Definitional Creep and Psychological Salient

Recognizing Harms Without Eroding Our Terms

This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.

There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.

Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.

Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.

This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.

For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.

When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.

Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.

Stop Calling Subjects Ethically Fraught

It's An Excuse Not An Argument

Listening to the Last Week Tonight on Gene Editing (it’s pretty good) and seeing this debate about paying organ donors I’m compelled to call out the practice of simply asserting that something is ethically fraught or troublesome.

Both with respect to not compensating organ donors (something which could save huge numbers of lives) and with (mostly prospective) limits on eliminating genetic disease or even barring improvement I think we let people who are simply uncomfortable with change off the hook by constantly repeating the supposed truism that the issue is ethically fraught or there are serious ethical concerns. It’s basically a free pass that excuses the fact that they are putting their discomfort ahead of people’s welfare.

Under all the scenarios/conditions seriously being considered No, there aren’t ethical concerns. Fears like letting a bank reposes your kidney are no more relevant to the proposals on the table than the fear that debtors will enslave people is to wages. Similarly, concerns about racially motivated eugenics programs have no plausible relationship to any kind of gene therapy even being prospectively considered.

Of course, we should hear potential concerns about such policies just like we would for any other policy/technology. However, opponents should be on the spot to either shut up or come up with compelling arguments suggesting harms. Based on the fact that the opponent in the WSJ to paying for organ donation is reduced to arguments like “The introduction of money for a precious good comes at the cost of the ability for one to aspire to virtue” makes me doubt they can come up with such arguments.

I’d add that I think philosophers are partially to blame on this point. As a matter of philosophical interest we correctly find clever new arguments seeking to show that paid organ donation is actually somehow problematically coercive or otherwise wrong more interesting than the obvious argument that it saves lives. However, just as physicists need to convey to the public that the very thing which makes theories which deviate from the standard model interesting also makes them less likely I think philosophers need to do this as well.

How to Provide Better Incentives to Organ Donors

Three experts discuss strategies to address the shortage of organs available for people who need transplants.

Repudiation Of Partisan Inference

No I'm Not On Sara Huckabee Sander's Side

I felt it was worth another post just to clarify that my [last post] ( doesn’t indicate that I’m joining up with Sara Huckabee Sanders and Trump in this recent civility fight. Their behavior in calling out incivility and trying to use it as a political weapon (and lying about it) is worse than anything the Red Hen did to her and these are small potatoes relative to the normal harms they inflict.

I just tend to see them as beyond the moral pale and there is no use to excoriate them once again. And just because they are bad actors isn’t any reason for us to lose sight of the fact that denying people service is a big deal even when it’s merely based on partisan affiliation and we need a good justification to do it. Nowhere near as good a justification as separating families at the border or enacting a Muslim ban and the like but we don’t have to sink.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.

  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Civility Without Concession

We Can Be Civil Without Letting Trump Tell Us What That Means

I’m really disappointed by the responses from the left to the recent kerfufle about Sara Huckabee Sanders being denied service in a red hen restaurant. These responses all seem to have the following structure:

  • If we let those in power define what is civil and uncivil we allow them to silence protest.
  • Historical protests like the civil rights movement we now revere were often seen as uncivil.
  • Trump and his supporters are deeply uncivil and have no respect for these norms.
  • Therefore we should accept or even cheer incivility towards Trump voters.

But this makes two big logical errors.

  1. Just because we shouldn’t let Trump and those in power dictate a self-serving standard of civility doesn’t mean that the concept itself is flawed or that it’s an inappropriate ideal to aspire towards. It just means we should apply the concept correctly not let those in power dictate a self-serving conception of civility.
  2. It conflates the desirability of showing civility and respect with the appropriateness of criticizing people for not doing so. There are plenty of things, e.g., chewing with your mouth open, that it’s both inappropriate to do as well as to call others out for doing.

Now a valid takeaway from this argument is that overly mechanistic rules of civility (e.g. never mention a politician’s personal life) shouldn’t be followed blindly but that’s not the same as the conclusion that it should be seen as appropriate or even desirable to simply abandon civility all together.

