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Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society

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Or, Altruistic Reasons to Commit Suicide


Arguing against suicide, a correspondent writes:

By choosing to live one can prevent much more suffering than by killing oneself (hundreds or thousands times more!). Everyone who thinks about suicide knows how horrible suffering can be (and therefore should know how important it is to prevent as much of it as possible). I agree that it is better not to be born at all, but now that we are alive, we have the choice. If I kill myself I can spare myself some amount of suffering, but if I choose to live and dedicate my life to helping others I can spare them hundreds or thousands times more suffering.

I have previously indicated that one of the reasons I have not committed suicide to date is that I know my death would cause considerable pain to others. But this made me wonder: what is, in fact, the net effect of suicide?

Actually, it turns out that suicides are probably on balance good for society. A 2007 study found that considering all the economic impacts of suicide, the 30,906 suicides completed in 1990 actually saved the United States $5.07 billion – in 2005 dollars (about $160,000 per suicide). That’s right – suicides, on balance, represent an economic gain for society.

What about the environment? An American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year. A 33-year-old female like me, with 50+ years left of her natural lifespan, could presumably prevent 1000 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere by packing it in early.

That is not to mention the many other harmful effects that people, particularly first-world people, have on the environment and its inhabitants.

I have argued that the possibility of doing good for others is extremely limited, partially by what I term the altruistic treadmill. I am highly skeptical of the claim that a person can sustainably increase the well-being of other people. (See, e.g., Lykken and Tellegen’s “Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.”) I suspect that a real-life It’s a Wonderful Life would be much more ambivalent than the theatrical version. At any rate, such an increase in well-being would have to outweigh the concrete, measurable gains to society from ending one’s life – $160,000, a thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and one less mouth to feed – not to mention never, ever again triggering an ostracism response in another human being, nor hurting anyone or anything again, ever.

You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that. I’m mostly speaking for myself here, but I doubt most people who have gotten to the point of considering suicide have the capacity to drastically improve the lives of others in a sustainable way, to reach a magnitude large enough to offset the very real gains to society that their suicides would entail.

Also: this is probably the point where I should get the hell off of blogspot before they delete all my shit.

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Written by Sister Y

May 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Female Choice and Its Discontents

with 81 comments

Would morality be different if we had evolved from big cats instead of great apes?

Nature’s moral horrors are monstrous and plentiful. Lions exhibit a polygynous mating structure, in which males compete for territories containing groups of females and their hunting territory. A male lion usurping the territory of another will kill all the cubs sired by the previous male (in order to promote his own genetic line at the expense of others).

If we had evolved from lions instead of from Australopithecus, would we find infanticide by stepfathers to be completely morally acceptable? Perhaps more importantly, would it actually be morally acceptable? (This latter question is really a question about the existence of moral facts.)

Are some mating and survival strategies inherently more legitimate than others? Is parasitism less honorable than predation? Is predation less honorable than photosynthesis? Is K morally preferable to r? Does symbiosis have a privileged moral status?

Some of our moral feelings about the natural world are mere products of our biological history. If we see parasitism as worse than predation, it may be because we have been predators, but never parasites, and we see things from the point of view of a predator and a “host.” But we also reach for – and to a limited extent, I think, find – a more abstract moral sensibility that may be applied to the natural world and human history alike.

I suspect nearly all moral realists would agree with me that if we had evolved from lions, it would still be wrong to kill babies. Contra Wittgenstein, it is even possible that we would have come to realize that infanticide – along with, perhaps, other central aspects of our evolutionarily determined life – is wrong.

I will argue here that most of our evolutionarily important sexual behaviors are immoral and undesirable from the perspective of our most abstract, species-neutral, organism-centered perspective. Specifically, I will argue that socially imposed monogamy is immoral, despite the fact that it is a strategically viable solution to mating coordination problems and may encourage investment in socially optimal behaviors. I will argue that the social conditions necessary to enforce monogamy include reducing female economic self-sufficiency. I will argue for individual ownership of our own bodies (including a legal right to prostitution), but with the caveat that women are not morally entitled to exploit the structurally unmet sexual needs of men, either through prostitution or through economic marital support. And I will argue that while monogamy should be permissible (from individual body ownership), we are not ethically required to recognize the monogamous sexual contracts of others.

Female Choice and the Kenyan Baboons[1]

Baboon mating strategy is bimodal. Males compete for rank among themselves, and the alpha male mates with any females in estrus and prevents other males from mating with them. We can call “alpha male” one strategy. However, lower-ranking males frequently engage in years-long liaisons with a female, grooming and being groomed by her even when she is not in estrus, sleeping snuggled up with her, and even babysitting her children (who are often not his genetic children). What is the point of this “friend male” strategy? When in estrus, female baboons often sneak off out of the view of the alpha male (who may be otherwise engaged in combat) and mate with their “friend male” grooming partners, allowing the lower-ranking males mating opportunities they would not have had if not for the “friendship.”

