A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 29 May 2017

Eugenics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eugenics is the attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Some people might object to the notion that we can talk of "genetic quality", insisting that all people are fundamentally equal and that this rules out the possibility that some genes are better than others. I say this is nonsense. A gene that predisposes you to be unhappy, violent, or stupid, with no other effects, is clearly bad. No parent should want their child to inherit such a gene. If this is contrary to human equality, then so much the worse for human equality.

With that out of the way, I wish to suggest a division of our notion of "eugenics" into three categories: pro-natal eugenics, which aims to increase the number of people being born with preferable genes; anti-natal eugenics, which aims to reduce the number of people being born with less-preferable genes; and improvement eugenics, which aims to improve the genetic quality of people who are going to be born anyway. An example of pro-natal eugenics would be providing financial subsidies for high-IQ couples to have children; an example of anti-natal eugenics would be compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be defective in certain ways; an example of improvement eugenics would be screening embryos for disease among people undergoing IVF treatment.

These different kinds of eugenics ought to be assessed differently. My key thesis here is that improvement eugenics is clearly desirable, pro-natal eugenics is likely to be anti-egalitarian but that the good consequences may well outweigh this, and that confusing these with anti-natal eugenics is responsible for most of our worries about eugenics. (I'm not going to take a strong position on whether anti-natal eugenics might be overall justified, but it seems far more problematic than either of the other kinds).

There is a risk with any of these programs that policy-makers will seek to promote not good traits but traits which they personally like - for example, particular colours of skin. We should acknowledge this danger, should fight against all such misapplications of eugenics, and may find that the risk of abuse is to high to practice any eugenics. But I maintain that these practical issues are irrelevant to the in-principle-acceptability of certain kinds of eugenics.

Improvement Eugenics

When we talk about ways to improve outcomes for people who will exist anyway in ways which don't involve genetics, no-one bats an eyelid. Controls on lead emissions are obviously desirable. Education, insofar as it represents real improvements in people's capabilities rather than just a form of signalling, is similarly desirable. The only question, then, is whether the fact of these changes being genetic rather than through other mechanisms makes a moral difference.

It does introduce some extra reasons to be concerned, to be sure. Genetic changes are rather harder to reverse than many other kinds of change: if it had turned out that we were wrong about lead and that it was in fact vital to children's development, we could start pumping it into the air and would within a few years fix much of the damage caused; if it turned out that an incident of gene editing had significant negative consequences, this would take longer to correct and would require significantly greater resources, if it was even possible. But this does not affect the case, on the level of pure principle, for improvement eugenics.

Some people object that by meddling with genes, we are "playing God". Given that I don't believe in any kind of God, at least in the conventional sense, I'm not inclined to take this kind of argument seriously. Besides which, such arguments seem woefully underspecified. What is that makes fixing people's genes blasphemous, but throwing a ball not blasphemous? Both involve meddling with the world in certain ways which might happen to be either in accordance with or contrary to God's will. I'd be happy to have this discussion with a serious religious thinker willing to supply such a condition, but in the absence of such an interlocutor I feel the attempt would be a waste of time.

Perhaps changing someone's genes involves some kind of interference with their autonomy. OK, but it can also improve their autonomy if it leads to higher intelligence, conscientiousness, or similar. Moreover, it's highly unclear why we should take their natural set of genes as the moral default from which any deviation must be justified.

Ultimately, it's hard to see why we shouldn't edit out things like hereditary diseases from the human genome, unless there are significant side-effects of doing so. Is it right to save life, or to kill?

Pro-natal eugenics

This is more problematic than improvement eugenics. Most obviously, it's likely to involve anti-egalitarian transfers of resources and welfare, since the people we would be attempting to incentivise to have more children would in many cases be those who already have plenty. (Perhaps the solution would be, rather than rewarding high-IQ types for having more children, punishing them for having fewer children? But even if this is judged worthwhile when intelligence we wish to encourage, it becomes rather less palatable when trying to encourage greater procreation by people with genes that lead them to be more pro-social than average, or other things we view as virtuous).

That said, I think in general this ought not to be much more controversial than improvement eugenics. If you accept my arguments that people benefit from existing, and you think that certain people create net positive externalities for the rest of society (and would continue to do so on the margin if there were more of them), then why would you not want more of those people? Yes it has certain inegalitarian aspects, but any good Rawlsian should recognise than in the end we all benefit.

