Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

One of the things I try to remember is that my experiences and perspectives are limited. What makes sense to me, what seems reasonable and rational to me, is all based on my background and the opportunities I have had. I haven’t experienced the same lives of others so I cannot always fully understand their perspectives.
I think this is incredibly important to keep in mind when we think about poverty in the United States. From a middle or upper income perspective, poverty can be incredibly misunderstood. Those misunderstandings in turn shape attitudes, opinions, and policies regarding poverty and those living in extreme poverty. We lack the perspective to understand just what it is like for people who are the worst off and therefore fail to approach them in appropriate ways and fail to produce policies that will actually help improve their state of being.
For example, we often criticize people in poverty for being lazy and undisciplined. If only people in poverty would work hard and save money, they could get to a better place and not be stuck in poverty anymore. There is no policy that we should introduce to help them if they are not willing to help themselves first. This is a standard mindset and thought process related to those in poverty. And it also fails to take into consideration what life in extreme poverty is really like.
One thing I think we should consider is how chaotic and unpredictable a life in poverty can be. When people find themselves in a state of homelessness, it can be incredibly challenging to find any stability from which to begin approaching life in the way that a middle or upper income person would be able to. As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “it doesn’t pay to save for tomorrow if tomorrow will never come, or if your world is so chaotic that you have no confidence you would get your savings back.”
If you don’t know for sure that the work you managed to find for today will be there tomorrow, then it is hard to plan ahead at all. And if you can’t plan ahead and count on some stability in terms of housing, in terms of maintaining possessions, and in terms of work, then you can’t begin to save money or resources in any meaningful way and you can’t demonstrate what others would consider wise self-discipline. At the very bottom, life is chaotic and that chaos makes it impossible to do the things that middle and upper income people require of you before they are willing to help you.
Perspectives and understandings matter. The people who make policies and vote for people who shape policies often lack the correct perspectives to understand something as complex as what Pinker’s quote gets at. We look at those in poverty and make assumptions about their laziness and lack of self-discipline, never realizing that sometimes it doesn’t pay to save or be self-disciplined and that an incredibly chaotic life makes even basic activity feel impossible. We then vote for politicians who also misunderstand the very poor, and consequentially we introduce policies that do little to help life be less chaotic for those in extreme poverty.
Empathy & Effective Altruism

Empathy and Effective Altruism

While I haven’t kept up donations recently, I used to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation on a monthly basis. I chose to donate to AMF because the charity was identified by GiveWell as one of the most effective charities in terms of lives saved per dollar donated. GiveWell is an engine for Effective Altruism, the movement which believes we should be doing the most good with our financial resources, especially when we are thinking about charitable donations. We could make donations to charities that sound like they are doing really important work and charities which give us a nice warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside, but those charities are not always super effective, and a lot of our money may not be going directly toward the thing the charity is built around. Some charities spend large amounts of the money they receive on executive pay or marketing, meaning that a large percentage of every dollar you donate, possibly a majority, doesn’t go toward the mission of the charity.
And this is where empathy can get in the way of our efforts to do good. A charity I often point at as an ineffective charity is the Make-A-Wish foundation. Many authors have written about great wishes that have been granted that have shut down city streets to enable young children with terminal illnesses to play super-hero for a day. These wishes are expensive, but they make a sick child smile, they show the world something positive, and they make us feel good. Unfortunately, the money spent on a wish for a child in the United States may not be as effective as money spent on something less exciting, like providing bed nets to children in Africa to help prevent malaria. We might not get a warm glow from helping some child thousands of miles away from us, especially not compared to granting a wish which will be filmed and choreographed to music, but the difference we can make in the life of the child thousands of miles away can be a dollar for dollar better investment for the future than the wish.
But my argument, and the argument of effective altruism, is not just an argument of effectiveness and a return on investment for charitable donations. It is also argument for fairness over empathy. We have limited resources. There is only so much charitable donation capacity for all of us. Making donations with an Effective Altruism mindset isn’t just more effective, it can also be more fair. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “empathy can subvert human well-being when it runs afoul of a more fundamental principle, fairness.”
Charities that rely on empathy can do great things for the people who are the recipients of our altruism. But they can also divert resources from those who truly need it, can unfairly jump people ahead of the line for medical care, and can prioritize charity for people who look like us or who look like our preferred recipient of charity. In the long run, this can contribute to inequality as we prioritize charity for certain racial or ethnic groups, certain countries, and certain medical conditions. We make donations to children in the United States to help them be happy for a day, we prioritize treatment of cancer over treatment of tropical diseases, we underfund foreign aid. Pinker continues,
“Not only does this nepotism sap the competence of police, government, and business, but it sets up a zero-sum competition for the necessities of life among clans and ethnic groups, which can quickly turn violent. The institutions of modernity depend on carrying out abstract fiduciary duties that cut across bonds of empathy.”
If we only make donations when our empathy is piqued, then we will constantly short better charitable targets. We will not distribute charitable dollars in an equitable or effective manner. We will be paternalistic in our donations and our outcomes will be biased. What we need are more institutions that make donations in a more effective and more equal manner. We should think more about cash transfers and giving money directly to people without needing to feel a warm glow and without needing our empathy to be piqued. Doing so will have better societal and global outcomes than making donations based on empathy. Pinker concludes, “the ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need.”
Empathy is Not Enough