Male baboons essentially have two choices: either compete with other males for dominance and the mating opportunities it brings, or compete/cooperate with a single female for a mating opportunity with her, unmediated by the usual dominance hierarchy. In the former situation, females do not have genuine choice as to whom they mate with; the alpha male determines this by force. The latter situation is driven almost entirely by female choice.

For much of human history, especially since the introduction of agriculture, sexual access to females has been largely controlled by competition between males, not by the individual females themselves. A female was a special kind of chattel to be sold by her parents to her husband.[2] Only very recently, and in certain enlightened parts of the world, has it been widely believed that an individual female owns herself, and is herself entitled to choose her sexual liaisons.

In baboons and humans, it often appears that female choice necessarily entails a move in the direction of monogamy. However, enforced monogamy is only a first – and very unsatisfactory – step toward true female choice, and toward individual sexual choice in general.

Monogamy as Schadenfreude

The essence of a monogamous relationship is limitation. It is a special kind of contract that is mostly characterized by promising to refrain from doing something (having extramarital sex). It is what in the law is characterized as an output contract – a contract wherein a seller promises to sell his entire output to a buyer, who in turn promises to buy the entire output. It is not, in practical terms, a requirements contract – a contract wherein a seller might promise to sell to a buyer all the goods the buyer requires. The promise entailed by monogamy is the promise not to have sex with anyone else. It is not a promise to meet the sexual needs of one’s partner (nor is this kind of promise desirable, much less enforceable – what’s less sexy than being obligated to fuck?).

The person contracting a monogamous relationship is gaining utility from his partner’s promise to reduce her own utility. It is, in essence, an agreement explicitly to benefit at the expense of one’s lover.

A more idealistic conception of love (and sex) is one in which one desires one’s lover to be happy and have as much pleasure as possible – a situation in which one derives utility directly from one’s partner’s utility. Non-monogamous paradigms (open relationships, polyamory, swinging) allow participants to be ultra-cooperators – to mutually agree to refrain from limiting each partner’s sexual opportunities.

Within nonsexual social relationships (e.g., friends), the idea of gaining utility by limiting the utility of the other is repugnant. The idea that one should shut oneself off to cooperation with all but one friend is ludicrous (and would make for a social nightmare). In the abstract, monogamy appears to be the morally worse option. So why is monogamy broadly considered the moral gold standard of sexual relationships?

It’s because our morality hasn’t yet caught up with technologies such as birth control, paternity testing, and female citizenship. It’s also because monogamy is a solution to a coordination problem. Monogamy really was the way to go when there wasn’t any birth control, a simple test wouldn’t reveal paternity, and females could not support themselves through their own efforts. From the perspective of a female under such conditions, monogamy was her best chance of having surviving offspring. And to a monogamous woman, a sexually receptive non-monogamous woman is a threat to her ability to extract resources from a male. Therefore, women – not just men – attempt to enforce chaste or monogamous behavior in other women.

In this way, in premodern societies, monogamy functions as a kind of sexual minimum wage for women – that is, it specifies that the only unit in which sex may be acquired is a whole woman for her life, and the only currency it may be acquired in exchange for is a promise of lifetime support and monogamy. This makes some amount of sense when babies are a likely result of sex, paternity is uncertain, and a woman cannot support herself. It makes a great deal less sense given that we now know where babies come from and can prevent them, we can test a baby’s DNA to determine its parentage (if that is, in fact, morally relevant), and women are as able to support themselves as men, if not more so. If all the justifications for socially imposed monogamy have disappeared, perhaps it is time for sexual monogamy to go the way of infanticide.

Given that consensual non-monogamy is an option – one that many people in our society choose – why would anyone choose monogamy? One possibility, which I think is true for many people, is that they have a special preference for monogamy, perhaps because they find sexual jealousy to be an insurmountable obstacle. Such people would freely choose monogamy even if it were not socially enforced. Another possibility, which I also think is true for many people, is that they genuinely want to have multiple lovers, but are prevented from doing so by barriers – such as lack of available partners (men), the fear of slut stigma (women), or the fear of other social sanction (both).

Economic Constraint of Female Sexual Liberty

Many heterosexual males find chastity in females to be aesthetically appealing. But females only have an incentive to be chaste when women’s ability to provide for themselves is constrained. The social conditions necessary to promote monogamy are incompatible with female economic self-sufficiency. And self-sufficiency is broadly socially desirable.

