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ethics directory


“A Systematic Review of Human Challenge Trials, Designs, and Safety”, Adams-Phipps et al 2022

“A Systematic Review of Human Challenge Trials, Designs, and Safety”⁠, Jupiter Adams-Phipps, Danny Toomey, Witold Więcek, Virginia Schmit, James Wilkinson, Keller Scholl, Euzebiusz Jamrozik et al (2022-03-21; ; similar):

Background: There exists no prior systematic review of human challenge trials (HCTs) that focuses on participant safety. Key questions regarding HCTs include how risky such trials have been, how often adverse events (AEs) and serious adverse events (SAEs) occur, and whether risk mitigation measures have been effective.

Methods: A systematic search of PubMed and PubMed Central for articles reporting on results of HCTs published between 1980 and 2021 was performed and completed by 2021-10-07.

Results: Of 2,838 articles screened, 276 were reviewed in full. 15,046 challenged participants were described in 308 studies that met inclusion criteria. 286 (92.9%) of these studies reported mitigation measures used to minimize risk to the challenge population. Among 187 studies which reported on SAEs, 0.2% of participants experienced at least one challenge-related SAE. Among 94 studies that graded AEs by severity, challenge-related AEs graded “severe” were reported by between 5.6% and 15.8% of participants. AE data were provided as a range to account for unclear reporting. 80% of studies published after 2010 were registered in a trials database.

Conclusion: HCTs are increasingly common and used for an expanding list of diseases. Although AEs occur, severe AEs and SAEs are rare. Reporting has improved over time, though not all papers provide a comprehensive report of relevant health impacts. From the available data, most HCTs do not lead to a high number of severe symptoms or SAEs.

This study was preregistered on PROSPERO as CRD42021247218.

“Many Heads Are More Utilitarian Than One”, Keshmirian et al 2022

2022-keshmirian.pdf: “Many heads are more utilitarian than one”⁠, Anita Keshmirian, Ophelia Deroy, Bahador Bahrami (2022-03-01; ⁠, ; similar):

  • Collective consensual judgments made via group interactions were more utilitarian than individual judgments.
  • Group discussion did not change the individual judgments indicating a normative conformity effect.
  • Individuals consented to a group judgment that they did not necessarily buy into personally.
  • Collectives were less stressed than individuals after responding to moral dilemmas.
  • Interactions reduced aversive emotions (eg. stressed) associated with violation of moral norms.

Moral judgments have a very prominent social nature, and in everyday life, they are continually shaped by discussions with others. Psychological investigations of these judgments, however, have rarely addressed the impact of social interactions.

To examine the role of social interaction on moral judgments within small groups, we had groups of 4 to 5 participants judge moral dilemmas first individually and privately, then collectively and interactively, and finally individually a second time. We employed both real-life and sacrificial moral dilemmas in which the character’s action or inaction violated a moral principle to benefit the greatest number of people. Participants decided if these utilitarian decisions were morally acceptable or not.

In Experiment 1, we found that collective judgments in face-to-face interactions were more utilitarian than the statistical aggregate of their members compared to both first and second individual judgments. This observation supported the hypothesis that deliberation and consensus within a group transiently reduce the emotional burden of norm violation. In Experiment 2, we tested this hypothesis more directly: measuring participants’ state anxiety in addition to their moral judgments before, during, and after online interactions, we found again that collectives were more utilitarian than those of individuals and that state anxiety level was reduced during and after social interaction.

The utilitarian boost in collective moral judgments is probably due to the reduction of stress in the social setting.

[Keywords: collective moral judgments, group moral decisions, moral dilemmas, moral conformity, moral influence, social deliberation, logistic mixed effect model⁠, Bayesian mixed effect models, Open Science, Open data]

“The Human Black-Box: The Illusion of Understanding Human Better Than Algorithmic Decision-Making”, Bonezzi et al 2022

2022-bonezzi.pdf: “The Human Black-Box: The Illusion of Understanding Human Better Than Algorithmic Decision-Making”⁠, Andrea Bonezzi, Massimiliano Ostinelli, Johann Melzner (2022-02-10; ⁠, ):

As algorithms increasingly replace human decision-makers, concerns have been voiced about the black-box nature of algorithmic decision-making. These concerns raise an apparent paradox. In many cases, human decision-makers are just as much of a black-box as the algorithms that are meant to replace them. Yet, the inscrutability of human decision-making seems to raise fewer concerns.

We suggest that one of the reasons for this paradox is that people foster an illusion of understanding human better than algorithmic decision-making, when in fact, both are black-boxes. We further propose that this occurs, at least in part, because people project their own intuitive understanding of a decision-making process more onto other humans than onto algorithms, and as a result, believe that they understand human better than algorithmic decision-making, when in fact, this is merely an illusion.

[Keywords: understanding, projection, illusion of explanatory depth, algorithms, algorithm aversion]

…Drawing on this literature, we propose that because people are more similar to other humans than to algorithms (Epley et al 2007; Gray et al 2007; Haslam 2006), they are more likely to rely on their own understanding of a decision-making process to intuit how other humans, versus algorithms, make decisions. The privileged—yet often misguided—view that projection provides into other humans’ minds can foster the illusion of understanding human better than algorithmic decision processes, when in fact, both are black-boxes.

6 experiments test our hypotheses. Experiments 1A–C test whether people foster a stronger illusion of understanding human than algorithmic decision-making across 3 domains. Experiments 2, 3, and 4 (in online supplemental materials E) test whether projection accounts for this phenomenon in each domain. Experiment 4 also tests how illusory understanding affects trust in human versus algorithmic decisions. New York University and Winthrop University Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved the experimental protocols. In all experiments, the sample size was predetermined, and a sensitivity power analysis (Faul et al 2009) indicated that small-to-medium size effects could be detected with a power of 0.80. We report all conditions, manipulations, measures, and data exclusions. Questions to screen for bots and avoid differential dropout were included at the beginning of each experiment (see online supplemental materials B).

“Elite Capture of Foreign Aid: Evidence from Offshore Bank Accounts”, Andersen et al 2022

2022-andersen.pdf: “Elite Capture of Foreign Aid: Evidence from Offshore Bank Accounts”⁠, Jørgen Juel Andersen, Niels Johannesen, Bob Rijkers (2022-01-05; ; similar):

Do elites capture foreign aid? This paper documents that aid disbursements to highly aid-dependent countries coincide with sharp increases in bank deposits in offshore financial centers known for bank secrecy and private wealth management but not in other financial centers. The estimates are not confounded by contemporaneous shocks—such as civil conflicts, natural disasters, and financial crises—and are robust to instrumenting using predetermined aid commitments. The implied leakage rate is around 7.5% at the sample mean and tends to increase with the ratio of aid to GDP. The findings are consistent with aid capture in the most aid-dependent countries.

…A concern often voiced by skeptics is that aid may be captured by economic and political elites. The fact that many of the countries that receive foreign aid have high levels of corruption (Alesina & Weder 2002) invokes fears that aid flows end up in the pockets of the ruling politicians and their cronies. This would be consistent with economic theories of rent-seeking in the presence of aid (Svensson 2000) and resonate with colorful anecdotal evidence about failed development projects and self-interested elites (Klitgaard 1990). Yet there is little systematic evidence on aid capture.

In this paper, we study aid diversion by combining quarterly information on aid disbursements from the World Bank and foreign deposits from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The former data set covers all disbursements made by the World Bank to finance development projects and provide general budget support in its client countries. The latter data set covers foreign-owned deposits in all important financial centers—both havens, such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, Cayman Islands, and Singapore, whose legal framework emphasizes secrecy and asset protection, and nonhavens, such as Germany, France, and Sweden.

Equipped with this data set, we study whether aid disbursements trigger money flows to foreign bank accounts. In our main sample comprising the 22 most aid-dependent countries in the world (in terms of World Bank aid), we document that disbursements of aid coincide (in the same quarter) with increases in the value of bank deposits in havens. Specifically, aid disbursements equivalent to 1% of GDP are associated with a statistically-significant increase in deposits in havens of 3.4%. By contrast, there is no increase in deposits held in nonhavens

…The leakage rate implied by our baseline estimates is around 7.5%.5 The 22 countries in the sample are highly aid dependent, with annual disbursements from the World Bank exceeding 2% of GDP, but account for a modest share of all disbursements.6 By varying the sample, we document that the leakage rate exhibits a strong gradient in aid dependence. On the one hand, lowering the threshold to 1% of GDP (46 countries), the leakage rate is around 4% and we cannot reject the null hypothesis of no leakage. On the other hand, raising the threshold to 3% of GDP (seven countries), we find a substantially higher leakage rate of around 15%. This pattern suggests that the average leakage rate across all aid-receiving countries is much smaller than in the main sample. Moreover, it is consistent with existing findings that the countries receiving the most aid are not only among the least developed but also among the worst governed (Alesina & Weder 2002) and that very high levels of aid might foster corruption and institutional erosion (Knack 2000; Djankov, Montalvo, and Reynal-Querol 2008).

“Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education”, Arold et al 2022-page-3

“Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education”⁠, Benjamin W. Arold, Ludger Woessmann, Larissa Zierow (2022-01-03; ⁠, ; similar):

We study whether compulsory religious education in schools affects students’ religiosity as adults.

We exploit the staggered termination of compulsory religious education across German states in models with state and cohort fixed effects.

Using 3 different datasets, we find that abolishing compulsory religious education statistically-significantly reduced religiosity of affected students in adulthood. It also reduced the religious actions of personal prayer, church-going, and church membership. Beyond religious attitudes, the reform led to more equalized gender roles, fewer marriages and children, and higher labor-market participation and earnings. The reform did not affect ethical and political values or non-religious school outcomes.

[Keywords: religious education, religiosity, school reforms]

The 1949 Constitution of West Germany had formally enshrined religious education as the only subject that is institutionalized as a regular subject in public schools, so that religious education was a compulsory subject in state curricula. Religious education was very intense: High-school graduates were exposed to roughly 1,000 hours of religious education over their school career—more than 4× the hours of physics classes, for example (Havers 1972). In reforms enacted at different points in time between 1972 and 2004, the different states replaced the obligation to attend religious education with the option to choose between denominational religious education and “ethics” as a non-denominational subject. A particularly interesting feature of the reforms is that the counterfactual to compulsory religious instruction is not to have no value-oriented instruction, but rather non-denominational value-oriented instruction. As a consequence, the reforms allow us to identify the impact of the religious part of instruction, holding the overall exposure to value-oriented instruction constant.

…Our merged dataset combines up to 58,000 observations of adults who entered primary school between 1950 and 2004 from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS), and the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP).

…Conditional on state and birth-year fixed effects as well as individual-level control variables, religiosity of students who were not subject to compulsory religious education is 7% of a standard deviation lower on average compared to students who were subject to compulsory religious education. Event-study graphs show that reforming states do not have statistically-significantly different trends in religiosity in the years prior to reform compared to non-reforming states.

We find similar reductions in 3 measures capturing specific religious actions: the personal act of prayer, the public act of going to church, and the formal (and costly) act of church membership. Estimation of time-varying treatment effects indicates that effects on religiosity and personal prayer phase in gradually over time, whereas the effect on church membership are closer to one-time shifts. In a subsample that allows to merge regional information, effects are mostly restricted to predominantly Catholic (rather than Protestant) counties.

“DREAM: Uncovering Mental Models behind Language Models”, Gu et al 2021

“DREAM: Uncovering Mental Models behind Language Models”⁠, Yuling Gu, Bhavana Dalvi Mishra, Peter Clark (2021-12-16; ; similar):

To what extent do language models (LMs) build “mental models” of a scene when answering situated questions (eg. questions about a specific ethical dilemma)? While cognitive science has shown that mental models play a fundamental role in human problem-solving, it is unclear whether the high question-answering performance of existing LMs is backed by similar model building—and if not, whether that can explain their well-known catastrophic failures. We observed that Macaw, an existing T5-based LM, when probed provides somewhat useful but inadequate mental models for situational questions (estimated accuracy = 43%, usefulness = 21%, consistency = 42%). We propose DREAM, a model that takes a situational question as input to produce a mental model elaborating the situation, without any additional task specific training data for mental models. It inherits its social commonsense through distant supervision from existing NLP resources. Our analysis shows that DREAM can produce significantly better mental models (estimated accuracy = 67%, usefulness = 37%, consistency = 71%) compared to Macaw. Finally, mental models generated by DREAM can be used as additional context for situational QA tasks. This additional context improves the answer accuracy of a Macaw zero-shot model by between +1% and +4% (absolute) on three different datasets.

“Children Are Unsuspecting Meat Eaters: An Opportunity to Address Climate Change”, Hahn et al 2021

“Children are unsuspecting meat eaters: An opportunity to address climate change”⁠, Erin R. Hahn, Meghan Gillogly, Bailey E. Bradford (2021-12; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

  • Children are not reliably accurate in identifying the origins of common foods.
  • 41% of children claimed that bacon came from a plant.
  • Children do not judge animals to be appropriate food sources.
  • Most 6–7-year-olds classified chicken, cows, and pigs as not OK to eat.
  • Children’s food concepts may help to normalize environmentally-responsible diets.

Eating a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways people can reduce their carbon footprint. However, global consumption of meat and other animal products is increasing. Studying children’s beliefs about food may shed light on the relationship between eating behaviors and climate change. Here, we examined children’s knowledge of the plant and animal origins of foods, as well as children’s judgments of what can be eaten, using 2 dichotomous sorting tasks. The sample consisted of 4–7-year-old children from the United States. We found pervasive errors in their basic food knowledge. Foods derived from animals—especially, but not exclusively meats—were among those that children understood the least well. We suggest that the results may reveal a fundamental misunderstanding in children’s knowledge of animal based foods, and we discuss reasons why the origins of meat may represent a particularly challenging concept for children to grasp. We end by considering the role that children may play as agents of environmental protection.

[Keywords: sustainable diets, animals, meat eating, meat paradox [Omnivores eat foods that entail animal suffering and death while at the same time endorsing the compassionate treatment of animals—a phenomenon referred to as the meat paradox], climate change, children]

“The Search for Predictable Moral Partners: Predictability and Moral (character) Preferences”, Turpin et al 2021

2021-turpin.pdf: “The search for predictable moral partners: Predictability and moral (character) preferences”⁠, Martin Harry Turpin, Alexander C. Walker, Jonathan A. Fugelsang, Piotr Sorokowski, Igor Grossmann, Michał Białek et al (2021-11-01; similar):

Across 6 studies (n = 1988 US residents and 81 traditional people of Papua), participants judged agents acting in sacrificial moral dilemmas.

Utilitarian agents, described as opting to sacrifice a single individual for the greater good, were perceived as less predictable and less moral than deontological agents whose inaction resulted in 5 people being harmed. These effects generalize to a non-Western sample of the Dani people, a traditional indigenous society of Papua, and persist when controlling for homophily and notions of behavioral typicality. Notably, deontological agents are no longer morally preferred when the actions of utilitarian agents are made to seem more predictable. Lastly, we find that peoples’ lay theory of predictability is flexible and multi-faceted, but nevertheless understood and used holistically in assessing the moral character of others.

On the basis of our findings, we propose that assessments of predictability play an important role when judging the morality of others.

[Keywords: predictability, moral impressions, cooperation, utilitarian, deontology]

“Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making”, Decety 2021

2021-decety.pdf: “Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making”⁠, Jean Decety (2021-09-02; similar):

Although empathy drives prosocial behaviors, it is not always a reliable source of information in moral decision making. In this essay, I integrate evolutionary theory, behavioral economics, psychology, and social neuroscience to demonstrate why and how empathy is unconsciously and rapidly modulated by various social signals and situational factors. This theoretical framework explains why decision making that relies solely on empathy is not ideal and can, at times, erode ethical values. This perspective has social and societal implications and can be used to reduce cognitive biases and guide moral decisions.

“Animal Minds, Social Change, and the Future of Fisheries Science”, Freeling & Connell 2021

2021-freeling.pdf: “Animal Minds, Social Change, and the Future of Fisheries Science”⁠, Benjamin S. Freeling, Sean D. Connell (2021-08-05)

“If Giving Money to the Red Cross Increases Well-being, Does Taking Money from the Red Cross Increase Ill-being?—Evidence from Three Experiments”, Martela & Ryan 2021

“If giving money to the Red Cross increases well-being, does taking money from the Red Cross increase ill-being?—Evidence from three experiments”⁠, Frank Martela, Richard M. Ryan (2021-08; ; similar):

  • A small sum of money donated to Red Cross in a button-pushing activity increased participant well-being.
  • Similar sum of money detracted from a donation to Red Cross in a button-pushing activity did not increase ill-being.
  • Participants might compensate their negative impact by emphasizing the positive impact they are having towards science.

Does having a negative impact on others decrease one’s well-being?

In 3 separate pre-registered studies (n = 111, n = 445, & n = 447), participants engaged in a button-pushing activity for 4 min in 3 conditions: earning money for themselves (~60c), also earning money for the Red Cross (~15c), or also reducing the money distributed to the Red Cross (~15c).

The results of the individual studies and a meta-analysis across them showed that positive impact increased well-being, but even though participants were aware of the negative impact they were having, there was no increased ill-being in the negative impact condition. In Study 3 we examined whether participants in the negative impact condition are mentally compensating by emphasizing the positive impact they are having towards science.

[Keywords: antisocial behavior, ill-being, prosocial behavior, prosocial impact, well-being]

“The Psychology of (In)Effective Altruism”, Caviola et al 2021

2021-caviola.pdf: “The Psychology of (In)Effective Altruism”⁠, Lucius Caviola, Stefan Schubert, Joshua D. Greene (2021-07-01; similar):

  • Effective Altruism is a philosophy and social movement that advocates using the most effective, evidence-based strategies to benefit others. Here we focus on charitable giving, a domain in which ordinary people can have a large impact.
  • Most behavioral research on charitable giving focuses on donation amounts, but the impact of giving depends more on the effectiveness of the charities people support than on how much they give. We review recent research on the factors that promote (in)effective giving.
  • There are motivational and epistemic obstacles to effective giving: People are often drawn to less effective charities, and to the extent that people want to give effectively, they typically do not know how to do it.
  • We discuss strategies to encourage effective giving. Several strategies are feasible and warrant further research, as the potential social benefits are large.

The most effective charities are hundreds of times more effective than typical charities, yet few donors prioritize effectiveness. Why is that? How might we increase the effectiveness of charitable giving? We review the motivational and epistemic causes of (in)effective giving. Many donors view charitable giving as a matter of personal preference, which favors decisions based on emotional appeal rather than effectiveness. In addition, while many donors are motivated to give effectively, they often have misconceptions and cognitive biases that reduce effective giving. Nearly all research on charitable giving interventions focuses on increasing donation amounts. However, to increase societal benefit, donation effectiveness is likely to be more important. This underscores the need for research on strategies to encourage effective giving.

