Friday, September 30, 2011

The Problem of Pimps

The prostitutes worked for a pimp now. He was splendid and cruel. He was a god to them. He took their free will away from them, which was perfectly all right. They didn't want it anyway. It was as though they had surrendered themselves to Jesus, for instance, so they could live unselfishly and trustingly - except that they had surrendered to a pimp instead.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
...in 2005 Dallas Police officials realized that arrests of teen prostitutes is ineffective [sic].... Because girls will not testify against pimps, arrests stopped teen prostitution temporarily and did not lead to the prosecution of pimps. After their first, second, third and even the fourth arrests and releases from jail, teen prostitutes headed straight back to their pimps.
--Letot Girls Center, "The Problem"
There's so much desensitization that has happened, so much normalization of exploitation that has happened, so much internalization of trauma that has happened. Some of them would any day go back to their pimps or procurer than rather be with us.
--Sunita Krishnan, founder of NGO that rescues girls from the sex trade

 The problem of pimps is a problem of people. The problem is not merely that a few sociopaths exploit others for their own gain; the problem is that human beings come with built-in exploits, honed by evolution and primed by life experiences, that allow them to be exploited by sociopaths (who constitute at least 3% of the general population).

Pimping and domestic violence are strange sorts of crime - strange, in that the victims of the crimes frequently identify with, support, and eventually return to relationships with the perpetrators of the crimes. Part of each crime - the essential features that enables the crime to occur - is that the perpetrator manages to satisfy a huge part of the social belonging need of the victim.

Advocates for girls exploited by pimps often focus on drugs as a need both created by and filled by pimps, neglecting the extremely important social belonging aspect. Trafficked girls are disproportionately girls with shitty family lives - neglected and abused by their parents. They are, in a real sense, starving - for affection, structure, attention, belonging, even status. Pimps are able to exploit these needs, making themselves into superstimuli of a sort - appearing to fill these needs even better than more appropriate figures that might better fulfill trafficked girls' needs.

I have been meaning to write on this issue for a while, and fully intended to start the essay with this sentence: "The problem of pimps is a problem of women." However, while sex trafficking vastly disproportionately affects girls and women, the phenomenon of sociopaths making themselves into superstimuli and exploiting inbuilt belonging and status needs of others affects men as victims as well. A beautiful example of this process is presented in Episode 447 of the radio show This American Life, entitled "The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms." (Spoilers below, but the show is fascinating either way. See also "The Setup," the journalist's account of the story that led to the drama and inspired the show.)

The alleged sociopath in question is Chris Butler, who ran a private investigation firm that was supposed to be the subject of a reality television show on Lifetime. It appears that Butler faked several of the cases that his P.I. moms investigated, but as those frauds unraveled, he was also busted for selling drugs. But not just any drugs - drugs seized by the Contra Costa Police Department. He had an inside man in the department, Norm Wielsch, who, along with many other people involved with Butler, points to the charisma of Butler as a major contributing factor to the illegal schemes:

Norm Wielsch: Whoever has talked to Chris knows that he has the gift of gab. He could talk you into buying anything. I mean, I'm not blaming him, but he had his way of you know, kind of coercing a little bit more, you know, where if I would say, 'Hey, that's a stupid idea,' all of a sudden the golden tongue would come out, and then all of a sudden I'd be driving home thinking, that's not a bad idea, you know? ...

He always insisted on buying lunch, and pull out his credit card; he would bring some of the girls there [presumably girls from the illegal brothels he ran], and he would make sure they were dressed all pretty and stuff...there was a little theater to it. And then he would come in his black Mercedes, which, you know, and you're impressed, you're sitting there going 'wow,' you know?

Joshuah Bearman: Even now, in his lawyer's conference room, you can hear in Norm's voice that he still feels it a little bit, that Chris had some kind of hold on him, as he did on so many other people. It's obvious when you see Chris in action.

Whether we believe Wielsch and the other adult participants in this particular case or not, the charismatic, "superstimulus"-type person is an inherently believable archetype. In the excerpt above, Butler even uses the same flashy methods on his male accomplice that pimps use to attract and retain women to exploit.

The most important aspect that makes people slaves is not bad, mean slave owners. It is our inherent, inborn needs that makes us slaves - that make us willing to go back to an abusive boyfriend or a pimp even when we have other options. The problem of stuperstimulus is not the superstimulus. It is the need that the superstimulus exploits.

