A utilitarian defense of reckless young men

Throughout history, young men have tended to be more reckless than other people.  There may be some sort of Darwinian mechanism involved here, as tribes might survive better if young men engaged in lots of high risk/high reward behavior, with warfare being an obvious example.

On the other hand it’s generally assumed that Darwinian factors don’t provide a solid foundation for modern morality, and that we can use our reasoning skills to develop better ethical systems, such as religion or natural rights or utilitarianism.  I’d like to make the counterintuitive argument that utilitarian reasoning suggests that we might want to thank our young men for behaving so recklessly.

That’s not to say all sorts of reckless behavior can be justified by utilitarian arguments.  I happen to think that warfare is unjustified in the modern world (although perhaps justified in a Malthusian world.)  But what about other types of reckless behavior, such as climbing Mt. Everest?  Consider this interesting observation:

It’s now well known that in mediaeval Western Europe women married later than in other parts of the world, and fewer women got married in the first place. This had the effect of reducing fertility rates well below the biological maximum. In East Asia, the female marital age was much lower, but a combination of infanticide, birth-spacing and other factors apparently kept net fertility only a little higher than Western Europe’s. Thus, under Malthusian assumptions, East Asia’s relative poverty is largely to be explained by its lower mortality: life in Western Europe was simply more lethal but richer, whilst more East Asian adults survived and lived longer but more miserably.

Let’s suppose the goal is to maximize the total number of “utils” of happiness.  But let’s also put aside questions of total population, (which I find almost impossible to even think about, and I’ve never see anyone else discuss in a persuasive fashion.)  So we’ll assume that the Earth’s population levels off at some point, say 10 billion people.  A steady state is reached.  Which is better, an average lifespan of 80 or 100?

At first glance it seems like 100 is obviously better, especially if people are just as healthy on average.  But it’s not at all clear that 100 is better that 80.  Yes, an average of 100 years of life is better for each living person, but 25% more people get a shot at life if the average life expectancy is only 80 in a steady-state society.  Here is where our distorted views of “personal identity” (which I regard as a fiction) distort our reasoning process. We all tend to think our own life is more important than the lives of others, often far more important. Would you give away 90% of your retirement savings to save one life in a poor country?  But objectively speaking, if we all think we are especially important, then we are all deluded, at least from a global welfare perspective.  This post is about what’s best for society—not YOU.

We are among the lucky to be alive, so naturally we favor polices that boost lifespans to 100 and insure fewer people get a chance to live. But what would actually maximize global aggregate happiness in a society of 10 billion people?  Clearly since humans can be replicated at almost zero cost (easy for a man to say!) then we’d want to maximize the number of utils earned per hour.  And if there is a trade-off between exciting/fun lives and long lives, we’d want to move in the direction of exciting/fun lives, even if it reduces average lifespans. Reckless young men who climb Mt. Everest then produce positive externalities for society.  (The ancients understood this externality concept, which is why they honored warriors.)  A good example in the modern world is football players who achieve great things while young, but at the cost of a shorter lifespan.  Ditto for teenagers who hot-rod around at high speeds.  And surprisingly, that’s even true if they kill innocent people.  Those innocent people can also be replaced.

[I'm tempted to include drug and alcohol use, but I don't know whether those activities actually make people happier.  Cigarette smoking is a better fit, although even here you need to consider whether smokers on average suffer more at the end of life.  My father certainly suffered a lot.]

Am I serious or is this all just a big spoof?  I’m not quite sure.  (Let’s just say I don’t want this post to be quoted.)  Even though my “everyday views” of morality are conventionally boring (I’m outraged by reckless drivers), when I start thinking about fundamental principles of morality my views become radically agnostic.  I don’t know what to think, other than that I suspect most of our shared views of morality are nothing more than another example of cognitive illusions–no different from the belief that low interest rates mean easy money.

PS.  Like many men, I took some really big risks when I was young. I’m lucky to be alive. Sometimes I think to myself “how could I have been so foolish.”  But when I dig deeper, try to remember how I felt at the time, try to be sympathetic to the views of that “other person,” then I’m not so sure. Something was pushing me to take those risks–how can I be certain it was a mistake?

PPS.  Just started reading Knausgaard’s 3rd volume.  I was immediately reminded of how fascinated I was as a boy by holes in the ground.  Knausgaard seems to agree with me that the younger version of a person is not the same person at a younger age, but rather a different person.

PPPS.  Perhaps the counterargument is that I’ve ignored the cost of an early death on the utility of the young man’s surviving family and friends.

PPPPS. Over at Econlog I have a more serious defense of utilitarianism.

 


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43 Responses to “A utilitarian defense of reckless young men”

  1. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    19. July 2014 at 12:24

    First I would say that young men are not necessarily more reckless on average, but that the standard deviation is wider. So, if we look at the most reckless activities, 99% will have been perpetrated by young men.