Again, the biological basis of monogamy is to promote paternity confidence and paternal investment. Because of DNA testing, legal father-child relationships and obligations, and female suffrage and economic equality, these objectives are no longer morally relevant.

In societies in which males do not heavily invest in their sexual partners or their children, females have more sexual liberty.[3] Conversely, in societies in which women are economically dependent on males and are structurally prevented from being economically self-sufficient, sexual chastity (for women) is strictly enforced. For this reason, we should be extremely suspicious of norms of sexual chastity.

Supporting a Wife

Sexual chastity, then, is a tool (whether wielded by society or individual women) to get men to invest in wife and child. Children are morally entitled to investment from their parents, at least where their parents voluntarily conceived and bore them. Children are unable to provide for themselves. However, it is far from clear that an adult woman is morally entitled to seek investment from a man.

Women experience sexual desire for men, but male sexual services to women are so oversupplied that their value is zero (or even negative, at times). Women are born with[4] a naturally occurring, enormously desirable “resource” largely unrelated to productive activity, or to any morally relevant characteristic. Men have no comparable resource.

Women are in the position of a hereditary landlord – born with a desirable resource that others desire and are willing to “pay” for (whether in currency or otherwise). But while I do feel that women should be properly considered the “owners” of their bodies, this does not entail that we should legitimize the equivalent of rent-seeking in women. Women are morally entitled to decide who they have sex with, and to have sex with anyone, for any reason – including, I think, for money or the promise of lifetime monogamy and economic support. But this does not mean we as a society should legitimize such transactions, either with state-sponsored marriage or through slut stigma.[5]

Restraining Women’s Sexual Freedom: Cui Bono?

Some men and some women benefit from restraining women’s sexual freedom. Men who have the resources to do so and wish to “purchase” a female for life have an incentive to restrict the sexual freedom of their “property.” Similarly, the subset of women who wish to attract such lifetime investment benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of other women.

But this is not to say that ALL women or ALL men benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of women. In fact, as I have argued, most people would benefit from lifting most of the societal sexual restrictions currently in place. Societal restrictions on sexual freedom function as a governmental taking: they prevent individuals from using their resources for their own pleasure, for the alleged benefit of the group (or at least those in positions of power in the group). Many writers, both male and female, confuse the issue by assuming group heterogeneity of preference. But “good for women as a group” does not justify an involuntary welfare transfer from individual women to the group, especially with a resource as intimately connected to the individual’s body as sex.

Are Married Folks Morally Off-Limits?

Long-term output contracts are rare, and are generally entered into at arm’s length. Lifetime output contracts executed under conditions of undue influence (inherent in almost any dyadic sexual relationship) are especially suspect compared to other contracts. And they are frequently entered into by young participants with poor access to information and a great deal of hormone intoxication.

The more a contract is obtained by shady means, the less we should feel inclined to enforce or abide by the contract. Contracts obtained by force or fraud are not enforceable at all, for instance. For these reasons, we are not always morally obligated to respect the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others. Doing so in fact assists with the undesirable rent-seeking behavior described above. It does not make sense to expend a huge amount of resources enforcing long-term contracts, when little is expended in making sure those contracts are voluntary and informed, and that other options exist.

Respecting property rights is as much a voluntary act as asserting property rights. We may be morally entitled to have some property rights enforced, but “property rights” in the private actions of agents that do not directly affect us are extremely questionable. When we respect property rights, we are actively giving support to the institutions and policies that created those property rights. I have argued that monogamy is broadly socially undesirable; respecting the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others when one party wishes to “breach” his or her contract promotes monogamy and the flawed social policy on which it rests.

How Will the Sexual Market Clear?

To review, women are born with a resource unrelated to productive effort. Men are born desiring this resource, but without any comparable resource. If material transfers to women from men in exchange for sex are morally undesirable (and I think they are), how will men’s sexual needs be met?

One thing to remember is that the sexual market is far from clearing in its natural state. This imposes a great deal of suffering on men.

As humans, we intuitively feel that sex should be a gift. Sex provided enthusiastically, out of an altruistic desire to please one’s partner and to be sexually pleased, is the ideal. As I have argued, this is incompatible with sex-for-resource-extraction (either in the form of marriage or of prostitution). How will the non-monetary market (gift economy) for sex ever clear when men’s sexual services are worth only a tiny fraction of the value of female sexual services?

One solution is already being tried by a growing group of men. Sexual seduction techniques are really a way of learning to provide better sexual services to women in a way that they desire – increasing the value, to women, of male sexual services and making a gift economy possible for at least a lucky subset of the population.

