courts without government

posted with Lulie's consent:

Lulie: How would the courts work in anarcho-capitalism?
Elliot: a court is just a group of people who you can hire to make a judgment about something
Elliot: this is useful b/c people will often both agree to let a court decide their argument and have that be binding
Lulie: who would hire them tho? wouldn't you hire who says you're innocent/should get money?
Elliot: courts that judge badly would have bad reputations. no one would agree to use them
Elliot: courts that you know in advance will rule one way .. the other people won't agree to it
Lulie: hmm
Elliot: there are a few ways courts would be used
Elliot: 1) people argue, then agree to use one
Elliot: 2) people agree to a contract that says if X happens then a court will resolve it
Elliot: it can say which court
Lulie: who would pay for it?
Elliot: in cases 1 and 2, the people hiring the court. they could both pay half sounds normal. or loser pays
Lulie: pays after ruling?
Lulie: why loser?
Elliot: the loser is the one who was wrong but made them go to court anyway
Lulie: ah
Elliot: it's not very important when they pay. if it's a problem, they could both put up the full money in advance, then winner gets his money back
Elliot: 3) criminals. this may sound tricky: what if the criminal refuses all courts except one w/ really shit reputation that always lets criminals off?
Lulie: ya?
Elliot: so you end up with the police force deciding.
Lulie: who's police?
Elliot: however, this is no worse a problem than the police force deciding who to arrest in the first place, or any of their other policies
Elliot: like any police company
Lulie: what if the criminal hired another police force that is in competition with the first, and his says what he did was fine?
Elliot: then the companies would have a dispute
Elliot: one thing they might do is fight. if one company spends their time helping criminals, hopefully others would want to fight them
Elliot: but if all the companies operate roughly in good faith, then it would be greatly in their interest to work out deals to avoid fighting each other
Elliot: deals -> general policies they all known in advance. such as that the following list of courts are all acceptable for trying people
Elliot: then if company X tries a person in one of those courts, company Y will refuse to interfere
Lulie: What if lots of people wanted to be criminals, so wouldn't hire police?
Lulie: so there wouldn't be as many police, or enough
Elliot: if lots of people wanna be criminals, your fucked, period
Elliot: in a democracy people can elect criminals to make crime legal!
Elliot: recently terrorists were elected to palestinian government. biggest party. they're in charge
Lulie: Would there still be one president or whatever who decides if we go to war?
Elliot: no. "we go to war" is collectivist. anyone who wants to goes to war (including anyone who wants to when paid/hired) is individualist
Lulie: so.. how would going to war work? (like if you wanted to help Iraq)
Elliot: raise/hire an army
Elliot: or persuade an existing one to do it
Lulie: ah
Lulie: Sounds like you'd need a lot of money
Elliot: for your own, yes
Elliot: although once set up it could be profitable to sell your armies services
Elliot: now, some people will be afraid of having lots of armies around run by leaders who could go bad
Elliot: and they are right that that would be scary
Elliot: it's unreasonable to make a big army and set yourself up as sole leader. (or it seems so today. i could be wrong)
Elliot: so, what to do?
Elliot: you need to set it up in such a way as to reduce your ability to do bad with it
Elliot: our society knows of a variety of ways to do this. there exist others as well
Lulie: *listening*
Elliot: like our government has 3 branches with different powers
Elliot: a very similar problem is: what if a guy wants to own nukes?
Elliot: again my answer is: sure ... as long as you make it safe. you need to have security systems in place
Elliot: how good do they need to be? how hard to bribe? well ... if they are better than present day US ones that must be good enough
Elliot: the army would probably want things like written policy documents, and to sign various treaties and human rights documents
Elliot: and then to have a chain of command and have ways lower people can say "no" if u try to break one of the rules
Lulie: cool ^^
Elliot: other mechanisms that help are having decision making processes be public so people know what's going on and it's hard for bad stuff to get started before people notice
Elliot: and letting the public vote on some policies increases legitimacy. and also then u get to use the knowledge of the voters so u get better policies
Elliot: so it's perfectly plausible that some armies would have public votes and go to iraq if the vote said to
Lulie: cool
Elliot: (or let public vote on person in charge of policy, and he decides)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Being Sympathetic To Children

I'm going to tell a short story about what it's like to be young. It's about food, but it could just as well be about homework or cleaning or all sorts of other things. Then I'm going to make some suggestions about how to talk to young people in a sympathetic way by keeping the perspective in the story in mind.

Suppose your parents are constantly pressuring you: you must eat more beef and lettuce, and less lamb and carrots. It's for your health. And will make you skinny. But dammit you like lamb with carrots and you're tired of beef. And lettuce tastes like dirt. You'd get annoyed with them and you'd pick up they have no real arguments/reasons behind their crap. Well, you might pick that up. But it's hard. Parents bluff. A strong willed independent person will pick it up and ignore them. But that's rare, especially in young people. Not that most people are docile. Many will be unsure and conflicted. Many will sometimes ignore parents but sometimes think they might know something or have a point.

Parents would have hard time doing this alone. If TV was constantly explaining how good for you carrots are, it'd never work. Parents are thus known to complain incessantly about influences (ie sources of information that might reveal their bluffs and lies). But on a lot of issues, the TV isn't going to help much. There are other sources of information as well. Teachers, friends, books, magazines, internet

Overall a young person gets a lot of pressure on the side of your parents. Random adults he meets for dinner will make comments in support of the same bluffs his own parents made. His own friends will face similar lies from their parents, and also be unsure. And the strong independent friends will seem reckless and not good role models.

So, what he really really needs is not one more person saying that maybe his parents are right about carrots. It is someone encouraging him to make up his own mind

Conventional wisdom is true sometimes. So let's pretend you agree with the conventional wisdom about a particular issue. It doesn't matter very much which one. You still face the issue of how to communicate this while remaining sympathetic. Even if the parents are correct now and then, that doesn't mean you should be on their side. So what can you say?

Here's my suggestion:

Before you can rightly say the same thing his parents said you need to comment about how much you agree with him that they are nasty bastards and he shouldn't listen to them. They lie. Then say if they are right it's only by pure luck. Then add stuff about how he should make his own choices and only take your advice if you are persuasive. Then add stuff about how this is not a matter of life and death and he can always change his mind later and this whole issue really shouldn't be a very big deal. *Then* say you happen to think carrots are bad, and give real reasons. (Only do this if he has not heard your set of reasons before. If he is familiar with them, do not repeat, just refer to them and ask what he thinks is wrong with those reasons)

One flaw with the above is that you can't actually tell many children that their parents are nasty bastards. They rightly don't want to fight with their parents. So if you say that, they may be alienated from you. So a real statement often has the even harder task of simultaneously distancing from the parents and being sympathetic to them.