Anti-natal eugenics

This is the bad boy. This is the kind of eugenics responsible for giving eugenics in general a bad name, the kind of eugenics used to justify forced sterilisation of despised minorities.

When considering any kind of anti-natal eugenics aimed at abolishing a condition X, there are two questions to be asked: (1) what does X mean for the quality of life of the person who possesses it? (2) Do people with X tend to make the rest of society worse off?

If the answer to (1) is that X usually makes people's lives not worth living, as with certain medical conditions, then we do not need any kind of eugenic principle to justify preventing people with condition X from coming into existence: we need only a sense of mercy.

If the answer to (2) is no, that they simply end up in a worse condition than the average member of society - so what? Let these people live, let their parents have full reproductive freedom!

The complicated cases come when a person is fully capable of having a life worth living, but would impose costs on society in doing so. Sometimes these costs will be concrete, such as those who are in important ways disabled at a young age and so require another person to act as a full-time carer. Sometimes they will be harder to detect, such as the stuff Garett Jones writes about. My tentative inclination is to think that some anti-natal eugenics may be permissible in such cases, but I cannot claim to have thought this through in any great detail. Moreover, any interests society may have in avoiding these costs must be weighed against various interests - in particular procreative interests and bodily autonomy - of the would-be parents of children with condition X. Paying criminals to be sterilised is probably acceptable, mandatory sterilisation is probably not.


Eugenics gets a bad rap due to the genuinely reprehensible things which it has been used to justify. However, eugenic interventions aimed at improving the genetic quality of people who will be born in any case and/or at increasing the fertility of people with desirable traits are in principle morally acceptable - though we might nevertheless have justified worries about the practicalities of such programs.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

How Serious are Northern Irish Nationalists?

When what is now the Republic of Ireland seceded from Britain in the early 1920s, six of the thirty-two traditional Irish counties remained part of the UK. These six were judged to have more Protestant inhabitants than Catholic, and so to be sustainable for the Empire against the rising tide of generally small-scale but widespread and well-targeted violence that had rendered much of Ireland utterly ungovernable for the British government. 95 years later, the situation remains in the most basic facts the same: Northern Ireland remains a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, with the Protestants holding a slim plurality of the population. The Catholics are still mostly Irish nationalists, wanting the six counties to leave the UK and join the Republic; the Protestants are still mostly unionists, fiercely resistant to this suggestion. In past decades there was significant violence over this issue, resulting in over 3500 deaths; however, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, there has been very little fighting and pressure has been exerted through the controlled violence of electoral politics.

One question we may ask of the Irish nationalists who live in Northern Ireland is: given that they claim to have a strong preference for living in the Republic of Ireland, why don't they? Rather than pushing for Irish unification politically, a cause which is no closer to success than it was 95 years ago, why don't they just move 50 miles south to live in the existing territory of the Republic? I shall consider various reasons they might have for not moving, and ultimately conclude that in general they just don't care that much. The preference of Northern Irish Catholics for Irish unification is not a preference that we should take especially seriously.

It is worth making it clear that I am not arguing that by living in Northern Ireland, Catholics consent to British rule. David Hume savaged consent theory quite comprehensively back in 1748. In any case, the idea that living in a state constitutes consent to that state presupposes that the state already has legitimate ownership of its territory. Nor would I claim that Northern Irish Catholics lack strong feelings about which state ought to possess sovereignty over Northern Ireland. But such feelings are produced by a need for group identity rather than any intellectual case or any experience of being oppressed.

The costs of moving to Eire

Let's be fair: there are substantial costs involved in moving house, especially between countries. But for most people in Northern Ireland, I shall show that this is not a convincing explanation. Most of the costs involved in such a move are small, negative, or inevitable.

Let us divide the costs into four categories: material costs, social costs, legal barriers, and transitional costs. By material costs I mean long-lasting reductions in one's standard of living as a result of moving geographically. An example of a material cost would be moving but being unable to find a job similar to the one you had back home, with the result that one is permanently poorer. These are the kind of costs that explain why people who are still in work do not tend to move from higher-income countries to lower-income countries. For much of the last century, this would have provided a plausible reason for not moving to the south: at the time of partition, Belfast was the only significant industrialised area in the island of Ireland, and most of the Republic was dirt-poor. But since around 1990 Ireland has undergone rapid economic growth, to the point where its GDP per capita is much higher not only than that of Northern Ireland, but of the UK as a whole. Nationalists moving to Ireland nowadays would most likely improve their standard of living.