    Darwinism… I hate evo-psych. It is a bunch of pseudo-science to me. But, if we say that reckless young men are reckless due to some Darwinian perspective… It would suggest that those young men who survived their reckless phase had the opportunity to father many more children than those who never went on a reckless phase. Possible but speculative.

    Economics… I am stuck on the resources invested in bringing a young man to productive age…If that young man dies, then those resources were wasted.

  2. Gravatar of Chuck Chuck
    19. July 2014 at 12:32

    Why would an individual care about “society” unless doing so enhances personal happiness.

  3. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    19. July 2014 at 14:13

    “There were two critically important changes in the philosophy and ideology of classical liberalism which both exemplified and contributed to its decay as a vital, progressive, and radical force in the Western world. The first, and most important, occurring in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism. Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably shattered. For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire, they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism. An example was the drive for an “efficient” and therefore strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right.

    “Second, and equally important, it is rare indeed ever to find a utilitarian who is also radical, who burns for immediate abolition of evil and coercion. Utilitarians, with their devotion to expediency, almost inevitably oppose any sort of upsetting or radical change. There have been no utilitarian revolutionaries. Hence, utilitarians are never immediate abolitionists. The abolitionist is such because he wishes to eliminate wrong and injustice as rapidly as possible. In choosing this goal, there is no room for cool, ad hoc weighing of cost and benefit. Hence, the classical liberal utilitarians abandoned radicalism and became mere gradualist reformers. But in becoming reformers, they also put themselves inevitably into the position of advisers and efficiency experts to the State. In other words, they inevitably came to abandon libertarian principle as well as a principled libertarian strategy. The utilitarians wound up as apologists for the existing order, for the status quo, and hence were all too open to the charge by socialists and progressive corporatists that they were mere narrow-minded and conservative opponents of any and all change. Thus, starting as radicals and revolutionaries, as the polar opposites of conservatives, the classical liberals wound up as the image of the thing they had fought.

    “This utilitarian crippling of libertarianism is still with us. Thus, in the early days of economic thought, utilitarianism captured free-market economics with the influence of Bentham and Ricardo, and this influence is today fully as strong as ever. Current free-market economics is all too rife with appeals to gradualism; with scorn for ethics, justice, and consistent principle; and with a willingness to abandon free-market principles at the drop of a cost-benefit hat. Hence, current free-market economics is generally envisioned by intellectuals as merely apologetics for a slightly modified status quo, and all too often such charges are correct.” – Rothbard, The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism

  4. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    19. July 2014 at 14:14

    Justice and Property Rights: The Failure of Utilitarianism

  5. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    19. July 2014 at 14:19

    ssumner:

    “Here is where our distorted views of “personal identity” (which I regard as a fiction) distort our reasoning process. We all tend to think our own life is more important than the lives of others, often far more important. Would you give away 90% of your retirement savings to save one life in a poor country? But objectively speaking, if we all think we are especially important, then we are all deluded, at least from a global welfare perspective.

    Here is where our distorted views of “social identity” (which I regard as a fiction) distort our reasoning process. We are all told to think other people’s lives as more important than our own, often far more important. Would you not give away 90% of your retirement savings and save one life in a poor country? But objectively speaking, if we all think others are especially important, then we are all deluded, at least from an individual welfare perspective.

  6. Gravatar of Philippe Philippe
    19. July 2014 at 14:36

    “when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and “discriminatory” and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.”

    Murray Rothbard

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/ir/Ch75.html

  7. Gravatar of D.O. D.O.
    19. July 2014 at 15:32

    Well… How do you know that 10^9 (or whatever) people at saturation is an exogenous parameter? But even if it is, is giving birth and raising babies a net positive or net negative activity (for already alive)? It may change the answer. Not quite as extreme situation as you proposed, but similar, is perennial discussion whether older workers should retire faster to give younger ones more space to grow more rapidly. What utilitarianism has to say about this?

  8. Gravatar of Joel Aaron Freeman Joel Aaron Freeman
    19. July 2014 at 15:48

    The other negative externality to long lifespans is the slowing of human intellectual progress. People form their views by age 25, and rarely change thereafter. It’s probably still beneficial for people to live to 60, so that they develop their initial intuitions more rigorously, but after that we can’t expect very much.

    I remember watching a documentary about how Einstein held back quantum physics by decades. Experiment after experiment showed that quantum reality is probabilistic, not deterministic. Einstein appeared in the newspapers after every discovery and scoffed, saying that God does not throw dice. He discouraged institutions and young physicists from taking an interest in the topic, and it took decades of accumulated evidence before people started to take is seriously. His death was a boon to the physics profession.

