Archive for April, 2012

We look back on people in the past and try not to judge them too harshly for what we now see as immoral behavior (e.g., slavery).  I think it’s pretty much a certainty that 100 years from now people will look back at us and not understand how we could have allowed (or not allowed) certain things to happen.  I like to think about what the things are that future people will find offensive.  Here are some candidates:

1.  Same sex relationships.  It’s hard to imagine that future people won’t look at our society’s discomfort with same sex relationships (and marriage) and be pretty baffled by it.  In fact, I think future people won’t identify as gay, straight or bi.  Rather, it will just be understood that sexual preference is a matter of degree, and varies over time and environments.  So our reluctance to allow same sex marriage will seem puzzling for several reasons.

2.  Drug war.  I think people will be appalled to learn that we put people in prison for years because they chose to use recreational drugs.  This is another obvious one.

3.  The New Jim Crow.  I think there is a decent chance that Michelle Alexander’s argument that the unprecedented mass incarceration in the US, the stripping of rights away from felons, and stop and frisk policies, will be viewed similarly to the way we currently view Jim Crow laws of the past.  And if that’s the case, Ronald Reagan will be viewed as the father of the new Jim Crow (okay, the last part is probably just a fantasy, but allow me to dream).

4.  Incarceration in general.  I think it’s possible that prisons will go away, just like the death penalty did in many countries.  If that’s the case, I think we will be judged harshly for our large prison population.

5.  Factory farms (concentrated animal feeding operations).  This one seems pretty obvious, as there is already some momentum to improve how these animals are treated.  A lot of people today are shocked by it when they find out what’s happening.  Imagine the shock future people will experience when they look back at us  if they live in a world where animals are treated better.

Those are all things that some people have already identified as problematic, so I haven’t said anything too radical.  Even better would be to come up with a few candidates that seem so normal to us today that no one even questions them.  I am currently thinking about this.

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Facebook is a great way to see which commonly held beliefs, especially beliefs that are strongly tied to in-group signaling, are important to people.  The image on the left has made the rounds on Facebook.

Jesus saved your soul from sin.

Soldiers fight for freedom, possibly by fighting communists or terrorists.

One thing these statements have in common is they involve sacrifice for vague concepts.  I put the vague concepts in red.


Anyone who has spent time in the United States, knows that America and freedom are synonymous.  When I was young I used to often hear people talk about these other countries, where the government reads your mail and dissident citizens are imprisoned or killed without a trial.  So maybe that’s the sort of thing that is meant by freedom?  But the President of the United States currently claims the right to have American citizens assassinated without judicial process*, and I do not get the impression that many people care.

In general, I think freedom needs to be qualified (freedom for whom to do what).  For example, if people are given the freedom to own land, then they lose the right to roam freely across the land.

And then there is the issue that some people are harmed when they are given more choices.  Sister Y discusses interesting examples of this:

Given the right to die, people who are a burden on their caretakers might choose to die rather than be a burden, even if what they really wanted was to live without having to explicitly choose to live.  Therefore, the freedom to die harms the person.

Given the right to survive (on a respirator, say), people who wish to die will suddenly bear responsibility for choosing death, and may choose to go on suffering in life instead, even though they’d prefer to die, all things considered.  Therefore, the suffering person is harmed by the choice to remain alive.

So, not only is freedom vague, but it is not without tradeoffs.


As Glenn Greenwald put it, “Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.” Like communist before it, as commonly used, the word terrorist basically just means “people (possibly imaginary) that powerful folks want you to be afraid of.”

Soul and sin

I don’t think I need to convince people that soul is a vague term.  As for sin, most human actions involve harm/benefit tradeoffs, much of which is difficult to anticipate.  There are some cases that are not very fuzzy, but in general life just is not black and white.


The image above was pointed out to me while I was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent article on the importance of being specific (link).  From his article:

Cognitive behavioral therapy… talks about using requests for specific details to interrupt thoughts looping around vague but affectively laden centers, like “I am a good husband”, “I am a bad husband”, or “my roommate is a slob”.  How are you a good husband?  How are you a bad husband?  Which specific feature of your roommate are you objecting to?  Taboo the emotionally valent word at the center, like “slob”, and replace it with something that’s specific enough to be testable, or concrete enough to be acted upon.

“I am a good husband” or “my roommate is a slob” is very similar to “I love freedom” or “we need to fight the terrorists.”

Investors aren’t going to fund your startup if you are too vague, but humans will fight in your war if you are equally vague.


*Attorney General Eric Holder distinguishes between due process and judicial process: ” The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”  ‘Due process’ just became vague.

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