[Keywords: Effective Altruism, charitable giving]

Motivational Obstacles:

  1. Subjectivity of giving
  2. Narrow Affective Motivation
  3. Personal Connection
  4. Narrow Moral Circle
  5. Scope Neglect
  6. Prioritization Aversion
  7. Character and Reputational Benefit

Epistemic Obstacles:

  1. Overhead Myth
  2. Innumeracy
  3. Underestimation of Effectiveness Variance
  4. Ignorance About the Most Effective Charities

Strategies to Increase Effective Giving:

  1. Information
  2. Defaults
  3. Incentivizing
  4. Unit Asking
  5. Splitting
  6. Philosophical Reasoning
  7. Norm Changes

“Maybe Favors: How to Get More Good Deeds Done”, Zürn et al 2021

2021-zurn.pdf: “Maybe Favors: How to Get More Good Deeds Done”⁠, Michael K. Zürn, Judith Gerten, Sascha Topolinski (2021-06-03; similar):

While previous research has revealed several reasons why humans generally do good deeds, we explore a simple nudge that might get more of them done: the “maybe favor.”

We first show conceptually that, compared to a conventional favor, humans are more willing to grant a favor to a stranger on which they might eventually not have to make good. Furthermore, we conducted a series of fully incentivized experiments (total n = 3,475) where participants could make actual donations to charity. Introducing a “maybe” into our donation proposals by randomly revoking some donations not only led to substantial increases in donation rates but also increased the total amount of donations. That is, due to biased perceptions of costs and benefits combined with nonlinear probability weighting, the donations we revoked due to the “maybe” were overcompensated by an increased overall willingness-to-donate.

[Keywords: helping, prosocial behavior, altruism, charitable giving, probability weighting]

“John Locke As a Reader of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: A New Manuscript”, Waldmann 2021

2021-waldmann.pdf: “John Locke as a Reader of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: A New Manuscript”⁠, Felix Waldmann (2021-06; similar):

The following article provides important new evidence of John Locke’s interest in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). The evidence derives from the collection of manuscripts amassed by the historian Thomas Birch (1705–66), the author of The History of the Royal Society of London (1756–57). Within this collection are several documents in the hand of Pierre Des Maizeaux (1672/​3–1745), the Huguenot journalist and biographer. In 1718–19, Des Maizeaux set about compiling A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Locke, a posthumous edition of lesser-known works and manuscripts by Locke, edited with the guidance of Anthony Collins (1676–1729).

In preparing the volume, Des Maizeaux interviewed one of Locke’s friends, whose recollections he recorded in an anonymized memoir, in French. The article reveals that the anonymous friend was James Tyrrell (1642–1719), one of Locke’s closest acquaintances. Tyrrell’s claim that Locke “almost always” had Hobbes’s Leviathan on his table in Oxford, ca. 1658–67, is one of several in the memoir that revise our understanding of Locke’s intellectual formation and the history of one of his best-known friendships.

The article contextualizes and translates the memoir and revisits the debate surrounding Peter Laslett’s relegation of Hobbes’s influence to the development Locke’s political thought.

The pair met in Oxford in 1658 and corresponded for most of their lives. Locke stayed in Tyrrell’s home for several weeks, and Tyrrell took care of many of Locke’s possessions between 1683 and 1689 when the philosopher was exiled to the Netherlands.

The memoir opens with a reminiscence about Locke’s time at Oxford where, according to Tyrrell, Locke “did not study at all; he was lazy and nonchalant, and he amused himself with trifling works of wit”. Locke is remembered as a man who “prided himself on being original, and he scorned that which he was unable to pass off as his own”.

“This inclination often made him reel off, with great ceremony, some very common claims, and recite, pompously, some very trivial maxims”, Tyrrell tells Des Maizeaux. “Being full of the good opinion that he had of himself, he esteemed only his own works, and the people who praised him.”

Waldmann believes Des Maizeaux did not publish Tyrrell’s reminiscences because his edition of Locke’s works set out to celebrate the philosopher. “I imagine he was rather shocked to hear these things about Locke’s personal character and understandably just left it all out”, he said.

Tyrrell also claims that one of Locke’s books was “a copy of another which he claimed never to have read”, even though Locke had been “incited” to buy the book years before. Waldmann described this accusation as “a bit strong”.

“But what’s interesting is the fact that Tyrrell, who we regarded as Locke’s closest friend, is prepared to call him a plagiarist; that he thinks Locke’s success is a product of intellectual laziness”, he said.

But the Cambridge academic says the most important revelation is Tyrrell’s revelation that Locke had read Hobbes’s Leviathan.

“It’s by far the most notorious work of philosophy published in the 17th century—[it was] absolutely heretical and Hobbes was looked upon with extraordinary suspicion”, said Waldmann. “Locke spends decades denying that he was familiar with Hobbes in any way, shape or form. He never cites Leviathan in any of his published works, never refers to him in his letters, thousands of which survive, so he’s gone out of his way to avoid any association.”

But Tyrrell claims to Des Maizeaux that Locke “almost always had the Leviathan by H on his table, and he recommended the reading of it to his friends”, even though he “later affected to deny, in the future, that he had ever read it”.

“The idea that Locke had no interest in his greatest predecessor has been greatly debated”, said Waldmann. “There are no mysteries comparable to Locke being placed in dialogue with Hobbes, and here is Locke’s closest friend saying he had Leviathan almost always on his table.”

Tyrrell goes on to damn Locke in many ways, both major—“he was avaricious, vain, envious, and reserved to excess”; “he took from others whatever he was able to take, and he profited from them”—and minor: Locke was reportedly so timid that “often, at night, the noise of a mouse made him get up and call out for his host.”

“An Experimental Test of Fundraising Appeals Targeting Donor and Recipient Benefits”, List et al 2021

2021-list.pdf: “An experimental test of fundraising appeals targeting donor and recipient benefits”⁠, John A. List, James J. Murphy, Michael K. Price, Alexander G. James (2021-04-12; similar):

We partnered with Alaska’s “Pick.Click.Give.” programme to implement a statewide natural field experiment with 540,000 Alaskans designed to examine 2 of the main motivations for charitable giving: concerns for the benefits to self (impure altruism or ‘warm glow’) or concerns for the benefits to others (pure altruism).

Our empirical results highlight the relative importance of appeals to self: individuals who received such an appeal were 6.6% more likely to give and gave 23% more than counterparts in the control group. Yet, a message that instead appealed to recipient benefits (motivated by altruism) had no statistically-significant effect on average donations relative to the control group. We also find evidence of long-run effects of warm-glow appeals in the subsequent year.

Our results have import for theoreticians and empiricists interested in modelling charitable giving as well as practitioners and policymakers.

“Language Models Have a Moral Dimension”, Schramowski et al 2021

“Language Models have a Moral Dimension”⁠, Patrick Schramowski, Cigdem Turan, Nico Andersen, Constantin Rothkopf, Kristian Kersting (2021-03-08; backlinks; similar):

Artificial writing is permeating our lives due to recent advances in large-scale, transformer-based language models (LMs) such as BERT⁠, its variants, GPT-2⁠/​3, and others. Using them as pretrained models and fine-tuning them for specific tasks, researchers have extended the state of the art for many NLP tasks and shown that they not only capture linguistic knowledge but also retain general knowledge implicitly present in the data. These and other successes are exciting. Unfortunately, LMs trained on unfiltered text corpora suffer from degenerate and biased behaviour. While this is well established, we show that recent improvements of LMs also store ethical and moral values of the society and actually bring a “moral dimension” to surface: the values are capture geometrically by a direction in the embedding space, reflecting well the agreement of phrases to social norms implicitly expressed in the training texts. This provides a path for attenuating or even preventing toxic degeneration in LMs. Since one can now rate the (non-)normativity of arbitrary phrases without explicitly training the LM for this task, the moral dimension can be used as “moral compass” guiding (even other) LMs towards producing normative text, as we will show.

“Meta-analysis on Belief in Free Will Manipulations”, Genschow et al 2021

“Meta-analysis on belief in free will manipulations”⁠, Oliver Genschow, Emiel Cracco, Jana Schneider, John Protzko, David Wisniewski, Marcel Brass, Jonathan Schooler et al (2021-02-21; ; similar):

Whether free will exists is a longstanding philosophical debate. Cognitive neuroscience and popular media have been putting forward the idea that free will is an illusion, raising the question of what would happen if people stopped believing in free will altogether.

Psychological research has investigated this question by testing the consequences of experimentally weakening people’s belief in free will. The results of these investigations have been mixed, with successful experiments and unsuccessful replications. This raises two fundamental questions that can best be investigated with a meta-analysis: First, can free will beliefs be manipulated and, second, do such manipulations have downstream consequences?

In a meta-analysis across 146 experiments (95 unpublished) with a total of 26,305 participants, we show that exposing individuals to anti-free will manipulations decreases belief in free will, g = −0.29, 95% CI = [−0.35, −0.22], and increases belief in determinism, g = 0.17, 95% CI = [0.09, 0.24]. In contrast, we find little evidence for the idea that manipulating belief in free will has downstream consequences after accounting for small sample and publication bias.

Together, our findings have important theoretical implications for research on free will beliefs and contribute to the discussion of whether reducing people’s belief in free will has societal consequences.

[Keywords: social and behavioral sciences, social and personality psychology, personality processes, prosocial behavior, prejudice and discrimination, religion and spirituality, moral behavior, cognitive psychology, consciousness]

“Re-defending Feline Liberty: a Response to Fischer”, Abbate 2021

2021-abbate.pdf: “Re-defending Feline Liberty: a Response to Fischer”⁠, C. E. Abbate (2021-01-13; ; similar):

In response to my (2019) defense of house-based, free-roaming cats⁠, Bob Fischer (Acta Analytica 35 (3): 463–468, 2020) argues that cat guardians have a duty to permanently confine their felines to the indoors. His main argument is that house-based cats cause an all-things-considered harm to the animals they kill and that this harm is not outweighed by the harm cats endure as a consequence of feline imprisonment. He moreover claims that while we can justify the restriction of feline liberty because cats are not “full agents” and are under our care, we cannot justify restricting the liberty of “full agents” who are not under our care.

Against Fischer, I argue that even if cats cause an all-things-considered harm to wildlife, the harm of permanent confinement is a greater harm. Moreover, I challenge Fischer’s claim that cats are not full agents and his claim that we can justify permanently confining creatures under our care.

Thus, as I previously argued, cat guardians have a duty to, under certain conditions, provide outdoor access to their felines.

“Broad Cross-national Public Support for Accelerated COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Designs”, Broockman et al 2021

“Broad cross-national public support for accelerated COVID-19 vaccine trial designs”⁠, Broockman, David Kalla, Joshua Guerrero, Alexander Budolfson, Mark Eyal, Nir Jewell, Nicholas P. Magalhaes et al (2021-01-08; similar):

A vaccine for COVID-19 is urgently needed. Several vaccine trial designs may substantially accelerate vaccine testing and approval, but also increase risks to human subjects. Concerns about whether the public would see such designs as ethical represent an important roadblock to their implementation; accordingly, both the World Health Organization and numerous scholars have called for consulting the public regarding them.

We answered these calls by conducting a cross-national survey (n = 5920) in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The survey explained key differences between traditional vaccine trials and two accelerated designs: a challenge trial or a trial integrating a Phase II safety and immunogenicity trial into a larger Phase III efficacy trial.

Respondents’ answers to comprehension questions indicate that they largely understood the key differences and ethical trade-offs between the designs from our descriptions. We asked respondents whether they would prefer scientists to conduct traditional trials or one of these two accelerated designs. We found broad majorities prefer for scientists to conduct challenge trials (75%) and integrated trials (63%) over standard trials. Even as respondents acknowledged the risks, they perceived both accelerated trials as similarly ethical to standard trial designs. This high support is consistent across every geography and demographic subgroup we examined, including vulnerable populations.

These findings may help assuage some of the concerns surrounding accelerated designs.

“Why We Fight Over Fiction”, Hanson 2020

“Why We Fight Over Fiction”⁠, Robin Hanson (2020-11-29; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Just as authors focus on telling stories in familiar spaces with familiar minds, they also focus on telling stories in familiar moral universes. This effect is, if anything, even stronger than the space and mind effects, as moral colors are even more central to our need for stories. Compared to other areas of our lives, we especially want our stories to help us examine and affirm our moral stances…These are the familiar sorts of “moral ambiguity” in stories said to have that feature, such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. But you’ll note that these are almost all stories told in familiar moral universes. By which I mean that we are quite familiar with how to morally evaluate the sort of actions that happen there. The set of acts is familiar, as are their consequences, and the moral calculus used to judge them.

But there is another sort of “moral ambiguity” that reader/​viewers hate, and so authors studiously avoid. And that is worlds where we find it hard to judge the morality of actions, even when those actions have big consequences for characters. Where our usual quick and dirty moral language doesn’t apply very well. Where even though in principle our most basic and general moral languages might be able to work out rough descriptions and evaluations, in practice that would be tedious and unsatisfying.

And, strikingly, the large complex social structures and organizations that dominate our world are mostly not familiar moral universes to most of us. For example, big firms, agencies, and markets. The worlds of Moral Mazes and of Pfeffer’s Power⁠. (In fiction: Jobs⁠.) Our stories thus tend to avoid such contexts, unless they happen to allow an especially clear moral calculus. Such as a firm polluting to cause cancer, or a boss sexually harassing a subordinate.

This is why our stories tend to take place in relatively old fashioned social worlds. Consider the popularity of the Western, or of pop science fiction stories like Star Wars that are essentially Westerns with more gadgets. Stories that take place in modern settings tend to focus on personal, romantic, and family relations, as these remain to us relatively familiar moral universes. Or on artist biopics. Or on big conflicts like war or corrupt police or politicians. For which we have comfortable moral framings. Stories we write today set in say the 1920s feel to us more comfortable than do stories set in the 2020s, or than stories written in the 1920s and set in that time. That is because stories written today can inherit a century of efforts to work out clearer moral stances on which 1920s actions would be more moral. For example, as to our eyes female suffrage is clearly good, we can see any characters from then who doubted it as clearly evil in the eyes of good characters. As clear as if they tortured kittens. To our eyes, their world has now clearer moral colors, and stories set there work better as stories for us.

…This highlights an important feature of our modern world, and an important process that continues within it. Our social world has changed a lot faster than has our shared moral evaluations of typical actions possible in our new world. And our telling stories, and coming to agree on which stories we embrace, is a big part of creating such a fluid language of shared moral evaluations.

This helps to explain why we invest so much time and energy into fiction, far more than did any of our ancestors. Why story tellers are given high and activist-like status, and why we fight so much to convince others to share our beliefs on which stories are best.

“Millions of Animals May Be Missing from Scientific Studies”, Chawla 2020

“Millions of animals may be missing from scientific studies”⁠, Dalmeet Singh Chawla (2020-10-14; similar):

Most animals used in biomedical experiments are not accounted for in published papers, a first-of-its-kind study suggests. The analysis found that only one-quarter of more than 5500 lab animals used over a 2-year period at one university in the Netherlands ended up being mentioned in a scientific paper afterward. The researchers believe the pattern could be similar at institutions around the world, resulting in potentially millions of animals disappearing from scientific studies.

“I think it’s just outrageous that we have such a low rate of results published for the number of animals used”, says Michael Schlüssel, a medical statistician at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the study. “If we only look for groundbreaking research, the evidence base won’t be solid”, he adds. And that could impact studies that may confirm or refute the benefits of certain drugs or medical interventions.

…For the new study, researchers asked scientists at three University Medical Center Utrecht (UMCU) departments for permission to review the study protocols they had filed with an animal ethics committee in 2008 and 2009. (They picked those years in part to be completely sure that the scientists had plenty of time to conduct and report the studies.) Then the team—led by Mira van der Naald, a doctoral student at UMCU—searched the medical literature for papers resulting from the work.

Of the approved studies, 46% were published as a full-text paper; if conference abstracts—short summaries of a talk or poster presented at a scientific meeting—were counted as well, 60% ended up being published. Yet out of the 5590 animals used in the studies, only 1471 were acknowledged in published papers and abstracts, the team reports in BMJ Open Science. Small animals, including mice, rats, and rabbits—which made up 90% of the total—were most often missing in action: Only 23% of them showed up in publications, versus 52% of sheep, dogs, and pigs.

The researchers also surveyed the scientists involved to find out why so many animals were missing. The most common reasons they gave were that the studies didn’t achieve statistical-significance, a controversial but commonly used threshold for publication; that the data were part of a pilot project; and that there were technical issues with the animal models. But none of these is a valid excuse to not publish your findings in the scientific record, says study co-author Kimberley Wever, a metascientist at Radboud University Medical Center. “All animal studies should be published, and all studies are valuable for the research community.” Not publishing all research means other scientists may waste time, effort, and money redoing studies that have previously failed, Wever says. She adds that the trend likely holds up at institutions around the world and hopes other researchers will conduct similar studies.

“Evaluating Use Cases for Human Challenge Trials in Accelerating SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Development”, Nguyen et al 2020

2020-nguyen.pdf: “Evaluating Use Cases for Human Challenge Trials in Accelerating SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Development”⁠, Linh Chi Nguyen, Christopher W. Bakerlee, T. Greg McKelvey, Sophie M. Rose, Alexander J. Norman, Nicholas Joseph et al (2020-07-06; ; similar):

Human challenge trials (HCTs) have been proposed as a means to accelerate SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development. We identify and discuss 3 potential use cases of HCTs in the current pandemic: evaluating efficacy, converging on correlates of protection, and improving understanding of pathogenesis and the human immune response. We outline the limitations of HCTs and find that HCTs are likely to be most useful for vaccine candidates currently in preclinical stages of development. We conclude that, while currently limited in their application, there are scenarios in which HCTs would be extremely beneficial. Therefore, the option of conducting HCTs to accelerate SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development should be preserved. As HCTs require many months of preparation, we recommend an immediate effort to (1) establish guidelines for HCTs for COVID-19; (2) take the first steps toward HCTs, including preparing challenge virus and making preliminary logistical arrangements; and (3) commit to periodically re-evaluating the utility of HCTs.

“Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism”, Rehman 2020

“Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism”⁠, Iskander Rehman (2020-07-01; ⁠, ; similar):

[Examination of Roman historian Tacitus’s accounts of tyranny in his Histories⁠, focusing on the dictators Tacitus lived through, particularly the 15-year reign of Domitian⁠.]

The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.