  9. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    19. July 2014 at 15:52

    That is the most implausible form of Darwinian group slection you assume there at the beginning — don’t see how these genes could possibly survive in the gene pool b/c of the force of the natural selection over individual & their phenotypes.

  10. Gravatar of Greg ransom Greg ransom
    19. July 2014 at 15:55

    There are no such thing as “utils”.

    you need a giant poster over your computer reminding you of that.

    You are doing economics & moral philosophy with unicorns.

    Garbage in —-> garbage out.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. July 2014 at 16:55

    Doug,

    1. Men are more reckless on average.

    2. Genghis Khan has 40 million descendants, in just 800 years.

    3. Good point about the economics.

    Joel, Maybe Einstein was right about randomness–there is the multiverse interpretation to QM.

    Greg, Group selection can work if the groups were small (and for most of human history they were small.) There are models that show this.

    It doesn’t matter whether utils exist. All that matters is that humans believe they exist, and that they have some ability to recognize them.

  12. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    19. July 2014 at 16:58

    Joel,

    I don’t keep up with this stuff, but my understanding was that the deterministic/probabilistic nature of reality still isn’t generally agreed upon by those in the field. Doesn’t Many Worlds mean that reality is deterministic?

  13. Gravatar of CMA (@CMAMonetary) CMA (@CMAMonetary)
    19. July 2014 at 17:13

    “CMA, When banks borrow at 0.25%, there is no subsidy involved at all. The money is being borrowed from other banks, who receive the exact same 0.25%. So are the banks lending money at 0.25% being negative subsidized?”

    Day to day fine tuning of the ffr rate is performed mainly through repos in US or MRO’s and LTRO’s in Europe. A repo is essentially a direct loan from fed to counterparty. Interbank market references off repos. The fed directly “subsidizes” the banks.

    “It is important to use terms like “subsidy” precisely. They have very specific economic meanings. If you don’t do so you’ll end up with meaningless statements.”

    I agree what I mean is a benefit or some kind or preferential treatment for banks.

    “There is no law preventing banks from lending you money at 0.25%. The reason banks prefer to lend to other banks at that rate, and not you, is that it is more profitable to lend to other banks. They are a smaller credit risk. The Fed has nothing to do with that. It was true even before the Fed was created in 1913. They charge you more because you are a bigger credit risk.”

    Doesnt matter if your credit rating is perfect and you are in better net financial position than a bank you don’t get .25%

  14. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    19. July 2014 at 18:06

    “Clearly since humans can be replicated at almost zero cost (easy for a man to say!) then we’d want to maximize the number of utils earned per hour.”

    Utility is measured in hedons (pleasure) and dolors (suffering).

    And we want the optimal ratio per lifetime, not max per year, month, day or hour.

  15. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    19. July 2014 at 19:37

    “Jews] have in them deep-rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to the European, and their presence among us is a living example of the insurmountable difficulties that exist in merging race characteristics, in making cats love dogs …

    “It is not agreeable to see civilization so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and brains.” – JM Keynes

    —————-

    Of eugenics:

    “…the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.” – JM Keynes, Director of British Eugenics Society, 1937 to 1944.

    ———–

    Taking advantage of the poverty and ignorance in North Africa, the Middle East, and Italy, Keynes purchased the bodies of children prostituted for English shillings. (See Lytton Strachey, A Critical Biography, Michael Holyroyd, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, two volumes).

    ———-

    Oh look, we can pick and choose arguments people make without having to accept everything they said and did.

  16. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    19. July 2014 at 20:29

    ssumner wrote:

    “It doesn’t matter whether utils exist. All that matters is that humans believe they exist, and that they have some ability to recognize them.”

    How can one “recognize” what does not exist?

    All that matters is that people believe something exists, not whether it does exist…that ladies and gentlemen is the self-contradictory confusion that can occur by faith based adulation of irrationalist philosophers such as Richard Rorty.

    The claim that humans cannot know “truth” is contradictory on its face, for it is itself an argument purporting a truth about our mental abilities vus a vis the world.

    The REAL purpose of Rortyism is to serve as a lazy man’s hypocritical weapon.

    Declare one’s intellectual opponents as dogmatic and deluded for suggesting they know a “truth”, but set up an escape hatch for oneself as being immune from that, and retain the sole divine ability to know “truth.”

    Ergo, even if the maxim of truth is “socially constructed”, Sumner nevertheless claims that wage targeting is “optimal” monetary policy in theory, and NGDP “pragmatically”. He is trying to change people’s minds even though Rortyism would imply that what people believe is true, is true. Well, if what is “true” by this relativistic conception contradicts MM, then MM is by Rortyism “false”. There would be no rational reason to change anyone’s minds. The actual reason Sumner per Rorty would want to change people’s minds, is because he believes his idea of truth is more true than those he is trying to convince. See the escape hatch necessity? Deny others knowledge of truth of what is better, but retain that knowledge for oneself.