Another solution is only possible on an extremely macro level: increase the ratio of women to men (while maintaining female economic self-sufficiency). This was “tried” in a natural experiment involving the Kenyan baboons mentioned earlier. The most dominant and aggressive males, but not the females or less aggressive males, would raid a nearby open garbage pit. As a result, those dominant males all contracted tuberculosis from meat refuse and died, nearly doubling the female-to-male ratio.

The result was a surprising cultural change in the affected baboon population. Male-female grooming drastically increased – males were groomed by females more frequently, and less time passed between a new male arriving at the troupe and his first being groomed by a female. The stress experienced by low-ranking males plummeted, measured both by prevalence of anxiety behaviors and measurements of the stress-related hormone cortisol. Essentially, everybody chilled the fuck out.

So one solution to the problem of the male-female sexual market not clearing is just to have fewer males – especially males of the type who attempt to subvert female choice. A rare male is more valuable than an oversupplied male. The sexual market could clear as a gift economy under those circumstances.


1. Sources for this section include Barbara Smuts’ book Sex and Friendship in Baboons and the article A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission by Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa J. Share (2004). You may also enjoy this Radiolab episode about the change in baboon culture.

2. Except, of course, in societies that utilize a dowry system, which tend to be societies that enforce monogamy, thereby driving up the value of high-quality males. Women generally do not choose their own mating partners in dowry societies; they are still very much property. As Elizabeth Cashdan puts it (in “Women’s Mating Strategies,” Evolutionary Anthropology 5:134-143, 1996),

…cross-cultural analysis shows that the co-occurrence of stratification with socially-imposed monogamy is the best predictor of dowry, although it is also found in the upper strata of some extremely stratified polygynous societies. We might wish to add to the criteria of stratification and socially imposed monogamy the additional one of degree of female dependence on male investment. Competition for investing mates should be most intense where the payoffs to such investment are highest, hence greater economic independence of women might be expected to discourage the prevalence of dowry payments, even in monogamous, stratified societies. [Emphasis mine.]

3. See, e.g., Gaulin, S.J.C., and Schlegel, A., “Paternal confidence and paternal investment: A cross-cultural test of a sociobiological hypothesis. Ethol Sociobiol 1:301-309 (1980), and Hartung, J., “Matrilineal inheritance: New theory and analysis.” Behav Brain Sci 8:661-668. Cited in Cashdan (1996), Note 2 (supra).

4. Okay, not “born with,” but you know what I mean.

5. This is why I find it surprising that the “men’s rights” camp can so frequently be found attempting to re-impose slut stigma. Slut stigma is directly opposed to female choice; most men, especially men into “game,” benefit directly from enhanced female choice (one-on-one competition and body ownership).

Written by Sister Y

April 1, 2011 at 9:00 pm

John Stuart Mill: No Right to Breed

with 9 comments

From Principles of Political Economy:

Every one has a right to live. We will suppose this granted. But no one has a right to bring creatures into life, to be supported by other people. Whoever means to stand upon the first of these rights must renounce all pretension to the last. If a man cannot support even himself unless others help him, those others are entitled to say that they do not also undertake the support of any offspring which it is physically possible for him to summon into the world. Yet there are abundance of writers and public speakers, including many of most ostentatious pretensions to high feeling, whose views of life are so truly brutish, that they see hardship in preventing paupers from breeding hereditary paupers in the workhouse itself. Posterity will one day ask with astonishment, what sort of people it could be among whom such preachers could find proselytes.

It would be possible for the state to guarantee employment at ample wages to all who are born. But if it does this, it is bound in self-protection, and for the sake of every purpose for which government exists, to provide that no person shall be born without its consent. If the ordinary and spontaneous motives to self-restraint are removed, others must be substituted. Restrictions on marriage, at least equivalent to those existing [1848] in some of the German states, or severe penalties on those who have children when unable to support them, would then be indispensable. Society can feed the necessitous, if it takes their multiplication under its control; or (if destitute of all moral feeling for the wretched offspring) it can leave the last to their discretion, abandoning the first to their own care. But it cannot with impunity take the feeding upon itself, and leave the multiplying free.

To give profusely to the people, whether under the name of charity or of employment, without placing them under such influences that prudential motives shall act powerfully upon them, is to lavish the means of benefiting mankind, without attaining the object. Leave the people in a situation in which their condition manifestly depends upon their numbers, and the greatest permanent benefit may be derived from any sacrifice made to improve the physical well-being of the present generation, and raise, by that means, the habits of their children. But remove the regulation of their wages from their own control; guarantee to them a certain payment, either by law, or by the feeling of the community; and no amount of comfort that you can give them will make either them or their descendants look to their own self-restraint as the proper means of preserving them in that state. You will only make them indignantly claim the continuance of your guarantee, to themselves and their full complement of possible posterity.