Empathy is Not Enough

In our world today we are dealing with a lot of tragedies and negativity. Our political parties are polarized and don’t seem to be willing to cooperate. This last weekend there was a mass shooting at 4th of July parade. Women face incredibly awful sexist comments online. As a response to the negativity, many people are calling for increased empathy in the world. The idea is that we need to work together to be more empathetic, more aligned and aware of each other, and to care for each other’s emotions to a greater level than we currently do.
However, as always for me, I would argue that trying to develop more empathy is not enough. I think we need to develop better institutions that bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see in a more empathetic world. Steven Pinker, based on what he wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature would likely agree:
“The overall picture that has emerged from the study of the compassionate brain is that there is no empathy center with empathy neurons, but complex patterns of activation and modulation that depend on perceivers interpretation of the traits of another person and the nature of their relationship with the person.”
Pinker explains that singular people going out and trying to be good people, trying to display empathy, and trying to make the world a better place by being empathetic is not likely to change the state of empathy in the world and bring about the subsequent changes we would like to see. Trying to be empathetic with a woman who has been criticized online could backfire if you are not seen as part of the right group, a major challenge in our politically polarized society. Gun violence may not be reduced, and may not be reduced quick enough, if we try to build empathy at an individual level. What needs to change are incentive structures and relationships between people.
Similarly to how Pinker writes about empathy, he writes the following about sympathy, “sympathy is endogenous, and an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counter productive.”
At this point, I believe we need new institutions that will reduce access to guns and create new taboos around guns. I would support a constitutional amendment banning guns or even a program that tried to purchase guns from people (especially for people with suicidal backgrounds – however these programs are often not effective). I would also push for reduced anonymity for online social media companies, hopefully bringing more visibility to awful sexist comments. Other institutions, like changes to our voting system could help address the political polarization and possibly have other positive effects down the road. Institutions can shape behavior much stronger and much more quickly than individual kindness and acts of empathy. To get beyond our current world of tragedies and negativity, I think it is time we start experimenting with new institutions.
Living with the Inner Demons of Humanity