Just Don’t Be A Dick

The right answer here is pretty simple. All we need to do is treat people, even those whose political views we see as harmful, as if they are human beings who we, ceterus parabus, don’t want to suffer.

This doesn’t mean we place their feelings ahead of the welfare of the country. If the next democratic president finds the best way to respond to Trump’s personal attacks is in kind then they shouldn’t let their concern about hurting Trump’s feelings stand in the way (though I suspect the voters who aren’t already deep in Trump’s camp are more likely to be swayed by statesman like restraint). If the same congressmen and staffers who are working to undermine a woman’s right to choose are having abortions themselves we shouldn’t let the personal impact stop us from exposing such facts.

What it means is that we shouldn’t be mean to them or refuse them service just because it makes us feel good or because they somehow deserve it. Refusing to serve Ms. Sanders doesn’t score any political points, it risks losing them. Even those on the left skeptical that such behavior will galvanize Trump supporters admit it’s a possible risk while identifying no corresponding benefit.

The right definition of civility doesn’t require rolling over and showing your belly it merely demands we refrain from needless petty antagonism and rudeness.

However, just because that’s what we aspire to doesn’t mean we should excoriate those on the left who fall short. That risks giving the misleading impression that their behavior is somehow worse than that of the administration. It isn’t. Ms. Sanders behaves plenty badly herself and any discussion of the restaurant’s choice not to serve her should keep that firmly in focus. However, just because she behaves even worse doesn’t mean we can’t urge our own side to take the high road and avoid unnecessary rudeness and incivility.

Real World Applications

Now this still leaves open two big questions.

  1. When are we simply being rude and mean to satisfy our emotional desires as opposed to engaging in a necessary form of protest which unfortunately might hurt some Trump supporters.
  2. At what point does the harm from violating norms about civility outweigh the short term tactical gains from some kind of protests that might be seen as uncivil.

While these are hard questions in the abstract in practice I think they are actually pretty damn easy.

Regarding 1, I think deep down we know the answer in 99% of cases if we just take a step back and think about it. Just imagine the person you are about to be rude to or insult is an old friend from High School who fell in with a bad crowd in college. Would you still do it? Or better yet imagine the person you’re attacking is actually a liberal from a parallel universe who just switched places with their double in this universe. Just put yourself in a position where you see the harm you’re doing to the Trump supporter as a negative (like it would be for anyone else) and ask if the benefit outweighs the harm. If your too emotionally involved to step back like this your probably also too compromised to know if you’re actually helping or making the situation worse so you probably shouldn’t do it anyway.

Point 2 is a serious concern when it comes to civil rights movements demanding recognition for groups that society has seen as unworthy. In such cases there is a real tradeoff between the moral potency and enthusiasm offered by making it clear that the equality or moral worth of your group isn’t up for debate and engaging in civil dialog with norms that call that into question. For instance, advocates of LGBT rights had (have) to choose between being seen as being deliberately provocative and uncivil by forcing their sexuality into the public square in ways that were seen as inappropriate and putting it in people’s faces even though the analogous heterosexual conduct wasn’t. One choice risked jeopardizing the support of moderates while the other risked undermining the momentum and moral force of the movement,

However, in the Trump context it’s Trump supporters who are pushing aside existing cultural norms while it’s the left who are desperately trying to defend (what was previously) the mainstream. When Trump’s trying to break up families at the border, eliminate Obamacare or undermine Roe. v. Wade we don’t gain anything by pushing positions which make mainstream Americans feel insulted or uncomfortable. Now isn’t the time to suggest, however true it might be, that normal everyday behaviors make one a racist or transphobic. It’s time to talk about how taking children from their parents is wrong and unamerican and that the rich don’t deserve more tax cuts and in this context there’s just no real payoff to insulting or alienating the moderates we need to persuade to stop Trump.