On these grounds some writers have altogether condemned the English poor-law, and any system of relief to the able-bodied, at least when uncombined with systematic legal precautions against over-population. The famous Act of the 43rd of Elizabeth undertook, on the part of the public, to provide work and wages for all the destitute able-bodied: and there is little doubt that if the intent of that Act had been fully carried out, and no means had been adopted by the administrators of relief to neutralize its natural tendencies, the poor-rate would by this time have absorbed the whole net produce of the land and labour of the country. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Mr. Malthus and others should at first have concluded against all poor-laws whatever. It required much experience, and careful examination of different modes of poor-law management, to give assurance that the admission of an absolute right to be supported at the cost of other people, could exist in law and in fact, without fatally relaxing the springs of industry and the restraints of prudence. This, however, was fully substantiated, by the investigations of the original Poor Law Commissioners. Hostile as they are unjustly accused of being to the principle of legal relief, they are the first who fully proved the compatibility of any Poor Law, in which a right to relief was recognised, with the permanent interests of the labouring class and of posterity. By a collection of facts, experimentally ascertained in parishes scattered throughout England, it was shown that the guarantee of support could be freed from its injurious effects upon the minds and habits of the people, if the relief, though ample in respect to necessaries, was accompanied with conditions which they disliked, consisting of some restraints on their freedom, and the privation of some indulgences. Under this proviso, it may be regarded as irrevocably established, that the fate of no member of the community needs be abandoned to chance; that society can and therefore ought to insure every individual belonging to it against the extreme of want; that the condition even of those who are unable to find their own support, needs not be one of physical suffering, or the dread of it, but only of restricted indulgence, and enforced rigidity of discipline. This is surely something gained for humanity, important in itself, and still more so as a step to something beyond; and humanity has no worse enemies than those who lend themselves, either knowingly or unintentionally, to bring odium on this law, or on the principles in which it originated.
—Book II: Distribution; Chapter XII: Of Popular Remedies For Low Wages. Bolded emphasis mine.

This reasoning is extremely similar to that employed by Bryan Caplan in explaining why behavioral economics might mean we need to give the poor fewer options for their own good. Despite this similarity, Caplan’s thinking on births is utterly opposed to Mill’s.

Written by Sister Y

March 14, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Russian Dolls

with 6 comments

Incentive structures are created within other incentive structures, and at the outermost edge is only the initial distribution of the capability for force.



Should fast food restaurants be allowed to sell food without posting calorie content? To market unhealthy food to children?

Should garbage cans be labeled “Landfill”?

Should manufacturers be allowed to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages? To whom should alcoholic beverages be sold?

Should prostitution be legal? Drugs? Weapons? Nukes? Divorce?

What should the age of contractual capacity be? The age of sexual consent?

What should be the consequences of a breach of contract?

Are taxes the same as stealing?

A System of Incentives

The field of law & economics recognizes that a system of law is a system of incentives. We adjust human welfare by adjusting the incentive structures in which humans operate.

Any incentive structure, including but not limited to a legal system, helps people predict how they will be treated, and thus how to plan their actions. Any incentive structure will do, more or less, for this purpose. But some individuals will always be treated sub-optimally by any incentive structure. The only certainty is that some will live in misery – there is always plenty of misery to go around. But who should be miserable, and how miserable, and why?

By creating or adjusting incentive structures, planners assume that they know what is best for human flourishing. Creating and adjusting incentive structures is an inherently epistemically ungenerous activity. This, I think, is the main problem with Bryan Caplan’s take on behavioral economics, which I’ve previously summarized thus:

Bryan Caplan thinks that the solution [to the problem of men not wanting to work] is to not have soup kitchens. That is, to make everybody so miserable that they HAVE to work, or else.

Caplan (and his coauthor) “know” that it’s better for people to live as close to a “productive,” middle-class existence as possible; so they argue we should adjust the incentive structure to give the poor fewer choices so that they are forced to make the “right” choice.

The search for a just, ethically defensible incentive structure requires an attempt to get outside of any single individual or group’s notion of what is best – to do what’s best for everyone, not just the would-be incentivizer and his cronies.

The Russian Doll Problem

In some sense, incentive structures compete with each other (e.g., capitalism v. communism). But even competing incentive structures exist within a wider incentive structure. The governments of countries may be seen as competing incentive structures, existing within the wider incentive structure of the world. Organized crime and government are competing systems of incentive, and operate within the wider incentive structure of the natural world. This is true even if the background incentive structure is merely “might makes right” – which is probably the only possible top-level, ultimate incentive structure.