See also the Overcoming Bias thread "Moneyball Slavery" and comments, relating to the phenomenon of slavery in different contexts (such as baseball players).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

If You Love Life So Much Why Don't You Marry It?

The central claim of antinatalists like me is that being born is not a good thing - specifically, that it's better not to be born than to be born.

Lots of folks have the same immediate reaction to first encountering this: "so why dontcha just kill yourself?"

I wish to illustrate here how this response is a non sequitur - specifically, almost identical to a response of "so why don't you marry it?" in response to me telling my friend how much I love Christopher Brosius perfume.

In the "Why don't you marry it?" case, the respondent is implying that the assertion of the speaker is not genuine unless the speaker is willing to give the most extreme possible evidence of his conviction.

Note first that this is a personal attack (ad hominem, as the kids call it these days) rather than a response to the argument.The respondent is not analyzing anything to do with the argument, but rather is questioning the sincerity of this speaker's protestation.

Second, he demands the most extreme evidence imaginable - marriage as evidence of love.

Similarly, when someone hears I think it was a bad thing for me to have been born, and then asks me why I don't kill myself, he's (a) failing to respond to any argument I have made, instead choosing to challenge my sincerity, and (b) demanding the most extreme imaginable sort of evidence for the claim.

This is a non sequitur because it is possible that it is a bad thing to be born, but that once born, it is worse to commit suicide than to remain alive for one's lifespan (worse for others one cares about, or even for oneself). I have heard at least one antinatalist assert that it's wrong to create new people precisely because death is so awful and scary to think about; we would not have this fear, would not experience this irrational negative affect, if we had not been born.

Also, similarly to the "Why don't you marry it?" example, it is not legally possible (to my consternation) for me to marry a bottle of perfume. Indeed, there are many barriers, legal, practical, and even moral, to committing suicide. It's like asking a starving person in Somalia, "if you're so hungry, why don't you drive to Wendy's and get a cheeseburger?"

One last note: lots of people get married for immigration purposes. Lots of people kill themselves who nonetheless think it was a good thing that they were born and got to see all those puppies and sunsets. The evidence demanded is not even necessarily evidence of the proposition asserted!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Trolling Relationship

Trolling is not morally good or bad; it is a relationship between a person and an institution.

On Meatspace Trolling

Upon being summoned for federal jury duty, my immediate reaction was not irritation, but amusement. Jury duty is an opportunity to play a game: the Peremptory Challenge Challenge! When one reports for jury duty, it is of course with the goal of having a "peremptory challenge" used to exclude one from the jury - that is, inducing an attorney to use one of his "get rid of this juror free" cards, as my friend Thi achieved in part by dropping an e-bomb[1] when asked to explain what he did for a living. Getting knocked off "for cause" is easy, and will result from being too heavy-handed in one's approach, so obviously the result of a challenge for cause is ignominy. Being placed on a jury is a form of losing, but then one faces the Jury Nullification Challenge (particularly on a drug jury). The path of glory is clearly to be excused on a peremptory challenge if at all.

"So basically, you're trolling the District Court," is how my husband puts it.

Yes! Yes, I am! But this is only one facet, one instance, of a greater social phenomenon that relates individuals to institutions (broadly defined): the relationship of trolling.

As this example illustrates, the phenomenon of trolling is not limited to participating in a conversation in a manner inimical to the purposes of the other conversation participants. The troll is not trolling the conversation: he is trolling the institution of the conversation, made up of implicit rules and purposes.

Andy Kaufman

The public life of Andy Kaufman is illustrative as a bridge between the concept of meatspace trolling and of internet trolling. Kaufman performed in such a manner that he satirized and questioned (rather than naively participating in) certain social institutions defined by implicit rules (and by doing so, helped bring some of those rules to visibility - the project of phenomenology). Frequently, his performances had the effect of causing strong negative affect in some audiences, but that was not the ultimate purpose of his art.

The troll engages participants in a pre-existing institution, but does not observe the rules of that institution. A troll is not a person, and trolling is not an absolute; "troll" is a social role a person may play from time to time toward certain institutions, and "trolling" is a manner of relating to an institution.