Wrong About Me Too

Not Ideal But I Was Way Off

In an earlier post I was very critical of the form the me too movement took predicting that simply conveying me too in the absence of any clear agreement on what was being claimed (did someone once ask you out in a way you found creepy or did your boss threaten to have you blacklisted from the industry if you didn’t sleep with him) would do more harm than good. I didn’t believe that merely expressing vague pro-social feelings of unknown intensity on social media would do much to persuade anyone to change their ways nor would it do much to change anyone’s justified belief in the prevalence of any particular kind of behavior. To be clear, I always supported the goal of eliminating the impunity with which many powerful men harassed I just thought it would require sharing emotionally detailed accounts of actual harassment to shift people’s beliefs.

Now I still believe I was right about many of the unimportant issues. MeToo didn’t directly do much to change people’s estimates of the incidence of harassment and I do think that the temptation for those who wouldn’t have otherwise judged their experiences as qualifying to participate (with the best of motives) might have lead some people to see harassment as less serious1 but all these effects were trivially small if real at all and I totally missed the real importance of the movement it created common knowledge that there was widespread condemnation of sexual harassment and that many people were finally willing to take accusations against powerful and admired figures seriously. Note, that conveying common knowledge didn’t require shifting belief in any particular frequency (of incidence or of people willing to stand up) and I totally missed this possibility[^facebook].

Was MeToo the optimal vehicle to accomplish this? I don’t know but it seems to have worked quite well and there is a good chance any little tweak I might have preferred would have undermined it. So I was totally, extremely wrong about all the parts that mattered and I believe in owning up to that. Indeed, I even vaguely remember someone mentioning the theory I endorse here on facebook at the time but I wasn’t convinced.

In retrospect I let my annoyance that people seemed to be just doing things because they felt emotionally satisfying rather than having any particularly good justification biased me so even when someone made the right argument I missed it.

  1. For instance, someone assumed that those posting mostly just to be supportive were the extent of harrassment with rare exceptions. 

Trump’s Twitter

Preserving The President's Free Speech Rights

So I’ve long been skeptical about the 1st ammendment right not to be blocked on twitter by Donald Trump. It seemed to me th
e fact he was president and even talked about official policies in his tweets in no way meant his actions on his twitter account were taking in his public capacity. As Prof. Volokh points out in the link it’s is common for presidents to discuss policy, promise governmental action and even announce new programs during their stump speeches which are clearly and unequivocally understood to be made in their capacity as private individuals.

But Prof. Volokh finally convinced me on this point by observing that Trump uses white house staff to manage and post on his twitter account in ways that would be illegal if it was a political or even purely personal concern.

Nicely, this means we don’t have to worry that it will become impossible for government officials to campaign via social media. Donald Trump can have @RealDonaldTrump as his personal twitter but he then has to run it out of Trump tower or his political staff and not the white house (though he will probably be far too lazy to do that).

More broadly, rather than the harms I feared would come from either treating all presidential social media as official or unofficial we get an incentive for politicians to more carefully separate their official and personal roles.

Blocking of Twitter Users from @RealDonaldTrump Violates First Amendment

President Trump has been blocking some Twitter users from his @RealDonaldTrump account, apparently because of their viewpoints. (The President apparently stipulated, in this lawsuit, that “[s]hortly after the Individual Plaintiffs posted the tweets …

Sleeping Beauty and Philosophy of Language

Why The Debate Over The Sleeping Beauty Paradox Is Confused

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is a famous philosophical problem in the philosophy of probability which has seeped into debates in the rationalist community. Apart from it’s independent philosophical interest it raises issues of practical significance via it’s close connection to the Doomsday argument. However, I will argue below that sleeping beauty is only an apparent problem that arises only because framing the talk in terms of probability hides an unjustified assumption that our notion of (epistemically justified) credence refers and we have a good grip on what it refers to. An assumption which this very paradox shows to be false. As a result all attempts to directly argue for any particular position on the sleeping beauty problem is deeply confused.

