Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Changes People's Minds?

Most of my friends and lovers are pronatalists, so I know that kind, smart people often hold beliefs that contradict mine. I still have hopes of converting them and others (as they have hopes of converting me, no doubt).

How do we go about changing people's minds? How do real human minds get changed?

Information doesn't seem to do it - being exposed to information contradicting your point of view, if anything, seems to cement your original position, rather than change it. This is a well-documented social phenomenon; you know those cults that predict the end of the world? What happens when the end doesn't come? A few members leave the cult, but generally, those who remain are even more committed to the cult!

So how do we change minds? Is it inextricably connected to status? Self-interest? Social belonging? Are there any methods that reliably work to change core beliefs?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?

I recently wrote a post called "The Mathematics of Misery," which explored Becker and Posner's idea of effective suicidality. In brief, it may be that miserable people value their lives so little that they rationally accept gambles that happy people would never accept, because they plan to commit suicide if the gamble does not pay off. The authors connect their model to many stories we are familiar with, and find greater explanatory power in their model than in others. The model is particularly appealing to me, because it accords well with my introspective experience as a bona fide, not-breathing-for-a-while-there suicide attempter.

But there are alternative explanations for such Hail-Mary, seemingly irrational choices (not the least of which is actual irrationality). How might we begin to test such a theory?

One obvious choice would be to study the connection between "losing" at a prospective suicide-gamble activity and actual suicides. If unsuccessful participants in the activity do commit suicide at a high rate, the theory is supported - so long as we assume that some higher-than-baseline percentage of the effectively suicidal "follow through" on their suicide plans. (A plan need not be followed for it to be a cognitive reality upon which decisions are based.)

How about investigating whether the strong correlates of suicide are also strong correlates of the candidate "gamble" behaviors?

"Effectively suicidal" behavior may have a different etiology than actual suicide attempts, but there are many reasons to believe that if effective suicidality exists, it is another aspect of the suicide drive, and that they share a common cause. In addition to failed social belonging and burdensomeness, the strongest predictor of suicide in Thomas Joiner's model is competence: the ability to carry out the act of suicide. Competence, as Joiner outlines in his book, is learned; "provocative" preparatory behaviors systematically precede suicides, as if one must train oneself to do it, bit by bit. (This is one function of intentionally cutting one's skin.)

Given that people must achieve competence over time in order to successfully commit suicide, we would expect a continuum of provocative, suicide-preparatory behaviors - and both from introspection and from examples in the Becker-Posner paper, many dangerous gambles are also suicide-preparing.

Let's say we could agree on some strong correlates of suicide, specifically things that seem to cause suicide that also would be expected to cause people to become effectively suicidal (that would make circumstances unacceptable to them, as JasonSL puts it), hence to take a bad gamble/engage in provocative/preparatory behaviors. Let's say I have five or ten candidate behaviors for effective suicidality, and some of them really strongly correlated with the things that suicide really strongly correlates with. Would that be evidence of anything?

Any other suggestions for (a) how to support or knock down effective suicidality (revealed unacceptability) and (b) candidate behaviors?

Lives of Creatures

On that planet, the dominant intelligent species initially took three forms. Females were of one type, males of two: a massive, ape-like type almost twice the size of a female, and a smaller type comparable in mass to a female.

The large males attempted to maintain harems of females, both for sex and to provide them the food they required to maintain their large body masses. (The large males' ability to feed themselves without female assistance was constrained by the need to engage in violent competition over resources with other large males.) A successful large male could often be heard boasting and strategizing with his lieutenants at the campfire late into the night.

The small males were similar in appearance to females, so much so that they could not be distinguished from females at a moderate distance, save for the almost comically oversized male sex organs they possessed. They did not attempt to monopolize harems, but seemed motivated only to maintain proximity to females at all times, and to have sex with them whenever possible. Their smaller size of course facilitated eye contact during face-to-face intercourse, while their sex organs exhibited several adaptations that facilitated female sexual pleasure. The large males regarded the smaller males as a parasitic nuisance.

Upon the rapid democratization of the tribes following first contact, a faction of the large males was able to establish female suffrage, in hopes of besting a rival faction of large males with the females' help. To the great surprise of both factions, the large males soon found themselves legally classified as a parasitic offshoot of the species, and sentenced to technological incapacitation.

But this is not a cruel story. All the large males left alive were given virtual reality worlds with harems of NPCs, and they all lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Disciplease and Funish

Smilansky concludes, not that hard determinism is an inaccurate description of the world, but that it is impossible to live justly within a hard deterministic world. Which is the same kind of "null hypothesis" on human welfare as that of antinatalism.