…Even Tacitus, as critical as he was of the cravenness of Rome’s senatorial class and of the tyrannical excesses of different emperors, was resigned to the fact that a return to the halcyon days of the republic appeared, by his time, to be impossible. As contemporary scholarship has shown, illiberal governments spawn self-replicating patterns of corruption and networks of patronage that serve only to entrench undemocratic norms and practices. By the time Tacitus was alive, the authoritarian rot had set in too deep, and the memory of past liberties was too vague. As the emperor Galba wearily tells Piso, his designated successor, in Book I of The Histories, Rome’s populace had been irredeemably altered, being now composed of “men who could endure neither complete slavery nor complete freedom.”..Although Tacitus held various responsibilities under several emperors, Domitian’s 15-year rule of terror (81 to 96 C.E.) seems to have etched the deepest psychological scars…certain passages in Agricola provide some moving indications of the author’s trauma and, as we shall see, of his survivor’s guilt. Indeed, the detailed descriptions that we do have of Domitian—most notably those provided by Suetonius and Dio Cassius—paint a bleak portrait of an increasingly unhinged despot whose behavior fuses the flamboyant eccentricities of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan with the raw sadism of the Afghan warlord Rachid Dostum. Executing at least 11 senators of consular rank and exiling many more over the course of his reign, Domitian, according to Suetonius, “took a personal insult to any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his appearance”, even publishing a haircare manual in which he whined about his capillary loss. Suetonius, ever one for colorful anecdotes, recounts how, in his spare time, the disturbed ruler would while away the hours in solitude “catching flies—believe it or not—and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”

Accounts of Domitian’s reign are punctuated with episodes of savagery and degradation, with the tyrant feeding a circus attendee to a pack of ravening hounds for supporting the wrong gladiator or ordering that a 90-year-old Jewish man be publicly stripped to establish whether he had been circumcised…those who emerged, staggering, from the 15-year ordeal of Domitian’s rule were “maimed in spirit, dazed and blunted.” Tacitus gives voice to this sentiment when, in Agricola, he portrays the Domitianic era as a dark, energy-leeching vacuum that drained the statesman and his peers of their youth and intellectual vitality:

During the space of fifteen years, a large portion of human life, how great a number have fallen by casual events, and, as was the fate of the most distinguished, by the cruelty of the prince; whilst we few survivors, not of others alone, but, if I may be allowed the expression, of ourselves, find a void of so many years in our lives, which has silently brought us from youth to maturity, from mature age to the very verge of life!

…as the political theorist Roger Boesche observed, one of the great themes that pervades all of Tacitus’ writings is “the idea that under despotism everyone becomes an actor and all of society wraps itself in insincerity, role-playing and pretense.”…Shame, guilt, a lingering sense of powerlessness, and self-loathing: These are all emotions common to individuals living under tyranny…Dark currents of hatred course deep below the surface of all such brutalized societies, and Tacitus provides terrifyingly vivid descriptions of the ugliness of pent-up rage and mob violence in the event of regime collapse.

…Tacitus, however, did not descend to such levels of cynicism. While he stressed the importance of compromise in order to serve the public good, he was at his most powerful when describing instances of remarkable courage emerging from some of the more unlikely places: “an emancipated slave and a woman”, who died under torture and “set an example which shone the brighter at a time when persons freeborn and male, Roman knights and senators, untouched by torture, were betraying each his nearest and dearest”; or Petronius, Nero’s “arbiter of elegance”, a court dandy whom nobody took seriously but who died laughing and, in one last gesture of theatrical defiance, embarrassed the emperor by publishing a list of his patron’s secret sexual habits and partners. Like many regime insiders-turned-dissidents, Petronius knew that the public unveiling of the tyrant’s squalid personal habits would be far more devastating than any fiery moral condemnation. Nevertheless, this author’s personal favorite would have to be the guard colonel Subrius Flavus, who, upon being condemned to death, openly vented the depth of his hatred and disdain to a rattled Nero’s face. Hauled off to a nearby field for his execution, Flavus witheringly commented on the grave that had been dug for him, which he deemed too narrow and shallow. “More bad discipline”, he let out in one final contemptuous snort before bowing his head for the executioner’s blade.

“Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology—10 Ideas”, Fleischman 2020

“Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology—10 ideas”⁠, Diana Fleischman (2020-06-15; ; similar):

“Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology” (read the whole chapter here) attempts to untangle some of the evolutionary reasons why we have such inconsistent attitudes towards animals. Below I quote parts of the chapter—for full references, check out the original.

  1. Wolf moms think dog puppies are cuter than wolf pups
  2. Women are more willing than men to let a foreign stranger die for their dog
  3. Animal abuse is common, and there isn’t good evidence that it predicts psychopathy and criminality
  4. Maybe you should “Eat the Whales”
  5. Slaughterhouse workers think the guy who kills the cow, the knocker, has serious psychological problems
  6. Many different polls find that a lot of regular people have pretty extreme views on animal rights
  7. People hate vegetarians more than almost any other group, but they’re more likely to hire them or rent to them than any other group
  8. Across cultures, women nursing animals at the breast is pretty common
  9. Consumers who say they care about animal welfare rarely buy products in accordance with those beliefs
  10. Evolutionary explanations don’t excuse or normalize violence in the animal domain or any other.

“Keep Your Cats Indoors: a Reply to Abbate”, Fischer 2020

2020-fischer.pdf: “Keep Your Cats Indoors: a Reply to Abbate”⁠, Bob Fischer (2020-05-11; ; backlinks; similar):

Abbate (2019) argues that, under certain conditions, cat guardians have a moral duty to allow their feline companions to roam freely outdoors. She contends that outdoor access is crucial to feline flourishing, which means that, in general, to keep cats indoors permanently is to harm them. She grants that, in principle, we could justify preventing cats from roaming based on the fact that some cats kill wildlife. However, she points out that not all cats are guilty of this charge, and she argues that, in any case, cats do not cause more harm to wildlife—and may actually cause less—than those animals would suffer anyway.

I criticize both of these replies, arguing that cat guardians have a responsibility not to let their cats harm wildlife; that cat guardians usually do not know whether their cats kill wildlife; and that, on balance, cat caused harms to wildlife may well outweigh the harms that cats suffer when confined.

“An Attempt at Explaining, Blaming, and Being Very Slightly Sympathetic Toward Enron”, Lakeman 2020

“An Attempt at Explaining, Blaming, and Being Very Slightly Sympathetic Toward Enron”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2020-04-27; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

[“Admirably lucid revisiting of Enron’s metamorphosis from a pipeline company into a derivatives trading-house that booked billions in paper profits before collapsing.” The Enron story displays the potentially distortionary impact of high intelligence on moral decision-making. It lends evidence to the notion that extremely intelligent people can be subtly incentivised to be (systematically) dishonest because their intelligence lowers the cost and raises the potential benefits of circumventing rules.” —The Browser summary

What, in a nutshell, was the Enron fraud? Like a tech startup, Enron had a vision of creating many new markets by upfront investments; to achieve this, which was in fact often a viable business strategy and had worked before, it needed debt-financing and to look like a logistics company with stable lucrative locked-in long-term profits, though its profits increasingly actually came from volatile unreliable financial trading. From this pressure and the need to keep up appearances to avoid switching horses in mid-stream before projects could pay off, a house of cards built up, deviance was normalized, and it slowly slid into an enormous financial fraud with few people realizing until the end.]

“Against Dog Ownership”, Lakeman 2020

“Against Dog Ownership”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2020-03-21; ; backlinks; similar):

[“A warning against assuming the immense emotional and moral responsibilities that come with caring for a dog. Can an owned animal have a good life?” Imagine that you, a human, were kidnapped by aliens at birth and given an approximation of a dog’s life, and a good dog’s life at that. Ignore the subservience, dependence on a superior life form, and all the other psychological aspects of being owned and just focus on how you would feel about your material conditions. Would you want this life?” (7,700 words)” —The Browser summary

Meditation on pet ownership. What is the morality of keeping a mentally and physically crippled animal, particularly in an urban apartment where it cannot exercise its natural urges or get adequate exercise/​stimulation? The ‘cute’ behavior of a dog, so appealing to so many, is, regarded more cynically, indicative of severe pathology and dependency, a Stockholm syndrome; aside from the effects on the slave, what are the effects on the master? At least a cat’s trust and affection has to be earned; what should we think of humans who love the pathetically unconditional love of a dog?]

“‘It’s Just Everywhere Already’: How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response: A Series of Missed Chances by the Federal Government to Ensure More Widespread Testing Came during the Early Days of the Outbreak, When Containment Would Have Been Easier”, Fink & Baker 2020

“‘It’s Just Everywhere Already’: How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response: A series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing came during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier”⁠, Sheri Fink, Mike Baker (2020-03-10; similar):

Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert in Seattle, knew that the United States did not have much time…As luck would have it, Dr. Chu had a way to monitor the region. For months, as part of a research project into the flu, she and a team of researchers had been collecting nasal swabs from residents experiencing symptoms throughout the Puget Sound region. To repurpose the tests for monitoring the coronavirus, they would need the support of state and federal officials. But nearly everywhere Dr. Chu turned, officials repeatedly rejected the idea, interviews and emails show, even as weeks crawled by and outbreaks emerged in countries outside of China, where the infection began.

By Feb. 25, Dr. Chu and her colleagues could not bear to wait any longer. They began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval. What came back confirmed their worst fear…In fact, officials would later discover through testing, the virus had already contributed to the deaths of two people, and it would go on to kill 20 more in the Seattle region over the following days.

Federal and state officials said the flu study could not be repurposed because it did not have explicit permission from research subjects; the labs were also not certified for clinical work. While acknowledging the ethical questions, Dr. Chu and others argued there should be more flexibility in an emergency during which so many lives could be lost. On Monday night, state regulators told them to stop testing altogether…Later that day, the investigators and Seattle health officials gathered with representatives of the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. to discuss what happened. The message from the federal government was blunt. “What they said on that phone call very clearly was cease and desist to Helen Chu”, Dr. Lindquist remembered. “Stop testing.”

…Even now, after weeks of mounting frustration toward federal agencies over flawed test kits and burdensome rules, states with growing cases such as New York and California are struggling to test widely for the coronavirus. The continued delays have made it impossible for officials to get a true picture of the scale of the growing outbreak, which has now spread to at least 36 states and Washington, D.C…But the Seattle Flu Study illustrates how existing regulations and red tape—sometimes designed to protect privacy and health—have impeded the rapid rollout of testing nationally, while other countries ramped up much earlier and faster.

…The flu project primarily used research laboratories, not clinical ones, and its coronavirus test was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And so the group was not certified to provide test results to anyone outside of their own investigators. They began discussions with state, C.D.C. and F.D.A. officials to figure out a solution, according to emails and interviews…the F.D.A. could not offer the approval because the lab was not certified as a clinical laboratory under regulations established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a process that could take months. Dr. Chu and Dr. Lindquist tried repeatedly to wrangle approval to use the Seattle Flu Study. The answers were always no. “We felt like we were sitting, waiting for the pandemic to emerge”, Dr. Chu said. “We could help. We couldn’t do anything.”…“This virus is faster than the F.D.A.”, he said, adding that at one point the agency required him to submit materials through the mail in addition to over email.

…On a phone call the day after the C.D.C. and F.D.A. had told Dr. Chu to stop, officials relented, but only partially, the researchers recalled. They would allow the study’s laboratories to test cases and report the results only in future samples. They would need to use a new consent form that explicitly mentioned that results of the coronavirus tests might be shared with the local health department. They were not to test the thousands of samples that had already been collected.

“Should We Sacrifice the Utilitarians First?”, Smilansky 2020

2020-smilansky.pdf: “Should We Sacrifice the Utilitarians First?”⁠, Saul Smilansky (2020-03-05; similar):

It is commonly thought that morality applies universally to all human beings as moral targets, and our general moral obligations to people will not, as a rule, be affected by their views. I propose and explore a radical, alternative normative moral theory, ‘Designer Ethics’, according to which our views are pro tanto crucial determinants of how, morally, we ought to be treated. For example, since utilitarians are more sympathetic to the idea that human beings may be sacrificed for the greater good, perhaps it is permissible (or, even under certain conditions, obligatory) to give them ‘priority’ as potential victims. This odd idea has manifold drawbacks but I claim that it also has substantial advantages, that it has some affinities to more commonly accepted moral positions, and that it should be given a significant role in our ethical thinking.

“Cryonics for All?”, Thau 2020

2020-thau.pdf: “Cryonics for all?”⁠, Tena Thau (2020-01-31; ⁠, ; backlinks)

“The Phantom’s Pain—A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis”, Lakeman 2020

“The Phantom’s Pain—A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2020-01-22; ; similar):

When I first finished Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain⁠, like so many other players, I was disappointed. MGSV was supposed to be the “Missing Link” in the Metal Gear canon. It was that game that would reveal the bridge between the heroic Big Boss of MGS 3⁠, Portable Ops⁠, and Peace Walker⁠, and the grand historical villain of Metal Gear 1 and 2⁠. As expressed by numerous launch trailers and Hideo Kojima tweets, MGSV was going to be a tale of Big Boss’s fall into darkness, driven by an insatiable lust for revenge, a consummate anger lit by his enemies which would scorch his soul until nothing was left but a power-hungry mad man who would threaten the world with nuclear war for the sake of his deluded ambitions. Instead we got an incredibly weird twist which did little more than retcon patch a largely ignored plot hole in one of the least-played Metal Gear games. We found out that the final boss of Metal Gear 1 was not Big Boss, but a body double⁠, who through surgery and hypnotherapy was made into almost an exact copy of the legendary soldier. Again, like most other players, when I first finished the game I thought this was a neat trick, a typically crazy, convoluted, but seductively entertaining twist from one of my favorite storytellers of all time. But of course… it was also a major let down.

…It wasn’t until I had put over 200 hours into my save file and replayed the entire game for a second time that the impact of Metal Gear Solid V’s story really hit me. Not only does MGSV do exactly what it was advertised to do—reveal the descent of Big Boss from hero to villain—but it does so in a subtle and narratively ambitious manner at a depth not seen in any video game since Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty⁠.

MGSV is the story of Big Boss’s fall from grace, but it’s also so much more than that. MGSV may very well be Kojima’s magnum opus. The game distills all of the Metal Gear series’ most important thematic elements into a relatively simple story with a deceptively small scale. The reason the vast majority of players didn’t realize this is because, well, Kojima can be too subtle for his own good…MGSV really is about Big Boss becoming a horrible monster worthy of every conceivable condemnation. But that story is the bedrock layer hidden beneath a million other narrative layers designed to confuse and manipulate the player, in exactly the same way Big Boss and Zero’s whole Phantom Snake project was designed to confuse and manipulate Venom Snake.

“The Institutional Foundations of Religious Politics: Evidence from Indonesia”, Bazzi et al 2019

2019-bazzi.pdf: “The Institutional Foundations of Religious Politics: Evidence from Indonesia”⁠, Samuel Bazzi, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Benjamin Marx (2019-12-23; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

This article explores the foundations of religious influence in politics and society. We show that an important Islamic institution fostered the entrenchment of Islamism at a critical juncture in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. In the early 1960s, rural elites transferred large amounts of land into waqf—inalienable charitable trusts in Islamic law—to avoid expropriation by the state. Regions facing a greater threat of expropriation exhibit more prevalent waqf land and Islamic institutions endowed as such, including mosques and religious schools. These endowments provided conservative forces with the capital needed to promote Islamist ideology and mobilize against the secular state. We identify lasting effects of the transfers on the size of the religious sector, electoral support for Islamist parties, and the adoption of local sharia laws. These effects are shaped by greater demand for religion in government but not by greater piety among the electorate. Waqf assets also impose costs on the local economy, particularly in agriculture, where these endowments are associated with lower productivity. Overall, our findings shed new light on the origins and consequences of Islamism.

“Analysis of Official Deceased Organ Donation Data Casts Doubt on the Credibility of China’s Organ Transplant Reform”, Robertson et al 2019

“Analysis of official deceased organ donation data casts doubt on the credibility of China’s organ transplant reform”⁠, Matthew P. Robertson, Raymond L. Hinde, Jacob Lavee (2019-11-14; similar):

Background: Since 2010 the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in an effort to reform its system of organ transplantation by developing a voluntary organ donation and allocation infrastructure. This has required a shift in the procurement of organs sourced from China’s prison and security apparatus to hospital-based voluntary donors declared dead by neurological and/​or circulatory criteria. Chinese officials announced that from January 1, 2015, hospital-based donors would be the sole source of organs. This paper examines the availability, transparency, integrity, and consistency of China’s official transplant data.

Methods: Forensic statistical methods were used to examine key deceased organ donation datasets from 2010 to 2018. Two central-level datasets—published by the China Organ Transplant Response System (COTRS) and the Red Cross Society of China—are tested for evidence of manipulation, including conformance to simple mathematical formulae, arbitrary internal ratios, the presence of anomalous data artefacts, and cross-consistency. Provincial-level data in five regions are tested for coherence, consistency, and plausibility, and individual hospital data in those provinces are examined for consistency with provincial-level data.

Results: COTRS data conforms almost precisely to a mathematical formula (which first appeared to be a general quadratic, but with further confirmatory data was discovered to be a simpler one-parameter quadratic) while Central Red Cross data mirrors it, albeit imperfectly. The analysis of both datasets suggests human-directed data manufacture and manipulation. Contradictory, implausible, or anomalous data artefacts were found in five provincial datasets, suggesting that these data may have been manipulated to enforce conformity with central quotas. A number of the distinctive features of China’s current organ procurement and allocation system are discussed, including apparent misclassification of nonvoluntary donors as voluntary.

Conclusion: A variety of evidence points to what the authors believe can only be plausibly explained by systematic falsification and manipulation of official organ transplant datasets in China. Some apparently nonvoluntary donors also appear to be misclassified as voluntary. This takes place alongside genuine voluntary organ transplant activity, which is often incentivized by large cash payments. These findings are relevant for international interactions with China’s organ transplantation system.

[Keywords: organ transplantation, transplant ethics, organ transplantation in China, organ donation, statistical forensics, data falsification]

Peep Show—The Most Realistic Portrayal of Evil Ever Made”, Lakeman 2019

Peep Show—The Most Realistic Portrayal of Evil Ever Made”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2019-10-27; ; backlinks; similar):

Peep Show⁠, a British TV series running from 2003 to 2015, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb as a pair of miserable, co-dependent roommates living in Croydon, London, is the most realistic portrayal of evil I have ever seen.

…We see this all not just by watching Mark and Jez go about their day-to-day lives, but by hearing their inner thoughts through voice-over monologues, which more often than not, reveal their actions and words as either cynical attempts to avoid facing their own failings, or desperate lies to obscure their true intentions, goals, and personalities.

This is what makes Peep Show so brilliant. It doesn’t just portray evil realistically, it portrays the root of evil realistically. Mark and Jeremy cause bad things to happen to their acquaintances, co-workers, friends, loved ones, family members, and most of all, themselves, because they are consumed by their vices. Not just the classic vices like gluttony and lust, but cowardice, evasion, hypocrisy, and apathy, all born from a rarely acknowledged, yet omnipresent self-loathing. These are vices that aren’t loudly announced by violent psychopaths or easily identified in scary individuals, but vices that sneak up on ordinary people, latch on to their psyches, and take over their lives.

Also, it’s one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen.

“A Defense of Free-Roaming Cats from a Hedonist Account of Feline Well-being”, Abbate 2019

2019-abbate.pdf: “A Defense of Free-Roaming Cats from a Hedonist Account of Feline Well-being”⁠, C. E. Abbate (2019-10-26; ; backlinks; similar):

There is a widespread belief that for their own safety and for the protection of wildlife, cats should be permanently kept indoors.