In particular, if we take our word credence to (like water) refer to something like the most scientifically/philosophically useful term in the area then it should be obvious that the only answer we can give is “we don’t know.” If not then our natural language term simply doesn’t uniquely refer so it doesn’t make sense to expect a right answer to the sleeping beauty problem (though each particular preciseification would yield one).

In a latter post I’ll argue that debates about interpretations of probability are making a similar error in assuming there are the sort of facts behind the meaning of ascriptions of probability that are at issue between the interpretations.

The Sleeping Beauty Problem

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is defined thusly on wikipedia

Sleeping Beauty volunteers to undergo the following experiment and is told all of the following details: On Sunday she will be put to sleep. Once or twice, during the experiment, Beauty will be awakened, interviewed, and put back to sleep with an amnesia-inducing drug that makes her forget that awakening. A fair coin will be tossed to determine which experimental procedure to undertake:

  1. If the coin comes up heads, Beauty will be awakened and interviewed on Monday only.
  2. If the coin comes up tails, she will be awakened and interviewed on Monday and Tuesday.

In either case, she will be awakened on Wednesday without interview and the experiment ends. Any time Sleeping Beauty is awakened and interviewed she will not be able to tell which day it is or whether she has been awakened before.

During the interview Beauty is asked: “What is your probability now for the proposition that the coin landed heads?”.

The apparent paradox arises because there are compelling seeming arguments (described in more detail on wikipedia) that sleeping beauty should answer 1/2 and a 1/3. Roughly the argument for 1/2 is that on waking up sleeping beauty doesn’t receive any information that might justify updating her probability. An argument for 1/3 is that when woken up she should assign equal probability to it being Monday or Tuesday conditional on the coin landing tails while conditional on the day being Monday she should assign equal probability to the coin being heads or tails. As there are twice as many equally probable outcomes involving tails the probability the coin landed heads is 1/3 (this is also the probability that sleeping beauty should use to bet with if offered a bet each time she is woken).

While phrased in this manner the sleeping beauty problem seems like a pretty irrelevant paradox the same reasoning applies in much more interesting settings. For instance, suppose you assign some non-zero prior to the possibility that instead of one single universe there are infinitely many universes containing an exact duplicate of you1. If you accept the arguments for the 1/3 position in the sleeping beauty paradox the mere fact that you are having an experience should cause you to update your probability for there being infinitely many universes to 1.

Similarly, what arguments you find compelling in the sleeping beauty case affect how you should evaluate the Doomsday argument. For instance, taking the 1/3 position in sleeping beauty might lead one to argue against the doomsday argument on the grounds that there are more total individuals having experiences if there is no imminent doomsday and this should weight our probabilities.

What Does A Credence Mean?

While the sleeping beauty paradox may pose a challenge to our philosophical idea of (subjective) probability it doesn’t raise any problems for the mathematics of probability. But if the problem isn’t mathematical what is it about? At first blush it appears to be a question about the notion of (epistemically appropriate) credence. In other words sleeping beauty is a question about epistemology dressed up as a problem about probability.

But once we realize this we should be immediately be drive to ask: what does it mean to have an (epistemically appropriate) credence of 1/3 (or half)?

The sleeping beauty paradox itself demonstrates immediately that there are multiple plausible ways we could understand such a statement. For instance, one way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the intuition that the percent of times you believe something to be true with credence p and it is true should be p. If you allow the fanciful device of imagining restarting the universe one might think that a credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E if we ran reality a bunch of times and the ratio of the number of times C is true when E is experienced approaches p. In other words a credence is like a bet with reality you take each time you form it (though one would need to flesh out the notion of forming a credence if one wanted to pursue this). This concept supports the 1/3 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since, if the experiment is repeated many times, 1/3 of the times sleeping beauty has the experience of waking up the coin will be heads.

On the other hand, another way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the idea that you only care about whether or not a claim is true not how often it is true relative to the number of times you form a credence about it. In other words, credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E is appropriate if the number of times the universe is restarted where both claim C is true and you (or someone?) has experience E divided by the number of times the universe is restarted and you have experience E approaches p. This concept supports the 1/2 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since if the experiment is repeated many times 1/2 of those times will result in the coin landing heads.