So one possible approach is to say (it really really depends on the person, and your relationship with him):

I saw you arguing with your parents about food again yesterday. Your parents mean well, but they care about you so much that they are over-zealous and over-protective. They are biased and it effects their judgment. So as much as they are trying to help, if your wellbeing is involved ... Their advice is probably perfectly safe but not necessarily the most rational. There are sometimes other choices that'd be good too. So you shouldn't feel compelled to do everything they say. You know that already. That's why you want to eat lamb and carrots, and be a chess player not a lawyer. And I agree with you about chess: being a lawyer is definitely not for everyone and you should try doing something you like. But I wanted to let you know that I actually avoid eating carrots myself (but lamb I do eat now and then). I have a book with me if you're curious about my reasons. It is about zen philosophy and explains why we shouldn't eat carrots. So if you want you can read it and make up your own mind. It's not too big a deal either way, but I thought you'd like to know there are serious reasons people don't eat carrots.

So note some of the key elements:

- Agrees with parent's conclusion (no carrots) without endorsing parents
- Shows seriousness of thinking child should make his own choices by endorsing him in a different disagreement with his parents
- Not hateful towards parents but also says they may be wrong
- Not trying to pressure child, only trying to genuinely offer helpful information
- Has reasons for position and offers them to child so he can evaluate them himself

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

How Long Before I Get Tired Of This?

So, let's go through the top 5 hits for "israel" on Google News (a site which won't include LGF).

Annan ... said Israel was responsible for most of the violations of the fragile cease-fire

Hezbollah is supposed to be disarmed, but that's not going to happen.

Lebanon is supposed to secure its borders, but that hasn't happened.

Hezbollah is supposed to release the Israelis they kidnapped to start the war, but that hasn't happened.

Hezbollah isn't supposed to smuggle new weapons into Lebanon, but that isn't going very well.

To be responsible for most of the violations, Israel will need to have a list of at least about twenty (except it wouldn't be very hard to find twenty specific violations by Hezbollah, so the list ought to be a lot longer). I can't wait to see the list.

War proof of Israel lobby's power

Why does the headline report as fact what was only alleged by two idiots?

Their argument, as best I can decode it, says that US support for Israel during the Lebanon war has increased the likelihood that Iran and Syria will continue to supply Hezbollah with weapons, because it strained the US (diplomatic) position in the Middle East.

So, we must avoid supporting Israel against Hezbollah, because that would cost us the credibility required to be able to help Israel against Hezbollah.

Third we have an article that doesn't care to differentiate between terrorists and innocents:
Israeli troops killed five Palestinians and wounded a dozen in attacks on militants in the Gaza Strip

See, it uses the word "Palestinian" where it should say "terrorist". Perhaps a case can be made that there isn't much difference, but I don't think that's what Reuters intended.

The confusion continues with comments like this:
The Israeli army has killed more than 190 Palestinians in Gaza since ... June 25

Where is the effort to figure out how many of those people should have died?

Here, I'll help generate criteria. Anyone who died while firing a machine gun at Jews, wasn't innocent. Anyone who died while planting a bomb, like the people mentioned earlier in this article, wasn't innocent.

Fourth we have an article about how most Israeli Arabs are disloyal. The author doesn't know that's what he's writing about, but he is:
Seventy-five percent of the Arab public in Israel believes that the military operation in Lebanon was a war crime


Sixty-four percent said they watched al-Jazeera, and rated it as being highly credible. Forty-six percent said they relied on al-Manar's reports, the channel which identifies with Hizbullah. Only 5 percent said the news on the Israeli network Channel One was credible


55 percent of the respondents rated Hizbullah's reports of the war as more credible than the Israeli ones. Only nine percent believed the opposite.

My main complaint about this article is the headline:
Israeli Arabs: Israel committed war crimes in Lebanon

Do we really need more headlines about how some idiot accused Israel of war crimes? Why not use, "Israeli Arabs: Hezbollah Is Credible"? It's a lot more informative than yet another accusation against Israel, and it *implies* the original title anyway.

Fifth we have an article which is a mix of accusations by a "human rights group" and insistence by Israel that it investigates abuses. Which makes a great excuse to use this in the headline:
Israel abused Palestinians

If the *Palestinians* said they investigate complaints about *their* abuses of Palestinians (let alone their abuses of Israelis) it'd be a bad joke. So why does the "human rights" group focus on the party that tries to do the right thing, over the one that does not try?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)


On Dawson's Creek, Dawson and Pacey both like Joey, and she likes both of them. There lots of tension and she feels pressured to choose one of them to be with.

Dawson and Pacey both want to have Joey in a romantic, exclusive relationship. They can't share. Sharing sounds horrible to them.

And in general, people don't see how anything but exclusivity could work. They want the girl all the time, so they'd be missing out if they only got her part of the time.

But here's the thing. In the show, for the last episode they skip forward in time 5 years, and neither is with Joey (yet). But both Dawson and Pacey are pretty much OK with that. They are both capable of getting over it, and having a happy life with no Joey.

So when you see it from that perspective, feeling that only exclusivity could work is silly. They can be happy with nothing, so certainly they don't need everything. Now compare with if Joey spent one day a week with Dawson, and one day a week with Pacey. In those 5 years, she'd have had 250 days with each of them, instead of zero. That's a lot of days. And as their lives went on, it'd be a huge improvement over having nothing.

The fact they can be happy with no Joey, proves they can also be happy with some Joey. They shouldn't think of it as "not enough", they should think of it as something positively good that they can have without anyone being hurt.

Having someone *all* the time is crazy, anyway. Everyone should have his/her own life. Everyone is different, so no two people have exactly the same interests.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Amnesty Fucking International

top google hit for: israel collateral damage

is a piece titled:
Deliberate destruction or "collateral damage"? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure

by guess who:

Amnesty International

and guess what their conclusion is

but wait, get this...

the piece is FAR WORSE than the crap i'm used to reading from like the BBC or NYT. some quotes:

The widespread destruction of apartments, houses, electricity and water services, roads, bridges, factories and ports, in addition to several statements by Israeli officials, suggests a policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population in an effort to get them to turn against Hizbullah. Israeli attacks did not diminish, nor did their pattern appear to change, even when it became clear that the victims of the bombardment were predominantly civilians, which was the case from the first days of the conflict.

Israel has asserted that Hizbullah fighters have enmeshed themselves in the civilian population for the purpose of creating "human shields". While the use of civilians to shield a combatant from attack is a war crime, under international humanitarian law such use does not release the opposing party from its obligations towards the protection of the civilian population.