  17. Gravatar of Luis Pedro Coelho Luis Pedro Coelho
    20. July 2014 at 01:41

    Scott, the opening pop-Darwinism is most likely wrong.

    While it is possible to have the sort of group selection that you talk about (“reckless individuals benefit the tribe”), the conditions in which is works out are very restrictive (basically, how do you avoid free-riders, non-reckless young men? you need something like frequent genocide wiping out whole tribes at once or very little intra-tribal reproduction for the model to work out [some do argue that this was the case in early human tribes]).

    More importantly, though, you don’t need to talk about group selection in this case: the reckless young man can be gene-selfish. Let’s say you have an option of become a farmer or a warrior and there is a gene that switches between the two. Farmers are safe (90% survival until reproduction) and get 1 wife each. Warriors die frequently (33% survival until reproduction), but the survivors get 3 wives each plus they get to rape the other side’s women.

    The reckless 67% chance of death behaviour is, in this case, the warrior is behaviour is clearly the advantageous one for the individual gene. Therefore, you will end up with reckless young men killing each other at high rates.

    (The real world is much more complicated, of course, but the basic intuition of “gene-selfish choices lead to individuals risking their life to get more reproduction in expectation” is correct).

  18. Gravatar of Nick Nick
    20. July 2014 at 03:38

    Pretty much OT, but I wish people would stop giving Einstein such a hard time. His relentless attempts to show internal inconsistancies within QM made the standard model very strong, and many of his papers questioning the validity of the standard model ended up providing the basis for some of our most interesting current theories (Einstein-Rosen comes to mind). The old man wasn’t really holding back progress, even if he was ‘stuck in his ways’. Maybe he could have accomplished even more if he had been willing to believe, or maybe no one would ever have ever given Kaluza-Klein and other interesting alternatives a look. I sincerely doubt his death was a boon to the profession.

  19. Gravatar of Joel Aaron Freeman Joel Aaron Freeman
    20. July 2014 at 06:41

    Scott and Doug,

    I wasn’t making a point about physics, just about human nature. The progress in that area of knowledge was slowed by Einstein’s influence. One of the big names in the field emotionally didn’t like it, and his stature convinced others to ignore it. If he had died sooner, scientists would have been more objective about the data.

    Another way of making the same point: how much harder would it have been to abolish Jim Crow laws if Confederate veterans of the Civil War were still alive?

    Death is vital to human progress.

  20. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    20. July 2014 at 09:19

    Joel:

    “Death is vital to human progress.”

    No, its death of particular ideas, not the people (unless they’re murderers).

    Death as such is not “vital to human progress.” From the abstract perspective of an element on the periodic table with a very short half life, in the pico seconds, we humans are practically immortal, and yet we’re surviving, and with good ideas can survive happily and healthily.

  21. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    20. July 2014 at 09:32

    Scott, impressed after all these years, you still have some virgin soil to plow. Thought provoking post.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. July 2014 at 12:07

    CMA, Having a perfect credit rating does not mean you are zero credit risk. There are thousands of banks in the US. No reason to believe the interest rate on bank loans is not at a competitive equilibrium.

    If banks could make money lending to you at 0.50% they would. They only get 0.25% when they lend to other banks, and yet they do so. They get 0.25% parking trillions in excess reserves, but they do so. Why? You don’t have any answers.

    Your “fine tuning” discussion is not relevant to what we are debating. Have you looked at the Fed balance sheet? They have $trillions in bonds on the asset side. That’s how most base money is injected.

    Morgan, Yes, positive and negative utils.

    Luis, I agree, that was implicit in my Genghis Khan example.

    Joel, I would think that the people he convinced to ignore it were the mediocre physicists. The great ones presumably ignored him and plunged ahead. But I agree with your larger point that science makes progress one funeral at a time.

    Thanks Jon.

  23. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    20. July 2014 at 16:17

    Joel and Scott (or whoever’s interested), Scott writes:

    “Joel, Maybe Einstein was right about randomness–there is the multiverse interpretation to QM.”

    Doing background reading on the information transfer model that Jason uses has led me down a lot of related tangents recently, one of which was this Google Tech Talk by a guy who looks at QM from an information theory perspective. Ignore the goofy sounding title (it’s really no conspiracy!).

    He calls his resultant interpretation the “Zero Universe Theory.”

  24. Gravatar of CMA (@CMAMonetary) CMA (@CMAMonetary)
    20. July 2014 at 16:46

    “Your “fine tuning” discussion is not relevant to what we are debating. Have you looked at the Fed balance sheet? They have $trillions in bonds on the asset side. That’s how most base money is injected.”

    The balance sheet is bloated due to QE.

    Repos are the main means by which central banks maintain the the short term interest rate on target during normal non zlb periods. Europe’s MRO and LTRO are repo’s.