Against this view, I argue that cat guardians have a duty to provide their feline companions with outdoor access.

The argument is based on a sophisticated hedonistic account of animal well-being that acknowledges that the performance of species-normal ethological behavior is especially pleasurable. Territorial behavior, which requires outdoor access, is a feline-normal ethological behavior, so when a cat is permanently confined to the indoors, her ability to flourish is impaired. Since cat guardians have a duty not to impair the well-being of their cats, the impairment of cat flourishing via confinement signifies a moral failing.

Although some cats assume substantial risks and sometimes kill wild animals when roaming outdoors, these important considerations do not imply that all cats should be deprived of the opportunity to access the outdoors. Indeed, they do not, by themselves, imply that any cat should be permanently kept indoors.

“Moral Permissibility of Action Plans”, Lindner et al 2019

“Moral Permissibility of Action Plans”⁠, Felix Lindner, Robert Mattmüller, Bernhard Nebel (2019-07-17; ; similar):

Research in classical planning so far was mainly concerned with generating a satisficing or an optimal plan. However, if such systems are used to make decisions that are relevant to humans, one should also consider the ethical consequences generated plans can have. We address this challenge by analyzing in how far it is possible to generalize existing approaches of machine ethics to automatic planning systems⁠. Traditionally, ethical principles are formulated in an action-based manner, allowing to judge the execution of one action. We show how such a judgment can be generalized to plans. Further, we study the computational complexity of making ethical judgment about plans.

…We exemplified and explained our formalizations using classical moral dilemmas such as the trolley problem⁠, and identified how and for which reasons different principles may arrive at different (or the same) conclusions. Furthermore, we studied the computational complexity of verifying whether a given plan is permissible with respect to each of the 5 investigated principles. We saw that, with respect to our formalization, verification is PSPACE-complete for utilitarianism⁠, co-NP-complete for do-no-harm⁠, for do-no-instrumental-harm, and for the doctrine of double effect⁠, and that it is polynomial-time for deontology⁠. It turned out that verifying the do-no-harm principles involves a combinatorial reasoning over possible sets of actions that lead to harm or that may be instrumental towards achieving a goal condition, which makes verifying those ethical principles surprisingly hard

“The New Epidemic—My Experience of Losing a Friend to Heroin”, Lakeman 2019

“The New Epidemic—My Experience of Losing a Friend to Heroin”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2019-06-10; ; backlinks; similar):

[Personal memoir of growing up in the rural US northeast and losing a friend to heroin overdosing. Despite living in a stable and relatively well-off white middle-class family, the friend ‘Jack’ had always suffered health problems and severe social anxiety, especially compared to his accomplished popular younger brother. Jack was never truly happy, and clashed with his brother, who resented his problems and the drain on parents. In high school, Jack gravitated to a group of bad peers who began drug use, existing in a constant malaise. A chance injury and painkiller prescription led to an opioid addiction, and then heroin. His parents invested enormous amounts of effort into rehab and monitoring Jack and trying to get him launched on some sort of real higher education and career, if only a trade, but Jack was uninterested and kept returning to drugs in between endless video game playing. This destroyed the family finances & relationships.]

I’m a libertarian who thinks all drugs should be legalized, including heroin. But I have to admit that learning what Jack’s addiction did to his family made me understand the “Drug Warrior” perspective better. Unless an addict has no social connections whatsoever, his addiction will hurt others. The stronger the connections, the worse the pain. If the supporting friends and family members hold on tightly enough, it will destroy them. Derrick described the 5 years of being with Jack through his addiction until his death as a “living hell.”

To start with, fighting addiction costs money. Jack’s family was solidly middle-class, with his father pulling in enough money alone for the mother not to work while affording a nice home, comfortable day-to-day life, and the occasional vacation. They were decently well-off, but not enough to sustain the hit of $150K+ of rehab costs. I noticed some of the effects from afar but didn’t get the full picture until after Jack died. First the family stopped going on vacations, then the mom got part-time work (which wasn’t easy while trying to keep Jack in Lockdown), then the father worked longer hours, and eventually they were draining their retirement funds and mortgaging their house. But monetary costs were nothing compared to the emotional toll. How happy can you really be on a day-to-day basis when you come home to where your heroin-addicted son or brother lives? Jack’s parents basically lost their lives. Every single day, every single minute, was oriented around Jack. They always had to know where he was, what he was doing, when his next Narcotics Anonymous meeting was, if they could afford that therapist, etc. The father no longer worked to build college and retirement funds, but to pay off debts. The mother didn’t stay home to take care of the house and kids, but to keep her son alive. Then there was the lying…The fighting became worse than ever. They weren’t physical anymore, not while Jack deteriorated and Derrick bulked up. Yet they were more vicious than ever. More personal…For years before then, Derrick’s life had inexorably been consumed by Jack. The instant Derrick showed his parents Jack’s track marks, his childhood ended. Jack became a black hole at the center of the family which sucked everything in. Money, energy, time, and attention only flowed one way. Derrick stopped being another son and was repurposed as an asset to be employed by his parents for Jack’s sake.

…For me, the scariest part of learning Jack’s full story was realizing that he may have been acting rationally. I’m not saying that being a heroin addict is rational, and I’m not saying that Jack made good choices, especially not given the emotional carnage left in his wake, but… I think I understand why he kept going back to the drugs…I think everyone is aware of these shitty parts of life. But almost everyone is also aware of the good parts. Family, friends, and loved ones reflect our values and fuel our lives. Hobbies, passions, and maybe even work are outlets for our virtues that convert effort and inspiration into rewards. It’s not easy, but we all fight to make the good parts as big as possible while minimizing, mitigating, or maybe even ignoring the bad parts. I don’t think Jack was ever aware of the good parts. And I think his bad parts were intrinsically worse than most people’s…Jack was painfully aware that his future options were, “be a complete loser”, or “be a complete loser who feels really really good for a few hours every day.” He chose the latter.

…One day, when Jack was 23-years-old, his parents left the house together to see a movie. It was the first time they had gone out together without Jack in six months.. The parents came home with a cheeseburger for Jack, and they found him in his room, passed out in his own vomit on his bed. His mother called 911 while his father tried to resuscitate him, but Jack was already dead. His cause of death was an overdose, though it’s unclear whether he accidentally took too much or hit a bad batch. After the wake and funeral and shock, Derrick admitted that he felt relief. It was finally over.

“Killing Rabbits”, Válek 2019

Killing-Rabbits: “Killing Rabbits”⁠, Miroslav Válek (2019-05-06; ⁠, )

“Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage II: Just How Totalitarian Is Modern China?”, Greer 2019

“Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage II: Just How Totalitarian is Modern China?”⁠, Tanner Greer (2019-03-07; ⁠, ; similar):

Under the Khmer Rouge, making love was an explicitly political act. Marriage was a political decision. Refusing to sleep with your husband was an act of political rebellion. The first claim of the totalitarian is that everything is political.

In my view, a totalitarian system must meet two minimum requirements:

  1. In this system all human action is considered political action.
  2. The system is ruled by a Party which claims commanding authority to direct all political action—and thus all human action—for its cause.

The great tragedies of 20th century history occurred as the totalitarian leaders attempted to translate their claim of authority over all human action into actual control over the same.

This view of totalitarian society crystallized in my mind some years ago, when I first read Liang Heng’s memoir of his youthful escapades as a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. A professor had asked me to review it. In that brief review I noted:

In Mao’s China the personal was always political. And not just the personal—everything anyone did was political. Maoism was a political ideology that asked its members to give everything they were, had, and did to the socialist cause. This intellectual framework implies that everything one does should be layered with political meaning. A child’s prank, a lover’s kiss, and a friend’s embrace were all political acts. The clothes one wore, the way one walked, the letters one wrote, and the words one spoke all had political valence. It was with this in mind Liang Shan warned: “Never give your opinion on anything, even if you’re asked directly” (76).

Such caution is inevitable in a world where there is no distinction between the personal and the political. Politics is the division of power, politicking the contest for it. In a system where the most intimate and private actions have political meaning, these actions will be used by those who seek power. These naked contests for control leave no room for good and evil—good becomes what those with power declare it. “One day you are red, one day you are black, and one day you are red again” (76), Liang Shan instructed, and he was correct. This struggle stretched from factions warring within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the village black class child currying for favor.

The problem is not competition: that is an ingrained aspect of human life. The special tragedy of the Maoist system was that it spared nothing from the pursuit of power. There was no aspect of life that could be cordoned off as a refuge from the storm.2

“Notes on Nggwal”, Buckner 2019

“Notes on Nggwal”⁠, William Buckner (2019-02-23; ; similar):

During an undetermined time period preceding European contact, a gargantuan, humanoid spirit-God conquered parts of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. With a voracious appetite for pork and yams—and occasional demands of ritual murder—Nggwal was the tutelary spirit for a number of Sepik horticulturalist societies…what specific demands does Nggwal make? The first is for food. Nggwal must be fed, and while it is the men who are his most devoted servants and the keepers of his great secrets, it is often the responsibility of the women to provide for his subsistence, “Women are well aware of Nggwal’s hunger, for to them falls much of the gardening, hauling and cooking needed to feed him”, Tuzin writes. But how does Nggwal consume the food offered to him? “Needless to say, it is not the Tambaran [Nggwal himself] which eats the pork but the men themselves, in secret conclaves”, and Tuzin continues describing the “feasts among Tambaran Cult members in secret seclusion, during which non-members are under the impression that the food is being given directly to the spirits.”

…Despite the playful, Halloween-like aspects of this practice, the hangahiwa wandafunei [violent spirits] were a much more serious matter. 10% of the male masks portrayed hangahiwa wandafunei, and they were associated with the commission of ritually sanctioned murder. These murders committed by the violent spirits were always attributed to Nggwal.

…Traditionally, hangahiwa wandafunei sought out victims who were alone in their garden or on the forest paths at dusk. Pigs, dogs and chickens were also fair game. After spearing the victim, the offending hangamu’w would escape back to its spirit house. The wearer would replace it with the other costumes and emerge without fear of detection—in time to join the general alarm aroused by the discovery of the body.

Sometimes the wearer would not put the mask away, however, and instead he would take it to a nearby enemy village, where a relative or other acquaintance of his would take the mask and keep it in their own community’s spirit house, until it was time to be used and transferred once more. Through these ritual killings and the passage of costumes between communities, Nggwal impels cooperation between men of even hostile villages, and unites them in cult secrecy.

Nggwal, who travels in structures of fiber and bone atop rivers of blood.

“Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage I: A Tyrant's Toolkit”, Greer 2019

“Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage I: A Tyrant's Toolkit”⁠, Tanner Greer (2019-01-17; ⁠, ; similar):

One of the extraordinary things about reading Mao’s speeches from this period is the fluidity of who was considered an ally and who was considered an enemy. Mao framed his campaigns as a struggle between “the people” and “the enemy”, but who fit into each group differed drastically based off of the Party’s perceptions of who was a credible threat to The Cause and who was not. As Mao put it:

To understand these two different types of contradictions correctly, we must first be clear on what is meant by “the people” and what is meant by “the enemy”. The concept of “the people” varies in content in different countries and in different periods of history in a given country. Take our own country for example. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, all those classes, strata and social groups opposing Japanese aggression came within the category of the people, while the Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements were all enemies of the people. During the War of Liberation, the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs—the bureaucrat-capitalists, the landlords and the Kuomintang reactionaries who represented these two classes—were the enemies of the people, while the other classes, strata and social groups, which opposed them, all came within the category of the people. At the present stage, the period of building socialism, the classes, strata and social groups which favour, support and work for the cause of socialist construction all come within the category of the people, while the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people.5

Thus a particular group could at one point be an honored part of “the people”, at another point an ally in a “united front”, and later a despised “enemy” of the regime. How the regime treated you depended very much on how threatening Party leaders believed you might be to the regime and its cause.

Today The Cause has flipped—officially—from socialist revolution to national rejuvenation. The Party works under the same schema but has shifted the “people” that Mao identified with specific economic classes to the nation at large.6 Mass mobilization campaigns have been retired. But struggle and united front campaigns have not. Xi’s great corruption purge, the Uighur labor camps of Xinjiang, the attack on Christians across China—these all follow the same methods for crushing and coercing “enemies” developed by Mao and the Party in the early ’40s. “One Country, Two Systems”, interference campaigns in the Chinese diaspora, the guided, gilded tours given to Musk and his ilk—these all follow the same methods for corrupting and controlling “allies” developed by Mao and the Party that same decade. The tools have never changed. The only thing that has changed is the Party’s assessment of who is an “enemy” and who is part of the “people.”

There is one threat, however, that the Communist legacy has poorly prepared the Party to face. Stalin and Mao conceived of their projects in cultural terms—they were not just attempting to stamp out dangerous people, but dangerous ideas. To that end both Stalin and Mao cut their countries off from the world they had no control over. If your end goal is socialist revolution this might be tenable. But if your end goal is national rejuvenation—that is, a future where China sits at the top of a global order, more wealthy and powerful than any other—then engagement with the outside world must be had. It means foreigners coming to China in great numbers, and Chinese going abroad in numbers no smaller. It means a much more accurate conception of the way the rest of the world works among the minds of the Chinese people. It means contemplating paths for China that do not involve being ruled by a dictatorial party-state.

This tension lies at the root of the Party’s problems with the West. Countries like America threaten the Party with their mere existence. Consider what these countries do: they allow dissidents from authoritarian powers shelter. Their societies spawn (even when official government policy is neutral on the question) movement after movement devoted to spreading Western ideals and ideas to other lands and peoples. They are living proof that a country does not need an one-party state to become powerful and wealthy. These things pose a threat to the Communist Party of China. The Party itself is the first to admit it.7

“Frequently Overlooked Realistic Moral Bioenhancement Interventions”, Conan 2019

2019-conan.pdf: “Frequently overlooked realistic moral bioenhancement interventions”⁠, Gregory Mark Conan (2019; ; similar):

Many supporters of ‘moral bioenhancement’ (MBE), the use of biomedical interventions for moral improvement, have been criticised for having unrealistic proposals. The interventions they suggest have often been called infeasible and their implementation plans vague or unethical. I dispute these criticisms by showing that various interventions to implement MBE are practically and ethically feasible enough to warrant serious consideration. Such interventions include transcranial direct current stimulation over the medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as well as supplementation with lithium and omega-3.

Considering their efficacy and feasibility, it is strange that these interventions have rarely been proposed or discussed as MBE. I review evidence that each of those interventions can reduce antisocial behaviour, reduce racial bias, increase executive function or increase prosocial traits like fairness and altruism. I then specify and defend realistic, ethically permissible ways to implement these interventions, especially for violent offenders and public servants—the former as rehabilitation and the latter to meet the high standards of their occupations. These interventions could be given to violent offenders in exchange for a reduced sentence or compulsorily in some cases. Potential intervention methods for non-prisoners include increasing the USDA-recommended dose of omega-3, encouraging food companies to supplement their products with omega-3 or trace lithium, requiring MBE for employment as a police officer or political leader, and insurance companies providing discounts for undergoing MBE.

In some reasonably limited form, using these interventions may be a good first step to implement the project of MBE.

Hillbilly Elegy—The Culture of White American Poverty”, Lakeman 2018

Hillbilly Elegy—The Culture of White American Poverty”⁠, Matt Lakeman (2018-12-31; ; backlinks; similar):

I’ve written a couple of book summaries on here over the past few months, and this one for Hillbilly Elegy will be the most difficult. J. D. Vance’s autobiography is a sociological summary of Appalachian American culture, and by extension the culture of poverty across America, which uses his own life as a case study. The book is basically a series of linked anecdotes with only occasional introspections thrown in, so I’ll try my best to lay out Vance’s story, and integrate his claims and arguments.

…You know that classic Republican straw man about poor people? It goes something like—

“In the glorious modern American capitalist economy, all people can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good living if they really want to. The only way to fail is to not try hard enough. Poor people are all lazy loafers who would rather take drugs, rack up illegitimate children, and become welfare queens, than work an honest day in their lives. It’s their own damn fault they’re poor.”

Vance argues that this straw man is basically true.

Yes, of course it’s more complicated than that. There are external factors at play that makes the lives of his fellow hillbillies in Appalachia worse, like the collapse of American industrialism. But underlying the depressed economies, high unemployment, underfunded schools, and shoddy welfare networks, are simply a lot of bad decisions made on an individual level…Only a very select few hillbillies “make it” in the sense of achieving a stable, middle-class lifestyle. J. D. Vance is one of those few. He starts off the book saying that he feels ridiculous writing a memoir because his “greatest accomplishment” to date was graduating from Yale Law School. Yet, as he walks the reader through his life, it becomes more and more apparent just how amazing that feat is…I was aware of all these stereotypes before reading the book, but seeing them so fully fleshed out really brought home how scary it is. These people probably aren’t evil… but a lot of them are kind of bad. Or at least foolish. Or at least make really stupid decisions all the time. Somehow, that’s even scarier than being evil, or at least it’s harder to fix.

…Vance consistently stresses that by raw material standards, nobody in Middletown was doing that badly. Yet they were miserable, depressed, addicted, and hopeless anyway.

For instance, when Mom was with her first husband, the toothless hillbilly guy, they could be considered solidly middle-class. Mom was a nurse, her husband was a truck driver, and together they made over $100K per year with two kids in a low-cost-of-living region of America. And yet financial problems were always one of the biggest triggers of family screaming matches. They were deeply in debt because both Mom and the husband bought multiple new cars per year, they ate out every day instead of cooking, and they purchased a below-ground swimming pool. The house was already mortgaged, but was falling into disrepair due to lack of upkeep, while they repeatedly crashed new cars, and burned through meager savings with credit card fees. Vance’s family could have been fine. His parents could have lived comfortably, had good savings, and started a college fund. And maybe if they did, the stress wouldn’t have driven Mom and husband to break up, and Mom wouldn’t have turned to drugs, etc. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Throughout the book, I had a question that I wished Vance would have answered directly. Are hillbilly values the problem, or hypocrisy against these values?

“Umineko: The Opium Of The Magics”, Branwen 2018

Umineko: “Umineko: The Opium Of The Magics”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2018-07-04; ; backlinks; similar):

Review of famous light novel series Umineko no Naku Koro ni: it is a highly idiosyncratic, wildly self-indulgent, yet impressive exploration of all possible locked-room mysteries, knocked for a loop mid-composition by personal tragedy, triggering a descent into a deeply harmful endorsement of fantasies & running from painful realities.

While writing my review, I took 2 geeky detours: estimating how much time, exactly, it had taken me to read through Umineko; and how long is Umineko compared to other works known for being incredibly long like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (which I have also read)?

Measuring the actual time spent reading, and comparing the compressed file sizes to normalize the formatting & repetition, Umineko is about as big as Shakespeare but still much smaller than the full Wheel of Time series.