Many of the violations examined in this report are war crimes that give rise to individual criminal responsibility. They include directly attacking civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. People against whom there is prima facie evidence of responsibility for the commission of these crimes are subject to criminal accountability anywhere in the world through the exercise of universal jurisdiction.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Mental Illness

Imagine that 4% of the population hears voices. Imagine further that 25% of those people are psychotic (note: this may not be the proper, technical usage of the term, but it doesn't matter to my point). No amount of explaining the situation seems to help them. The psychotic rate in the general population is thus 1%. The voices drive them crazy and make them completely dysfunctional.

Now, we know that hearing voices doesn't cause psychosis all by itself. 75% of the people who hear voices function perfectly fine. They ignore their voices, or make friends with them, or write books about them. As real as their voices seem, they are able to go on with life normally.

So, we can conclude that the psychotic people have a second thing wrong, which the non-psychotic people do not have. We'll call this disorder_2. disorder_2 may be a combination of many things, but it doesn't matter to my point. It's the set of whatever things are needed to make people with disorder_1 (hearing voices) psychotic. Note there could also be multiple separate options for what disorder_2: different ways to turn hearing voices into a problem. But this also isn't important right now.

So, what do we know about disorder_2? We know that it prevents people from understanding our advice about voices. They don't seem to listen when we tell them the voices aren't real. Or they can't figure out which voices we mean. But there's something a lot cooler than we know.

Assuming disorder_1 and disorder_2 are statistically independent, then the rate of disorder_2 in the population is an amazing 25%. So we have this thing, which is very common, and it makes people not listen to reason.

First we will consider that it might be a brain lesion. But if it is, why can't we tell people that? Why can't they step back, and know their brain is damaged, and not trust their own judgment and listen to us? Well, maybe they have a second brain lesion on the part of the brain which allows for that. But then, why can't they know *that*, and get some perspective, and figure out something to do that is rationally compatible with their brain malfunctioning? Why doesn't the person say he's really confused and just sit down, and not do anything, and ask for help, and get people to help him work out what is real? Well, maybe there is a brain lesion on the part of the brain needed for *that* too. But no matter how many brain lesions we postulate, there will always be a creative solution for how to continue rationally. Unless: there's one way there won't be a creative solution: due to all the brain lesions, the person isn't creative anymore. The person isn't a thinking human being anymore.

But most psychotic people aren't that far gone. Sure they're crazy, but they are also people. They still speak English, and do all sorts of things that a cow can't do. So let's imagine that disorder_2 is *not* a brain lesion.

What else might disorder_2 be? One possibility is that it's being irrational. Bear in mind that not all irrationality is the same. So imagine there is a specific type which is disorder_2. When someone with this form of irrationality hears voices, he can't be talked into reacting rationally, because he's not a rational person. This would explain all the data.

Now, let's consider how to treat these people. First consider treating disorder_2, assuming it is an irrationality. Suppose we have a set of arguments and explanations which cures this irrationality. This would be the best course, because we know the voices will then be harmless, and we know that being irrational will have other bad effects besides causing psychosis in people who hear voices.

Now imagine we have a drug which cures hearing voices. This would instantly cure psychosis in these people. But they would remain irrational. The cure would still be a very good thing. However, there is a danger. The person might be confirmed in his irrationality. If he believed that his only problem was disorder_1, the voices, he would wrong believe his worldview wasn't causing any problems, even though it was. If one of his friends told him that part of the problem was his irrationality, he could take his cure as proof that his irrationality was not the reason for his psychosis.

To avoid this danger, what would we need to do? It's pretty simple: we'd tell people that we are not curing their real problem. We are removing something from them which is completely harmless, but which reacts badly with their real disorder (this would be true whether the real disorder is irrationality or not). We might try an analogy to explain, like this one: they are like a man who gets angry a number of things including pillows, and we've removed all pillows from his house. Instantly, he is not angry when at home. But we haven't really cured him.

So the two primary conclusions we should take from this are:

1) irrationality may be a necessary component of many mental illnesses

2) many cures for mental illness, no matter how effective they seem to be, may be just like removing pillows. they may not be cures at all.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Israel Lebanon Update

Israel Sets Goal of Pulling Troops Out of Lebanon by Sunday

I haven't read the news for a while. Last I heard, the UN was supposed to bring in 15,000 human shields (troops not allowed to shoot at terrorists, and positioned so that terrorists can shelter next to them, like they did in the Lebanon war) to protect Israel from Hezbollah. It looked like many of these soldiers would be from countries that don't recognize the state of Israel. Somehow that isn't insane enough to be laughed out of the UN. Meanwhile Israel was going to get nothing but a new government (because the current one messed up the war by taking a UN deal instead of killing more terrorists). Included in unkept promises, Israel was not going to get back the soldiers who were abducted to start the war, Hezbollah was not going to be disarmed, and Israel was not going to have security. Oh, and those UN peacekeepers would be sure to help rebuild things for terrorists. Like they did during the Lebanon war when they repaired roads that Israel had just bombed out of military necessity.

Now things are worse.
the United Nations forces, which are supposed to reinforce the Lebanese Army, were not up to strength. They number barely more than 5,000 now, only about 3,000 more than when the war ended and far short of the 15,000 called for under the resolution.

So Israel is about to leave, and the UN still hasn't really arrived. I'm actually not sure if the lack of UN presence is a good or bad thing.
last Friday ... Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, appeared in public for the first time to declare a divine victory.

That can't be good. He's no longer scared that we will kill him if he shows his face. We should kill him.
Israel also said it would continue aerial surveillance over Lebanon to prevent the resupply of weapons to Hezbollah until the resolution was fully carried out. That includes the release of two captured Israeli soldiers and the monitoring of the largely unmarked border between Lebanon and Syria, which helped to supply Hezbollah with sophisticated arms from Iran and Syria itself.

The United Nations forces say that such flights constitute Israeli violations of the cease-fire.

The UN thinks that trying to enforce the terms of the cease fire is a violation of the cease fire. No wonder they aren't enforcing the terms...
Since the cease-fire, 14 Lebanese have been killed and 90 injured by the bomblets, the United Nations said

Why don't we hear about dead Israeli kids who played with unexploded Hezbollah rockets? It's not because Hezbollah has high quality munitions that always explode. It's because Israeli parents are responsible enough to warn their kids about the danger.

Who is blamed for the irresponsibility of Lebanese people? The Jews, of course.
Israel captured the strategic plateau in the 1967 war and unilaterally annexed it in 1981. Some Israelis have suggested that given the threat from Iran, Israel should accept a Syrian offer for peace talks to try to wean Syria, a Sunni country, away from its alliance with Tehran.