    “are the main instrument used by the Reserve Bank to undertake its domestic market operations”

    http://www.rba.gov.au/publications/bulletin/2010/dec/pdf/bu-1210-4.pdf

    Therefore CB’s directly fund banks at preferential rates.

  25. Gravatar of Philippe Philippe
    20. July 2014 at 17:34

    mf

    it’s true that Keynes held anti-semitic views, but he also abandoned whatever those views where later in life as a result of what he saw going on in Germany under the nazis pre-WW2. The first quote you posted is something he wrote when he was 17 (in 1900) when such views were common, the other quote is cropped from a diary entry in which he talks about his Jewish friends and at the same time his dislike for certain types of Jewish people. His anti-semitic views can’t be excused but at the same time they should be put in context.

    I don’t know where you got the idea that he “purchased the bodies of children” from.

  26. Gravatar of Major-Freedom Major-Freedom
    20. July 2014 at 18:01

    Philippe:

    It is irrelevant whether Keynes later changed his mind or not.

    I posted a series of passages from Rothbard about utilitarianism and ethics, and you responded with another passage that suggests racism. That is ad hominem tu quoque.

    After I posted a series of passages from Keynes that suggest anti-semitism and pro-eugenics, for the sole purpose of showing that it is OK to pick and choose certain arguments made by people and not being obligated to accept everything they said or believed, since many Keynesianism today still accept Keynes’ theories despite some of his other views, you felt the need to put thise other views of Keynes “in context”, as if it had anything to do with the topic of this thread, which is ethical inquiry.

    You did not respond to any of the posts I made with substantive arguments. You believed you could dismiss them by painting Rothbars as a racist. And yet you don’t dismiss Keynes’ theories despite him being anti-semitic and pro-eugenics.

    In other words, you’re behaving like a hack.

    If you have any response to the actual arguments about utilitarianism, I’m all eyes. If you want to play ad hominem tu quoque, I guarantee you’ll lose.

  27. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    20. July 2014 at 18:01

    Philippe:

    It is irrelevant whether Keynes later changed his mind or not.

    I posted a series of passages from Rothbard about utilitarianism and ethics, and you responded with another passage that suggests racism. That is ad hominem tu quoque.

    After I posted a series of passages from Keynes that suggest anti-semitism and pro-eugenics, for the sole purpose of showing that it is OK to pick and choose certain arguments made by people and not being obligated to accept everything they said or believed, since many Keynesianism today still accept Keynes’ theories despite some of his other views, you felt the need to put thise other views of Keynes “in context”, as if it had anything to do with the topic of this thread, which is ethical inquiry.

    You did not respond to any of the posts I made with substantive arguments. You believed you could dismiss them by painting Rothbars as a racist. And yet you don’t dismiss Keynes’ theories despite him being anti-semitic and pro-eugenics.

    In other words, you’re behaving like a hack.

    If you have any response to the actual arguments about utilitarianism, I’m all eyes. If you want to play ad hominem tu quoque, I guarantee you’ll lose..

  28. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    20. July 2014 at 21:07

    Scott, nice post and I enjoy thinking about these things as well. My thoughts, while I share the concern over “just so” stories related to evolution and human behavior, it is pretty certain that large parts of our psychological make up are determined genetically, like the tendency to recklessness. The main source of this data comes from separated twin studies, but there are plenty of other sources as well. I won’t give sources on this but there is plenty of literature out there.

    Clearly, since moral outlook is largely genetically determined, this means human psychology must be somewhat due to evolutionary pressures. In other words, if humans have an average psychological tendency towards some behavior, there must have been some evolution pressure towards favoring that behavior versus other potential behaviors. Maybe we cannot exactly say what that evolutionary pressure was, but we can be sure there is one. So the “just so” story objection is really about the difficulty in accurately identifying the particular evolution pressure, everyone should agree that evolutionary pressure existed to create genetically based psychological traits (unless you are a creationist I suppose).

    What has this to do with morality? Well I think it is pretty clear that our moral outlooks are largely genetically based, just like other psychological traits. One example I can give is small children. A child of four or five has a pretty good understanding of basic morality in my experience, they know it is wrong to steal or hurt other children for instance. They did not reason their way to this, but had an in-built morality system. One other confirmation is when we start to do moral calculations like Scott is doing, sometimes the results “feel” wrong (the trolley problem is one good example), this is the so called “repugnant” conclusion issue in morality. The feeling is our innate moral machinery clashing against our reasoning.