Highly effective meatspace trolls include the scatological buffoonery of Mozart, the Sokal hoax, the trial of the Chicago Seven, Issa's famous haiku composed for a poetry contest, the funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Yes Men's impersonation of a Dow Chemical spokesperson taking responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster of 1984 (but see below for a discussion of why the latter two are poor specimens of trolling). Social roles such as "class clown" and "court jester" can be seen as trolling positions. Nasrudin, Bugs Bunny, Jesus, Gandhi, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Richard Feynman are all associated with the phenomenon I call meatspace trolling. As should be clear from my examples, trolling is a morally ambiguous phenomenon.

Evo Bio and Game Theory: Trolling and Fairness

One of the most consistent results from watching actual humans play the "ultimatum game" - in which one experimental subject is asked to divide a sum of money between himself and a second subject, and the second subject can then take it (both subjects get to keep their share) or leave it (neither subject gets his share) - is that people reject "unfair" offers (offers of less than, especially considerably less than, 50% of the pot), even though this is costly to themselves. This may not be rational in the sense of maximizing payoff in the moment, but ecologically speaking, such "spite" may be a very good strategy for a social organism.

Just as the second subject rejects an "unfair" offer out of spite, the troll rejects the "offer" of naive participation in the target institution. It is possible that trolling is the broader phenomenon of which ultimatum-game-type "spite" is one aspect. However, what the ultimatum game ignores, and what is important to understand in order to grasp the wide importance of the phenomenon of trolling, is that (a) trolling is generally conducted with an audience; and (b) this audience may provide benefits to the troll (attention, a social context in which to belong, etc.) that may more than make up for the benefits foregone by refusing to participate in a naive manner out of "spite." That is, "spite" in meatspace may not be as damaging to self-interest as laboratory ultimatum games make it seem - after all, social capital may be the most important kind of capital, both in the EEA and in our world.

In other words, what we often conceive of as "spite" - punishing others at one's own expense - might actually be part of a larger phenomenon of meta-competition, of undermining institutions and the implicit rules that make up institutions not necessarily at personal expense, but often with the effect of increasing one's status in the view of one's audience.

Countersignalling and Meta-Competition

Trolling is a special form of countersignalling - refusing to "play the game" and naively signal within the implicit rules of the institution, and instead joyfully rejecting the signalling conventions of the institution. Those of very high ability or status

sometimes avoid the signals that should separate them from lower types, while intermediate types often appear the most anxious to send the “right” signals. The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response. [Feltovich et al., "Too cool for school? Signalling and countersignalling". Internal hyperlink mine; thanks Rob Sica for the source.]

Trolling is a subset of countersignalling. Not only outside characteristics such as wealth and social status, but also the acts of trolling themselves, may be perceived by one's audience as evidence of high value - of, for example, the capability to perceive institutions abstractly, or the courage to reject and play with the conventions of powerful institutions.

To be successful, trolls must be high-status folks in some sense - possessing high-status characteristics (though these need not be visible to the majority of his audience - only to his relevant audience, which may be a small subset of his total audience). But we could speak of a narrow "status window" to define trolls: why would a high-status individual undermine an institution that accords him high status? Perhaps the troll mind is a different kind of mind, one that is bored by naively playing status games within an institution. Somehow, the rewards the institution accords to the individual must not be "worth" the effort and boredom of playing by the rules to get those rewards. In addition to being a means to get attention and social status, trolling is the infinite fun.

Trolling is more than just a competitive tactic.

Troll = Trickster?

The phenomenon of trolling, broadly conceived, has several salient characteristics:

  1. An orientation toward fun (lulz) rather than making a point; absurdity over sincerity[2]
  2. Distrust of cherished institutions
  3. Engaging with participants of institutions, but not on the institution's terms
  4. Cognitive capacity to conceive of value distribution outside of pre-existing value-distributing institutions (see 6.)
  5. Game orientation (everything is a game)
  6. Display of emotion by target is a form of "winning" (on the flip side, target "loses" by displaying emotion) (see 3.)[3]
  7. Outcome is unpredictable; the troll orientation is chaotic neutral
  8. Trolling is a social phenomenon, distinct from the hermit - the troll seeks out institutions to interact with
  9. Social fearlessness
  10. Trolling is conducted for amusement, not for explicit, material personal gain[4]

At this point, one must connect the phenomenon of meatspace trolling to the widespread "trickster hero" theme in literature and art. Nasrudin and Bugs Bunny, for example, are trickster heroes; they are also trolls. Why should a society value trolling? Why should trolling have such amusement and status value? Why should we preserve the pattern of trolling in our literature, and take so much joy in it, even though most of us do not engage in trolling behavior?

Chuang-tzu is a troll; he says:

Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a nonpoint to show that a point is not a point.

Indeed, the winning move is often not to play, as with the Giant's Drink; but perhaps more importantly, the best explanation is often not a naive explanation within the existing framework, but a view of the situation from a more abstract level.

The fact that trolling can be an effective strategy for individuals allows societies a mechanism for questioning its institutions and seeing them from a more abstract point of view. Institutions can outlive (or outgrow) their usefulness and effectiveness as value distributors; but in the face of entrenched, self-perpetuating institutions that do more harm than good, what is society's defense?

It is the troll.

Easier to Criticize than to Build Anew

An important criticism of trolling behavior, as I have outlined it, is that it is directed toward delegitimizing institutions, "tearing them down" in a way, without concern for substituting new institutions in their stead. If we accept this, we may adopt a more negative view of trolling than the one I have proposed above. There are a few responses to this criticism.

First, there are plenty of institution-building processes operating in human groups - what Vernon L. Smith refers to as "constructivist" processes, creating new institutions that will be tested in the real world to see if actual humans can use and sustain them. Trolling, from this perspective, must be viewed as part of the natural "ecological" testing of such institutions - perhaps a crucial function.

Second, there is the Ultimate Troll - the null hypothesis on human institutions (and, indeed, human flourishing). We come into the world with institutions already in existence - many of them created not solely by conscious human agency, but through the natural processes of our social brains. Such institutions are not justified a priori - we have not consented to them, certainly, and they may be terrible institutions that we would not consent to, given the opportunity to choose. The biggest excuse these institutions have is that they have been shown (in Smith's "ecological" sense) to work, at least in the sense of sustaining themselves through human generations. Is that enough? If an institution "works," does that justify its existence? That is the central question of the Ultimate Troll. The question is sharpened by the fact that our lives have become so much more complex than our environments of evolutionary adaptedness that they may in fact be too complex for ecological or constructivist processes to accommodate satisfactorily.


1. Epistemology

2. This is why the Westboro Baptist Church and the Yes Men are poor sorts of trolls; they wish to show the absurdity of a particular institution in order to support the meaning and sense of other institutions. Pure trolling is purely absurd, clean of all sincerity. This is why Andy Kaufman is the troll hero of our time. (Contra Camus, absurdity is the absence of sense and meaning.)

3. Items 1, 4, and 6 relate to the idea of play - the ability to conceive of events as not having their usual meaning. This is similar to when dogs "bow" on their elbows as an invitation to play, allowing the usual dog status rules are not applicable, and that what happens in the play session does not have the meaning it would have in the mundane world.

4. Patent trolls engage with the patent system in a manner that is directly inimical to its ostensible purposes (promoting innovation, etc.) and so they must be considered trolls. They are bad and dirty, but they do bring to visibility the problems with our intellectual property system.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Depressed Person's Special Duty Not To Breed

The heritable component of depression is large. Depending on the nature of the study, the heritability of depression is estimated at anywhere from 29% (for men, in a Swedish twin study) to 75% (in a British twin study). Heritability of bipolar affective disorder is even greater (85% in another British twin study). All told, a child with a parent who has depression has double or triple the risk of an average child of developing major depressive disorder.

Imagine the suffering that could be prevented if all of us with severe depression - especially of the endogenous type particularly likely to be heritable - avoided reproducing. It is not the case that every person who has suffered depression wishes she hadn't been born. But it need not be a 1:1 correlation to imply a duty to avoid reproducing.

A woman in her 40s who conceives a child with her own egg is rightly considered to be irresponsible, because of the risk of mental retardation to her child. But that risk (one in a hundred at maternal age 40) is nothing compared to the risk of severe depression in the child of a severely depressed person.

Many of us who are explicitly not glad to be here have parents who suffered from depression, diagnosed or not. Thirty-three years ago, when my own mother made the awful decision to have a child, the heritability of depression was not well understood.

But now it is undeniable.