Does the New York Times think this is subtle? When they want to give their opinion, they just say "some people said" and call it reporting. They even had the nerve to say this is the opinion of Israelis.

So what is their opinion? They want Israel to give away the Golan Heights to Syria so that terrorists can shoot off it to kill Jews. Why is this a good idea? Because it's appeasement, and if we learned anything from World War II, it's how well appeasement works. And if Israel doesn't understand this, it shows a lack of nuance.

So in conclusion, I'm glad I've been ignoring the news, and I will return to that policy for a while.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Will you tell me about morality?
Elliot: Morality is an area of knowledge. It includes theories about how to live well, and how to make good choices, and what's right and wrong and good and evil. You could also call morality the theory of decision making.
Caeli: How can we determine what is moral, or not?
Elliot: For a lot of questions, we don't have to figure it out. We already know. We know stealing is wrong, and murder is wrong, and being kind to our friends is right. The usual thing to do is to use the knowledge we already have. We don't have to justify it. All we have to do is be willing to improve on it if it seems to have problems or flaws. But as long as it seems to work, then philosophically there's nothing wrong with using it even if we can't prove it's right.
Caeli: Then how will our moral knowledge get better? Do we really have to wait for problems -- for things to go wrong -- before we can fix them?
Elliot: No. If you want to, you can think about morality. If you do thought experiments, and imagine situations, and what you'd do in them, you can find problems now. And if you're suspicious there might be a problem, or just curious, then go right ahead and look for improvements.
Caeli: What else will help?
Elliot: It is good to fit theories into more general frameworks, or alter them to be more universal, or connect them with other ideas we have. Doing this is interesting in its own right; it's part of how we learn. But it also helps us correct errors. When our ideas don't mesh together nicely, that is a sign they could be improved. And the more generally they apply, the more varied examples we can try them out on, which will help reveal hidden flaws.
Elliot: Note that all this is exactly the same way that we would approach any other topic.
Caeli: What if I do want to know justifications for morality? Why are things moral?
Elliot: Well that's tricky, and we don't know the whole answer. But to start with, morality is the right way to live. That means it works well, in terms of whatever criteria are important. We have a lot of ideas about what those criteria are, like happiness, wealth creation, freedom, scientific achievement, or creating a lasting and valuable political tradition such as the United States government. And there are smaller things we value, like helping a friend, or teaching our child something he wanted to know, or cooking a tasty meal, or eating a tasty meal. Some of the things I just said might be wrong. Maybe they aren't so good after all. One of the things morality is about is figuring out which are right.
Caeli: I'm getting a clearer picture, but what about the foundations? What do we justify moral ideas in terms of?
Elliot: Let me be very clear and say again that we do not have to justify ourselves. And the whole idea of foundations is confused: we never discover ultimate, final, true foundations upon which we can never improve. There are always more subtle problems that we can work on.
Elliot: And knowing the correct foundations, or the reasons for things, is often not very helpful. Just because you discover how your fear of spiders came into existence doesn't necessarily mean you're any closer to getting rid of the phobia.
Elliot: Note, again, that this is the same for other topics besides morality.
Elliot: But with that said, it is interesting to think about why things are right. We have a lot of answers to that, but they aren't very well connected, and we could do with some deeper truths. I do have thoughts about that. I think I can answer your question to your satisfaction.
Caeli: That sounds good. Go ahead.
Elliot: What does morality consist of? Well, it's not supernatural. And it's not from God. What's left? It must come from physics, logic, and epistemology.
Caeli: What's epistemology?
Elliot: It is knowledge about knowledge. It answers questions like how we learn. But it doesn't just apply to humans. Lots of things contain knowledge. The obvious example is books or computers. Those contain the knowledge we put into them. Animals and plants also contain knowledge. Or perhaps saying they express knowledge would be clearer. I don't mean they have a compartment inside in which the knowledge is stored, though they do have DNA. But consider a tree. It expresses knowledge about how to turn sunlight into energy. A wolf expresses knowledge about how to hunt prey. There's also less obvious human-made examples, like a table embodies knowledge of how to keep items in locations that are convenient for humans.
Caeli: Alright, I get the idea. You mean knowledge very broadly.
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Isn't epistemology a type of logic?
Elliot: Yes, you can think of it that way. In that sense, math is logic as well. And how to argue is a matter of logic. And how to lie with statistics is a matter of logic. I consider epistemology important enough to mention by name.
Caeli: Is logic part of physics?
Elliot: I don't know. But I do know that brains are physical objects, so our knowledge of logic comes only through physical processes, which we know about through physics.
Caeli: Alright, so morality consists of physics, logic, and epistemology. Now what?
Elliot: This might appear completely useless. It's a bit like saying a computer consists of atoms. Yes, it does. But that doesn't tell us anything about how it works.
Caeli: It's reductionist.
Elliot: Yes. But we can move on from here. Morality is going to let people get good things. Let's ignore what the things are for now, and consider the getting. How do people accomplish their goals and get what they want? What will let them do that?
Caeli: Hey, it seems like we are getting somewhere already.
Elliot: Yes. So we're going to want power, in a very general sense. The more humans can shape reality, and have the power to get what they want, the more they will be able to get good things, whatever those are.
Elliot: Second is knowledge. People will need to know what is good or they might accomplish the wrong things.
Caeli: No wonder you mentioned epistemology in particular.
Elliot: Third is error correction. People might make mistakes while getting these good things, or they might be mistaken about what is good. So we're going to need to be able to deal with that and fix mistakes.