Now, of course, all the problems with defining interpretations of probability and limiting frequency approaches mean I didn’t fully define a precise concept in either case. However, I don’t need to fully define any concept merely demonstrate that there is more than one way one could want to define the notion of epistemically appropriate credence.

Which notion one is interested in will depend on the particular situation at hand. For instance, if sleeping beauty’s concern is about making a bet with one of the researchers (who promises to accept bets either day) she should use the concept which considers the number of times she’s had the experience. If one of the researchers is a serial killer who tells her right before she goes under that he’s going to kill her spouse if the coin lands heads then a notion of credence which doesn’t concern herself with how many times she has the experience. Note that this nicely resolves the more applied versions of sleeping beauty once we make clear just what we are interested in.

Given that there are more than one notion of epistemically appropriate credence one could care about the most informative to the sleeping beauty problem should simply be that it is under-specified. Indeed, the fact that for any practical purpose we know which value to use should have been a red flag from the beginning that this was merely a verbal dispute not a genuine puzzle about epistemology.

Philosophy of Language Discussion

While I expect that I could stop at this point and satisfy non-philosophers there is a tendency among philosophers to insist that even if we don’t know exactly what properties epistemically appropriate credence (or ‘probability’) has one might nevertheless be justified in believing it uniquely asserts. While I’m skeptical of such claims in this case it certainly can happen. For instance, ‘water’ referred to H2O when Avogadro determined water’s chemical formula rather than changing it’s meaning2. However, that was only because (and to the extent) that past dispositions about the use of the word water would have lead (at least hypothetically philosophically informed3) people to hesitate to call something water despite it’s appearances if given sufficient reason to suspect it might differ in underlying nature, e.g., if flown in a spaceship to visit a stream on another world people would have expressed uncertainty as to whether the refreshing clear liquid was water.

But if our term ‘probability’ (or ‘epistemically appropriate credences’) is to, like ‘water’, refer to whatever natural kind fits sufficiently well with our usage then the only sane position for philosophers to take on questions like sleeping beauty is to admit that they don’t know, and indeed can’t know, until we figure out what natural kinds are in the neighborhood of our use of the term. After all, there is no doubt that problems like the sleeping beauty paradox differ from our usual applications of epistemically appropriate credences in ways that might or might not affect how some, yet undiscovered, natural kind in the neighborhood might apply. This wouldn’t reveal any kind of deep puzzle about the nature of the world, merely uncertainty as to the true reference of ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ as a result of our lack of knowledge about natural kinds in the neighborhood.

So sure, we can take ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ to refer to whatever concept turns out to be most elegantly useful in our theorizing about uncertainty in the world. However, if we do then the answer to all these paradoxes about probability becomes a simple “I don’t know” for the boring reason that we don’t know if there is an elegantly useful concept in the neighborhood yet. Thus, bald insistence that our notion of epistemically appropriate credences or probability has an implicit forward reference to the best concept in the neighborhood can’t save the arguments between the 1/2 and 1/3 camps from being appropriately regarded as confused.

  1. To make the case fully analogous, one may assume that you have a soul which occupies each duplicate of you in turn, so you can’t escape the conclusion merely by appeal to the fact the same individual isn’t having the experiences. 
  2. While this makes for a nice philosophical parable I’m not totally convinced the claim holds up as a matter of linguistic history. The latin word aqua seems to be closely linked in meaning to the stuff in rivers and streams so I wouldn’t take it for granted that the average English speaker didn’t just mean whatever flows in the rivers and streams by ‘water’ back in 1811. 
  3. It might not be necessary for this to be the usual reaction but surely we must imagine that hypothetical philosophers who were somehow well versed Kripke’s arguments in Naming and Necessity back in 1800 would have such doubts if they didn’t understand ‘water’ to mean (as it is surely possible for a word to mean) any wet, clear, refreshing stuff that flows in a river or stream. If you deny this then you aren’t really studying the observable phenomena of language anymore but positing some kind of inaccessible platonic realm of truths regarding true meanings completely beyond the grasp of those using the language. 