Social costs are the long-term changes to one's social life that are necessitated by moving. These can exist in both losing old friends, and losing access to activities that one enjoyed but no longer has access to. Such costs can indeed be substantial - but they are not plausibly especially large for most Northern Irish Catholics contemplating a move south. They would not be moving far - Belfast and Dublin are only two hour's drive apart, absolutely fine for regular weekend visits home to see family and friends. The cultural life available to a Northern Irish Catholic is not tremendously different from that available to a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. If people really care, you might well persuade a lot of people to move south with you!

The legal barriers are close to non-existent. UK citizens born in Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, and do not have to give up their British citizenship to acquire it. The border is unguarded, indeed in most places unmarked. Perhaps there might be some problems for former IRA members, given that the Republic was generally quite successful in keeping the IRA out of Ireland. That said, I'd guess that since 1998 with the general amnesty available, this should not have been an issue. In any case, most Northern Irish Catholics were not members of the IRA.

Finally, the transitional costs. There are genuine costs to finding a new house and a new job, even if you are moving into a higher standard of living. But what proportion of Northern Irish Catholics have lived in the same house for all of the last twenty years? Perhaps members of the older generations have significant attachments and no reason to move beyond nationalist sentiment, but for any adult below the age of forty (and probably most above that age) they have surely had an opportunity to move to the Republic of Ireland at no permanent material cost, minimal social cost, with no legal barriers, and no transitional costs beyond those which they would have faced anyway in moving between two houses in Northern Ireland.

In sum, the revealed preference of Northern Irish Catholics is that they don't care all that much about whether they live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland. The overwhelming majority could have moved south at minimal cost, perhaps even at a gain, and have chosen not to do so.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: The Music Man

The Music Man is a fantastically catchy musical set in 1912 Iowa, in which conman "Professor Harold Hill" persuades a town to purchase large numbers of musical instruments and uniforms on the pretense that he will operate a marching band for their children, but his plans to defraud the town go awry when he falls in love with the town's fierce but socially unpopular librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo. It won five Tony Awards in the year of its release including Best Musical, despite having as a competitor the greatest work of music ever written. More pertinently to how I first encountered it, it plays a minor role in the Rorshach's Blot classic Larceny, Lechery, and Luna Lovegood! as the play to which Fred drags Angelina on every one of their dates. eso theatricals were recently putting on a run of the play, and having previously enjoyed their Sweeney Todd, I was eager to see this too.

Again, the performance was clearly that of amateurs rather than professionals. That said, the set and costume design were absolutely fine, the acting and music adequate and the singing good (except for some unfortunately consistent disharmony in the school board barbershop quartet, whose source I was unable to ascertain). The weakest part of the performance was the generally unimaginative choreography, which often was nothing more than characters marching round the stage and raising their arms in synchronisation. To be fair, it is my understanding that someone had to step into the role of choreographer at a late stage, which suggests that they probably didn't have all that much time to rehearse the dancing either, and therefore had to remain on the easier side of things.

There were odd moments - for example, when a very Dutch woman exclaimed of herself and her two children (both played by Hungarians) "Oh, but we are Irish!" But overall, the performance was enjoyable; it did a better job of conveying the energy of the musical than its beauty, but did a quite reasonable job of the latter too.

(Incidentally, a more mainstream reference to The Music Man than Harry Potter fanfiction: Marge vs. the Monorail)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Listening to American Pop Music and Buying Their Blue Jeans

One of my favourite Marginal Revolution posts is "The Baffling Politics of Paid Maternity Leave in India". Alex Tabarrok, currently making use of his sabbatical from GMU to teach in Mumbai, observes that Indians often favour policies which make sense in an American context, but not at all in India. Quoting directly:

When I gave a lecture at a local university, for example, I apparently shocked the students when I said matter-of-factly:
India would be a better country if it were richer and more unequal.
I think India’s extreme poverty makes this obviously true in a utilitarian sense, i.e. better for Indians, but it wasn’t so obvious to the students some-of-whom discussed inequality in terms that could easily have been duplicated at Berkeley. The inequality conversation has jumped the pond in ways that seem to me to be completely inappropriate.
Writing in the Times of India, Rupa Subramanya gives another example, a bill for paid maternity leave that has just passed the Indian parliament (waiting only on the president’s signature). As I pointed out earlier, by far the majority of Indians are self-employed and in the informal sector. The very idea of paid maternity leave, therefore, is bizarre.
I'll stick with the example of inequality. The USA, having one of the highest GDP-per-capita-s on Earth, can afford significant redistribution and may find it appropriate to do so even if this harms growth. (This is a moral mistake, of course, but we'll bracket that for now). India, being around 9 or 10 times poorer than the US, should be concerned with achieving greater wealth first and foremost; if this increases inequality, then so be it. Become rich now and redistribute later is immensely preferabe to redistributing now and never becoming rich. This ought not, one would hope, to be too controversial when presented in its entirety.
(I am of course presuming that there is a trade-off between redistribution and economic growth. This is not a claim to which I am married, we're just taking it for the sake of argument here.)
(Also, note that the UK is distinctly at the lower end of high-income countries. If we were part of the US, we would be the poorest state. Does this mean that, although not to the same extent as India, we ought also to prioritise growth over combating inequality?)
Yet because inequality is an issue in the US, other countries follow the lead. Tabarrok attributes this to a desire for positive PR: these policies are not aimed at combating the objective problems faced by India, but at showing to the west that India is an enlightened, modern and progressive nation. This, I think, attributes too much intelligence and strategic thought to the Indian political class. Is it not simpler to model most people as having a one-size-fits-all view of politics: the policies which suit the US must also be the policies which suit the India, with perhaps an allowance for past history and the dangers of changing too quickly?
I think similar dynamics are at play in the UK: people hear or read things which were true or at least plausible when describing the US, but are simply false on this side of the Atlantic. This seems the most charitable way to understand talk of "rising inequality": by the best measure we have, the Gini coefficient, UK income inequality fell sharply following the crash of 2008, rose ever so slightly for a couple of years, and then went back to falling quickly. Admittedly the data only goes up to 2012, but that which we have is emphatic. Duncan Weldon, no right-winger, has commented that "insisting that UK inequality rose in the last decade is basically the intellectual equivalent of climate change denial". It seems fair to suspect that many people who learn their politics from US sources implicitly assume that US institutions, norms, and indicators must be universal - or at least, fail to explicitly consider different countries separately. This is especially bad in countries such as the UK and India where English is a main language of politics.

Why MRAs should avoid Julian Assange

In the news: "Pamela Anderson to campaign for men falsely accused of rape - inspired by Julian Assange friendship."

First, let me be clear. Men's Rights Activists (MRA) have a reasonable case to make: when couples divorce, women automatically get a presumption in favour of keeping children. It's commonly claimed that men who get raped struggle to be taken seriously, I haven't looked into this but it seems very plausible. Women are able to abort unwanted children regardless of what the father wants, fathers are not able to abrogate responsibility for children they do not wish to bring into the world. Men get consistently longer sentences than women for the same crime (one of my troll positions is that in fact women should face longer sentences than men). etc etc. The Red Pill doesn't come from nothing.

That said, there is plenty of genuine misogyny within the MRA movement. Moreover, it's easy to form a false narrative of being oppressed ("In fifteen or twenty years the black man will have the whip hand over the white man in this country,") or to generalise from particular bad experiences with women to claims about all women.

An ideal MRA movement, then, would in some areas work with feminists - working to disestablish certain social presumptions about gender roles, for example - and in other areas serve as a corrective to feminism that has gone astray (such as the various universities in the US which are expelling male students merely for being accused of rape, regardless of the evidence). The worrying alternative is that, just as popularised neo-reaction abandoned all intellectual nuance and became identity politics for whites, a more mainstream MRA movement would simply be identity politics for men. I think there is less risk of this than there was with white identity politics, and almost no danger of it becoming electorally significant: most men have at least some inkling that open and extreme misogyny is not great for their prospects with women, and the ones who don't realise this (or for whom misogyny is no obstacle to sexual success) are not generally enthusiastic or regular voters.

But even so - the way in which a movement is founded and popularised matter, both for public perception and for internal culture. That's why I'm deeply concerned about Julian Assange, however innocent of rape he may be, becoming any kind of cause celebré for MRAs. Wikileaks' associations with Russia and the nativist right are deeply distasteful, and risk contaminating the movement for years to come. I don't know the best way to cultivate a stronger movement, but embracing Assange most certainly isn't it.