Elliot: Fourth is consistency. If people try for contradictory things, that won't work. Another way to say this is not to be self-defeating. If you're trying to get two different things, but it's not possible to get both, then you're bound to fail.
Caeli: This is cool so far.
Elliot: So these are our ingredients to build with. Now keep in mind that I could have named other ingredients. It isn't very important. There are a lot of ways to cover the same general ideas and name them different things.
Caeli: Alright, so what's the next step?
Elliot: Next we will do a thought experiment.
Elliot: The following is partly due to David Deutsch. It was his idea that for almost all practical purposes, it does not matter what the foundations of morality are, so long as you take morality seriously and apply it universally. And it was his idea to apply this to a morality based on squirrels.
Elliot: So, we haven't said what the good stuff people are trying to get is. Let's imagine the answer is maximizing the number of living squirrels, and see what happens.
Caeli: Isn't that absurd? And easily variable: why not bison?
Elliot: Yes it's absurd. But the consequences are interesting anyway. I don't want to give away the ending, so let's keep going.
Caeli: Let's clarify first. Do we want to maximize the number of squirrels today, or how do we count?
Elliot: The goal is the most squirrels at the most times. Take the average number of live squirrels at any given time, since the universe started, until the present, and that's your current score. The goal is to increase the number as high as possible.
Caeli: So should I start a squirrel farm and raise squirrels?
Elliot: Heavens no! Squirrels are dirty rodents. They might have diseases. You won't be able to sell them. Maybe you could get the government to pay, but then you'll be beholden to them.
Caeli: It sounds like you don't like squirrels. But for the sake of the thought experiment, shouldn't you pretend that you do?
Elliot: No. That isn't one of the things we're imagining.
Caeli: But we are considered a squirrel-based morality.
Elliot: We want to maximize their number over long timeframes. We don't have to like them.
Caeli: Won't liking squirrels help us treat them better, and increase their population?
Elliot: So, you build a squirrel farm. You have thousands of squirrels for tens of years. You increase the squirrel score a tiny fraction of a point.
Caeli: Isn't that better than nothing?
Elliot: It's not good enough to get a score of one.
Caeli: What should we do instead?
Elliot: Plan for the long term. The first thing to worry about is that a meteorite, exploding sun, or other large scale disaster wipes out humanity or squirrels or both. Making sure that doesn't happen is far more important than any farm. So we should focus on science before farms.
Caeli: That's counter-intuitive.
Elliot: Next, I'm worried about nuclear war, terrorists, and large problems here at home. They probably wouldn't be able to destroy us entirely, but they'd set us back and set science back. So we need good diplomacy and foreign policy to protect our scientific research.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense.
Elliot: And we need a powerful economy in order to produce materials for setting up millions of squirrel farms (or more). So capitalism and free trade are important.
Caeli: Hey, now we're getting somewhere, you've actually mentioned squirrels again.
Elliot: Yeah. Now where should we put these farms? On Earth, they'll just get in the way of people. Squirrels are dirty rodents that no one likes, and we need happy people to do science and capitalism.
Caeli: Shouldn't people change to like squirrels? Squirrels are the focus of morality!
Elliot: I don't see any need for that. We're going to put the squirrel farms on other planets. Humans and squirrels don't need to share any planets.
Caeli: Don't people like to have some squirrels around?
Elliot: Yes, I suppose so. Our dogs need something to chase. So we'll have squirrels in parks still. The point is we don't need to locate any squirrel farms on Earth. We want human civilization concentrated to reduce travel time.
Caeli: So your general idea is that the best way to maximize squirrels is to work on science, diplomacy, capitalism, and normal things -- the same things people care about today in real life -- and then eventually, when we are powerful enough, to colonize other planets with squirrels?
Elliot: Yes.
Caeli: Is there anything we should do differently? Maybe farmers shouldn't shoot squirrels.
Elliot: If a farmer shoots a squirrel, we get a tiny reduction in our squirrel score. If a farmer is unhappy because he didn't get to shoot a squirrel, we get a reduction in farm productivity, which will delay the squirrel colonies. Every day those are delayed, with their trillions (or whatever) of squirrels, counts for a lot.
Caeli: Will we colonize the moon with squirrels, or Mars?
Elliot: No, human colonization will come first. That will help us get the raw materials and production plants needed for a truly massive squirrel colonizing effort later.
Caeli: When will we finally make a lot of squirrels?
Elliot: Basically, once it's easy.
Caeli: Should we at least do it slightly before then. Perhaps as soon as we could do it universe-wide, instead of when it's easy to do it universe-wide?
Elliot: That's a good question. But we need to be able to do it reliably. If we barely have enough resources, and we're stretched thin, then that's very risky. Something could go wrong. When it's easy is approximately when the risks will be gone.
Caeli: OK, that makes sense. We need to get this right. We wouldn't want all the colonies to die because we made a mistake.
Caeli: I guess reliability is very important. If our ultimate goal is lots of squirrels, we should do everything we can to make absolutely sure that that happens. So, what if people forget about the plan to colonize planets with squirrels? Or change their minds about the squirrel mission?
Elliot: That's a good question. And the solution is to have institutions in our society for error correction. What that means is we must have lots of criticism, all the time. In an environment heavy on criticism, bad ideas are refuted, so no rival theories will ever be able to challenge the squirrel theory. If the criticism ever went away then what would matter is things like how easy a theory is to remember, not whether it's true. So then squirrels might lose. Criticism is their best defense against false ideas.
Caeli: Won't there also be criticism of the squirrel theory.
Elliot: Yes. But so what? It's true, so it will survive the criticism. Whatever question you ask of it, it will have an answer. And all arguments will eventually lead people to squirrels.
Elliot: As a bonus, institutions of criticism like this have the happy property that if the squirrel theory is not right, or we've slightly misunderstood it, or whatever, then that error will be corrected.