    While I can create “just so” stories about how people gained this genetic moral machinery (like we had to work together in small hunter gather groups) and these “just so” stories can be debated, it doesn’t change the basic fact that there were evolutionary pressures to create moral genetic machinery. Ok if we accept that we can also see there is no reason that, outside of a small area where the morals originally evolved, that this genetic morality needs to be consistent. This is especially true when we extrapolate to very general situations. Our moral genetic machinery breaks down, the algorithm that was created by evolution is no longer suitable for informing your reason as to the “right” decision to take. So it is not surprising that any attempt to generalize morality and agree on a particular moral scheme, fails. What is missing is that innate feeling that we get in small moral dilemmas. So ultimately larger moral issues become arguments about taste. I prefer liberty perhaps, you prefer equality, there is no reasoning way of resolving this difference in taste ( The statement “I prefer coffee you prefer tea” cannot be solved by reasoning and nor is there any reason to do so).

    I think we should be honest about this issue, and accept that a moral theory about how we should behave is not realistic to either agree or to work to. We should be humble and allow other to proceed in a moral direction that they ultimately prefer and not impose our taste as far as possible within the confines of us fulfilling our own moral tastes. This is why basically I am libertarian. I do not believe that other can have the answer as to how to regulate the lives of others. So, in your question on whether or not risky behavior is morally better or not, I think the answer is simply, a matter of taste. And if you were somehow elected the dictator of the world, I would hope that you would accept that, as long as the risky behavior did not impact others, then people should be allowed to participate in such behavior. (Of course I recognize that in itself this is a moral position, so there is a paradox, but at least the morality is consistent).

    People worry a lot about bad people impacting their lives, but in an actual practical way we don’t see this a lot in most western societies. Violence, stealing etc are in conflict with most people’s moral machinery and the opportunities to violence for instance are generally not maximized. In a not very long period of time we are going to face this issue more seriously, with the invention of artificial intelligence, especially “uploading” where human brains are basically converted to electronic form. I know that many people believe, with perhaps religious faith, that AI and uploading cannot happen, I sincerely hope they are correct but I fear not. Why? Because uploaded individuals now have the chance to modify their own programming, including their own moral machinery. Why would they do that? Because others might be able to do it as well, and their own survival will be at risk. So you would be foolish not to become a paranoid, psychopathic ruthless killing machine once you are uploaded, since if you do not you will be at risk from those other uploaded entities that are worried about you. So uploading is going to lead to some very nasty times for the human race.

  29. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    21. July 2014 at 03:46

    Scott,

    this post just reminds me why I dislike utilitarianism so much. It either leads to variants of Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion” or to some form of coercion, in order to achieve “society’s best” (according to whose metrics?? why must society optimize something at all? where in all that is there any principle related to the only thing that actually exists, i.e., the individual?).

    For what it’s worth, here is my interpretation of risk taking as a young person. Purely a conjecture. Risk taking is an accidental byproduct of achieving fast learning for later use. Once the learning is achieved, risk-taking is unnecessary and can be discarded. Example, young men tend to race cars and motorcycles. That’s how they build competence, especially in terms of competition with other young men. The older and more competent they get, the less they need or want to keep on taking these risks. And on a feebler level of confidence: It also seems that young women are somewhat attracted to young men taking risks, but not to older men taking risks. In older men, the level of achieved competence is more attractive than the level of risk taking.

    Besides: Darwinism offers not a trace of utilitarianism here. Group selection has been hotly contested for decades to say the least. In standard Darwinism, the metric of utility is strictly a function of how many fertile offspring an _individual_ produces. There is no such thing as the “good of the species”. In Darwinism, the good of the species is an accidental byproduct of the sum of individual successes.

    Side note on Genghis Khan: it is highly misleading to conclude “he” had any number of offspring down the generations. Any human needs a mate to reproduce. Mating dilutes one’s genetic contribution by 1/2 at each generation due to recombination. You have at best 1/32nd genetic similarity with your 6th order ancestor. A better way to say this would be: after 800 years, some gene / chromosome found in Genghis Khan was found in 40 million people. (Since we don’t know how many people had that gene during his life time that doesn’t tell us much either, but it is closer to the genetic reality.) In any other way those 40 million are completely dissimilar from the genetic configuration of Genghis Khan due to the mentioned genetic recombination at mating. And since an individual’s competence is never the result of a specific gene, but the result of how all their genes work together, we can conclude that this Genghis Khan gene, taken by itself, tells us nothing. Look: It is feasible that G.K’s father, say, was some poor, unremarkable blacksmith and only had one child, G.K. himself. But by your logic, G.K.’s dad was even more successful than even G.K. in a Darwinian sense since he had one up on G.K. Clearly, not very meaningful. Genes are useless by themselves – they need other genes to make sense within an organism.

  30. Gravatar of Student Student
    21. July 2014 at 05:46

    Scott, I read this article a while back and your post reminded me of it.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text

    “Moody. Impulsive. Maddening. Why do teenagers act the way they do? Viewed through the eyes of evolution, their most exasperating traits may be the key to success as adults.”

  31. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    21. July 2014 at 06:43

    @Greg and Scott, no need to invoke group selection here. Sexual selection can produce all manner of extreme responses. Consider the peahen.