“Vengeance As Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Eye for an Eye”, Greer 2018

“Vengeance As Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Eye for an Eye⁠, Tanner Greer (2018-01-26; ; similar):

These type of questions naturally lead to the topic of this book: lex talionis, the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law. This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise. We have a lot to learn from these talionic cultures, he argues, and our world could be made a more just place if we could humble ourselves enough to learn from them.

I am not going to provide a precis of Miller’s argument here. Like past editions of ‘Passages I Highlighted’ (see here) I will reserve myself to quoting the passages of this book I found most interesting. But to really give you a sense for Miller’s argument, I think the best thing I can do is quote first from another one of his books, one that focuses specifically on Icelandic society. He begins that book by quoting a passage from an obscure saga. In only a paragraph, the saga lays out what lex talionis looked like in real life:

Some Norwegian merchants chopped off Skæring’s hand. Gudmund was given self-judgment in the injury case. Haf Brandsson [Gudmund’s second cousin] and Gudmund together adjudged compensation in the amount of thirty hundreds, which was to be paid over immediately. Gudmund then rode away from the ship. But the Norwegians confronted Haf, who had remained behind; they thought the judgment had been too steep and they asked him to do one of two things: either reduce the award or swear an oath. Haf refused to do either.

Some people rode after Gudmund and told him what had happened. He turned back immediately and asked Haf what was going on. Haf told him where matters stood. Gudmund said, “Swear the oath, Haf, or else I will do it, but then they will have to pay sixty hundreds. The oath of either one of us will have the same price as Skæring’s hand.”

The Norwegians refused the offer. “Then I shall make you another proposal”, said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship. (G.dýri 26:212)1

Iceland was a country without a state. They had laws but no government to enforce them. If you were wronged, the responsibility to right the wrong rested with you and your kin. To prevent retaliatory feuds the Icelanders would often give the wronged party a chance to stand in judgement and mete out a punishment to pay for their mistakes and restore balance between the two groups. The saga passage you’ve just read is an excellent example of how the system worked. Miller’s comments on it are worth pondering:

By the time the saga writer focuses attention on this incident it is not the hand that is the subject of the dispute but the legitimacy and justice of Gudmund’s judgment. The Norwegians think the award excessive, and not without reason. More than a few men’s lives at this time were compensated for with thirty hundreds or less. Gudmund, however, is able to justify astutely his over-reaching by giving these men of the market a lesson on the contingency of value and values. To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand. By introducing the prospect of one of their hands to balance against Skæring’s, he is able to remind the Norwegians that the thirty hundreds they must pay purchases more than Skæring’s hand; it also buys off vengeance in kind. He is also able to force them to take into account the costs of personalizing the injury. Most people, he bets, are willing to pay more to save their own hands than they would be willing to pay to take someone else’s. The justice of Gudmund’s award thus depends on a redefinition of its importance. Rather than buying Skæring’s hand, the Norwegians are preserving their own, and the price, they now feel, is well worth paying. Fellow feeling thus comes not in the form of imagining Skæring’s anguish and pain as Skæring’s, but in imagining the pain as their own.2

This is the logic of lex talionis. This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.”3 Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence—not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them.

“Review of Scientific Self-experimentation: Ethics History, Regulation, Scenarios, and Views among Ethics Committees and Prominent Scientists”, Hanley et al 2018

2018-hanley.pdf: “Review of Scientific Self-experimentation: ethics history, regulation, scenarios, and views among ethics committees and prominent scientists”⁠, Brian Hanley, William Bains, George Church (2018-01-01; )

“Islam and Economic Performance: Historical and Contemporary Links”, Kuran 2018

“Islam and Economic Performance: Historical and Contemporary Links”⁠, Timur Kuran (2018; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

This essay critically evaluates the analytic literature concerned with causal connections between Islam and economic performance. It focuses on works since 1997, when this literature was last surveyed.

Among the findings are the following: Ramadan fasting by pregnant women harms prenatal development; Islamic charities mainly benefit the middle class; Islam affects educational outcomes less through Islamic schooling than through structural factors that handicap learning as a whole; Islamic finance hardly affects Muslim financial behavior; and low generalized trust depresses Muslim trade.

The last feature reflects the Muslim world’s delay in transitioning from personal to impersonal exchange. The delay resulted from the persistent simplicity of the private enterprises formed under Islamic law. Weak property rights reinforced the private sector’s stagnation by driving capital out of commerce and into rigid waqfs. Waqfs limited economic development through their inflexibility and democratization by restraining the development of civil society. Parts of the Muslim world conquered by Arab armies are especially undemocratic, which suggests that early Islamic institutions, including slave-based armies, were particularly critical to the persistence of authoritarian patterns of governance.

States have contributed themselves to the persistence of authoritarianism by treating Islam as an instrument of governance. As the world started to industrialize, non-Muslim subjects of Muslim-governed states pulled ahead of their Muslim neighbors by exercising the choice of law they enjoyed under Islamic law in favor of a Western legal system.

“Nozick’s Experience Machine: An Empirical Study”, Hindriks & Douven 2017

“Nozick’s experience machine: An empirical study”⁠, Frank Hindriks, Igor Douven (2017-12-01; similar):

Many philosophers deny that happiness can be equated with pleasurable experiences. Nozick introduced an experience machine thought experiment to support the idea that happiness requires pleasurable experiences that are “in contact with reality.” In this thought experiment, people can choose to plug into a machine that induces exclusively pleasurable experiences.

We test Nozick’s hypothesis that people will reject this offer. We also contrast Nozick’s experience machine scenario with scenarios that are less artificial, and offer options which are less invasive or disruptive than being connected to a machine, specifically scenarios in which people are offered an experience pill or a pill that improves overall functioning.

…Question Q1 asked whether Weijers’ finding that the vast majority of his participants rejected the offer of being hooked up to the experience machine could be replicated given a version of Nozick’s scenarios stripped down to its essentials. The data bearing on this question came from the group of 35 participants who had received the MP vignette followed by the yes/​no question. Of these, 10 answered positively.

This is a considerably higher percentage (29%) than was found in Weijers 2014 study, in which 16% accepted the offer of being hooked up to the machine (De Brigard 2010’s finding was exactly the same as Weijers’s). A binomial test showed that this difference in percentage was statistically-significant, p = 0.043 (one-sided).13 On the other hand, it is still the case that a vast majority rejected the offer of being connected to the machine.

To answer questions Q2 and Q3, we started by comparing the response frequencies to the 3 yes/​no questions. These are displayed in Figure 1: This figure shows that the proportion of positive responses to the question concerning the functioning pill is very high and (much) higher than the corresponding proportions for the other 2 conditions, and further that the proportion of positive responses to the question concerning the experience pill is considerably higher than the proportion of positive responses to the question concerning the machine.

“We Don’t Want to Know What Will Kill Us: Years of Data on Genetic Testing Reveal That When given the Option, Most People Want Less Information, Not More”, Spinney 2017

“We Don’t Want to Know What Will Kill Us: Years of data on genetic testing reveal that when given the option, most people want less information, not more”⁠, Laura Spinney (2017-09-27; ; backlinks; similar):

In the three decades since the first predictive genetic tests became available, a great deal of data has accumulated to show how people respond to knowing previously unknowable things. The rise of genetic testing has presented scientists with a 30-year experiment that has yielded some surprising insights into human behavior. The data suggest that the vast majority react in ways that at first seem counterintuitive, or at least flout what experts predicted. But as genetic testing becomes more widespread, the irrational behavior of a frightened few might start to look like the rational behavior of an enlightened majority. Doctors’ repeatedly failed attempts to anticipate people’s responses to genetic testing is not for want of preparation. Starting in the 1980s, they conducted surveys in which they asked how people might approach the test, were one available. They noted the answers and planned accordingly. The trouble was, when the test became a reality, their respondents didn’t do what they had said they would.

…In those preparatory surveys, roughly 70% of those at risk of Huntington’s said they would take a test if it existed. In fact, only around 15% do—a proportion that has proved stable across countries and decades. A similar pattern emerged when tests became available for other incurable brain diseases…Prenatal genetic testing is widely available, but the uptake by expecting couples in which one partner is a known carrier of an incurable disease is even lower than that of testing among at-risk adults. Most opt to have a child whose risk of developing that disease is the same as theirs was at birth. Why do people act in this seemingly irresponsible way with respect to their offspring?

A unique longitudinal study published in 2016 by Hanane Bouchghoul and colleagues at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris unpacks that decision-making process. They interviewed 54 women—either Huntington’s carriers or wives of carriers—and found that if a couple received a favorable result in a first prenatal test, the majority had the child and stopped there. Most of those who got an unfavorable result terminated the pregnancy and tried again. If a second prenatal test produced a “good” result, they had the child and stopped. But if it produced a “bad” result and another termination, most changed strategy. Some opted for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, removing the need for termination, since only mutation-free embryos are implanted. Some abandoned the idea of having a child altogether. But nearly half, 45%, conceived naturally again, and this time they did not seek prenatal testing. Summarizing the findings, the geneticist on the team, Alexandra Dürr, says, “The desire to have a child overrides all else.”

…In a study that has yet to be published, Tibben has corroborated the French group’s conclusion. He followed 13 couples who, following counseling but prior to taking a prenatal test, agreed they would terminate in the case of an unfavorable result. None of them did so when they got that result. “That means there are 13 children alive in the Netherlands today, whom we can be 100% sure are [Huntington’s] carriers”, he says.

“Everything Is Worse in China”, Greer 2017

“Everything is Worse in China”⁠, Tanner Greer (2017-07-19; ; similar):

Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the book—a thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile too virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.

Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy, suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China.

Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China.Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen urban hubs? That problem is worse in China. Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?

These too are all worse in China.

…All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is.

“Long Bets As Charitable Giving Opportunity”, Branwen 2017

Long-Bets: “Long Bets as Charitable Giving Opportunity”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2017-02-24; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Evaluating Long Bets as a prediction market shows it is dysfunctional and poorly-structured; despite the irrationality of many users, it is not good even as a way to raise money for charity.

Long Bets is a 15-year-old real-money prediction market run by the Long Now Foundation for incentivizing forecasts/​bets about long-term events of social importance such as technology or the environment. I evaluate use of Long Bets as a charitable giving opportunity by winning bets and directing the earnings to a good charity by making forecasts for all available bet opportunities and ranking them by expected value after adjusting for opportunity cost (defined by expected return of stock market indexing) and temporally discounting. I find that while there are ~41 open bets which I expect have positive expected value if counter-bets were accepted, few or none of my counter-bets were accepted. In general, LB has had almost zero activity for the past decade, and has not incentivized much forecasting. This failure is likely caused by its extreme restriction to even-odds bets, no return on bet funds (resulting in enormous opportunity costs), and lack of maintenance or publicity. All of these issues are highly likely to continue barring extensive changes to Long Bets, and I suggest that Long Bets should be wound down.

“Men of Honor, Men of Interest”, Greer 2016

“Men of Honor, Men of Interest”⁠, Tanner Greer (2016-12-01; ; similar):

The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear. It is to the arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.

What is this but to make greater enemies than you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

The Athenians were once a people of honor. “For glory then and honor now” was the rallying cry Pericles raised to lead his people to war (2.64.6). The Athenians began this entire drama chasing it. No longer. Athenian honor died long before the war’s close. Athenian honor could not survive the plague. Then the beastly truth was revealed: honor meant nothing but scarred skin and blistered visage. Nobility brought no recompense but rotting flesh. Eat now, drink now, be merry now, for tomorrow men will die! And die, and, die, and die. Justice, integrity, honor—mere words. Where could those words be found? Buried deep in burning heaps of flesh! Abandoned in lonely, forgotten corners where none would see them croak away! Beneath blood, phlegm, pustule, and vomit! What has honor to do with Athens? Nothing. What is more, they knew it…Thucydides relates the speech of two men in the debate over Mytilene, one Cleon, son of Cleanetus, the ‘most violent man in Athens.’ The other Diodotus, son of Eucrates, a more measured sort who does not appear elsewhere in this history. Cleon argues for the Mytilene’s extinction. Diodotus, for their salvation. They disagreed on almost every point. What sticks out, however, is what they did agree on. Both wanted everyone to know that their arguments had nothing whatsoever to do with justice, honor, or mercy.

Said Cleon:

…However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger (3.37; 3.40).

In reply, Diodotus:

…However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest. That language saved the Mytilenians. They were lucky. Interest is a fickle master. The men of Melos discovered just how twisted a master it can be. In time, so would the Athenians.

“Switching Away from Utilitarianism: The Limited Role of Utility Calculations in Moral Judgment”, Sheskin & Baumard 2016

“Switching Away from Utilitarianism: The Limited Role of Utility Calculations in Moral Judgment”⁠, Mark Sheskin, Nicolas Baumard (2016-07-13; similar):

Our moral motivations might include a drive towards maximizing overall welfare, consistent with an ethical theory called “utilitarianism.” However, people show non-utilitarian judgments in domains as diverse as healthcare decisions, income distributions, and penal laws. Rather than these being deviations from a fundamentally utilitarian psychology, we suggest that our moral judgments are generally non-utilitarian, even for cases that are typically seen as prototypically utilitarian. We show two separate deviations from utilitarianism in such cases: people do not think maximizing welfare is required (they think it is merely acceptable, in some circumstances), and people do not think that equal welfare tradeoffs are even acceptable. We end by discussing how utilitarian reasoning might play a restricted role within a non-utilitarian moral psychology.

“The Unilateralist’s Curse and the Case for a Principle of Conformity”, Bostrom et al 2016

“The Unilateralist’s Curse and the Case for a Principle of Conformity”⁠, Nick Bostrom, Thomas Douglas, Anders Sandberg (2016-01-26; backlinks; similar):

In some situations a number of agents each have the ability to undertake an initiative that would have substantial effects on the others. Suppose that each of these agents is purely motivated by an altruistic concern for the common good. We show that if each agent acts on her own personal judgment as to whether the initiative should be undertaken, then the initiative will be undertaken more often than is optimal. We suggest that this phenomenon, which we call the unilateralist’s curse, arises in many contexts, including some that are important for public policy.

To lift the curse, we propose a principle of conformity, which would discourage unilateralist action. We consider three different models for how this principle could be implemented, and respond to an objection that could be raised against it.

[Keywords: The Winner’s Curse, Disagreement, Rationality, Aumann, informative prior, shrinkage, bid shading]

“Discontinuation and Nonpublication of Randomized Clinical Trials Conducted in Children”

2016-pica.pdf: “Discontinuation and Nonpublication of Randomized Clinical Trials Conducted in Children” (2016-01-01; ; backlinks)

“Legal Roots of Authoritarian Rule in the Middle East: Civic Legacies of the Islamic Waqf”, Kuran 2016

2016-kuran.pdf: “Legal Roots of Authoritarian Rule in the Middle East: Civic Legacies of the Islamic Waqf”⁠, Timur Kuran (2016; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

In the legal system of the premodern Middle East, the closest thing to an autonomous private organization was the Islamic waqf. This non-state institution inhibited political participation, collective action, and rule of law, among other indicators of democratization. It did so through several mechanisms. Its activities were essentially set by its founder, which limited its capacity to meet political challenges. Being designed to provide a service on its own, it could not participate in lasting political coalitions. The waqf’s beneficiaries had no say in evaluating or selecting its officers, and they had trouble forming a political community. Thus, for all the resources it controlled, the Islamic waqf contributed minimally to building civil society. As a core element of Islam’s classical institutional complex, it perpetuated authoritarian rule by keeping the state largely unrestrained. Therein lies a key reason for the slow pace of the Middle East’s democratization process.

“Good Ventures: The Power of Informed Decisions”, Arrillaga-Andreessen & Murray 2015

2015-arrillagaandreessen.pdf: “Good Ventures: The Power of Informed Decisions”⁠, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Sarah Murray (2015-10-03; similar):

In 2010, Cari Tuna quit her job at the Wall Street Journal to work full-time on developing a giving strategy for herself and her husband—Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz⁠. In May 2011, the couple created the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures⁠.

Tuna made transparency and knowledge sharing core components of the foundation; creating a blog to report on the foundation’s activities and learnings. Good Ventures co-funded projects so that the foundation could gain insights into the decision-making and evaluation processes of funders with large, full-time staffs, while also encountering pre-vetted, promising giving opportunities. Through what she called “learning grants”, Tuna was able to shape Good Ventures’ focus areas while actively grantmaking.

Tuna was inspired by charity evaluator GiveWell and began to learn from, financially support, and eventually partner with the organization. To improve the grantmaking research process, Tuna and GiveWell created a rigorous “funnel” approach using shallow, medium, and deep investigations into potential issue areas to determine what areas had the greatest need, had proven solutions, and were relatively underfunded.

This collaboration eventually became the Open Philanthropy Project⁠, an effort to choose particularly promising focus areas for large-scale philanthropy, make grants, and discuss the process and results publicly to increase the quality of information available about how to give effectively⁠.

“The Most Predictable Disaster in the History of the Human Race: This Is What Bill Gates Is Afraid Of”, Klein 2015

“The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race: This is what Bill Gates is afraid of”⁠, Ezra Klein (2015-05-27; similar):

But lately, Gates has been obsessing over a dark question: what’s likeliest to kill more than 10 million human beings in the next 20 years? He ticks off the disaster movie stuff—“big volcanic explosion, gigantic earthquake, asteroid”—but says the more he learns about them, the more he realizes the probability is “very low.” Then there’s war, of course. But Gates isn’t that worried about war because the entire human race worries about war pretty much all the time, and the most dangerous kind of war, nuclear war, seems pretty contained, at least for now.

But there’s something out there that’s as bad as war, something that kills as many people as war, and Gates doesn’t think we’re ready for it. “Look at the death chart of the 20th century”, he says, because he’s the kind of guy that looks at death charts. “I think everybody would say there must be a spike for World War I. Sure enough, there it is, like 25 million. And there must be a big spike for World War II, and there it is, it’s like 65 million. But then you’ll see this other spike that is as large as World War II right after World War I, and most people, would say, ‘What was that?’” “Well, that was the Spanish flu.”

No one can say we weren’t warned. And warned. And warned. A pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in the history of the human race, if only because it has happened to the human race so many, many times before…“You can’t use the word lucky or fortunate about something like Ebola that killed 10,000 people”, Klain says. “But it was the most favorable scenario for the world to face one of these things. Ebola is very difficult to transmit. Everyone who is contagious has a visible symptom. It broke out in three relatively small countries that don’t send many travelers to the US. And those three countries have good relationships with America and were welcoming of Western aid.” “With a pandemic flu, the disease would be much more contagious than Ebola”, Klain continues. “The people who are contagious may not have visible symptoms. It could break out in a highly populous country that sends thousands of travelers a day to the US. It could be a country with megacities with tens of millions of people. And it could be a country where sending in the 101st Airborne isn’t possible.”

…Behind Gates’s fear of pandemic disease is an algorithmic model of how disease moves through the modern world. He funded that model to help with his foundation’s work eradicating polio. But then he used it to look into how a disease that acted like the Spanish flu of 1918 would work in today’s world. The results were shocking, even to Gates. “Within 60 days it’s basically in all urban centers around the entire globe”, he says. “That didn’t happen with the Spanish flu.”