Caeli: What if we just entrench the squirrel theory. We'll indoctrinate our kids with it. Everyone will be required to believe it. I know it's heavy handed, but squirrels are worth it. Won't that be even more reliable? People can be stupid and might not understand the squirrel theory's brilliance, even though we know it's true.
Elliot: That would not work reliably at all. People might start to question the indoctrination. Or they might be indoctrinated with something else. Institutions might change over time. Preventing that is very hard. Or our civilization might go extinct because it has a static culture and can't do science. Or we might just never reach the stars and make the colonies it dreams of: we aren't indoctrinated with how to accomplish our mission, and indoctrinated people don't think freely so might not invent the answers.
Elliot: The one and only advantage squirrel theory has over rival moralities is that it's true. That does not mean it indoctrinates people better. So the only reliable thing to do is play to our strength and use criticism and persuasion.
Caeli: That makes sense, and it also is a much nicer way to live. We get to think instead of be taught to mindlessly obey.
Elliot: Yes :)
Elliot: Another thing to consider is that institutions of criticism, which keep the squirrel theory prominent, are far more important than actually creating lots of squirrels. If we neglect the squirrel project, we'll be led back to it. People will argue that we aren't making enough squirrels, and we'll change our policies. But if we ever neglect our institutions of error correction and criticism, then no matter how many squirrels we already have, we might stop caring about them and throw away the project overnight.
Caeli: OK, I think I've got the idea now. So, what's the overall point?
Elliot: This way of thinking applies to more than squirrels. Take any pattern of atoms, and make the goal to spread it across the universe, and what we'll need to do is maximize human power first, and then when we're ready, spread it in a stable, reliable, risk-free way. (Note: for squirrels, the pattern is not a single squirrel, it's a habitat with many squirrels, oxygen, water, and food.)
Elliot: So for any goal like that, we should ignore the goal and focus on human power. We need to enable ourselves first. And we need to learn how to accomplish the goal, and avoid mistakes, so knowledge and error correction come in there. And we wouldn't want to start a campaign to ban space flight, or science: that'd be inconsistent with our goal.
Caeli: OK, I see how all goals like that are best accomplished with the four ingredients you mentioned earlier.
Elliot: Amusingly, the goal of minimizing the number of squirrels also has very similar steps to maximizing squirrels. We need human power to reliably keep squirrels extinct, and make sure aliens never create any, and make sure a terrorist doesn't build a squirrel, and make sure squirrels never evolve again somewhere. So we must monitor the whole universe vigilantly, and we must keep the eradication of squirrels alive in public debate. Everything is the same, except what we do at the end.
Elliot: So, if the basis of morality is squirrels, or bison, or crystals, and we think carefully enough about what to do, then what we'd end up with is almost exactly the same morality that people believe in today: we'd first value human happiness, freedom, science, progress, peace, wealth, and so on. The only difference would be one extra step, much later in time, where we'd fill most of the universe with squirrels or bison or whatever.
Caeli: That's interesting.
Elliot: So each theory of morality is partly the same, and partly different. The part that's different could be maximizing squirrels. It could be maximizing bison. It could be minimizing squirrels. That part is easily variable, which makes it a bad explanation. But the other parts, about knowledge creation, wealth, happiness, human power, and freedom are all constant. They seem more universal. They at least universally apply to moral theories that minimize or maximize things (which includes any sort of utilitarianism).
Caeli: So, it doesn't really matter what the basis for morality is?
Elliot: Exactly. And suppose we thought the basis for morality was squirrels, but we were wrong. This would not cause any significant problems. We'd end up doing the right thing for now, and learning of our mistake long before we actually filled the universe with squirrels.
Caeli: OK. I think I'm getting the idea. But can you clarify how things like science follow from our ingredients?
Elliot: Yes, certainly. Science helps increase our knowledge. And this understanding of reality helps us better avoid errors. Power to shape reality comes from knowledge, but also from having great tools, and having resources. So we want robots, computers, factories, brooms, freezers, toilets, and so on. How do we get these? Capitalism. Free trade.
Caeli: What about fair trade, communism, and so on?
Elliot: Some people think those are what we need. It doesn't really matter to my point. We need a good economic system, whichever one it is. And we already know how to argue about which is good. We have lots of professional economists, and philosophers, who know about this. And we have lots of good books about it.
Caeli: OK. So go on.
Elliot: Acting consistently, and avoiding self-defeating policies, is a matter of knowledge too. If we wanted, we could boil it all down to knowledge, and useful physical manifestations of that knowledge. But it's better to go the other way, and boil it up to freedom, science, and so on.
Caeli: Why is freedom important?
Elliot: Thinking freely means there aren't any good ideas that are being automatically ruled out. And it means being free to question any ideas we already have, so we can find errors in them. Living freely means being able to shape our part of the universe in the best ways for us. And when everyone agrees about freedom, there will be no wars, and no fighting. Everyone will work on their own goals, and no one will mind, and no one will want to control others. Even if they disagree.
Caeli: So let me try to summarize the structure of your argument.
Elliot: Go for it.
Caeli: There are certain ingredients that help us get what we want, whatever that may be. And it turns out that what specifically we want is not critical: the way to get it will be about the same regardless. In short, the ingredients are knowledge and human power. But they imply valuing science, freedom, wealth, and roughly the same things we value today.
Elliot: That's right. So there you go. A justification of the morality we already know, from simple principles.
Caeli: What about rationality? I don't believe you mentioned it.
Elliot: You're right. We've been looking at issues on a large scale. How individuals should make choices is an important matter too. Rationality is one of the things I advocate they strive for. I'll tell you about individual-sized morality tomorrow, OK?
Caeli: Yes. :) Bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (11)