Social Control and The Principle Agent Problem

The Chinese Example And The Dangers Of Restricting Free Speech

This interesting post reminded me of my suspicion that a lot of the censorship in China isn’t the result of Xi Jinping’s crazed desire to be repressive. Almost certainly Xi would benefit from far less censorship and may indeed benefit from reports in the media exposing misbehavior by low level party officials but the incentives of those with the power to control expression (both to show off their loyalty and hide embarrassing events) means that far more censorship gets implemented than Xi would ideally want.

I think this is an important lesson for those who want to limit our free speech (or academic freedoms) when it comes to issues of race, gender harassment and the like. Even though the speech that one intends to ban may not have much value and impose great harms one needs to keep in mind the risks posed in delegating the practical authority to determine what speech qualifies.

Ethereum Eschatology and Bitcoin Bankruptcy

Regulatory Arbitrage and Governmental Support For Cryptocurrency Alternatives

So I’ve been thinking a bit about cryptocurrencies lately and I don’t think the future is very promising for Bitcoin, Ethereum and other pure cryptocurrencies. I’ve always been a big fan of these currencies (though don’t get me started on the idiocy of companies using blockchain everywhere) but I think they are doomed in the not to distant future. However, this is only because I am convinced it won’t be long before we have the option to realize all (or at least most of) the major benefits of cryptocurrencies without the kludge and overhead of the blockchain, the dangerous price volatility and the unreliability/general sleaziness of many cryptocurrency exchanges.

Now lots of cryptocurrency value is currently the result of pure speculative interest. People are making a big bet that Bitcoin or Ethereum will take off and surge in value. While I highly recommend this Last Week Tonight episode mocking the HODL gang and other idiocy in cryptocurrency investing it’s not a fundamentally unreasonable bet. Just an extremely high risk bet that eventually non-speculators1 will buy out the speculators at well above (enough balance the risk) the current market price. It’s a bet that the currency will prove to be (at least) so useful/desirable that normal economic actors will see fit to hold far more value in the cryptocurrency than it’s current market capitalization of $151 billion BTC/$63 billion ETH. Given that $5 trillion is being held in physical currency and $60 trillion is held in bank accounts if you think there is a decent chance that Bitcoin or Ethereum will be adopted as the global currency then it’s valuation might not be absurd.

However, let’s ask what it is that cryptocurrencies offer the non-speculator. It seems to me there are several attributes that make them desirable.

  1. Cryptocurrencies offer finality in payments, e.g., unlike credit cards you don’t need to worry the payment you received will be cancelled by the payor or reversed as fraudulent.
  2. Cryptocurrencies let you pay people who wouldn’t (or can’t be bothered) be get paypal merchant accounts or US bank accounts.
  3. Relative freedom from government monitoring.
  4. Smart contracts. I can enter into cryptocurrency contracts that are enforced regardless of what a court thinks and even if local law enforcement is non-existent.
  5. Cryptocurrency schemes don’t require any kind of trust in government currency or a government system.

Frankly, 5 isn’t a serious consideration. It matters to a few people who want to show off their crypto-anarchists credentials but generally having a central bank behind one’s money is an advantage (stability etc..). So much so that other cryptocurrencies are trying to build in similar systems. If your concern is a hedge against inflation or governmental collapse you are better buying gold which a desperate government can’t try and attack (a combination legal and technical attack by a motivated government would seriously threaten any cryptocurrency). Besides, you can still use it if the internet fails.

But notice that, excepting 5, really all these advantages are really just avoidance of regulation. I don’t think there would be much demand for cryptocurrencies if it was legal to make a version of paypal where payments were completely final (even if they later turned out to be fraudulent), all records of transfers were immediately deleted, no one was turned away (marijuana growers, people in countries with sanctions and even conmen all got to keep their accounts) and the government couldn’t easily monitor accounts or determine whose account was whose.