“LWer Effective Altruism Donations, 2013–2014”, Branwen 2015

EA-donations: “LWer Effective Altruism donations, 2013–2014”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2015-05-12; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Analysis of 2013-2014 LessWrong survey results on how much more self-identified EAers donate suggests low median donation rates due to current youth and low incomes.

A LW critic noted that the annual LW survey reported a median donation for “effective altruists” of $0, though the EA movement encourages strongly donations. I look closer at the 2013-2014 LW surveys and find in multiple regression that identifying as an EA does predict more donations after controlling for age and income, suggesting that the low EA median donation may be due to EAers having low income and youth (eg. being a student) rather than being unusually or even averagely selfish.

“Monks, Gents and Industrialists: The Long-Run Impact of the Dissolution of the English Monasteries”, Heldring et al 2015

2015-heldring.pdf: “Monks, Gents and Industrialists: The Long-Run Impact of the Dissolution of the English Monasteries”⁠, Leander Heldring, James A. Robinson, Sebastian Vollmer (2015-01-01; ; backlinks)

“Do Artificial Reinforcement-Learning Agents Matter Morally?”, Tomasik 2014

“Do Artificial Reinforcement-Learning Agents Matter Morally?”⁠, Brian Tomasik (2014-10-30; ; backlinks; similar):

Artificial reinforcement learning (RL) is a widely used technique in artificial intelligence that provides a general method for training agents to perform a wide variety of behaviours. RL as used in computer science has striking parallels to reward and punishment learning in animal and human brains. I argue that present-day artificial RL agents have a very small but nonzero degree of ethical importance. This is particularly plausible for views according to which sentience comes in degrees based on the abilities and complexities of minds, but even binary views on consciousness should assign nonzero probability to RL programs having morally relevant experiences. While RL programs are not a top ethical priority today, they may become more significant in the coming decades as RL is increasingly applied to industry, robotics, video games, and other areas. I encourage scientists, philosophers, and citizens to begin a conversation about our ethical duties to reduce the harm that we inflict on powerless, voiceless RL agents.

“Meditations on Maoism—Ye Fu’s Hard Road Home”, Greer 2014

“Meditations on Maoism—Ye Fu’s Hard Road Home⁠, Tanner Greer (2014-04-14; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Americans-and particularly American conservatives-are sometimes accused of failing to confront their country’s past honestly. Ye Fu’s challenge—and in many respects all of China’s—was not honestly facing his past, but simply finding it. Ye Fu was born the great grandson of a ranking Nationalist commander, the grand son of a landlord, and the son of two parents who zealously joined the revolution only to be discarded by later ‘struggles of the Proletariat’. Ye Fu was only dimly aware of this heritage growing up. It was not until his father’s funeral, when he first stepped foot on his ancestral lands, that he had either the chance or a reason to find the truth of his family’s past. This became a quest that drove and consumed him and is a recurring motif that unites his most poignant essays.

…Thus the true details of his father’s life and heritage were revealed: a grandfather who had climbed from the peasantdom of his birth to the hallowed class of landlord only a few years before the revolution overtook the village (he earned the title by being the only one in the village rich enough to employ a single field hand); a son who zealously hunted down landlords for the Party, unaware that his own family 50 miles to the east suffered the same persecution he so earnestly delivered; the suicide of his father and the destruction of the clan’s eldest generation in its entirety, both brothers and wives, within a single night.

“Hundreds of millions of lives were shoveled into the trenches of the 20th century”, Ye Fu reflects.4 Historians estimate that the death toll of these land reform campaigns is in the range of two to three million.5 But for Ye Fu those ditches are not those of the nameless millions. These were ditches dug by his father and filled by his grandfather. The tragedies of the 20th century are his tragedies. He was born from the ditches—though he would not discover this gruesome truth until he was a grown man.

He who reads Ye Fu’s meditations on these mournful roots leaves with the strong—but unexpected—impression that the true tragedy of modern Chinese history is not found in its colossal death toll. For Ye Fu the real tragedy is what all these dead represented. The first to die were those most committed to the old order. They were the upholders of traditional propriety, keepers of the ancestral shrine, and symbols of basic human decency. These men and women often lived far below their ideals, profiting from a system rightly seen as exploitative, but as long they lived so did the ideal. Their deaths meant the destruction of their entire society. With them passed old structures of power and control, but also the old values and traditions these social arrangements had embodied and enshrined. The life defined by decorum, trust, filial piety, and kindness lost its place as the ideal of Chinese civilization, replaced by a new model that honored cruelty, deception, and revolutionary ardor.

“Are You Morally Modified?: The Moral Effects of Widely Used Pharmaceuticals”, Levy et al 2014

“Are You Morally Modified?: The Moral Effects of Widely Used Pharmaceuticals”⁠, Neil Levy, Thomas Douglas, Guy Kahane, Sylvia Terbeck, Philip J. Cowen, Miles Hewstone, Julian Savulescu et al (2014; similar):

A number of concerns have been raised about the possible future use of pharmaceuticals designed to enhance cognitive, affective, and motivational processes, particularly where the aim is to produce morally better decisions or behavior. In this article, we draw attention to what is arguably a more worrying possibility: that pharmaceuticals currently in widespread therapeutic use are already having unintended effects on these processes, and thus on moral decision making and morally significant behavior. We review current evidence on the moral effects of three widely used drugs or drug types: (1) propranolol, (2) selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and (3) drugs that effect oxytocin physiology. This evidence suggests that the alterations to moral decision making and behavior caused by these agents may have important and difficult-to-evaluate consequences, at least at the population level. We argue that the moral effects of these and other widely used pharmaceuticals warrant further empirical research and ethical analysis.

“Aztec Political Thought”, Marquez 2013

“Aztec Political Thought”⁠, Xavier Marquez (2013-11-21; ; similar):

A footnote on Inga Clendinnen’s extraordinary Aztecs: An Interpretation. If there’s a better book on the Aztecs than this, I want to read it…Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone…he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy”, something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought…But Aztec cosmology, it turns out, goes much further than this. The ruler embodies or channels Tezcatlipoca⁠, who is often vaguely characterized as a god of “fate and war” (and normally downplayed in favor of Huītzilōpōchtli⁠, eg. in the current Te Papa exhibit on the Aztecs here in Wellington, who is more understandable as a straightforward god of war, and is viewed as the “patron” of the Tenochtitlan Mexica). But Tezcatlipoca is the more important deity: he is described at the beginning of Book 6 of the Florentine Codex as “the principal god” of the Mexica. And he is not a merciful or benevolent god; on the contrary, he represents a kind of arbitrary malice that is visited on all alike, and is variously addressed as the Enemy on Both Sides, the Mocker, He Whose Slaves We Are, and the Lord of the Smoking Mirror (for the smoky reflections in dark obsidian mirrors used by the shamans, “obscure intimations of what was to come endlessly dissolving back into obscurity”, as Clendinnen puts it [p. 148])…Clendinnen notes many other examples of the “shared and steady vision common to the different social groupings in Tenochtitlan” concerning “the casual, inventive, tireless malice of the only sacred force concerned with the fates of men”, p. 148

…When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment? As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz⁠, referring to pre-colonial Bali⁠, once called the “theatre state.”

I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice. Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire.

“Who By Very Slow Decay”, Alexander 2013

“Who By Very Slow Decay”⁠, Scott Alexander (2013-07-17; ; backlinks; similar):

[Essay by psychiatrist about care of the dying in American healthcare: people die agonizing, slow, expensive deaths, prolonged by modern healthcare, deprived of all dignity and joy by disease and decay. There is little noble about it.]

You will become bedridden, unable to walk or even to turn yourself over. You will become completely dependent on nurse assistants to intermittently shift your position to avoid pressure ulcers. When they inevitably slip up, your skin develops huge incurable sores that can sometimes erode all the way to the bone, and which are perpetually infected with foul-smelling bacteria. Your limbs will become practically vestigial organs, like the appendix, and when your vascular disease gets too bad, one or more will be amputated, sacrifices to save the host. Urinary and fecal continence disappear somewhere in the process, so you’re either connected to catheters or else spend a while every day lying in a puddle of your own wastes until the nurses can help you out…

Somewhere in the process your mind very quietly and without fanfare gives up the ghost. It starts with forgetting a couple of little things, and progresses…They don’t remember their own names, they don’t know where they are or what they’re doing there, and they think it’s the 1930s or the 1950s or don’t even have a concept of years at all. When you’re alert and oriented “x0”, the world becomes this terrifying place where you are stuck in some kind of bed and can’t move and people are sticking you with very large needles and forcing tubes down your throat and you have no idea why or what’s going on.

So of course you start screaming and trying to attack people and trying to pull the tubes and IV lines out. Every morning when I come in to work I have to check the nurses’ notes for what happened the previous night, and every morning a couple of my patients have tried to pull all of their tubes and lines out. If it’s especially bad they try to attack the staff, and although the extremely elderly are really bad at attacking people this is nevertheless Unacceptable Behavior and they have to be restrained ie tied down to the bed. A presumably more humane alternative sometimes used instead or in addition is to just drug you up on all of those old-timey psychiatric medications that actual psychiatrists don’t use anymore because of their bad reputation…Nevertheless, this is the way many of my patients die. Old, limbless, bedridden, ulcerated, in a puddle of waste, gasping for breath, loopy on morphine, hopelessly demented, in a sterile hospital room with someone from a volunteer program who just met them sitting by their bed.

…I work in a Catholic hospital. People here say the phrase “culture of life” a lot, as in “we need to cultivate a culture of life.” They say it almost as often as they say “patient-centered”. At my hospital orientation, a whole bunch of nuns and executives and people like that got up and told us how we had to do our part to “cultivate a culture of life.”

And now every time I hear that phrase I want to scream. 21st century American hospitals do not need to “cultivate a culture of life”. We have enough life. We have life up the wazoo. We have more life than we know what to do with. We have life far beyond the point where it becomes a sick caricature of itself. We prolong life until it becomes a sickness, an abomination, a miserable and pathetic flight from death that saps out and mocks everything that made life desirable in the first place. 21st century American hospitals need to cultivate a culture of life the same way that Newcastle needs to cultivate a culture of coal, the same way a man who is burning to death needs to cultivate a culture of fire.

And so every time I hear that phrase I want to scream, or if I cannot scream, to find some book of hospital poetry that really is a book of hospital poetry and shove it at them, make them read it until they understand. There is no such book, so I hope it will be acceptable if I just rip off of Wilfred Owen directly:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the gurney that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sack of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene with cancer, bitter with the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues
My friend, you would not so pontificate
To reasoners beset by moral strife
The old lie: we must try to cultivate
A culture of life.

“Refrigerator Safety Study: Case Study Analysis”, Hunter 2013

“Refrigerator safety study: Case study analysis”⁠, David Hunter (2013-06-14; similar):

[Discussion of debate in research ethics illustrating a difference between consequentialist and deontological ethics.]

In summary, the researchers intended to study the safety of fridge door design by trying various types of doors—luring small children into boxes with the door design and then closing it, and observing their behaviour on closed circuit television…Secondly it is worth noting the real world impacts of this research—it was part of the evidence which underwrote the adoption of the modern magnetic seal fridge door as opposed to the modification suggested by manufacturers at the time, namely the much cheaper introduction of a catch on the inside that children could use to release the door internally. This, along with other activities, arguably contributed to a decrease in the death rate of children stuck in fridges and freezers from about 2 per million in 1960 to less than 0.5 per million in 1981 in the US1 (Kraus, 1985). That is a substantial decrease in deaths, particularly given how influential the US design was internationally; many, many lives have been saved by this research.

Nonetheless there are a number of substantial ethical challenges that need to be considered:

  1. Is it necessary?…
  2. Alternatively we might query whether the risks and harms involved in the research are justified…

“The Strategic Consequences of Chinese Racism: A Strategic Asymmetry for the United States”, Anonymous & Anonymous 2013

2013-anonymous-strategicconsequencesofchineseracism.pdf: “The Strategic Consequences of Chinese Racism: A Strategic Asymmetry for the United States”⁠, Anonymous, Anonymous (2013-01-07; ⁠, ⁠, ; similar):

Whether China and the United States are destined to compete for domination in international politics is one of the major questions facing DoD. In a competition with the People’s Republic of China, the United States must explore all of its advantages and all of the weaknesses of China that may provide an asymmetry for the United States. This study examines one such asymmetry, the strategic consequences of Chinese racism. After having examined the literature on China extensively, this author is not aware of a single study that addresses this important topic. This study explores the causes of Chinese racism, the strategic consequences of Chinese racism, and how the United States may use this situation to advance its interests in international politics.

  1. the study finds that xenophobia, racism, and ethnocentrism are caused by human evolution. These behaviors are not unique to the Chinese. However, they are made worse by Chinese history and culture.

  2. considers the Chinese conception of race in Chinese history and culture. It finds that Chinese religious-cultural and historical conceptions of race reinforce Chinese racism. In Chinese history and contemporary culture, the Chinese are seen to be unique and superior to the rest of the world. Other peoples and groups are seen to be inferior, with a sliding scale of inferiority. The major Chinese distinction is between degrees of barbarians, the “black devils”, or savage inferiors, beyond any hope of interaction and the “white devils” or tame barbarians with whom the Chinese can interact. These beliefs are widespread in Chinese society, and have been for its history…

  3. evaluates the 9 strategic consequences of Chinese racism.

    1. virulent racism and eugenics heavily inform Chinese perceptions of the world…

    2. racism informs their view of the United States…

    3. racism informs their view of international politics in three ways.

      • states are stable, and thus good for the Chinese, to the degree that they are unicultural.
      • Chinese ethnocentrism and racism drive their outlook to the rest of the world. Their expectation is of a tribute system where barbarians know that the Chinese are superior.
      • there is a strong, implicit, racialist view of international politics that is alien and anathema to Western policy-makers and analysts. The Chinese are comfortable using race to explain events and appealing to racist stereotypes to advance their interests. Most insidious is the Chinese belief that Africans in particular need Chinese leadership.
    4. the Chinese will make appeals to Third World states based on “racial solidarity”,…

    5. Chinese racism retards their relations with the Third World…

    6. Chinese racism, and the degree to which the Chinese permit their view of the United States to be informed by racism, has the potential to hinder China in its competition with the United States because it contributes to their overconfidence…

    7. as lamentable as it is, Chinese racism helps to make the Chinese a formidable adversary…

    8. the Chinese are never going to go through a civil rights movement like the United States…

    9. China’s treatment of Christians and ethnic minorities is poor…

  4. considers the 5 major implications for United States decision-makers and asymmetries that may result from Chinese racism.

  5. Chinese racism provides empirical evidence of how the Chinese will treat other international actors if China becomes dominant…

  6. it allows the United States to undermine China in the Third World…

  7. it permits a positive image of the United States to be advanced in contrast to China…

  8. calling attention to Chinese racism allows political and ideological alliances of the United States to be strengthened…

  9. United States defense decision-makers must recognize that racism is a cohesive force for the Chinese…

…The study’s fundamental conclusion is that endemic Chinese racism offers the United States a major asymmetry it may exploit with major countries, regions like Africa, as well as with important opinion makers in international politics. The United States is on the right side of the struggle against racism and China is not. The United States should call attention to this to aid its position in international politics.

“The Narrowing Circle”, Branwen 2012

The-Narrowing-Circle: “The Narrowing Circle”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-04-24; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Modern ethics excludes as many beings as it includes.

The “expanding circle” historical thesis ignores all instances in which modern ethics narrowed the set of beings to be morally regarded, often backing its exclusion by asserting their non-existence, and thus assumes its conclusion: where the circle is expanded, it’s highlighted as moral ‘progress’, and where it is narrowed, what is outside is simply defined away. When one compares modern with ancient society, the religious differences are striking: almost every single supernatural entity (place, personage, or force) has been excluded from the circle of moral concern, where they used to be huge parts of the circle and one could almost say the entire circle. Further examples include estates, houses, fetuses, prisoners, and graves.

“Metamagical Themas: Sanity and Survival”, Hofstadter 2012

1985-hofstadter: “Metamagical Themas: Sanity and Survival”⁠, Douglas Hofstadter (2012-04-16; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

3 essays by AI researcher Douglas Hofstadter exploring cooperation/​game theory/​‘superrationality’ in the context of the failure of political coordination to prevent global nuclear war

The following 3 essays were prepared from pages 737–780 of an ebook of Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985) by Douglas Hofstadter⁠, an anthology of articles & essays primarily published in Scientific American “between January 1981 and July 1983”. (I omit one entry in “Sanity and Survival”, the essay “The Tumult of Inner Voices, or, What is the Meaning of the Word ‘I’?”, which is unconnected to the other entries on cooperation/​decision theory⁠/​nuclear war.) All hyperlinks are my insertion.

They are interesting for introducing the idea of ‘superrationality’ in game theory⁠, an attempt to devise a decision theory/​algorithm for agents which can reach global utility maxima on problems like the prisoner’s dilemma even in the absence of coercion or communication which has partially inspired later decision theories like UDT or TDT⁠, linking decision theory to cooperation (eg. Oesterheld 2017) & existential risks (specifically, nuclear warfare), and one networking project⁠.

Note: to hide apparatus like the links, you can use reader-mode ().

“Iodine and Adult IQ Meta-analysis”, Branwen 2012

Iodine: “Iodine and Adult IQ meta-analysis”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2012-02-29; ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Iodine improves IQ in fetuses; adults as well? A meta-analysis of relevant studies says no.

Iodization is one of the great success stories of public health intervention: iodizing salt costs pennies per ton, but as demonstrated in randomized & natural experiments, prevents goiters, cretinism, and can boost population IQs by a fraction of a standard deviation in the most iodine-deficient populations.

These experiments are typically done on pregnant women, and results suggest that the benefits of iodization diminish throughout the trimesters of a pregnancy. So does iodization benefit normal healthy adults, potentially even ones in relatively iodine-sufficient Western countries?

Compiling existing post-natal iodization studies which use cognitive tests, I find that—outliers aside—the benefit appears to be nearly zero, and so likely it does not help normal healthy adults, particularly in Western adults.

“Inverse P-zombies: the Other Direction in the Hard Problem of Consciousness”, Branwen 2011

“Inverse p-zombies: the other direction in the Hard Problem of Consciousness”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011-12-18; backlinks; similar):

[Discussion of “inverse p-zombies” via excerpts of “Inverse zombies, anesthesia awareness, and the hard problem of unconsciousness”⁠, Mashour & LaRock 2008: the problem of telling when someone is conscious but otherwise appears and acts unconscious, a problem of particular concern in anesthesia for surgery—anesthesia occasionally fails, resulting in ‘anesthesia awareness’, leaving the patient fully conscious and feeling every last bit of the surgery, as they are completely paralyzed but are cut open and operated on for hours, which they describe as being every bit as horrific as one would think, leading to tortured memories and PTSD symptoms. Strikingly, death row executions by lethal injection use a cocktail of chemicals which are almost designed to produce this (rather than the simple single reliable drug universally used for euthanasia by veterinarians), suggesting that, as peaceful as the executions may look, the convicts may actually be enduring extraordinary agony and terror during the several minutes it takes to kill them.