Living with the Inner Demons of Humanity

When we think about the lives we live compared with the lives of humans in the distant past, we think of ourselves as smarter, more civilized, and all around better than those who came before us. We see people of the past as bigots, racists, and savages and we assume that we are free from the inner demons which drove humanity to atrocities of the past. But the reality is that we are not that far removed from the evils of human history and we have not had the time that nature would need to evolve our brains and thinking to be something different.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes, “the parts of the brain that restrain our darker impulses were also standard equipment in our ancestors who kept slaves, burned witches, and beat children, so they clearly don’t make people good by default.” Everything about our psychology that led to the Crusades, to the Holocaust, and to everything negative about our past is still present in our current selves. Evolution cannot have changed us so substantially in just a few dozen generations. Evolution needs tens of thousands of years to make changes so large.
What has changed is our culture, scientific understanding of ourselves and the universe, and the institutions we have built around ourselves. But even with advances in these areas which make us more civilized, smarter, and more peaceful, we have to remember that our inner demons are still there. Pinker continues, “the exploration of our better angels must show not only how they steer us away from violence, but why they so often fail to do so; not just how they have been increasingly engaged, but why history had to wait so long to engage them fully.”
We have to remember that we are not free from the things which made humanity commit evils in the past. We have to understand how our better angels won out and made the world a safer place and strengthened the aspects of our culture, our knowledge, and our institutions to help further the trend toward peace and civility. We are not a new type of superhuman who cannot commit evil, but we can build a world that better incentives good behavior, rewards people who advance knowledge and understanding, and create institutions which are more equitable, more fair, and less subject to bias and nonsensical beliefs. The more we can do these things, the more our better angels will win out and the less our inner demons will drive us to be violent.
False Conformity & the Big Lie

False Conformity & the Big Lie

[Sociologist Michael] Macy and his colleagues speculate that false conformity and false enforcement can reinforce each other, creating a vicious circle that can entrap a population into an ideology that few of them accept individually,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker’s book was published in 2011, but the quote above seems to me like it could be describing the phenomenon we have been witnessing in the United States since the 2020 election. After Donald Trump lost the election, he pushed the false claim – now referred to as the Big Lie – that the election was rigged and stolen. Through the primary elections of 2022 we have seen that the Big Lie continues to have substantial signaling power among Republican voters and many Republican candidates for office have seemingly endorsed the Big Lie or shown themselves to be sympathetic to the Big Lie.
From the outside, this seems like a difficult thing to understand. But when you step into the shoes of a Republican candidate who wants to win an election and think about the quote from Pinker, the situation starts to make more sense.
It is likely that most of the candidates who are running for office do not truly believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that it was stolen from him, but they believe that others do, or at least that enough of their voters do, for them to support the idea. I would suspect that many of them don’t want to have to go on record to support what is clearly ludicrous, but by fervently showing that they have bought into the Big Lie, they can win voters and protect themselves from those voters at the same time.
Pinker continues, “why would someone punish a heretic who disavows a belief that the person himself or herself rejects? … to show other enforcers that they … believe it in their hearts. That shields them from punishments by their fellows – who may, paradoxically, only be punishing heretics out of fear that they will be punished if they don’t.”
Republican candidates may fear that they will be punished for not supporting the Big Lie. So they buy in and begin punishing those who haven’t bought in. Their false conformity feeds into real enforcement of the Big Lie. It creates a cycle where no one can step out and disavow the Big Lie, even though many of them likely understand how absurd the Big Lie is.
Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice

If our justice system were to change from a vehicle for legal revenge into a system that focused on deterring criminals and helping them reintegrate into society in a meaningful way, to ultimately prevent recidivism, what would the system look like? In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stevena Pinker argues that the system might look like the reconciliation process that took place in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Steadfast truth telling and accepting incomplete justice are key parts of that system that are missing from our current system. Pinker writes, “though truth-telling sheds no blood, it requires a painful emotional sacrifice on the part of the confessors in the form of shame, guilt, and a unilateral disarmament of their chief moral weapon, the claim to innocence.” Incomplete justice means that every score doesn’t need to be settled. We don’t need to take an eye for an eye, it is ok if the punishment is not as violent and severe as the original crime, the justice can be incomplete but still be compelling, still be just, and still lead to a better future.
Truth telling helps overcome the moralization gap, where we dismiss our own harms done unto the world while focusing only on how we feel that we have been harmed. Truth telling requires that we acknowledge that we have harmed others and think about the world through their perspective. This may not seem like a substantial punishment, but still, the person does suffer a cost. “The punishment takes the form of hits to their reputation, prestige, and privileges rather than blood for blood,” describes Pinker.
This system actually allows for healing and acceptance. Justice based on revenge cuts people down and hinders advancement, healing, and acceptance. What is more important in the long run, rather than perfectly equal punishment in relation to crime, is that we become more cooperative, less violent, and less likely to commit crimes in the future. Revenge is a powerful motivating force, but it doesn’t serve the world as well as reconciliation. 
Justice & Revenge

Justice and Revenge

In my last post, I wrote about the way in which harms that are inflicted on us feel much more severe in our minds than the harms we inflict on others. It is easy for us to justify our bad behaviors and to rationalize them, but it is very hard for us to let go of even the most minor slights against us. This creates a Moralization Gap, in which our misperceptions shape our views of the good and bad in the world.
This has serious consequences for our legal justice system. Quite often, as a result of the moralization gap, we end up confusing justice and revenge. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “the rationale for criminal punishment is not just specific deterrence, general deterrence, and incapacitation. It also embraces just desserts, which is basically citizens’ impulse for revenge.” This is in line with ideas of, “an eye for an eye,” where our minds for some reason think that adding violence to the system is the right way to address and respond to existing violence within the system.
Our criminal justice system does not represent itself as a vehicle for revenge, but it often does reveal itself to be such a vehicle. We incarcerate a huge number of people in the United States, do very little to help the incarcerated when they leave prison and have served their time, won’t hire them into the workforce after they leave prison, and also have very high rates of recidivism. If our goal was truly deterrence and correction, then we would design and shape our criminal justice system in a different way. Instead, our system is clearly a revenge machine, allowing those who have been harmed to seek revenge and legally debilitate the lives of those who have wronged them.
I think we should try to avoid the pursuit of revenge in general, but Pinker does argue that allowing the criminal justice system to carry an element of revenge is useful. It can prevent malefactors from gaming the system if crime and punishment were utilized in a strictly utilitarian manner. Ultimately, however, I think the challenges of bias and disproportionate sentencing on minorities and the fact that our system does little to rehabilitate and deter actual crime is more important than the possibility of preventing the system from being gamed. Our criminal justice system is not fair, and that is a major problem. It should not be a vehicle for privileged revenge.

The Moralization Gap

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous.”
This last week I was watering a spot of seed on my front yard when I noticed that someone did not clean up after their dog. I was pretty unhappy about it and my first impulse was to be indignant. But as I thought about it, I realized how unreasonable it would be for me to get worked up over the fact that someone didn’t clean up after their dog. Upon further reflection, I can see that my initial impulse was in line with Pinker’s quote above about the Moralization Gap.
We perceive harms that we suffer as being much worse than they actually are. At the same time, we discount the harms we inflict on others. I have a dog and have had some walks where I don’t realize until too late that I don’t have bags that I can use to clean up after the dog. There have been a few situations where I haven’t been able to pick up after the dog and in my mind I feel bad but ultimately find a way to justify leaving the dog’s mess behind. I rationalize the situation by telling myself that I’m a good person, that this was just one unfortunate situation, and that I almost always pick up after my dog.
But my first reaction when someone didn’t pick up after their dog was to think that they were a terrible and inconsiderate person. I couldn’t exactly remember how many times I had failed to pick up after my dog (a convenient forgetting), but I am clearly going to remember this instance where someone didn’t pick up after theirs. I’m experiencing the harm another person inflicted on me much more severely than the exact same harm I may inflict on another.
Ultimately, I paused, thought about my reaction, and realized that the owner of the dog may have been in a situation I have found myself in. Perhaps they also forgot bags this one time. Perhaps this dog had gotten off leash and was wondering around lost. Perhaps the person had gotten into a conversation with someone and had honestly not even realized their dog pooped on my lawn. I was quick to forgive myself for similar situations, but had to think and work to forgive another. This is what we call the Moralization Gap, and it is a cognitive fallacy that makes us feel better about ourselves than we deserve and worse about other people than they deserve. It is important to recognize and overcome, even if it requires slow thinking, so that we can behave better ourselves and treat others better, especially if we or others inadvertently inflict harm on another.
Our Responses to Groups

Our Responses to Groups

Even in a society like the United States that is highly individualistic, we still understand who we are in relation to the groups we are a part of. No one exists in isolation, and no one thinks of themselves in pure isolation. We think of ourselves as part of some type of group or coalition. Whether it is a fandom, our profession, or a characteristic we share with others, we cannot help but think of ourselves as part of a group.
Steven Pinker writes about groups, coalitions, our responses to groups, and violence in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Groups and coalitions are important if we want to understand the trajectory of violence across the long arc of humanity. “A part of an individual’s personal identity,” writes Pinker, “is melded with the identity of the groups that he or she affiliates with. Each group occupies a slot in their minds that is very much like the slot occupied by an individual person, complete with beliefs, desires, and praiseworthy or blameworthy traits.” Just as the modern US legal system sees corporations as individuals, we see and understand groups of people as individuals. This is how we end up at a place where we say that all members and supporters of the opposing political party are evil and crazy. The larger group becomes part of each person’s identity and our minds view the groups as singular individuals, not as diverse collectives. The individuals of a group meld into a singular entity in our minds.
While collectives and communities are important for our survival and are key parts of a healthy and functioning society, they can also push us in negative directions. Pinker writes, “the dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals. … A preference for one’s group emerges early in life and seems to be something that must be unlearned, not learned.” We develop natural biases for our own groups and want to see our groups dominate others even if our groups are essentially meaningless. We want people who wear the same shoes as us to do well in athletic competitions. We want our neighborhood to be snow plowed more frequently than the other neighborhoods. We want the people who look like us to win elections. Sometimes these preferences are silly and inconsequential, but sometimes they are serious and have deep and lasting impacts on our lives and the lives of others.
And this is where the danger of our responses to groups and coalitions becomes serious. While many resources in our world are not zero sum, some resources are, like snow plowed roads, power, and status. Increased economic output benefits everyone, but at a certain point, neighborhoods with nice views, space between houses, and relatively short commutes to where we work are limited. If other people occupy those homes, then I (and people like me) cannot. When we see ourselves and groups as individuals in competition for scarce resources, we become defensive and combative, and our desire to dominate other groups becomes harmful. This puts us in a place where we can disregard positive sum games and scenarios in pursuit of those purely zero sum resources. We can make decisions which cut out individual rights and equality in favor of our group preferences and dominance, harming those who are dominated and possibly subjecting those groups to violence.
It is important to understand these responses to groups and coalitions if we want to build a world that maximizes positive sum games and situations. If we cannot recognize and work to unlearn group preferences and biases, then we will lean into zero sum competition and make biased decisions with serious and negative consequences.
Self-Esteem & Violence

Self-Esteem & Violence

In 2005 researchers Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger, and Kathleen Vohs wrote an article titled, Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth. The article pushes back against many assumptions that society holds regarding people with low self-esteem. It instead suggests that many problems often blamed on low self-esteem can be attributed to unreasonably high self-esteem. This is an idea that Steven Pinker thinks about in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
“Violence is a problem not of too little self-esteem,” Pinker writes in reference to Baumeister’s research in particular, “but of too much, particularly when it is unearned.”
We fear that people with low self-esteem will abuse drugs, seek out shortcuts, and take advantage of people. Violence is a manifestation of each of these negative qualities that we associate with people of low self-esteem. However, these qualities don’t actually seem to be associated with people of low self-esteem and actually tend to be found more frequently in people with high self-esteem.
People with unreasonably high self-esteem, especially when that self-esteem is unwarranted, are more likely to bully others, are more likely to think they are entitled to preferential treatment, and to discount others. The former President Donald Trump is a great example of this reality. His wealth largely seems to be unearned and as a presidential candidate, and as president, he was more likely than anyone else to bully others and to disregard other people. He certainly believed that he deserved preferential treatment compared to everyone else and made statements that encouraged violence when he didn’t get the outcomes he wanted.
To continue to reduce violence today, we should focus on people who have unreasonably high self-esteem. We should develop more meritocratic institutions which provide better feedback to those who would otherwise have unreasonably high self-esteem to reduce their overconfidence in themselves. We should work to discourage those like President Trump who turn to violence to rebuff threats to their unwarranted self-esteem. Continuing the global reduction of violence should be a goal, and addressing unreasonable self-esteem is an important component of achieving that goal.