Now some of this is just about enabling illegal activity (which also has value insofar as it lets individuals replace organized crime in the drug trade) however, strange as it might seem there is really substantial value in monetary exchanges with less protections against fraud and theft. In high-trust, relatively low value transactions in countries with strong legal systems such protections are a bonus but they make it virtually impossible to do make deals in low trust situations or when the seller can’t absorb a loss. For instance, as a tourist I couldn’t buy a high value good (say a found meteorite) from a villager I encounter because even if he could accept credit card payments he doesn’t have the means to contest a claim of fraud I might later make so, without cash, we can’t reach a mutually beneficial deal.

What puts current cryptocurrencies at risk is the fact that at any point any of the hundreds of sovereign governments on Earth could choose to offer an alternative digital payment system capturing most of these benefits. At any time Montenegro could sit down with Goldman-Sachs and some IT guys and launch Montenegro digital cash. Individuals from around the world could open up numbered accounts on the MontCash website and transfer money in or out of these accounts using credit cards or bank transfers. The MontCash app (or api) would then function exactly as paypal does today except that it would have numbered accounts (instead or as well as accounts in individual names), wouldn’t allow chargebacks or canceled transactions (absent a final court judgement) or require troublesome certifications to accept money at scale. In other words MontCash would just be a trusted bookkeeper maintaining a list of account balances.

Of course, diplomatic pressure would ensure that no government offered a completely untraceable totally anonymous system like this but for 99% of users it would be just as good (indeed better in some respects than Bitcoin’s publicly trackable transactions) if MontCash only released the accounts linked to certain payments, deposits etc.. only in response to a subpeona/warrant or for use in terrorism cases. While many governments might not particularly like the fact that accounts are simply numbered and can be used by whoever has the right credentials if it appears that real cryptocurrencies are gaining serious adoption (as necessary to vindicate their current valuation) then a system like MontCash would start to seem like an appealing alternative. After all, unlike Bitcoin, MontCash would still allow accounts to be seized with valid court orders, be more convenient to subpoena for transfers to/from given credit cards/bank accounts than the fluctuating legion of cryptocurrency exchanges and, most importantly, offer the carrot of secret counterterrorism access. After all, 99% of users wouldn’t care that much if the NSA/GCHQ etc.. got some degree of secret access to the financial data feed provided it wasn’t shared with tax collectors or drug dealers while the counterterrorism/intel benefits of having not only all transactions and accounts used to purchase or sell MontCash but also log details of where the app/api was used on what kind of device etc.. would be invaluable.

Even though it might not be universally loved the potential for massive profit by whichever country decides to give this a go is a very strong incentive. Not only could they collect a tiny percent of each transaction but they would earn huge amounts of interest on their total deposits. Also, they would have a compelling reason to allow numbered accounts not associated with any individual since they would get to keep all funds in such accounts when the owner losses their password (or cryptographic key or whatever). It’s hard to imagine that no country would take up this opportunity if they already see a true cryptocurrency gaining legitimacy. A system like MontCash would be far more attractive to most normal users as it could offer accounts denominated in various stable currencies (dollars, Euros etc..), greater user friendliness and more flexibility (you could potentially set daily transaction limits for your account, give up some degree of anonymity for password recovery options etc..) not to mention solving the long transaction times and high overhead costs (paid for in fees rewarded to miners) in cryptocurrencies.

In short, it’s hard to imagine that cryptocurrencies will win the day when for everyone but the hardcore technoanarchist their needs can be better met by a system that governments would see as less bad and can bring into being at any time.

  1. It’s not possible to maintain a rate of return substantially outpacing global economic growth indefinitely and eventually even the most irrational speculators will realize the good times are over and either liquidate their investments to speculate elsewhere or store their value in a safe asset. If, at this point, there isn’t sufficient non-speculative investment in the cryptocurrency to support it’s price the price will crash as speculators race to sell.