Saul Smilansky, in his paper "Hard Determinism and Punishment: A Practical Reductio," argues that hard determinism fails as a practical moral philosophy, in that it is inherently self-defeating. His core example is the punishment of criminals. Since the hard determinist rejects the notion of morally relevant free will, he rejects the notion that a person can deserve to suffer for his actions (which he could not, in terms of physics, control). While incarceration may be necessary for the purpose of incapacitation (that is, keeping criminals away from the rest of society where they will do harm), it is not justified on grounds of retribution - because, in a hard deterministic world, no one freely chooses anything, so prisoners do not deserve their suffering.

Smilansky proposes that a hard determinist is committed to what he calls "funishment" - resort hotel prisons that accomplish the dual purpose of incapacitating criminals (protecting society) and keeping them entertained (compensating criminals for the injustice necessarily imposed upon them by society, for society's benefit).

The problem with funishment is that it's fun. It ceases to have any effect by way of deterrence. (Here we see three theories of criminal justice interacting in a fascinating way.) Lots of people would want to go to the resort hotel funishment prisons ("fun-zone," Smilansky calls them) and may even commit crimes to get there - removing most of the negative incentive for committing crimes, and in fact creating a positive incentive. The end result of the funishment program is, says Smilansky, "Many people who would otherwise not have become involved in crime, nor even suffer detention, would be caught up in that very life. In the meantime, the rest of us would be living in the worst possible world: suffering unprecedented crime waves while paying unimaginable sums for the upkeep of offenders in opulent institutions of funishment."

Smilansky gives this argument as a reductio of hard determinism as a practical moral philosophy. I think the context of antinatalism makes this an overstatement on Smilansky's part. The upshot of Smilansky's argument is not that hard determinism is not true in the metaphysical sense, but that committing ourselves to its reality ends in moral horror, the "worst possible world." My view is that Smilansky's argument is not a reductio of hard determinism, but of the idea that there could ever be a decently just human society. There is, in essence, a right of each person to be free from unjust suffering - but in fact, unjust suffering is guaranteed simply by being born. See a problem here?

One who recognizes determinism cannot insist on desert. But could a person who accepts hard determinism morally choose to reproduce? By doing so, he imposes suffering on a person who does not deserve it, and will not deserve any of the suffering he receives. Creating a being that will necessarily suffer unjustly seems to me indistinguishable from making a being suffer unjustly. Isn't it immoral to bring beings into an unjust world?

What of fun and pleasure, then? To what extent do we "deserve" those? Can we morally give benefits to people who do not suffer any deprivation without them when other, suffering people need those benefits?

I think that desert is incoherent (and birth wrong) primarily because the most important thing ever to happen to a person, that which determines that he will suffer gravely, is without question outside his free will: his birth. The undeserved suffering imposed on a person simply by being born is likely to overwhelm any suffering justly imposed on him for his actions, even if we were to buy into a morally relevant free will.

But without free will, of course, desert goes out the window. All suffering, none guilty, as Dostoevsky put it. Hard determinism helps us realize the horror show we are in, so that we may end it. THAT, and only that, is the practical consequence. There is no reductio; there is only support for the null hypothesis.

Most self-described compatibilists that I know ground their beliefs in the experience of choices: we feel ourselves to have free choices, and it seems impossible to live as if we didn't. But even granting this, the suffering of the "guilty" is nowhere near justified. A demon could build a machine that we might find ourselves in that would give us the experience of free choice within a virtual reality world. But our suffering as a result of our fake-but-perceived choices would be justified not at all.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Inequality in Slums

We live in the Repugnant Conclusion. We just don't know it yet.

From Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (2006):

As a rule of thumb, both the popular and scholarly literatures on informal housing tend to romanticize squatters while ignoring renters. As World Bank researchers recently acknowledged, "remarkably little research has been done on low-income rental markets." Landlordism is in fact a fundamental and divisive social relation in slum life worldwide. It is the principal way in which urban poor people can monetize their equity (formal or informal), but often in an exploitative relationship to even poorer people.... To be sure, most of the urban poor in West Africa have always rented from landlords, as have a majority of residents in Dhaka and some other Asian cities (in Bangkok two-thirds of "squatters" actually rent the land they build their shacks upon). Renting has also become far more common than usually recognized in the peripheries of Latin America, Middle Eastern, and South African cities. In Cairo, for example, the more advantaged poor buy pirated land from farmers, while the less advantaged squat on municipal land; the poorest of the poor, however, rent from the squatters. Likewise, as urban geographer Alan Gilbert observed of Latin America in 1993, the "vast majority of new rental housing is located in the consolidated self-help periphery rather than in the centre of the city."