Creating and adjusting incentive structures is at best hubris, at worst tyranny.

Some (libertarians, the religious, and advocates of democracy, for example) ignore this problem by assuming a privileged status for some kind of incentive structure.

Privileged Incentive Structure: God Said So

Some of the most successful religions worldwide have a built-in legal system and/or incentive structure. For this reason, some religions function very well as technologies that promote trade. Sharia in Islam, Gemora in Judaism, and Canon law in Christianity are the most well-known examples.

Religions are not written texts. As my rather religious Jewish boyfriend puts it, the written text (e.g. Mishnah) is like a constitution – but a government is not its constitution. The United States has a tiny little constitution, but the system of incentives is largely given by the enormous system of courts and police that interpret and enforce the written text.

Adherents of these religions get around the Russian dolls problem of incentive structures by assuming a privileged status for their enshrined incentive structure on the basis that this incentive structure was ordained by God.

Privileged Incentive Structure: The Market Said So

Libertarians attribute a privileged status to the “free market.” However, a market exists within a context of a wider incentive structure (the initial distribution, human nature, scarcity). Markets are not ever really “free” – there must be a wider incentive structure to contain the market, even if this incentive structure is merely “might makes right.”

Privileged Incentive Structure: The People Said So

A novel solution to the Russian Dolls problem of incentive structures is: let the participants choose their own incentive structure. Various forms of democracy claim to embody this solution.

Ultimately, this is no more than creating a market to determine the rules for the market. “One person-one vote” is, ultimately, as arbitrary as “one dollar, one vote” (or “one bullet, one vote,” for that matter). Why is a person the proper unit of democracy? Why adults and not children? Why present people and not future people? What about the rights of those in the minority position on anything? Why is it fair for a majority to impose its will on a minority? Democracy is, at best, a caricature of consent.

Prior to garnering fame as an authoritarian parenting enthusiast, law and economics scholar Amy Chua wrote a book (World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability) explaining some of the problems with “democracy-as-privileged-incentive-structure” – especially when combined with a purportedly free market. In the real world, economic advantage tends to not be spread equally among people – or randomly. Advantages, whether intellectual or material, tend to be clustered within identifiable groups of people, and these groups tend to attempt to manipulate the system of incentives to increase this clustering (that is, to promote inequality). Unfortunately, the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of the background incentive structure is frequently revealed when “market-dominant minorities” are punished for their inequality-promoting success in often gruesome ways by the (ethnic) majority.

Is the “free market” right, in this case? Should market-dominant minorities, racial or otherwise, own and keep an ever-growing majority share of the world’s property? Or is “democracy” right? Should the majority be able to punish the market-dominant few? The conflict, rarely acknowledged, demonstrates that neither is an inherently good incentive structure.

The nature of our universe prevents an ethically sound incentive structure from existing.

It’s the initial distribution all the way down.


Misery, or suffering, might be defined as that of which there is negative scarcity. Not only is there an abundance, but there is an abundance and its consumption is not optional. I think it is more humane to think of economics in terms of a system for the distribution of misery, rather than the distribution of scarce, utility-promoting goods and services.

Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Transdimensional Justice Monster

with 11 comments

From Wikipedia, 2108 C.E.:

For the band, see Transdimensional Justice Monster (band).

The phrase “transdimensional justice monster” refers to an as-yet-hypothetical device for ensuring that a newly-created universe is ethical. Interest in the development of a functional TJM has increased in recent megaseconds, largely due to rumors that the moratorium on the creation of gladiator universes may be extended to market universes.

Gladiator universes, such as the universe underlying our own base reality,* are universes in which sentient beings with non-identical goals exist and compete, whose ultimate mechanism for distribution of utility between beings is the use of force. Research into the ancient problem of welfare comparison between sentient beings has produced several conceptions of non-gladiator interpersonal justice; the TJM is merely a continuation of this endeavor.

Market universes attempt to resolve the problem of distributing scarce resources among sentient beings by requiring mutual consent for transfers. Markets may be seen as an early human attempt to simulate the TJM; this hypothesis is supported by the reification of the market in the figurative term “the invisible hand.”

Recently, so-called Rawls universes have been proposed as a more ethical alternative to market universes. To create a Rawls universe, a universe creator would be required to enter his own universe and live out his life inside it, but would be assigned randomly to a body within this newly-created universe. Critics argue that this does not ensure justice, as requiring a universe creator to be born into a single life in his universe fails to ensure that he adequately internalize the aggregate risk faced by his entire created population over all its generations. In addition, the particular values of the universe creator are unlikely to adequately predict the values of new beings in new universes.