    See ladies, you made us this way.

  32. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    21. July 2014 at 06:49

    @Major Freedom, what do you think of Abraham Lincoln?

  33. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    21. July 2014 at 08:38

    Wow, the K-man is at it again, Scott ,
    This time referencing monetary offset. Your thoughts?

  34. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    21. July 2014 at 08:39

    Brian Donahue:
    MF probably thinks Abe Lincoln was a tyrant

  35. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. July 2014 at 11:08

    CMA, OK, I see you’ve stopped even addressing my points. You said:

    “Repos are the main means by which central banks maintain the the short term interest rate on target during normal non zlb periods. Europe’s MRO and LTRO are repo’s.”

    As I already explained, that has no bearing on whether banks are “subsidized.”

    ChrisA, You said:

    “So ultimately larger moral issues become arguments about taste. I prefer liberty perhaps, you prefer equality, there is no reasoning way of resolving this difference in taste ( The statement “I prefer coffee you prefer tea” cannot be solved by reasoning and nor is there any reason to do so).”

    Not so, I prefer liberty to equality. I prefer John Locke to Mao Zedong.

    The way society feels about specific practices changes as culture changes. But one thing that never seems to change is that people prefer pleasure to pain. That’s the foundation on which I build my moral principles.

    And I don’t agree that matters of taste cannot be resolved by argument. For instance, a work of art may serve as an argument against a particular taste. In the last 2 decades Hollywood has made a lot of “arguments” against anti-gay bias, and they have changed millions of minds (mostly of young people.)

    mbka, I don’t agree about Mr. Khan. A man who has 40 million descendants will have a bigger impact on the future traits of society than a neighbor of his that had 40 thousand descendants. Sure, his father might have been a nobody, but that has no bearing on this issue. It’s the genetic characteristics of Genghis Khan that matter.

    My argument is not based on group selection, but from what I have read group selection is the most common explanation for certain traits like altruism outside the family, and being gay. But I’m no expert.

    And as Brian says, my argument doesn’t require group selection.

  36. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    21. July 2014 at 15:44

    Scott does any of your analysis change if as a group we as individuals by and large value the lives of rich people a lot more?

    I’m 100% sure this is true. I can tell some fun stories where i proved this statistically.

    I don’t expect it does, but I’d like to see how you handle it.

  37. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    21. July 2014 at 21:25

    Scott, somehow I made myself unclear I suppose. I question the biological / genetic meaning of the phrase “had 40 mio. descendants”. I know this is how a science news article headline would read, but the phrase relies on genealogical intuitions which have little genetic meaning.

    Mr. Khan had maybe a few hundred direct descendants only. These direct descendants each bear exactly 1/2 of Mr. Khan’s genes. In the next generation, Mr Khan’s grandchildren maybe number a few thousand. Each of those now has exactly 1/4 of Mr. Khan’s genes. The grand-grand-children will have 1/8 of his genes each. etc. So where is “Mr. Khan” in all of this? What part of him was actually transmitted? Not “his genes” as a whole but fractions of his genes. Mr Khan only existed once, as a specific gene assemblage, assembled from various genes that existed in the gene pool of his population. Out of these gene pool genes, a single gene (actually, more likely the entire Y chromosome) was picked as a tracking device to see Mr Khan’s “lineage” across the generations. But after 800 years, the only thing linking Mr. Khan to his “descendants” is that they have the same Y chromosome. In all other respects Mr. Khan has no closer links to his descendants than to the general population. And that particular Y chromosome was possibly a quite common occurrence in Mr. Khan’s parents’ gene pool. So the whole notion of “Mr Khan’s” genetic success makes less and less sense the longer the genealogical line goes. One particula gene, or chromosome, now has a lot of copies floating around but this tells us little without knowing how prevalent it was in the past vs. now. Side note, the Y chromosome is useful to track male lineage but has few useful genes on it. This to dispel the idea that maybe that particular Y chromosome was so great.

    The previous sets the foundation for the prevalent explanation for altruism in evo-devo: kin selection (as opposed to group selection). I know that kin selection is currently challenged but here goes the still prevalent view: Since sexual organisms “dilute” their genes by 1/2 at each generational mating, they are more and more dissimilar from their descendants. So why should they care about their descendants? Answer, they care less and less the “farther” the lineage goes. They care a lot about their own kids, less about their grand kids, and even less so about nephews and nieces. And very little about the population at large. All in proportion to how genetically similar they are to the object of their love.