Morality Is Not For God

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Elliot: Here's something I find fairly amazing. Read this quote by Jack: "Morality is about things like how can there be a good God when there is evil in the world, and honoring thy parents. I'm an atheist and don't believe in that stuff."
Caeli: What's amazing about that?
Elliot: Jack believes that a typical example of a moral question is a religious question about God or a religious commandment. He is handing morality over to religious people. He thinks it is in the religious domain. He doesn't want it.
Caeli: Should he want morality?
Elliot: Philosophically, morality is about how to live. That's an important thing to know about, so he should be interested. But he believes the utterly absurd religious dogma that morality is a matter for God.
Caeli: Why would an atheist do that?
Elliot: Well, maybe he just never questioned that idea. Maybe he was turned off of the subject by the religious perspective on it that he was taught, and then he never realized that religion was wrong about what morality consists of.
Caeli: Should he have noticed?
Elliot: If his policy was not to be faithful to religion, that would mean questioning all of it. So that isn't his policy. That's not necessarily bad: religion is massive so it's hard to question all of it. But if he has a different policy, which consists of only questioning parts of religion, how does it work? Does he question parts he doesn't like?
Caeli: He could have questioned the religious monopoly on morality, but not realized the monopoly is false.
Elliot: Perhaps. But Socrates argued convincingly that morality cannot be determined by God, and his arguments are well known. It's in the Euthyphro dialog which can be read here.
Caeli: What was Socrates' argument?
Elliot: The argument takes the form of a difficult question with two answers, and then we can examine the consequences of each answer. The question is: is God's morality right because God believes it, or does God believe it because it is right?
Elliot: Either way we answer, religious morality will lose out. First consider that God chooses his beliefs about morality because they are right. What that means is that there is a conception of right outside of God, and God has no control over it, he simply uses his wisdom to figure it out. This is analogous to if God did not create the laws of physics, but did figure them out and tell them to us. In that case, he is only a messenger.
Caeli: That is surely unacceptable to the faithful, so let's answer the other way.
Elliot: Alright. The other answer is that something is morally right because God believes it. God can choose what's right. If God changes his mind, then morality changes too. So if God decides murder and theft are good ideas, then they are morally right. If that's the case, what's so good about morality? All it means is doing what we are told, no matter how horrible it seems to us.
Caeli: Perhaps God could do that, but He wouldn't.
Elliot: Why wouldn't He? Because it'd be wrong to?
Caeli: I guess that's why.
Elliot: If so, that refers to a morality independent of God.
Caeli: Back to murder, I don't think many religious people would accept a morality like that.
Elliot: Indeed. Which means they can't honestly give that answer. But the first answer didn't work out, either.
Caeli: What do you mean that the first answer didn't work? The world you described then made sense.
Elliot: It didn't give God or religion any special relationship with morality. He was just a messenger. So if the goal is to defend a religious monopoly on moral truth, then it didn't work.
Caeli: Let's back up a little. Most people wouldn't like a morality that allows for murder. But that doesn't mean it's logically invalid.
Elliot: True. But consider this: how would we know what morality was, if it was purely what God said?
Caeli: We'd listen to him.
Elliot: God doesn't talk to us. Except insane people.
Caeli: Good point. But let's pretend he did.
Elliot: But we might mishear him. Or we might misunderstand one of his ideas. So what we'd need to do is think about whether what we believe he's said makes sense. If it doesn't, then our best guess must be that we've misunderstood.
Caeli: Isn't that how it works when talking to other people, too?
Elliot: Yes. We have to come up with an interpretation of what they were trying to communicate, and we can only believe we've understood if we can invent one that we believe makes sense.
Caeli: So back to God, then even if moral truth was whatever God said, we'd have to use our own judgment to understand what he'd said?
Elliot: That's right. So the morality we acted on would still be human morality, created in human minds, according to what humans think makes sense.
Caeli: That's cool.
Caeli: So changing topics again, are there any religious defenses against Socrates' overall argument?
Elliot: No good ones. There is one idea which says morality is an aspect of God; it's an essential part of his nature.
Caeli: What's wrong with that?
Elliot: Consider if someone said physics was a part of God's nature. First, can he change his nature? If he can, we have the same problem as when he changes his mind and approves of theft and murder.
Caeli: So let's assume he can't change this part of his nature.
Elliot: Then, he's really no more than a messenger. There is a thing that exists, call it an "aspect of God", or not, it doesn't matter, God can't change it, so it's independent of his wishes. Calling it part of God is no more than a choice of terminology.
Elliot: People can still discover the laws of physics, just as if they were not part of God. So what difference does it make, for reality, to call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Caeli: Is it the same for morality as physics?
Elliot: Yes, the logic works the same. He can't change the nature of morality, and humans can discover it the same way, and everything is exactly as if morality was not an aspect of God.
Caeli: Does it make any difference if we call the laws of physics an "aspect of God"?
Elliot: If it doesn't, then nothing meaningful is being asserted. If reality acts as if there is no God, then our explanations of reality do not need to include God.
Caeli: Could there be a God that isn't part of our explanations?
Elliot: I don't see any reason to think there is. But it's not important. Socrates never denies the existence of God, and he never denies that God is good (actually, the people of Athens were polytheistic, but that's not important). He argues only for morality independent of God. It isn't anti-religious at all, or at least one need not see it as such.
Caeli: I think I'm lost. Can you remind me of the structure of the discussion so far?
Elliot: Socrates asked a question, that either way you answer, you can't reasonably hold that morality is a matter for God. There's a claim about it being part of God's nature, but that didn't work either. So the conclusion is that morality is not God's domain. And then the larger conclusion is that Jack could have known this, because the argument is ancient. But he doesn't. That's meaningful.
Caeli: What does it mean?
Elliot: That he took a religious dogma for granted, despite a well known refutation. So, when he questions religion, he does it selectively.
Caeli: How does he select what to question?
Elliot: I don't know. But the most obvious guess would be that he questions the parts he does not like, or has a problem with. For example, he doesn't like the lack of science in religion, and the lack of scientific and rational attitudes, so he questions that and changes his mind.
Caeli: Is there anything wrong with being selective like that?
Elliot: Not at all. It's a very good thing to improve parts of your beliefs that you find problematic. However, Jack is loudly anti-religious. He would surely be very surprised to know that the sort of faith and adherence to religious dogma that he hates in others, is something he himself still has in at least one major way. And it isn't just some technicality, or some flaw shared by all people because no one knows better yet. The right idea actually predates Christianity.
Caeli: Well noticed.
Elliot: Thanks.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