The TJM avoids the problems of market universes and Rawls universes alike. A transdimensional justice monster envelops and, in a sense, becomes all the experiencing beings in a given universe at once. While the TJM feels the happiness and pain of all its sub-beings, it also retains the capacity to experience their loneliness and alienation as they each experience it. Since the TJM experiences everything that its sub-beings do, when the TJM makes a transfer of utility between its sub-beings, this transfer is by its nature just. The TJM even ensures intertemporal justice, because by being transdimensional, it can adjust utility between beings alive at different times throughout the life of the universe.

The TJM gives a population of experiencing beings an important characteristic of a single individual: the ability to fairly distribute hardship and pleasure among its members. A single individual might do this by transferring weight from one foot to another and adjusting itself until its position is comfortable. A TJM may do this in much the same manner – by transferring utility-bearing items or services from one sub-being to another, or even by allowing a miserable sub-being to die.

In practice, this last option (causing miserable sub-beings to die) has proven the greatest barrier to producing a functional TJM. No universe simulation equipped with a TJM has yet resulted in a universe with any sentient beings left alive. However, universe creation enthusiasts are hopeful that this problem can be resolved, and a sustainable, just universe can be created in which all experiencing beings achieve a standard of utility above death-desiring misery.


* As our base universe arose through stochastic processes, it is not affected by the moratorium.

Named for the 20th century American philosopher John Rawls, who proposed an influential model for distributive justice. Rawls utilized the concepts of the original position and the veil of ignorance to imagine a society genuinely based on the consent of its members. Putative features of this hypothetical purely-consensual society could then ethically be applied to actual universes to make them more just. The modern conception of the Rawls universe represents, at best, a caricature of Rawls’ method. In a true Rawls universe, all potential beings would need to consent to be part of the universe prior to its creation, blind to their particular future situation.

Written by Sister Y

February 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Imaginary Status and the Tendency to Externalize

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[A] remarkable fraction of female journalistic output, at least the most heartfelt stuff, consists of demands for society to change so that that particular female journalist would be considered hotter looking.

—Steve Sailer, in “Female Journalism

Humans all want high status, but we can’t all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).

Salem of Why I Am Not… argues that status need not be a zero-sum game. For one thing, status is “obscure” – it’s hard to measure, and we tend to overrate ourselves, resulting, presumably, in extra utility for everyone. However, even if we overrate ourselves, a large number of people still correctly rate themselves as being of low status, and suffer as a consequence. We are biased about status, but far from blind.

For another, says Salem, there are multiple statuses, not just one – multiple, overlapping groups among whom to achieve and display status, and multiple domains within which to achieve and display status. To some degree, these groups and domains even compete for status – which shows us that there is some kind of “background” status that exists outside of the group or domain within which status is sought. Status exists only in the minds of other humans, and in our own models of those minds. It is not merely context-dependent, but attempts to broaden itself over all contexts.

What I find to be the most fascinating objection to the “status is zero-sum” claim is that there may be imaginary status – i.e., status may be measured against others who aren’t really in the game, and can’t perceive their own relatively low status – non-playing characters in computer games, animals, those outside of and unaware of the existence of a given status domain, etc. As Salem puts it, “This also gives a different perspective on animal welfare. Perhaps little boys picking the wings off flies aren’t so bad after all.” As Chip Smith puts it, “If trivial inequalities that nevertheless satisfy discrete human desires for status welfare can be distinguished from consequential inequalities that satisfy the same end, then maybe there is a net benefit in the former. I’m sure market forces promote both.”

Imagine an unattractive female journalist. She has a few choices available to her:

  • Be sad about her low status in the mating domain (zero-sum)
  • Focus on her high status in other domains (scholarship, etc.) and forget about the mating domain (potentially not zero-sum)
  • Change relevant mating groups so that she may gain high status in the mating domain within some group, even if it’s not the wider group (potentially not zero-sum)

Indeed, she might, to some extent, engage in all three. However, there is a fourth option that is almost universally pursued by those of low status:

  • Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more “real” or “important” than the forms of status she does not possess.

That is, humans desire high status, and attempt to externalize their conceptions of status. What it means to compete for status is not just that the agent must perceive himself as having high status, but that others must perceive the agent as having high status.

Imaginary status (“subjective” status) may be a substitute for others-perceived status (“objective” status) in the same way that pornography is a substitute for sex – an inferior substitute. We still try to get the real thing.

Written by Sister Y

February 22, 2011 at 10:35 pm

What Portion of Human Welfare is Comparative Welfare?