    Next: your example about being gay is actually an excellent case study for the complications of evolutionary strategies. It’s at least as counter intuitive as macroeconomics ;-) . At Darwinism zero level, a “gay gene” should be impossible because highly maladaptive (few to none fertile offspring). At group selection level, the gay gene could be helping the group survive and so foster its own survival. This is the old “good for the species” argument and traditionally is rejected by biologists. At kin selection level, the gay gene is itself infertile but promotes the reproduction of the other genes the gay person is carrying. More convincing, but there are doubts if this is really the final answer to all evolutionary conundra. Finally, some fundamental mechanisms that could help the gay gene: it could sit next to a hugely important gene that is otherwise very “fit”. So it gets piggybacked around. Or, it could be hugely “fit” in the majority of organisms, and only turn some men gay. And there is evidence for precisely that. It turns out that male gayness runs in families. How could that be? Well, there was a nice paper out a few years back that claimed that families with more gay males also had more fertile females. Conjecture – the same gene that makes these women more fertile, probably because they are more attracted to men than the average woman, makes the occasional male offspring … also attracted to men. The excess offspring fromt the affected females more than compensates the lesser offspring from the affected gay males. The gene is “fit”, and Darwinism remains unharmed in the process. It’s counter intuitive but it works, and no group selection is needed.

    And this harks back nicely to Mr. Khan. Genes don’t work alone, they exist in the context of the other genes of the organism. If that paper is valid, then the “gay gene” in a woman makes her more likely to procreate. The same gene in a man makes him more likely to be gay. The particular gene combination of Mr. Khan was aggressive, skilled, and successful. The same component parts of him, spread into other genomes, may mean nothing particular at all.

  38. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    22. July 2014 at 05:32

    @mbka, good comment. Plausible anyway.

    I would say that ‘kin selection’ is a well-established phenomenon, while ‘group selection’ is more dubious. E.O. Wilson, a brilliant biologist, recently came out in favor of a theory of group selection, but the orthodox (e.g. Dawkins) view remains skeptical of this mechanism, and I don’t think any compelling models have been built to illustrate how it would work.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. July 2014 at 08:40

    Morgan, We may value their lives more, but we shouldn’t value the utils they experience more highly.

    mbka, Very enlightening discussion of gays. I’m certainly not tied to the group selection hypothesis, but I find it plausible for the very small groups typical of the Stone Age.

    I think we are talking past each other on Khan. I certainly understand that the genetic influence is cut in half each generation. That wasn’t my point. But it is still true that people with many offspring are more likely to influence the genetic structure of future generations than people with few descendants. That’s true even if the effect is tiny after 800 years. A tiny amount (per person) times 40 million can still be significant. More than that same tiny amount times 40 thousand.

  40. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    22. July 2014 at 14:21

    Scott,

    so there’s no hedonic value to Britons in having royalty?

    or you simply don’t think those hedons count?

  41. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    22. July 2014 at 19:01

    Scott, note well that I was pointing out the causal unworkability of your assumptions.

    In any case, whose model of “group selection” do you believe is conceptually coherent?

    I agree that diffrerent levels of selection and different sorts of selection exist, but most of the most famous conceptions of “group selection” eg from the 1960s were conceptual failures.

    You aren’t defending the 1960s models od Wynne-Edwards are you?

  42. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    22. July 2014 at 21:27

    Brian Donahue:

    I think many things about Lincoln. Were you asking for an overall “yay”? or “nay”? Then “nay”.

    Why nay? Like Edward said, he was a tyrant. He was a control freak who had armies obeying his orders. He was totally against other individual’s right to self-determination. He was only for his own right to self-determination. He lied, he broke promises, he brought about the slaughter of thousands of innocent (and American, but that shoildn’t really matter) men, women and children.

    Today, millions of children all over the country are being completely brainwashed about his life and legacy. It is exactly like Chinese children brainwashed about Mao Tse Tung, and North Korean children about Kim Il Sung.

    Whole intellectual cults on Lincoln have arisen whose sole function is to spread disinformation about him and to prevent the truth from becoming “conventional wisdom”. Hardly anyone knows for example that the Lincoln administration kidnapped and returned escaped slaves to their masters. Hardly anyone knows that Lincoln, according to his memoirs, that his only goal was to control the south, i.e. “preserve the Union”, slave emancipation or no emancipation.

    He was fiercely racist, and not just of the ” I am holier than thou but will only complain about it” type, but of the “I will force you down and keep you down” type. In a speech given in 1858 in Charleston Illinois:

    “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    And yet there are thousands of black children and adults who have posters of Lincoln hanging on their walls because they have been brainwashed into believing a lie.

    The reason the Lincoln lies can spread is because we live in a country where criticizing or challenging powerful American historical figures is akin to attacking what “American” means, and too many people unfortunately find meaning in their lives according to what Presidents and other top government officials do.

    It is the biggest sickness of our socialist (fascist) age.

  43. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. July 2014 at 08:04

    Morgan, Sure, for the royalty, or movie stars, but Bill Gates?

    Greg, No, not that study. The other one. The good one.

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