note that you have to be at least somewhat selfish to not want to learn Y in order to gain this sort of advantage. Coalitions are always made better off when their individual members gain new knowledge and skills, even if those individual members are made worse off.

What's really interesting is that people who fail to learn skill Y aren't the only game-theoretic agents. There are other players, and those among them who do have skill Y are able to at least subconsciously notice the costs imposed among them by people who don't. Which means that people who know skill Y will get angry at people who don't and invent rationalizations and harangues and the other usual social moves for getting people to do things, so they don't have to be the only ones.

It seems like a lot of game-theoretic equilibria end up in basically the situation of the brightly-colored poisonous frogs, with a substantial portion of mimic frogs who have no poison at all.


Superstitions as Evolved Objects

It's common to mock superstitions to display one's Skeptic cred, but it's a mistake, because they are Chesterton fences.

It's bad luck to walk under a ladder. No, okay, it's not "bad luck", but ladders are dangerous.

It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. Or more accurately, it's inconsiderate, because open umbrellas are deceptively difficult to handle indoors and you're pretty likely to bump into someone or knock over a lamp. A fifteen-minute training course on umbrella safety and etiquette wouldn't be a waste of time.

Seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror. Not really sure about this one but who wants broken mirrors? Mirrors are probably pretty hard to make.

I've heard that in some Islamic countries it is traditional to touch food only with the right hand, and reserve the left hand for disgusting activities like wiping the ass. For years I thought this was some sort of unprincipled discrimination, but somehow I spontaneously saw the purpose one day. It makes perfect sense to use only one hand for eating in a world where you can't wash your hands right before every meal. The practice makes enough sense to me that I do it.

Cultures exist in a world of slow meticulous selection pressures. Like organisms, they must adapt to them to survive. This is the basic tenet of the study of cultural evolution. It's a small insight, to realize that superstitions are part of culture, and thus also subject to, and created by, those pressures.

My hope with this article is that it produces a Baader-Meinhof effect in you for a little while, so that when next you see someone call some habit a 'superstition' you can think about whether or not there's a pretty obvious purpose like in the above four examples. But there may be a purpose even if you can't think of one, for reasons articulated here and in much more depth and generality here.