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Some portion of human welfare is independent of the welfare of other humans. A person can enjoy food, touch, music, and intoxicating substances regardless of the well-being of anyone else; similarly, a person can suffer from physical pain, hunger, or nausea no matter what other humans are up to—even if no other humans exist.

However, some other portion of human welfare (of unknown magnitude) is directly dependent on the welfare of others. This “comparative welfare” may come in two forms:

  • Empathetic welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a positive or direct correlation with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel bad when I see a homeless person who looks unhappy; I feel happy when I see a puppy wag its tail.)
  • Status welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a negative or inverse relationship with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel happy when I win a contest; I feel sad when I have to wear less expensive clothes than my peers.)

The nice thing about non-comparative welfare (welfare independent of the welfare of others) and empathetic welfare is that they may be positive-sum. Consensual transactions may be possible to make all parties better off in terms of non-comparative and empathetic welfare.

The problem with status welfare is that it is zero-sum. No transaction involving status welfare can possibly make all parties better off.

A great deal of evidence exists to support the unfortunate proposition that status welfare accounts for a large proportion of human welfare. Further, the effects of status on welfare are likely themselves a function of status – marginal status changes may have more of an effect on welfare for those of low status than for those of high status.

Status Welfare is Large

Several bodies of research support the proposition that status welfare is a large part of human welfare. (Many of these are cited in the paper “The Economics of Happiness” by Paul Graham at the Brookings Institution. In addition, Richard Wilkinson’s 2006 book The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier is a book-length treatment of the problem; I have not yet read it.)

  • Easterlin paradox” – happiness and income have a much stronger relationship within-country than between countries, at least beyond the level of abject poverty. Status welfare would be expected to come more from within-country differences (directly perceptible) than between-country differences (less immediately perceptible).
  • Homicide rates are highly correlated with income inequality. As income inequality and absolute poverty tend to go together, it has been difficult to establish whether income inequality or mere poverty is the driving force behind such negative competitive outcomes as homicide. However, a 2001 study found that income inequality is a better predictor of homicide rates than mere poverty.
  • Studies directly measuring the effect of income and/or wealth inequality find that inequality has a negative effect on well-being. The effect is larger for Europe than for the United States, and higher for Latin America than for either of these. These studies capture only within-country status, not status within smaller groups, and therefore must be seen as only part of the picture in terms of status welfare.
  • Welfare is affected more by unemployment than by inflation, dollar for dollar. Unemployment tracks inequality, whereas inflation applies to all equally.
  • Many animals change reproductive strategies depending on relative status. Status, therefore, must have strong effects on fitness.
  • In male humans, winning or losing a competition – even vicariously – is associated with hormonal changes, specifically an increase or decrease in testosterone levels, respectively.
  • Blacks and Hispanics spend a much larger share of income on visible consumption (clothing, jewelry, cars) than do comparable Whites.
  • Health effects of inequality are large, and less than a third of the difference is explained by risky behaviors of the poor.

The key point here is that there is a large component of human suffering that free markets and free choice have no hope of mediating. Merely being in a socially stratified market economy imposes a cost on those of lowest status.

The happy trample on the backs of the unhappy. This is not merely an observed fact of our world that can be changed, but an underlying truth of any human system. The unhappy cannot all be made happy. Human existence necessarily implies a high degree of misery for some part of the population. How does the happiness of the lucky justify the suffering of the unlucky?

Comparative Welfare and the Rational Decision Maker

A further problem is that lumping both types of comparative welfare, as well as non-comparative welfare, together as “utility” complicates the classical economic model of individuals as rational actors maximizing their utility.

In a classical economic transaction, two parties consent to an exchange, and are both made better off. All individuals must do in order to achieve higher and higher society-wide happiness is to pursue their own ends rationally. The simplicity and optimism of this model are challenged by the sad fact that an individual’s welfare correlates (in a complicated manner) with the welfare of various others.

Contract law recognizes this problem, especially with regard to transactions that do NOT take place “at arm’s length”—that is, transactions where the participants explicitly care about the welfare of the other participants. This can be traced back to its origins in Gemora, with its different rules for transactions with different groups (e.g., loyalty/no interest on loans for in-group, charging interest okay for out-group).

Most humans (sociopaths and saints excluded) have some component of welfare that is empathetic welfare, and some component that is status welfare. These components are likely large—and vary within populations. These complicate in a rather extreme manner the computational tasks of economic man; transactional partners must be modeled not just as self-interest-maximizers, but as (a) self-interest maximizers, (b) maximizers of the interests of certain others, and (c) maximizers of the difference between one’s own well-being and the well-being of certain others. That is, humans are—to some unknown degree—inquality maximizers.

Update: An interesting response on Why I Am Not.

Written by Sister Y

February 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm