Complex Bubble Tea

Casual thoughts

Current interests, January 2023

Complex Bubble Tea |

I, more than most, go through spells where I'm compelled by some set of ideas that—after a while—I let go. A few years ago, for example, my set was free speech, self-disclosure, and unconditional love. (I had contrived that all three flowed from the same thing, but it's complicated to explain—and all over now.)

Unfortunately, I'm not in such a spell these days. Below're a dozen or so disparate thoughts, in the hope that, somehow, they'll come together and eventually compell me.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the sign of a first-rate intellect is to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind and still be able to function. I think this is broadly right, and one example relates to courage.

2. Liars: at University I knew a lot of them. Now we’ve all left some are happy and some are not, and I think it interesting to analyze the patterns that make lying successful or unsuccessful (at achieving the liar’s happiness). In short I think that those who lied only about basic facts are happy—but those who tried to act, to be someone they weren’t in character as well as in material fact, are not.

3. The ethical limits of lies. There are different conceptions of the truth, and obviously what is deceitful can also be true. But I used to think that what is honest can also be false, so long as it signals the truth (is meta-true or something).

4. People (e.g. Aristotle) often parse the virtues into virtues of character, on one hand, and virtues of intellect, on the other. I think this is mistaken and unhelpful.

5. People talk a lot about the idea of being a ‘good person’. But often we forget that there are many conceptions of the good person—that Alice, Bob, and Carla can all be good people and yet have very few salient similarities. I think this really matters and that we should change our discourse.

6. Smart people have very silly ways of thinking about risk aversion (autodidact’s curse) that actually do not make sense. This leads to annoying conversations about everything from medical screening to FTX, and I’m getting bored enough that it’d be nice to clean it up.

7. We talk about incentivizing people not to make the wrong choice. There are several problems with this framing. First is that wrongdoing, in my experience, has rarely felt like a choice. The real thing that people ought to have been angry with me for is not ‘making the wrong choice’ but rather ‘not realizing I had a credible choice’. The latter is bad (probably just as bad) but trying to make someone choose correctly won’t help unless that person genuinely internalizes that there is a choice at all.

8. A second problem with the framing from the above point: wrongdoing is usually multi-stage, and changing the incentives that govern the first right-wrong choice can often have downstream implications for how the second, third, etc. choices are incentivized.

9. A related problem. A lot of times I’ve participated in, or witnessed, conversations that go something like this. Alice: “I’m unhappy because of X’. Bob: ‘well, sure, but X is you’re fault’. And I’m just, like, so what? How is this relevant or useful? I feel like if people properly understood subgame perfect equilibria this wouldn’t happen.

10. There are a few ways to reliably change a person from a ‘bad person’ to a 'good' one (and yes, I think those terms have real meaning). None of these ways is really enjoyable for either party, but they are useful and I have used them and had them used on me.

11. A lot of clever people I know have broadly accepted that (systematized) ethics is useless and empty. For three reasons, which I do not discuss here, I think they should reconsider.

12. There is a set of common philosophical errors that people make that I wish they wouldn’t make. For example, mixing up ‘X’ with ‘the concept of X’.

13. Virtue ethicists can essentialize the moral realm as a vector space, and this has occasionally brought some clarity in discussions with fellow virtue ethics-adjacents. Generally formalizing ethics brings clarity, and I feel like the common worry that it strips nuance is overblown.

If you have thoughts on any of these, please let me know!