Further, anesthesia appears to often operate by erasing memories, so it is possible that anesthesia awareness during surgery is much more common than realized, and underestimated because the victims’ long-term memories are blocked from forming. There are some indications that surgery is associated with bad psychiatric symptoms even in cases where the patient does not recall any anesthesia awareness, suggesting that the trauma is preserved in other parts of the mind.

While doctors continue to research the problem of detecting consciousness, it is far from solved. Most people, confronted with a hypothetical about getting money in exchange for being tortured but then administered an amnesiac, would say that the torture is an intrinsically bad thing even if it is then forgotten; but perhaps we are, unawares, making the opposite choice every time we go in for surgery under general anesthesia?]

“Bugs and Beasts Before the Law”, Humphrey 2011

“Bugs and Beasts Before the Law”⁠, Nicholas Humphrey (2011-03-27; ⁠, ; similar):

Murderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal—theoretical psychologist and author Nicholas Humphrey explores the strange world of medieval animal trials.

…Such stories, however, are apparently not news for very long. Indeed the most extraordinary examples of people taking retribution against animals seem to have been almost totally forgotten. A few years ago I lighted on a book, first published in 1906, with the surprising title The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E. P. Evans, author of Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Bugs and Beasts before the Law, etc., etc. The frontispiece showed an engraving of a pig, dressed up in a jacket and breeches, being strung up on a gallows in the market square of a town in Normandy in 1386; the pig had been formally tried and convicted of murder by the local court. When I borrowed the book from the Cambridge University Library, I showed this picture of the pig to the librarian. “Is it a joke?”, she asked.

No, it was not a joke. All over Europe, throughout the middle-ages and right on into the 19th century, animals were, as it turns out, tried for human crimes. Dogs, pigs, cows, rats and even flies and caterpillars were arraigned in court on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. The trials were conducted with full ceremony: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid—a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defence.

…Evans’ book details more than two hundred such cases: sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in Church, a pig executed for stealing a communion wafer, a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg. As I read my eyes grew wider and wider.

“Reasons of State: Why Didn’t Denmark Sell Greenland?”, Branwen 2011

Greenland: “Reasons of State: Why Didn’t Denmark Sell Greenland?”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2011; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Denmark turned down 100m USD from the USA; I discuss how this was a bad idea

After WWII, the Cold War motivated the USA to offer $1,249.8[^\$100.0^~1946~]{.supsub} million for ownership of Greenland, which was declined. The USA got the benefit of using Greenland anyway. I discuss how the island otherwise remained a drain since, the dim prospect it will ever be useful to Denmark, and the forgone benefits of that offer. I speculate on the real reasons for the refusal.

“The Disadvantage of a Good Reputation: Disney As a Target for Social Problems Claims”, Best & Lowney 2009

2009-best.pdf: “The Disadvantage of a Good Reputation: Disney as a Target for Social Problems Claims”⁠, Joel Best, Kathleen S. Lowney (2009-06-01; ⁠, ; similar):

Social scientists generally presume that a good reputation has advantages.

Yet the Walt Disney Corporation⁠, a firm that has long benefited from a reputation for producing wholesome popular culture, attracts more than its share of efforts to link it to various social problems. In particular, conservative moralists argue that Disney in fact produces morally questionable products, progressive critics claim that Disney’s messages help preserve social inequities, and social scientists criticize Disney for fostering inauthentic and alienating entertainment.

These claims are a form of blowback—negative reactions to the firm’s positive reputation. While blowback makes it easier to construct social problems claims, a good reputation remains an important resource in deflecting these criticisms.

“Terrorism Is Not Effective”, Branwen 2009

Terrorism-is-not-Effective: “Terrorism Is Not Effective”⁠, Gwern Branwen (2009-04-14; ⁠, ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

More effective ways to kill = terrorists are stupid, or killing not most important thing to them

Terrorism is not about causing terror or casualties, but about other things. Evidence of this is the fact that, despite often considerable resources spent, most terrorists are incompetent, impulsive, prepare poorly for attacks, are inconsistent in planning, tend towards exotic & difficult forms of attack such as bombings, and in practice ineffective: the modal number of casualties per terrorist attack is near-zero, and global terrorist annual casualty have been a rounding error for decades. This is despite the fact that there are many examples of extremely destructive easily-performed potential acts of terrorism, such as poisoning food supplies or renting large trucks & running crowds over or engaging in sporadic sniper attacks.

“Buddhist Animal Release Practices: Historic, Environmental, Public Health And Economic Concerns”, Shiu & Stokes 2008

2008-shiu.pdf: “Buddhist Animal Release Practices: Historic, Environmental, Public Health And Economic Concerns”⁠, Henry Shiu, Leah Stokes (2008-12-08; similar):

Animal release has long been a component of Buddhist practice, although it is little studied contemporarily.

This paper examines the historical roots of these rituals, arguing that they may ultimately have been adopted into Chinese Buddhist practices. A short survey of contemporary Buddhist practice in various traditions is given, including references to important scriptural authority.

Practices involving large-scale, ritualized animal release is then argued to have a number of unintended negative environmental repercussions, resulting in potential new, non-native invasive species. These practices are also considered from contemporary economic and public health perspectives, culminating in the argument that their compassionate intentions are often lost in the act.

…After addressing the challenge in distinguishing ‘animal release’ (fangsheng) from other acts of compassion towards animals, it becomes apparent that the earliest description of animal release rituals we can find is not from a Buddhist source, but from a Taoist work known as the Liezi⁠. The passage in the Liezi reads as follows:

The people of Han-tan presented doves to Chao Chien-tzu on New Year’s morning. He was delighted and richly rewarded them. When a visitor asked the reason, Chien-tzu explained: ‘We release living things on New Year’s Day as a gesture of kindness.’ [The visitor replied]: ‘The people know you wish to release them, so they vie with each other to catch them, and many of the doves die. If you wish to keep them alive, it would be better to forbid the people to catch them. When you release doves after catching them, the kindness does not make up for the mistake.’ ‘You are right’, said Chien-tzu. [Graham 1960, 178]

Ethical problems: As this ritual increases in popularity, the demand for animals to release also increases, leading to the commercialization of the practice. Very often, the animals to be released need to be specially ordered for this ceremonial purpose, which logically involves catching otherwise free animals. Today’s modern reality reflects the wisdom of the previously cited passage from the Liezi in which the minister warns the emperor encouraging the ritual that it creates a demand for more animals, increasing the supply. Williams clearly illustrated this ethical dilemma in his study of animal release in Medieval Japan:

Taira Masayuki’s research has shown that in the medieval period, the shrine was extremely concerned about having enough fish and clams to release (usually in the range of one to three thousand). Thus, more than triple the number were captured several weeks ahead of time to ensure that enough animals would be available by the time the state envoy arrived. In other words, if three thousand fish were to be released at the hōjō-e, a total of nine thousand would need to be captured and purchased by the shrine with the understanding that two-thirds of them might die before they could be released. (Williams 1997, “Animal liberation, death, and the state: rites to release animals in medieval Japan”, pg155)

As this example illustrates, institutionalized or regular practice of animal release creates a need to capture animals. Such capture causes the deaths of animals, possibly outnumbering those eventually released during the ceremony, in a direct contradiction to the intention of the practice.

…In an article published in 2004 by the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan, it is reported that, among the 155 pet stores all of Taiwan, 63 of them supply birds of more than 35 species to the Buddhist organizations for ceremonial release purposes.6 The article, entitled “The Reality of Catching, Buying and Selling Birds for Releasing” (Fangsheng liao buzhua maimai zhenxiang), gives a detailed description of the cycle of catching and releasing birds for animal release purposes with the following steps: orders are made by the Buddhist organizations; hunters catch birds; wholesalers collect the captive birds; birds are sold to the retailers; retailers sell birds to Buddhist organizations; birds are released in a ceremony; and hunters wait to catch the released birds. As this case clearly illustrates, the practice is unlikely to have its intended effect of liberating captured animals; similar cases of hunters waiting nearby have been reported in Cambodia (Sipress 2006) and in Australia (de Bien 2005). Apart from the issue of recapture, there is often high mortality of the animals used in the practice. A news article from the Chinese newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported that 8000 birds were found dead in the Baiyun area in Guangzhou, a place where many people go on weekend mornings to release birds and pray for merits. [Sing Tao Daily, 1 November 2005, citing a report from the Guangzhou local newspaper Nanfang Dushi Bao of the same day.] According to the Institute of Supervising Animal Epidemic Control of Guangzhou, the death rate of released birds is 90% or higher. Taking into consideration the entire process of ordering, shipping, and keeping the animals until an auspicious day, in addition to the possibility that animals will be released into a non-native environment, the ritual results in an abnormally high death rate.

“Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia”, Alper 2008

2008-alper.pdf: “Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia”⁠, Ty Alper (2008-08-05; ; backlinks; similar):

Lawyers challenging lethal injection on behalf of death row inmates have frequently argued that lethal injection protocols do not comport with standard practices for the euthanasia of animals. This article studies state laws governing animal euthanasia and concludes that many more states than have previously been recognized ban the use of paralyzing agents in animal euthanasia. In fact, 97.6% of lethal injection executions in this country have taken place in states that have banned, for use in animal euthanasia, the same drugs that are used in those states during executions. Moreover, a study of the legislative history of state euthanasia laws reveals that the concerns raised about paralyzing drugs in the animal euthanasia context are identical in many ways to the concerns that lawyers for death row inmates are currently raising about the use of those drugs in the lethal injection executions of human beings. This article takes an in depth look at animal euthanasia and its relationship to lethal injection by examining in Part I the history and origins of the paralyzing drugs that veterinarians and animal welfare experts refuse to allow in animal euthanasia; in Part II the standards of professional conduct for veterinary and animal shelter professionals; in Part III, the state laws and regulations governing animal euthanasia; and finally in Part IV, the legislative history that led to the enactment of the various states’ animal euthanasia laws and regulations.

[Keywords: death penalty, lethal injection, animal euthanasia, capital punishment.]

In the late 1970s, when Texas was considering whether to adopt Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection formula for the execution of prisoners, Dr. Ralph Gray, the doctor in charge of medical care in Texas prisons, consulted with a Texas veterinarian named Dr. Gerry Etheredge.1 Dr. Etheredge told Dr. Gray that veterinarians used an overdose of one drug, an anesthetic called sodium pentobarbital⁠, to euthanize animals and that it was a “very safe, very effective, and very cheap” method of euthanasia.2 Dr. Etheredge remembers that Dr. Gray had only one objection to using a similar method to execute human beings. “He said it was a great idea”, Dr. Etheredge recalled, “except that people would think we are treating people the same way that we’re treating animals. He was afraid of a hue and cry.”3 Texas rejected Dr. Etheredge’s one-drug, anesthetic-only recommendation and, in 1982, became the first state to actually use lethal injection—via the three-drug formula—as a method of execution.4 This history is almost hard to believe in light of the fact that three decades later, death row inmates in Texas, as well as in nearly every other death penalty state, are challenging the three-drug formula on the grounds that the method is less reliable, and therefore less humane, than the method used to euthanize animals.5

…It was through the use of curare in vivisection that people began to consider the implications of what curare did not do, namely serve any anesthetic function. While curare inhibits all voluntary movement, it does nothing at all to affect consciousness, cognition, or the ability to feel pain.46…Dr. Hoggan, described the experience of a dog subjected to vivisection while paralyzed by curare.51 Curare, he testified, was used to:

render [the] dog helpless and incapable of any movement, even of breathing, which function was performed by a machine blowing through its windpipe. All this time, however, its intelligence, its sensitiveness, and its will, remained intact . . . . In this condition the side of the face, the interior of the belly, and the hip, were dissected out . . . continuously for ten consecutive hours . . . .52

In 1868, the Swedish physiologist A. F. Holmgren condemned curare as “the most cruel of all poisons.”53…in 1864 Claude Bernard offered another description of such a deceptively peaceful death:

A gentle sleep seems to occupy the transition from life to death. But it is nothing of the sort; the external appearances are deceitful. . . . [I]n fact . . . we discover that this death, which appears to steal on in so gentle a manner and so exempt from pain is, on the contrary, accompanied by the most atrocious sufferings that the imagination of man can conceive.81

No inmate has ever survived a botched lethal injection, so we do not know what it feels like to lie paralyzed on a gurney, unable even to blink an eye, consciously suffocating, while potassium burns through the veins on its way to the heart, until it finally causes cardiac arrest. But aided by the accounts of people who have suffered conscious paralysis on the operating table, one can begin to imagine.

“Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher”, Atreus 2008

“Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher”⁠, Clayton Atreus (2008-02-24; similar):

[Paper/​suicide note by a philosophy graduate who went on a motorcycle tour of Mexico and ran into a goat, instantly becoming a paraplegic⁠. Atreus discusses how paraplegia robs him of the ability to do almost everything he valued in life, from running to motorcycling to sex, while burdening him down with dead weight equivalent to hundreds of pounds, which make the simplest action, like getting out of a car, take minutes or hours, radically shortening his effective days. He is an ambulatory corpse, “two arms and a head”. Atreus discusses in detail the existential horror of his condition, from complete lack of bowel control requiring him to constantly dig his own feces out of his anus to being trapped in a wheelchair larger than a washing machine to the cruelty of well-intentioned encouragement to social alienation and his constant agonized awareness of everything he has lost. If the first question of philosophy is whether to commit suicide, Atreus finds that for him, the answer is “yes”. The paper/​book concludes with his description of stabbing himself and slowly bleeding to death.]

This book is born of pain. I wrote it out of compulsion during the most hellish time of my life. Writing it hurt me and was at times extremely unpleasant. Is the book my death-rattle or the sound of me screaming inside of my cage? Does its tone tell you I am angry or merely seeking a psychological expedient against the madness I see around me? The book is my creation but is also in many ways foreign to me for I am living in a foreign land. Most generally perhaps it is just the thoughts that passed through my head over the twenty months I spent moving toward death. I am certainly not a man who is at peace with his life, but on the contrary I despise it as I have never before despised anything. Who can sort it all out? Being imprisoned in the nightmarish cage of paraplegia has done all manner of violence to the deepest parts of me. Still, I have not gone mad. I am no literary genius and don’t expect everything I say to be understood, but if you would like to know what my experiences have been like, and what I am like, I will try my best to show you.

What do I think of this book? I have no affection for it. I find it odious and unattractive and am very saddened that I wrote it. But it is what I had to say. It took on a life of its own and when I now step back and look at what I created I regard it with distaste. If I could, I would put all of these horrible thoughts in a box, seal it forever, then go out and live life. I would run in the sun, enjoy my freedom, and revel in myself. But that’s the point. I cannot go out and live life because this is not life. So instead I speak to you from the place I now occupy, between life and death.

…Imagine a man cut off a few inches below the armpits. Neglect for a moment questions concerning how he eliminates waste and so forth, and just assume that the site of the “amputation” is, to borrow from Gogol, “as uniform as a newly fried pancake”. This man would be vastly, immensely better off than me. If you don’t know who Johnny Eck is, he had a role in the 1932 movie Freaks⁠. He was the guy who was essentially a torso with arms. He walked on his hands. How fortunate he was compared to me may not register right away, because the illusion I mentioned above would probably make you find Johnny Eck’s condition far more shocking than mine. But the truth is that mine is much more horrible than his, barring whatever social “advantages” the illusion of being whole might confer on me. The other day I saw a picture of a woman missing both legs. They were cut off mid-thigh. I thought that if only I was like her perhaps my life would be bearable. She was, in my opinion, better off than the pancake man, who is beyond any doubt far better off than me. One man said to me, “At least you didn’t lose your legs.” No, I did lose my legs, and my penis, and my pelvis. Let’s get something very clear about the difference between paraplegics and double-leg amputees. If tomorrow every paraplegic woke up as a double-leg amputee, the Earth itself would quiver with ecstasy from the collective bursting forth of joyous emotion. Tears of the most exquisitely overwhelming relief and happiness would stream down the cheeks of former paraplegics the world over. My wording here is deliberate. It’s no exaggeration. Losing both legs is bad, but paraplegia is ghoulishly, nightmarishly worse.

Part of what I wanted in desiring to die in the company of those I loved was to reassure them and perhaps give them courage to face death well. That was something I really wanted to give to them and I’m sorry I can only do it with these words. I was driven almost mad by all of the things many other people said about paraplegia, suicide, and what was still possible in my condition. I hope everyone understands how all of that affected the tone of what I wrote. I was so frustrated with all of it, I thought it was so insane. But I only wanted to break free of it all and say what I felt. I felt like it stifled me so horribly.

I cut some more and the blood is flowing well again. I’m surprised how long it is taking me to even feel anything. I thought I was dizzy but I’m not sure I am now. It’s 8:51 pm. I thought I would get cold but I’m not cold either, I’m actually hot but that’s probably the two sweaters. Starting to feel a little badly. Sweating, a little light-headed.

I’m going to go now, done writing. Goodbye everyone.

“A Rule Against Perpetuities For The 21st Century”, Schneider 2007

2007-schneider.pdf: “A Rule Against Perpetuities For The 21st Century”⁠, Frederick R. Schneider (2007; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

The common law rule against perpetuities maintained alienation of property by voiding interests in property that did not vest within a life in being at the creation of the interest plus twenty-one years. The rule was applied strictly, often producing harsh results. The courts used a what-might-happen test to strike down nonvested interests that might not have vested in a timely manner. During the last half-century, many legislatures have softened the application of the rule against perpetuities by enacting wait-and-see provisions, which require courts to decide cases based on the facts as they actually developed, and reformation, which allowed some nonvested interests to be reformed to save them from invalidity.

This paper describes the common law rule. Then it traces the modern developments, including promulgation of the widely adopted Uniform Statutory Rule Against Perpetuities, which includes an alternate 90 year fixed wait-and-see period to be applied in place of the common law’s lives in being plus twenty-one years.

The paper continues by exploring the policies which underlie the rule against perpetuities. Then, after finding that there is no substantial movement to repeal the rule except for trusts, it is established that proposals for that federal law, including federal transfer taxes, cannot and should not be used to implement the policies served by the rule itself.

There is a continuing need for state rules against perpetuities. The paper proposes that the rule be modified to make it more understandable and easier to apply. The proposed rule would replace lives in being plus twenty-one years with a fixed term of years. This would eliminate most of the difficulties encountered in application of the rule. Wait-and-see and reformation are part of the proposed rule. The proposed rule provides for determination of valid interests at the end of the fixed term of year Rule and contains a definition of “vested” to enable judges and attorneys to apply the rule in cases which will arise many years in the future.