How To Ask Questions

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I was told that I should ask you about parenting, but I'm not sure why.
Elliot: OK, go ahead. Perhaps you'll learn why, after you ask.
Caeli: What do you think of parents, today?
Elliot: I am not impressed.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: They use false epistemology, they don't think about and address the primary issues they are responsible for addressing, they don't notice when they act cruelly, or worse sometimes they do notice and continue anyway, they...
Caeli: Let's stop there for now. What are the primary issues that a parent needs to consider?
Elliot: He needs to think about what role he should play in his child's life, and what his responsibilities are, and he needs to consider whether conventional parenting practices make sense before adopting them.
Caeli: What are his responsibilities?
Elliot: A parent should help his child become independent. This has various aspects. He needs to give material support, and he needs to help the child find interests, and he needs to help the child to learn a variety of things.
Caeli: What sort of things are important for children to learn?
Elliot: Morality is near the top. That means knowledge of what a good life is, and how to make good choices. Then there's various things loosely called philosophy: how to ask questions, how to approach learning about something new, how to think of good ideas, how to solve problems, how to be optimistic, how to treat other people well, how to treat one's self well, how to decide which ideas to believe or not, how to explain reality. But let us never forget that the goal is not to force a child to learn what the parent deems important, it is to help the child learn things he is interested in. The things I've mentioned are things I think pretty much everyone would like to know and find helpful. There will also be other things. They may include how to play chess, or build lego castles, or beat a video game, but they may not.
Caeli: What if my child doesn't care for most of the things you mentioned? I don't remember meeting any children who asked me about any of those.
Elliot: Did you offer them?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: Most people you meet already have ideas about what all the things I mentioned are. About whether they are fun, hard, useful, and what the answers are. And most people you meet have already learned that most people give bad advice about those things. So I don't think you can expect someone to just start asking you about them.
Caeli: Still, what if my child isn't interested in them?
Elliot: Well, first of all, is there a problem? If he knows other things and is doing well, maybe you shouldn't worry. And maybe he knows more about them than you've realised. So, consider what the topics have to offer, and then offer those things.
Caeli: And if he says no?
Elliot: There will be a reason. He may not tell it to you; he may not know what the reason is, explicitly. But you can try to figure it out.
Caeli: I don't know how to.
Elliot: Aha! I think you're demonstrating two things here. The first is that philosophy is very useful: your lack of knowledge of it is an obstacle to being a good parent. And second, perhaps the reason you find it difficult to imagine persuading your child that you have valuable philosophy to offer, is that in some areas, you don't.
Caeli: Am I a bad person?
Elliot: No, I didn't mean it that way. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Especially because good philosophy is hard to come by. Most people don't know any, explicitly.
Caeli: What's explicitly?
Elliot: It means in a language, like English. It's like conscious thoughts. If you can put an idea into words, it's explicit, but if you can't, it isn't.
Caeli: Alright, continue.
Elliot: A bad person is someone who chooses bad things for his life, or who values bad things.
Caeli: Isn't it important to actively choose good things for my life?
Elliot: Yes, but did you ever turn down a chance to learn philosophy that looked promising?
Caeli: No, I guess not. But wouldn't it be better if I knew more, now?
Elliot: It would undoubtedly be nice if you did. But if there was no way available to you to do better, surely you've done nothing wrong. Also, bear in mind that if you did know more, you could still say, "Wouldn't it be nice if I knew more?". You can say that no matter how much you know. It's just the human condition.
Caeli: What if there was a way I could have known more already, but I didn't notice it?
Elliot: I'm sure there were ways, if you knew how to find them. But you didn't, and I don't see how anyone could fault you for that. What you're really getting at is that it's possible to do better than we actually do. And that is great thing. It means improvement is possible.
Caeli: Is it bad to not improve really fast?
Elliot: It's important to try to improve, and to care about improving. It's also important not to beat yourself up over any mistakes you might make. That won't help anything. I like you now; you ask good questions.
Caeli: Thanks, I feel better. Shall we get back to parenting?
Elliot: OK.
Caeli: So one thing a parent should do is help his child learn about life and philosophy and his interests. But you said not to force him to learn these things. Can you expand?
Elliot: The way conventional parenting works is that the parent feels a huge responsibility towards his child. There is this person, and he's vulnerable, and the parent doesn't want him to be hurt. And he could grow up to be a criminal, and the parent doesn't want that. And he could just grow up to be boring, and have a mediocre life, and the parent doesn't want that either. The parent wants to protect him, and guide him to good things.
Caeli: That sounds good to me.
Elliot: Well, the motives are good. But that doesn't mean the results will be.
Caeli: Go on.
Elliot: Parents are so keen to prevent mistakes, that when they disagree with their child, they force the child to do it their way. And they make rules, again to prevent the child from doing anything the parent thinks would be a mistake.
Caeli: Do you think children are usually right?
Elliot: No, of course not. Children have a lot of ignorance. But they aren't always wrong, especially when the issue is their own life.
Caeli: If parents are right most of the time, would it maybe be best to just always do what the parent suggests? It'd work pretty well, most of the time.
Elliot: I don't think it would. But the best way to discuss this may be to look at the alternative, which is clearly better.
Caeli: OK, what is it?
Elliot: Most of the time, parent and child will agree. The parent will say he knows best, and suggest something, and the child will have no idea what's best, so he'll take his parents advice, willingly. That's the common case. So without any mention of using force, we already have a good thing happening most of the time.
Caeli: OK, so I guess the important case must be when they disagree.
Elliot: That's right. When they disagree, what the child is saying is, "I do know something about this topic. I have some knowledge, and I think it's enough knowledge to make a decision, and this is what I want to do."
Caeli: Isn't the child probably wrong?
Elliot: I can't evaluate the probability. But it isn't important. What's important is that we don't dismiss the child out of hand. There's no good reason to, and it messes up the times the child is right. And it teaches the wrong lessons about how to think.
Caeli: What do you mean?
Elliot: It's important to think for yourself, and to learn about how good your ideas are. That way you can learn to create better ideas by avoiding mistakes you've made in the past.
Caeli: So, if the parent doesn't discuss a child's ideas, he won't find out which ones are good and which are bad?
Elliot: Right. So, when there is a disagreement, the first thing that should be tried is to consider the disagreement and try to persuade each other.
Caeli: What if they don't want to?
Elliot: If things are going well, they will want to. I think it'd be best to first consider the case where life goes smoothly, to see how things should work. Then, if you still have questions about alternative lifestyles, or how to get to the right lifestyle from a flawed one, we can address them. Does that sound good?
Caeli: Yeah, that makes sense. OK, so they are trying to persuade each other...
Elliot: Right. Now the most common thing will be that the parent persuades the child. The reason is that although both could be wrong about the subject itself, the child has less knowledge about how much knowledge he needs to venture an opinion. And he has less knowledge about what subjects might be related and important. There are a lot more ways the child is likely to go wrong.
Caeli: OK, so what's the point?
Elliot: Well, the most common case is that the child agrees immediately. In a disagreement, the most common case is that the child had a parochial misconception and is easily persuaded. But after that, the other case is that they still disagree, and then they are on even ground. There is no way to tell, automatically, who is right. We can't just assume the parent is.
Caeli: Are you sure it's even? I think a lot of parents misjudge how much they know about their child's life and interests.
Elliot: That's a very good point. Most disputes are about the child's life, so the child is in a better position to know about it.
Caeli: So what should happen if the parent and child can't agree?
Elliot: Well, first off, they can agree. It's possible. There's no powerful force stopping them.
Caeli: No? But people find it hard to agree.
Elliot: Well, communication is a very hard problem. That covers a ton of cases. And then there's the issue that maybe to come to agree they need to think of some new idea to help reconcile their positions. They can do that, and nothing is stopping them, but maybe they won't.
Caeli: OK, so they can agree. But let's say they don't. Then what.
Elliot: Well, the child's life is the child's life. Why shouldn't he make his own choices?
Caeli: He doesn't know what's best for himself.
Elliot: Well, remember we are only discussing the cases where first the parent's initial idea didn't win the child over, and then when they talked about it, the parent wasn't able to think of anything very persuasive. Or cases where the child has a really powerful idea of his own. So in these cases, either the parent hasn't been able to show that he knows what's best, or the child has an especially good idea. So this is the time it's least possible to say that children don't know what's best for themselves, because we are only discussing the few times when maybe they do.
Caeli: I'm not sure about that, but let's go on and maybe it will make more sense. Why should a child make his own choices, exactly?
Elliot: Because he's a person. A human being. One of the things we value in our culture is freedom. Everyone gets his own life, and his own property, and makes his own decisions about what to do with them. That's a great thing, and we should apply it to everyone.
Caeli: I think I'm losing track of the point. Can you summarise?
Elliot: You asked about parenting. One of the issues parents face is helping their children learn important things about life, to prepare them for independence. Parents commonly make rules, and insist on their way by force, but they shouldn't. It's better to persuade children, and in the rare cases where the parent can't figure out how to do that, he has just demonstrated his own ignorance of either the subject or the child, and either way he's now in the one situation where he'd want to use force, but also the one situation where he has lost all justification to use it.
Caeli: I'm getting tired, do you mind if we continue tomorrow? I promise I'll reread what you said. There's so many things I wanted to ask that we didn't get to. Like what is parochial, and how do you know about all this stuff, and what if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen.
Elliot: I don't mind taking a break. I'm glad you seem excited by this.
Caeli: By the way, why is the title "How To Ask Questions"? It was all about parenting.
Elliot: The topic was parenting. But the Caeli character asked a question for most of her lines. So this conversation serves as a good example of how to ask questions.
Caeli: Oh, that's great. I'm proud.
Elliot: You should be. Goodnight.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)