If you have been depressed, the chances that your child will experience depression are high, especially if your depression is severe. Reproduction by a depressed person is at best irresponsible, at worst cruel. (This is true even though depressed and bipolar people make all the art.)

Please don't make more of us! Thanks!



Science says new parents have a higher risk of developing depression; perky blonde disagrees.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Revealed Belief

Prior to Judith Jarvis Thomson, the big philosophical issue regarding abortion was the issue of when a zygote/blastocyst/fetus/baby achieves personhood - the moment at which a being acquires recognizable interests - as opposed to the related, perhaps more important issues of how strong those interests might be compared to other interests, or whether those interests include a right to continued existence. (For a concise treatment of the major philosophical arguments on abortion since 1973 or so, see Chapter 5 of Benatar's Better Never To Have Been, entitled "Abortion: The 'Pro-Death' View.")

Modern Catholics and evangelical protestants have largely taken the position that personhood accrues to a zygote as soon as fertilization occurs. However, it is clear from their other positions and behaviors that this belief is only for the purpose of making the anti-abortion argument, and does not reflect a true belief in the personhood of a zygote/blastocyst in the relevant sense.

For example, reviewing the policies supported by anti-abortion religious groups, one is struck with how little they accord with the stated position that a zygote/blastocyst is a person, and the destruction of a zygote a murder; what the supported policies all appear consistent with is a desire to punish women who have sex. In the "moral foundations" thinking of Jonathan Haidt, we might say that concerns for authority and for purity are masquerading as concern for fairness or for harm/care.

In addition to punishing women who have sex, anti-abortion religious people also want to force everyone to submit to the will of their God - concern for authority and in-group loyalty again masquerading as concern for fairness and harm/care.

Imagine for a second that a zygote really is a person, whatever that means to you.

Now realize that up to a quarter of all recognized pregnancies, and HALF of all fertilized zygotes (some sources say up to 70%), are spontaneously miscarried.

That's a lot of death. If you take a zygote to be a person, half of all children are dying before they ever take a breath.

But "No pro-life group has called for the foundation of a National Institute for the Prevention of Miscarriage," notes a commenter in the above-linked thread.

Of course, intentional harm is both more deserving of blame than unintentional harm and more preventable than unintentional harm. But the assignment of, apparently, ZERO value to the accidental deaths of billions of zygotes (after all, God willed it) while claiming that the intentional killing of these zygotes is MURDER is hardly consistent.

In sum:

  1. Religious people do not believe that zygotes or blastocysts are persons.

  2. Religious people want to punish women for having sex.

  3. Religious people want to force everyone to submit to their God.


See also: Five Reasons to Have an Abortion

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Double Violation of the Unacceptable Life

While there is disagreement as to what constitutes an unacceptable life - a life not worth getting - there can be no doubt that many people with unacceptable lives currently exist. And, Utopian post-human fantasies aside, at least some unacceptable lives are a guaranteed result of the continuation of our species.

Forms of utilitarianism such as prioritarianism push us to be most concerned with the welfare of the least well off within the relevant population. But I argue that it is the very special group at the bottom, those with unacceptable lives, who are especially entitled to our highest consideration.

Those with unacceptable lives suffer a double violation. First, they are violated by being brought into existence. Their lives are worse than having no life at all, so being born makes them worse off.

Second, they suffer a new and continuing violation by being prevented from improving their circumstances in particular ways. Just as their birth is required to enable those with unacceptable lives to exist (because each birth risks the creation of unacceptable lives), their exploitation is also required for those very acceptable lives to remain acceptable.

For instance, if those with unacceptable lives were not coerced into acting in the interests of those with acceptable lives, the most miserable could either end their lives or increase their welfare toward acceptability. However, by doing so, they would likely depress the welfare of those around them with acceptable lives.

The (philanthropic) antinatalist objection to breeding is not limited, in practical application, to the decision to create a being. It also implies that those who are born with unacceptable lives, having been once violated, are entitled to special consideration once they come into existence - the "social contract" justifications for coercive policies are not applicable to them.

So these people with unacceptable lives have a strong moral claim to be allowed to commit suicide, to use mind-altering chemicals or technology, to "shirk" the "responsibilities" that the majority would benefit from imposing upon them, perhaps even to join a criminal gang. There is much less justification for coercing them into acting in accord with the best interests of the majority, because there can be no reciprocation.
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