A Plea For Bullshit

I've been toying with the idea of creating a new academic discipline or field of study. The purely evil (or at best selfish) reasons for this are:

The basic plan is pretty simple: come up with a new field that is not immediately obviously bullshit (in Cohen's sense). Write a bunch of essays advocating different perspectives on it. Publish these online as a "journal", with most of the essays attributed to pseudonyms. Publicise it, inviting submissions to a second volume of the journal. Occasionally actually produce another volume.

Here, then, are some ideas for what this new discipline could be. I have not checked to see whether or not these are already being studied. Some of them I know to be discussed in places, but are not (so far as I am aware) fully fledged disciplines.

Numerical Mereology
Philosophers have devoted great energy to whether or not numbers exist, but relatively little to their internal structure. Russell and Whitehead defined numbers in terms of sets, but one can imagine a whole range of answers. Perhaps numbers consist of smaller numbers - but which smaller numbers? All of them? Their factors? Their prime factors? Perhaps they just exist, and have no parts. And does the same number exist in one way that is instantiated in many places, or should we adopt a "trope theory" of numbers according to which each number exists separately in each of its instantiations?

Example arguments: "Any account of numbers ought to shed light on what it means for one thing to be 'more than' or 'larger than' another. The best explanation is that numbers contain all smaller numbers; without this presumption, there is no way to explain the fact that 7 is strictly bigger than 5."
"If numbers consist of all smaller numbers plus the successor relation, it is hard to see what most of the numbers are doing. Allowing numbers to consist of their prime factors clearly explains why each component is crucial to the identity of the greater number."

Epistemology and Metaphysics of the Paranormal
Some people claim that ghosts don't exist. I would suggest we need to have a firm handle on exactly what ghosts are before we can make that kind of judgement. One might argue for:
  (a) reductionism: the paranormal is misnamed, and many paraphenomena can be explained in the terms of ordinary physics
  (b) the paranormal stands in contradiction to ordinary physics, and therefore
     (b1) there are no paraphenomena
     (b2) we should revise our beliefs about physics
     (b3) the laws of the universe are dialethic and contradictions are realised in the actual world
  (c) paraphenomena and physics are neither complementary nor in contradiction, they describe different aspects of the universe

Normative Architecture of Cosmology
Cosmology studies how the universe works. NAC studies the considerations going into the design of new universes.

Study of Autoethnography
Autoethnography has come in for a lot of stick, but very little in formal venues or in a clearly argued format. We would invite practitioners, defenders, and critics of autoethnology to engage on the ethical and methodological issues surrounding both the production of and the response to autoethnographies. In what ways does one's location within a situation give one special insights into that situation? If these insights can only be directly perceived from within a situation, how far can they be communicated to and understood by people outside the situation?

What makes something normal? Is there a property of "normalness" in which normal things participate? Or is normalness to be reduced to other properties? Why indeed should we suppose that "normality" is the default, rather than taking heterogeneity as the default and normality as something to be explained? Studying this would hopefully grant important insights into related issues, such as what makes something "transgressive".

The study of studying. What is to study something? What makes a particular enquiry legitimate? (Should we study things with potentially harmful implications?) Is there a unity between the "correct" methods of inquiry in different fields of study, or is the correct method of study relative to a particular discipline?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

How Have My Political Views Changed Over Time?

I sometimes wonder if I'm too locked into my political ideology. I have been a libertarian of some sort basically as long as I've known what the word means, i.e. about seven years. However, in that time my views on various individual issues have changed; hopefully this means that the fear in my first sentence is not too accurate?

In any case, here is a set of notes I came up with when trying to work out how my views have changed. The four big driving forces between the changes have been:

-I became much less confident in the possibility of "moral truth", which (a) reduced my commitment to making everything fully consistent and (b) made me more sanguine about advancing political positions on aesthetic grounds. (This is quite possibly a negative development; that said, it made it easier to be honest about my real motivations for some policies, e.g. monarchism).

-aged 18, I was a committed Christian and so if I were to hold a belief about politics, either it had to be consistent with Biblical teachings or I had to twist my understanding of the Bible to fit my political leanings. (I remember being very upset when I read Exodus 3:22, which seemed like a blatant endorsement of theft). Between October 2013 and April 2014, I became convinced that Christianity is false.

-in Sixth Form and the first year of undergrad, I knew no other libertarians and the closest I could find to people who agreed with me were a couple of socially-liberal Tories; during the second-year of undergrad I got to know Sam Dumitriu, who eventually got me to start using Twitter, with the result that I quickly fell in with the #MCx crowd. We are all influenced by the people we talk to, partly because of honest intellectual influence but mostly because of a desire to fit in and look cool; hence my move to "neoliberalism" over "libertarianism".