“A Good List”, Leithauser 2006

“A good list”⁠, Brad Leithauser (2006-10-01; ; backlinks; similar):

Some nights, can’t sleep, I draw up a list,
Of everything I’ve never done wrong.
To look at me now, you might insist
My list could hardly be long,
But I’ve stolen no gnomes from my neighbor’s yard,
Or struck his dog, backing out my car.
Never ate my way up and down the Loire
On a stranger’s credit card.

I’ve never given a cop the slip,
Stuffed stiffs in a gravel quarry,
Or silenced Cub Scouts on a first camping trip
With an unspeakable ghost story.
Never lifted a vase from a museum foyer,
Or rifled a Turkish tourist’s backpack.
Never cheated at golf. Or slipped out a blackjack
And flattened a patent lawyer.

I never forged a lottery ticket,
Took three on a two-for-one pass,
Or, as a child, toasted a cricket
With a magnifying glass.
I never said “air” to mean “err”, or obstructed
Justice, or defrauded a securities firm.
Never mulcted—so far as I understand the term.
Or unjustly usufructed.

I never swindled a widow of all her stuff
By means of a false deed and title
Or stood up and shouted, My God, that’s enough!
At a nephew’s piano recital.
Never practiced arson, even as a prank,
Brightened church-suppers with off-color jokes,
Concocted an archaeological hoax—
Or dumped bleach in a goldfish tank.

Never smoked opium. Or smuggled gold
Across the Panamanian Isthmus.
Never hauled back and knocked a rival out cold,
Or missed a family Christmas.
Never borrowed a book I intended to keep.
…My list, once started, continues to grow,
Which is all for the good, but just goes to show
It’s the good who do not sleep.

“Incest Laws and Absent Taboos in Roman Egypt”, Strong 2005

2005-strong.pdf: “Incest Laws and Absent Taboos in Roman Egypt”⁠, Anise K. Strong (2005; ; backlinks; similar):

For at least two hundred and fifty years, many men in the Roman province of Egypt married their full sisters and raised families with them. During the same era, Roman law firmly banned close-kin marriages and denounced them both as nefas, or sacrilegious, and against the ius gentium, the laws shared by all civilized peoples. In Egypt, however, Roman officials deliberately chose not to enforce the relevant marriage laws among the Greek metic, hybrid, and native Egyptian populations; the bureaucracy also created loopholes within new laws which tolerated the practice. This policy created a gap between the absolute theoretical ban in Roman law and the reality of common incestuous unions in Egypt. Since Roman Egypt was both an important and a dangerous province, Rome needed both to pacify its people and to weaken Egypt’s status with its neighbors. By permitting incestuous marriages among non-Romans in Egypt, the Roman governors simultaneously pleased the local population while causing Jews and North Africans to hold their neighbor in contempt.

“Consider the Lobster: For 56 Years, the Maine Lobster Festival Has Been Drawing Crowds With the Promise of Sun, Fun, and Fine Food. One Visitor Would Argue That the Celebration Involves a Whole Lot More”, Wallace 2004

2004-wallace-considerthelobster.html: “Consider the Lobster: For 56 years, the Maine Lobster Festival has been drawing crowds with the promise of sun, fun, and fine food. One visitor would argue that the celebration involves a whole lot more”⁠, David Foster Wallace (2004-08-01; similar):

[Originally published in the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, this review of the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival generated some controversy among the readers of the culinary magazine. The essay is concerned with the ethics of boiling a creature alive in order to enhance the consumer’s pleasure, including a discussion of lobster sensory neurons.]

A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle…Another alternative is to put the lobster in cold salt water and then very slowly bring it up to a full boil. Cooks who advocate this method are going mostly on the analogy to a frog, which can supposedly be kept from jumping out of a boiling pot by heating the water incrementally. In order to save a lot of research-summarizing, I’ll simply assure you that the analogy between frogs and lobsters turns out not to hold.

…So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?

…As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

“A Defense of Cannibalism”, Wisnewski 2004

2004-wisnewski.pdf: “A Defense of Cannibalism”⁠, J. Jeremy Wisnewski (2004-07-01)

“Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement”, Haney 2003

2003-haney.pdf: “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement”⁠, Craig Haney (2003; ; backlinks; similar):

This article discusses the recent increase in the use of solitary-like confinement, especially the rise of so-called supermax prisons and the special mental health issues and challenges they pose. After briefly discussing the nature of these specialized and increasingly widespread units and the forces that have given rise to them, the article reviews some of the unique mental-health-related issues they present, including the large literature that exists on the negative psychological effects of isolation and the unusually high percentage of mentally ill prisoners who are confined there. It ends with a brief discussion of recent caselaw that addresses some of these mental health issues and suggests that the courts, though in some ways appropriately solicitous of the plight of mentally ill supermax prisoners, have overlooked some of the broader psychological problems these units create.

“Genetic Manipulation in Humans As a Matter of Rawlsian Justice”, Brown 2001

2001-brown.pdf: “Genetic Manipulation in Humans as a Matter of Rawlsian Justice”⁠, Jonathan S. Brown (2001-01; ; similar):

Theories of justice traditionally have regarded people’s natural endowments as being fixed facts of the genetic lottery.1 Some theorists, such as Robert Nozick⁠, believe that we own our traits, talents, abilities, and genes even though they were endowed to us by chance.2 Other theorists argue that the inequalities inherent in the natural distribution of talents and abilities place a moral obligation on us to compensate the less fortunate for their genetic disadvantages.3

The important point is that until now, theories of justice have regarded one’s genetic endowment as a fixed fact of nature rather than as a matter of justice. The ability to control the genetic endowment of future generations calls for a rethinking of the traditional theories of justice. This paper aims to investigate how one such theory—John Rawls’s—might be modified to help us respond to this new moral problem in ways that reflect more completely our considered convictions about fairness and justice.

I argue that Rawls’s theory as it stands does not give us satisfactory answers to questions about how to regulate genetic manipulation.4 Rawls’s failure to take natural primary goods into account in identifying the least advantaged leads him to counterintuitive conclusions about who in society is worst off. Similarly, worries about the inflexibility of social primary goods and the consequences these worries have for the instantiation of conditions of fair equality of opportunity are serious weaknesses in Rawls’s theory of justice.

I explain how we can modify Rawls’s theory into a framework that allows us to govern genetic manipulation in humans in ways that more fully accommodate the fixed points of our considered judgments about justice.51 go on to show how such a modified theory would instruct us to use technologies for genetic correction and enhancement. Assuming a safe, effective, and inexpensive means of genetic manipulation, the modified Rawlsian theory mandates certain kinds of genetic intervention while permitting or prohibiting others.

“Cornucopia: The Pace of Economic Growth in the 20th Century”, DeLong 2000

2000-delong.pdf: “Cornucopia: The Pace of Economic Growth in the 20th Century”⁠, J. Bradford DeLong (2000-03-01; ; similar):

There is one central fact about the economic history of the 20th century: above all, the century just past has been the century of increasing material wealth and economic productivity.

No previous era and no previous economy has seen material wealth and productive potential grow at such a pace. The bulk of America’s population today achieves standards of material comfort and capabilities that were beyond the reach of even the richest of previous centuries. Even lower middle-class households in relatively poor countries have today material standards of living that would make them, in many respects, the envy of the powerful and lordly of past centuries.

“Parachuting for Charity: Is It worth the Money? A 5-year Audit of Parachute Injuries in Tayside and the Cost to the NHS”, Lee et al 1999

1999-lee.pdf: “Parachuting for charity: is it worth the money? A 5-year audit of parachute injuries in Tayside and the cost to the NHS”⁠, C. T. Lee, P. Williams, W. A. Hadden (1999-05; ; similar):

All parachute injuries from two local parachute centres over a 5-year period were analysed.

Of 174 patients with injuries of varying severity, 94% were first-time charity-parachutists. The injury rate in charity-parachutists was 11% at an average cost of £3,751 per casualty. 63% of casualties who were charity-parachutists required hospital admission, representing a serious injury rate of 7%, at an average cost of £5,781 per patient. The amount raised per person for charity was £30. Each pound raised for charity cost the NHS £13.75 in return.

Parachuting for charity costs more money than it raises, carries a high risk of serious personal injury and places a substantial burden on health resources.

“Who Is Arguing About the Cat? Moral Action and Enlightenment According to Dōgen”, Mikkelson 1997

1997-mikkelson.pdf: “Who Is Arguing About the Cat? Moral Action and Enlightenment According to Dōgen”⁠, Douglas K. Mikkelson (1997-07; ⁠, ; backlinks; similar):

Once Ejo asked: “What is meant by the expression: ‘Cause and effect are not clouded’?” Dogen said: “Cause and effect are immovable.” Ejo asked: “If this is so, how can we escape?” Dogen replied: “Cause and effect emerge clearly at the same time.” Ejo asked: “If this is so, does cause prompt the next effect, or does effect bring about the next cause?” Dogen said: “If everything were like that, it would be like Nan-ch’uan cutting the cat. Because the assembly was unable to say anything, Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in two. Later, when Nan-ch’uan told this story to Chao-chou, the latter put his straw sandal on his head and went out, an excellent performance. If I had been Nan-ch’uan, I would have said: ‘Even if you can speak, I will cut the cat, and even if you cannot speak, I will still cut it. Who is arguing about the cat? Who can save the cat?’”

—Dogen, Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 1.61

…“One day a student asked me, ‘Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?’ I answered, ‘No, he does not.’ Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?” Hyakujo answered, “He does not ignore [cloud] causation [cause and effect].” No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened.2

“Causation” in this passage refers to “moral causation.” The Buddhist concept of karma acknowledges that good/​bad deeds, thoughts, and so forth result in good/​bad effects. Thus the import of the question posed by the “fox” is whether or not the enlightened person is subject to karma. Hyakujo’s answer, in effect, affirms that the enlightened person is subject to moral causation. Katsuki Sekida offers a common Zen interpretation of this passage in his comment: “Thus to ignore causation only compounds one’s malady. To recognize causation constitutes the remedy for it.”4

Dōgen’s employment of this story in the “Daishugyo” chapter of the Shōbōgenzō implies that, on one level, he thinks Hyakujo’s answer indeed provides a “remedy” for the old man’s predicament.5 Yet Dogen was rarely content with merely citing traditional Zen interpretations of passages; typically, he sought to push his students to a further understanding by a creative reinterpretation of a passage. Lest his disciple therefore think this not-ignoring/​recognition of causation is de facto a release from it in an ultimate sense, Dogen answers that the passage means “cause and effect are immovable.” In other words, moral causation, for Dogen, is an inexorable fact of human existence.

Given this fact, Ejo then asks how we can ever “escape” moral causation. Dogen’s response is enigmatic: “Cause and effect arise at the same time.” Nowhere in the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki does he further clarify this passage. However, the key to understanding this statement can be gleaned from his discussion of causation in the “Shoakumakusa” chapter of the Shōbōgenzō, wherein he observes that “cause is not before and effect is not after.”6 As Hee-Jin Kim explains, Dogen saw cause and effect as absolutely discontinuous moments that, in any given action, arise simultaneously from “thusness.” Therefore,

no sooner does one choose and act according to a particular course of action than are the results thereof (heavens, hells, or otherwise) realized in it… Man lives in the midst of causation from which he cannot escape even for a moment; nevertheless, he can live from moment to moment in such a way that these moments are the fulfilled moments of moral and spiritual freedom and purity in thusness.7

…Dogen’s own proposed response helps us to see the point he is trying to make via the words of the old Master: “In expressing full function, there are no fixed methods.” In other words, there is no fixed formula for expressing and eliciting without-thinking. Nan-ch’uan, in Dogen’s view, betrayed an attachment to only two positions—to kill or not kill the cat. He was “fixated”, we might say, by these two possibilities. This is evidenced by the fact that he does indeed carry out one of them precisely as he said he would.

“Medieval Monogamy”, Betzig 1995

1995-betzig.pdf: “Medieval Monogamy”⁠, Laura Betzig (1995-01-01; )

“A Proposal to Classify Happiness As a Psychiatric Disorder”, Bentall 1992

“A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder”⁠, R P. Bentall (1992; similar):

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains—that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

“The Kingfisher”, Oliver 1990

“The Kingfisher”⁠, Mary Oliver (1990; similar):

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water—hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

“Effectiveness of Measures to Prevent Unintentional Deaths of Infants and Children from Suffocation and Strangulation”, Krauss 1985

1985-kraus.pdf: “Effectiveness of measures to prevent unintentional deaths of infants and children from suffocation and strangulation”⁠, J. F. Krauss (1985-03; ; backlinks; similar):

Unintentional deaths from suffocation and strangulation account for about 20% of all nontransport-related infant and child fatalities in the United States. In the late 1950s, some preventive countermeasures were introduced to reduce the number of deaths resulting from refrigerator or freezer entrapment. A few years later, countermeasures were introduced to prevent deaths resulting from suffocation by plastic bags, inhumation, and mechanical strangulation from wedging in infant cribs. For three of these major causes of suffocation and strangulation deaths among infants and children (refrigerator or freezer entrapment, suffocation by plastic bag, and inhumation at construction sites), there appears to have been a statistically-significant decline in incidence; however, there is no evidence of a statistically-significant reduction in deaths from mechanical strangulation in cribs. The impact of current countermeasures is discussed, and some suggestions for new or modified approaches are made.

Figure 3: Rate of suffocation deaths in refrigerators or freezers per million children and ratio of fatal entrapment events per million units sold, California, 1960–1981

Figure 3 shows death rates per million children from suffocation in refrigerators and freezers in California from 1960 through 1981. The rates were high in the early 1960s, then declined, then increased in 1966–1968. Since then, the death rate has declined statistically-significantly (p = 0.05).

The ratio of suffocation events per million refrigerators and freezers sold in California is also displayed in Figure 3. Since 37% of entrapments in refrigerators or freezers involved more than 1 child (Table 3), it was appropriate to determine the ratio of events of entrapment in refrigerators or freezers (regardless of the number of children involved) to the number of units sold. As seen in figure 3, the pattern is about the same as for death rates; that is, there is a peak ratio in the mid-to-late 1960s followed by a steady decline (p = 0.025) through 1981. It should be noted that the approximate lifespan of a refrigerator built in the 1950s was 15 years, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. This may account for the lag before the decline in the incidence rate begins.

“A Conversation With Jeanne”, Miłosz 1984

“A Conversation With Jeanne”⁠, Czesław Miłosz (1984; similar):

Let us not talk philosophy, drop it, Jeanne. So many words, so much paper, who can stand it. I told you the truth about my distancing myself. I’ve stopped worrying about my misshapen life. It was no better and no worse than the usual human tragedies.

For over thirty years we have been waging our dispute As we do now, on the island under the skies of the tropics. We flee a downpour, in an instant the bright sun again, And I grow dumb, dazzled by the emerald essence of the leaves.

We submerge in foam at the line of the surf, We swim far, to where the horizon is a tangle of banana bush, With little windmills of palms. And I am under accusation: That I am not up to my oeuvre, That I do not demand enough from myself, As I could have learned from Karl Jaspers, That my scorn for the opinions of this age grows slack.

I roll on a wave and look at white clouds.

You are right, Jeanne, I don’t know how to care about the salvation of my soul. Some are called, others manage as well as they can. I accept it, what has befallen me is just. I don’t pretend to the dignity of a wise old age. Untranslatable into words, I chose my home in what is now, In things of this world, which exist and, for that reason, delight us: Nakedness of women on the beach, coppery cones of their breasts, Hibiscus, alamanda, a red lily, devouring With my eyes, lips, tongue, the guava juice, the juice of la prune de Cythère, Rum with ice and syrup, lianas-orchids In a rain forest, where trees stand on the stilts of their roots.

Death, you say, mine and yours, closer and closer, We suffered and this poor earth was not enough. The purple-black earth of vegetable gardens Will be here, either looked at or not. The sea, as today, will breathe from its depths. Growing small, I disappear in the immense, more and more free.


“In Praise of Self-deprecation”, Szymborska 1976

“In praise of self-deprecation”⁠, Wislawa Szymborska (1976; similar):

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

“Behavior Of Young Children Under Conditions Simulating Entrapment In Refrigerators”, Bain et al 1958

1958-bain.pdf: “Behavior Of Young Children Under Conditions Simulating Entrapment In Refrigerators”⁠, Katherine Bain, Marion L. Faegre, Robert S. Wyly (1958-10; ; similar):

Behavior of young children in a situation simulating entrapment in refrigerators was studied in order to develop standards for inside releasing devices, in accordance with Public Law 930 of the 84th Congress [H. R. 11969: To require certain safety devices on household refrigerators shipped in interstate commerce. Approved Aug. 2, 1956. Public Law No. 930⁠.].

Using a specially designed enclosure, 201 children 2 to 5 years of age took part in tests in which six devices were used, including two developed in the course of this experiment as the result of observation of behavior.

Success in escaping was dependent on the device, a child’s age and size and his behavior. It was also influenced by the educational level of the parents, a higher rate of success being associated with fewer years of education attained by mother and father combined. Three major types of behavior were observed: (1) inaction, with no effort or only slight effort to get out (24%); (2) purposeful effort to escape (39%); (3) violent action both directed toward escape and undirected (37%).

Some of the children made no outcry (6% of the 2-year-olds and 50% of the 5-year-olds). Not all children pushed. When tested with devices where pushing was appropriate, 61% used this technique. Some children had curious twisting and twining movements of the fingers or clenching of the hands. When presented with a gadget that could be grasped, some (18%) pulled, a few (9%) pushed, but 40% tried to turn it like a doorknob.

Time of confinement in the enclosure was short for most children. Three-fourths released themselves or were released in less than 3 minutes; one-fourth in less than 10 seconds. Of those who let themselves out, one-half did so in less than 10 seconds. One-third of the children emerged unruffled, about half were upset but could be comforted easily, and a small group (11%) required some help to become calm.

Forces exerted in any horizontal direction by the children for whom such records were obtained ranged up to 29 pounds. The average was about 10 pounds for 3-year-olds and about 21 pounds for 5-year-olds. For reasons not known, the 2-year-old group exerted a slightly greater average force than did the 3-year-old group.

More than one-fourth of the children exerted in excess of 18 pounds and almost two-thirds in excess of 12 pounds.

Data from these experiments proved valuable in developing standards for release devices (as required by Public Law 930), which are expected to be effective for self-release by a large percentage of, but not all, entrapped children. An important result of the behavior study was the finding that, when entrapped, children most often try to escape either by pushing on the door through which they entered the enclosure, or by manipulating a knob release as they would a doorknob. Relatively few children pushed against the back, sides or ceiling of the enclosure.

A follow-up study of 96 test subjects, 8 months after the tests, by interviews with the mothers showed very little obvious residual effect. Reversion to infantile behavior was not found. A number of children still talked about the tests, some with pleasure, a few with resentment. Mothers were not aware of more than ephemeral emotional upset in any of the children.

Reasons for the low level of anxiety engendered by the tests may lie in the precautions taken and in factors inherent in the situation; the parents were not involved in the incident, which enabled them to be calm and casual with the children.

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