Mexico City is an important case in point. Despite a Model Law of the colonias proletarias which sought to ban absentee ownership, "poaching," and speculation in low-income housing, the Lopez Portillo government (1976-82) allowed slum-dwellers to sell their property at market rates. One result of this reform has been the middle-class gentrification of some formerly poor colonias in good locations; another has been the proliferation of petty landlordism. As sociologist Susan Eckstein discovered in her 1987 return to the colonia that she had first studied fifteen years earlier, some 25 to 50 percent of the original squatters had built small, 2-to-15-family vecindades which they then rented to poorer newcomers. "There is, in essence," she wrote, "a two-tiered housing market, reflecting socioeconomic differences among colonos." She also found "a 'downward' socioeconomic leveling of the population since I was last there.... The poor tenant stratum has increased in size." Although some older residents had thrived as landlords, the newer renters had far less hope of socioeconomic mobility than the earlier generation, and the colonia as a whole was no longer a "slum of hope."

Renters, indeed, are usually the most invisible and powerless of slum-dwellers. In the face of redevelopment and eviction, they are typically ineligible for compensation or resettlement. Unlike tenement-dwellers in early-twentieth-century Berlin or New York, moreover, who shared a closeknit solidarity vis-à-vis their slumlords, today's slum renters typically lack the power to organize tenants' organizations or mount rent strikes. As two leading housing researchers explain: "Tenants are scattered throughout irregular settlements with a wide range of informal rental arrangements, and they are often unable to organize as a pressure group to protect themselves."

Large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are usually complex quiltworks of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. Diana Lee-Smith, one of the founders of Nairobi's Mazingira Institute, has closely studied Korogocho, a huge slum on the eastern edge of the city. Korogocho includes seven villages offering a menu of different housing and rental types. The most wretched village, Grogan, consists of one-room cardboard shacks and is largely populated by female-headed households evicted from an older shantytown near the city center. Barracks-like Githaa, on the other hand, "is an entirely speculative village, built by entrepreneurs for rent," despite the fact that the land is publicly owned. Nearby Dandora is a sites-and-services scheme where half the owners are now absentee landlords. Lee-Smith emphasizes that petty landlordship and subletting are major wealth strategies of the poor, and that homeowners quickly become exploiters of even more impoverished people. Despite the persistent heroic image of the squatter as self-builder and owner-occupier, the reality in Korogocho and other Nairobi slums is the irresistible increase in tenancy and petty exploitation. [Citations omitted. All bolded emphasis mine.]

This excerpt illustrates a little-recognized phenomenon of the slums: wretchedly poor people making tiny, incremental moves away from the most severe poverty by exploiting even more wretchedly poor people as renters. (One fact that this passage does not emphasize is that politicians and thugs are as likely to exploit the extremely poor as are other poor people - people who sleep on the sidewalks have to pay neighborhood gangs for the privilege.)

The inequality that gets magnified is, to some degree, one of time - those who arrived earlier exploit those who arrive later. But other forms of natural or preexisting inequality are also magnified, such as differences in social connections, business savvy, and willingness to exploit others.

A slum is a pattern, a physical instantiation of a phenomenon that occurs at different levels of development. In rich countries and poor countries, slums are what happens when people are so poor that they fall out of the legally available housing system and must resort to "illegal" housing. The immense tent city slums of Los Angeles' Skid Row are similar in form to the cardboard shantytowns of Nairobi, despite vast differences in wealth between the two cities.

Most of the population growth in the Global South is happening in slums - in some cases up to 90% of population growth.

The slums are an emergency. Their scale is almost unimaginable, and they have exploded in the past few decades.

Plenty of people are born into slums. Plenty of them are smart. But this application of population magic does not seem to be having the effect Bryan Caplan hopes for when he assures us that "when population goes up, everyone gets extra choices."

As of 2006, only about 6% of the urban population of the United States lived in slums. But over a third of China's urban population, over half of India's, and a shocking 99.4% of Ethiopia's, are slum dwellers.

Both the absolute population of the slums and the percentage of the world population that lives in slums are growing. Fast.

"If such a trend continues unabated," warns planning expert Gautam Chatterjee, "we will have only slums and no cities."

I guess it's a good thing that poor people still smile.

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