-partly due to my loss of faith in deontological libertarian moral realism and partly due to people on Twitter - most obviously Sam Bowman and Ben Southwood - I became much more utilitarian. It's hard to date this exactly, but I particularly remember one afternoon of summer 2016 spent walking in County Kerry with my dad, when I concluded that either one took the Enlightenment seriously or one didn't' If one didn't, then what resulted was a tribalist, emotivist politics that was honest, if barbaric. If one took the Enlightenment seriously, then either one concluded that other people matter - in which case, why not go all the way to utilitarianism? - or only oneself matters, in which case ethical egoism results. Concepts like citizenship are attempts to maintain the visceral emotional appeal of pre-enlightenment politics in a post-Enlightenment context, but I think this attempt is ultimately dishonest. Emotional appeal ought to be abstracted as far as possible (which is not the same as removed!) from a political system based on reason. I've moved away from this somewhat since, but remain basically utilitarian.

With that overly long explanation out of the way, a list of fifteen ways in which my views have changed (still in note format but with some explanatory links added, I'm not going to tidy this up):

-used to consider anarchism to be the moral ideal towards which we should aim. Circa 2014 concluded that it was probably both viable and better than status quo, but minarchism to be preferred as a way of controlling negative externalities. Nowadays (since early 2017) suspect it may be unstable due to people's tribal instincts - though still would like to see it tried!

Given the supposition of a government:

1-used to advocate "liquid democracy". Now heavily opposed to anything approaching direct democracy, and would advocate for UK and other major liberal powers to be less democratic on the margin. Had a period of extreme scepticism of democracy due to Jason Brennan (circa early 2013-late 2016 or early 2017); now think it has important instrumental-expressive purposes in maintaining public order.

2-used to be uneasy about redistribution in principle, but would tolerate sufficientarianism. Now at peace with the principle of redistribution, though heavily concerned about *how* it is implemented. Partly due to Joseph Heath (ctrl-f "risk-pooling"), partly due to becoming more neoliberal/utilitarian, which is probably more due to the people I talk with than due to any particular argument. (Took a long time, but roughly late 2013-mid 2016)

3-used to be heavily opposed to military interventions. Now cautiously in favour, largely due to the influence of Mugwump. (still in flux)

4-used to be heavily concerned about tax rates. Still think they matter, but no longer consider them the highest priority. Always thought *how* we taxed matters, though have a more sophisticated understanding of taxation theory than I did back then. Used to advocate negative income tax; now prefer progressive consumption tax.

5-realised free trade is about much more than tariffs and quotas - free trade agreements serve a genuinely valuable purpose. Relatedly, was eurosceptic; switched to being pro-EU around late 2014, as a result of debate preceding the referendum became vastly more pro-EU. (Possibly also related to change in self-image due to living in Hungary for two years).

6-was unconcerned about fertility. Now consider it a top priority, mostly due to Nancy Folbre though partly due to combination of Parfit/Cowen on discounting the future with my own work opposing antinatalism. (early 2015-present)

7-used to assume that Austrian goldbuggery was sensible. (How embarrassing!) Have given up having strongly held views on monetary policy, though Scott Sumner is fairly persuasive. (change around early 2013 - mid 2015?)

8-as natural-rights libertarian, assumed there was a definite answer to whether or not intellectual property was valid, leaned towards not. Nowadays take a much more utilitarian view, thinking that in purely instrumental terms there should probably be some but less than we currently have.

9-was pro-open-borders. Now merely think we should have open borders for citizens of other liberal democracies, and higher but not unlimited immigration from less liberal countries. Didn't care about integration, seeing it as a service provided by host country to people who should be quite happy to reap the benefits of moving to a richer country; now see integration as an act of self-defence. (2016?)

10-thought we should tolerate more terrorism. Still think it's greatly overrated as a threat, but think that (a) preventing people from overreacting is intractable, and (b) costs of anti-terrorism much smaller than I thought back then.

11-struggled to find a reason to be monarchist while still being anarchist. Now I'm (a) less of a moral realist so happier to advocate political institutions on aesthetic grounds, (b) equipped with evidence that Habsburgs were good for Mitteleuropa.

12-was heavily opposed to existence of national debt. Now think morality of national debt dependent upon other institutions, in particular with how much we do to encourage fertility. (2015-early 2017, especially more recently with my work opposing anti-natalism: I came to think that we ought to subsidise procreation, but it seemed fair that the people benefitting by being born ought to bear the cost of subsidies)

13-felt reasonably comfortable with Conservative Party. Also thought UKIP were alright. Think Tories and Labour worse than they were back then, probably happier with Lib Dems than I was. (this probably more due to changes in the parties than changes in my own views, however)

14-thought strong governments (and consequently FPTP) were hugely important. Don't think I had any good reason for this belief. Now hold no strong opinions on this beyond "it depends". (Don't know when this changed, but probably not before 2011 AV+ referendum)

15-now advocate returning the Elgin Marbles. Felt awkward about this in much the same way as the monarchy insofar as I thought about it at all; this Ed West tweet convinced me that they ought, so long as Greece can look after them (which it admittedly might not be able to given the current economic situation), that they ought to be returned ASAP. (This is perhaps the only change in my views which happened in a single moment rather than over time).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Scientology-Shaped Hole in our Hearts

There's an argument sometimes made for the existence of God, known as the "God-shaped Hole" argument. The basic idea is that our lives are often unfulfilling, that this un-fulfilling-ness ceases to be for those who place their trust in God, and that this constitutes evidence for the existence of said God.

This argument is most commonly advanced by Christians. However, I feel that taking this argument seriously entails taking it not just as evidence for a God in general, but more specifically for the God - or broadly religious doctrine - who is most effective at giving our lives meaning and satisfaction. If YHWH is the most fulfilling deity to worship, then this is evidence for Allah. If the Hindu pantheon is most fulfilling, then the argument supports Hinduism. And so on.

So - what is the most fulfilling religion? Empirical measurement will be very difficult, because adherents of every religion wish to claim that their particular faith is the most fulfilling, so direct testimony will be unreliable.

An alternative would be to ask adherents of each religion how happy they are, without letting on that this has anythng to do with religion, and seeing which religion has the highest average. But religion co-varies with all sorts of other things - income, social class, education - that also affect happiness. Any such survey will be horrendously biased in favour of the religions chosen by people who are already doing well.

Perhaps, then, we could attempt to correct for these other influences by only looking at people from similar backgrounds who follow different religions. But this introduces its own bias - adopting a religion other than your native one often comes with its own set of costs, and moreover the people who convert will tend to already be psychologically different from those who do not. The average middle-class white British Muslim convert will be very different from the average middle-class white British Christian or atheist!

What we should do, then, is look at which religions most effectively use the tools of which we are aware for creating meaning and satisfaction in people's lives. If we were truly created by some deity, presumably we were designed with the true religion in mind (or vice versa); either way, the religious practice ought to be well-tuned to our usual psychology.

There are two particular psychological phenomena that come to mind as relevant: sunk costs, and the hedonic treadmill. First, sunk costs. People are extraordinarily reticent to abandon past investment, and so even when the rational thing is to cut and run, many people will throw bad money after good. Following the true religion, then, should be expected to involve significant cost to disciples. Given the multiplicity of human desires, we expect these costs to exist in a variety of areas - there should be financial costs, social and reputational costs, and (for the truth-seekers among us) intellectual costs in terms of blatantly stupid beliefs which one is nonetheless required to hold. ("Hath God not made foolish the wisdom of this world?")

Second, the true religion should pay attention to the hedonic treadmill. It is well-established that people are not fulfilled by what we may call "objective success", but rather become inured to their present situation. In order to be happy, it is less important that one achieve a high standard of living that that one's standard of living should improve over time. Similarly, the true religion should not present all doctrine and revelation at once, but rather should reveal it over time as one becomes more accustomed to the religion. Perhaps there is a progression of levels, each granting new deep truths, but each of which requires greater commitment and investment in the religion.

There is one religion which fits both of these criteria beautifully: the Church of Scientology. People who join end up paying vast amounts of money, being mocked horribly by outsiders and face being rejected as a credulous fool, and has to proclaim remarkable stories about the alien king Xenu. Greater payments of money grant access to deeper levels of doctrine, the details of which the Church at least tries to keep from outsiders.

In conclusion, there is a deep longing in all of our breasts for the comforting truth of Scientology. Dianetics is the true path to nirvana, and I urge you, brethren, to sign up today.