Asymmetric Justice

Related and required reading in life (ANOIEAEIB): The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

Epistemic Status: Trying to be minimally judgmental

Spoiler Alert: Contains minor mostly harmless spoiler for The Good Place, which is the best show currently on television.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics (in parallel with the similarly named one in physics) is as follows:

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

I don’t say this often, but seriously, read the whole thing.

I do not subscribe to this interpretation.

I believe that the majority of people effectively endorse this interpretation. I do not think they endorse it consciously or explicitly. But they act as if it is true.

Another aspect of this same phenomenon is how most people view justice.

Almost everyone agrees justice is a sacred value. That it is good and super important. Justice is one of the few universally agreed upon goals of government. Justice is one of the eight virtues of the avatar. Justice is up there with truth and the American way. No justice, no peace.

But what is justice? Or rather, to avoid going too deeply into an infinitely complex philosophical debate millenniums or eons old, how do most people instinctively model justice in broad terms?

In a conversation last night, this was offered to me (I am probably paraphrasing due to bad memory, but it’s functionally what was said), and seems common: Justice is giving appropriate punishment to those who have taken bad action.

I asked whether, in this person’s model, the actions needed to be bad in order to be relevant to justice. This prompted pondering, after which the reply was that yes, that was how their model worked.

I then asked whether rewarding a good action counted as justice, or failing to do so counted as injustice, using the example of saving someone’s life going unrewarded.

We can consider three point-based justice systems.

In the asymmetric system, when bad action is taken, bad action points are accumulated. Justice punishes in proportion to those points to the extent possible. Each action is assigned a non-negative point total.

In the symmetric system, when any action is taken, good or bad, points are accumulated. This can and often is zero, is negative for bad action, positive for good action. Justice consists of punishing negative point totals and rewarding positive point totals.

In what we will call the Good Place system (Spoiler Alert for Season 1), when any action is taken, good or bad, points are accumulated as in the symmetric system. But there’s a catch (which is where the spoiler comes in). If you take actions with good consequences, you only get those points if your motive was to do good. When a character attempts to score points by holding open doors for people, they fail to score any points because they are gaming the system. Gaming the system isn’t allowed.

Thus, if one takes action even under the best of motives, one fails to capture much of the gains from such action. Second or higher order benefits, or surprising benefits, that are real but unintended, will mostly not get captured.

The opposite is not true of actions with bad consequences. You lose points for bad actions whether or not you intended to be bad. It is your responsibility to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

When (Spoiler Alert for Season 3) an ordinary citizen buys a tomato from a supermarket, they are revealed to have lost twelve points because the owner of the tomato company was a bad guy and the company used unethical labor practices. Life has become too complicated to be a good person. Thus, since the thresholds never got updated, no one has made it into The Good Place for centuries.

The asymmetric system is against action. Action is bad. Inaction is good. Surprisingly large numbers of people actually believe this. It is good to be you, but bad to do anything. 

The asymmetric system is not against every action. This is true. But effectively, it is. Some actions are bad, some are neutral. Take enough actions, even with the best of intentions, even with fully correct knowledge of what is and is not bad, and mistakes will happen.

So any individual, any group, any company, any system, any anything, that takes action, is therefore bad.

The law by design works that way, too. There are increasingly long and complex lists of actions which are illegal. If you break the law, and anyone who does things will do so by accident at some point, you can be prosecuted. You are then prosecuted for the worst thing they can pin on you. No amount of other good deeds can do more than mitigate. Thus, any sufficiently rich investigation will judge any of us who regularly take meaningful action to be bad.

If you can be sued for the bad consequences of a medical procedure, potentially for ruinous amounts, but cannot collect most of the huge benefits of successful procedures, you will engage in defensive medicine. Thus, lots of defensive medicine. Because justice.

If, as was done in the past, the engineer and his family are forced to sleep under the bridge after it is built, so that they will be killed if it falls down, you can be damn sure they’re going to build a safe bridge. But you’d better want to pay for a fully bulletproof bridge before you do that.

Skin in the game is necessary. That means both being at risk, and collecting reward. Too often we assign risk without reward.

If one has a system whereby people are judged only by their bad actions, or by their worst single action, what you have is a system that condemns and is against all action.

Never tweet.

Also see privacy and blackmail.

The symmetric system is in favor of action. If no one ever took any action, we would not have nice things and also all die. If people generally took fewer actions, we would have less nice things and be worse off. If one gets full credit for the good and bad consequences of one’s actions, we will provide correct incentives to encourage action.

This, to me, is also justice.

A symmetric system can still count bad consequences as larger than similar good consequences to a large extent (e.g. saving nine people from drowning does not give one enough credits to murder a tenth), and we can punish locally bad intent on top of direct consequences, without disturbing this. Action is on net a very good thing.

The Good Place system works well for simple actions with mostly direct consequences. One then, under normal circumstances, gets credit for the good and the bad. It also has a great feature, which is that it forces the action via a high required threshold. You need a lot of points to pass a binary evaluation when you die. Sitting around doing nothing is a very bad idea.

The problem comes in when there are complex indirect consequences that are hard to fully know or observe.

Some of the indirect consequences of buying a tomato are good. You don’t get credit for those unless you knew about them, because all you were trying to do was buy a tomato. Knowing about them is possible in theory, but expensive, and doesn’t make them better. It only makes you know about them, which only matters to the extent that it changes your decisions.

Some of the indirect consequences of buying a tomato are bad. You lose those points.

Thus, when you buy a tomato and thus another customer can’t buy a tomato, you get docked. But when you buying a tomato increases the store’s estimated demand for tomatoes, so they order more and don’t run out next week, and a customer gets to buy one (and the store stays in business to provide even more tomatoes), you don’t get rewarded.

Better to not take the shopping action.

No wonder people make seemingly absurdist statements like “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

Under this philosophy, there is no ethical action under complexity. Period.

I get that complexity is bad. But this is ridiculous.

Compare to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. If one interacts with a compact, isolated problem, such as a child drowning in a pond, one can reasonably do all one could do, satisfying one’s requirements. If one interacts with or observes a non-compact, non-isolated problem, such as third world poverty, you are probably Mega-Hitler. You cannot both be a good person and have slack.

As a young child, I read the book Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days. Spoiler alert, I guess? The protagonist is given a book with instructions on how to be a perfect person. The way to do so is to take progressively less action. First day you take symbolic action, wearing broccoli around your neck. Second day you take inaction, by fasting. Third day, you do nothing at all except drink weak tea and go to the bathroom. 

That makes you ‘perfect.’

Because perfect means a score of exactly zero points.

Asymmetric systems of judgement are systems for opposing all action.



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33 Responses to Asymmetric Justice

  1. benquo says:

    I don’t think it’s actually true that the Babylonians only had expensive housing.

    • benquo says:

      Architects lived with some risk of death due to their buildings falling down, just like the people who lived in houses or walked across bridges.

    • TheZvi says:

      I am curious if that line ever actually got enforced.

      I don’t think that, in practice, houses collapse all that often, or that preventing that is that expensive. So it’s more like (I’m completely guessing, I know nothing else about Babylonian architecture), there was more of an emphasis on things that don’t fall down over other properties. What you do is ban flimsy housing, but the main cost of housing lies elsewhere.

  2. benquo says:

    Overall the disagreement underlying this post is obscured by a set of common names for very different protocols.

    Under one protocol, praise and blame are tools for encouraging behavior the community wants and discouraging behavior the community does not want. If these categories are not manipulated for other motives, we have simulacra level 1 morality. This is the straightforward interpretation under which – if you hold it consistently and think it’s the predominant norm – the “Copenhagen interpretation” seems obviously perverse, legalizing blackmail seems obviously helpful, etc.

    It gets more complicated if you think that the community may be mistaken about matters of praise or blame, and that someone might be manipulating these perceptions for their own ends. Now we’re in simulacra level 2 or 3, and people playing game 1 need a moral theory that helps them cooperate with each other and resist attacks by level-2 players, or wasting their time interacting with level 3. This is the position of the Psalms.

    Once manipulating the perception of praise or blame becomes the dominant game, we’re in simulacra level 4.

    Level 4 focuses on blame rather than praise because of an asymmetry of zero-sum games with distinct targets. It’s not too hard to see why people would benefit from joining a majority expropriating from a blameworthy individual. But why would they join a majority transferring resources to a praiseworthy one? So, being singled out is much more bad than good here.

    Deflecting blame by holding onto plausible deniability becomes one of the most important “ethical” skills. The Copenhagen interpretation of ethics becomes an intuitive and natural extension of this. If blame is a weapon we attack other people with for being responsible for things, you can avoid being blamed for a thing by preventing your capacity to do something about it from entering common knowledge. Localized creation of clarity around who causes what bad thing always seems bad for you and your friends, and legalizing blackmail is a massive DDOS attack on “ethics.” Since we’re habituated to calling “unethical” behavior “bad,” we just scale up that estimate and assume destroying the system would be extremely bad.

    • benquo says:

      Crucially, the level-4 simulacrum of “justice” is not mistaken about how to set up prosocial incentives – it’s not trying to set up a set of incentives at all! It’s not solving any sort of collective action problem! It’s a Hobbesian state of war!

      Imagining it as a technical error will always lead to becoming hopelessly confused and imagining that people are hopelessly stupid and perverse, rather than situationally constrained and habituated to do a thing that makes local sense.

      • TheZvi says:

        Agreed. Several things one could say here.

        1. It is not common knowledge that the level-4 simulacrum of justice is a level-4 simulacrum. Or even that it is not a level-1. There are people honestly trying to do level-1 justice using a mostly level-4 simulacrum, or a mix of all levels, etc. I feel like this error was present and somewhat ubiquitous, for various reasons good and bad, long before L-4 took over the areas in question, and its origin often *was* usefully thought of as a technical error. Its final one-winged-angel form is something else.
        2. Even if something is not a technical error in the sense that no one was trying to solve a given technical problem, it is still true in many cases, including this one, that it claims that it *is* trying to solve the problem. Pointing out that it’s doing a piss-poor job of that can create knowledge or ideally common knowledge that allows the remaining lower-level players to identify and coordinate against it, or at least avoid making the mistake in their own thinking and realize what they are up against.
        3. It can lead to potential ways out. One can imagine forcing common knowledge of being L-4 accelerating a reversion. Language has been destroyed, so anyone who cares about the object level can now exit and start again, and the system of levels (and perhaps The System, if it’s too linked to not be doomed) can collapse. That seems good. Alternatively, it can create value for the game piece of claiming that everything else is a simulacrum and thus one can invest substantial resources in creating something that is protected (at least for now) from that, to compete. Or, it can free the L-1 players from not only confusion but feeling bad about playing the game being played, since once there is only a game board, the game itself becomes the object level – that which no longer has *any* link to reality on the original level has its own distinct reality, and you can operate on that object level, and kind of start again with the new meanings of words.
        4. Yes! These people ARE hopelessly perverse! And also, a sufficient amount of such pressures also makes them stupid because they don’t have any words or accurate information to think with! That’s in addition to being situationally constrained and habituated. These are not exclusive things.

        In general, I have the instinct that pointing out that things *would be* technical errors if they were part of a proposed technical solution to the problem they claim to be solving, is a useful thing to do to help create common knowledge / knowledge.

      • benquo says:

        1. I think level-4 simulacrum morality is VERY old and has existed for a long time in uncomfortable confused competition with the other kinds. I agree that this is not common knowledge, and never has been. I’d like to hear more about why you think the situation is new.

        (It’s plausible to me that something’s changed recently, in response to the Enlightenment, and that something changed with the initial spread of Christianity, and that something else changed with the initial growth of cities and centralized cults.)

        2. I agree. I think it’s more helpful if we additionally clarify that while there’s not really a good-faith reason to stay confused about this, many people have a strong perceived motive to stay confused, so the persistence of confusion is not strong evidence that our apparently decisive arguments are missing an important technical point. (Also, it’s better if noticing this doesn’t immediately lead to self-sabotage via indignantly pretending scapegoating norms don’t exist.)

        Not much to add on 3 and 4, except that my response to 2 bears on 3 as well. Strongly agree with:

        In general, I have the instinct that pointing out that things *would be* technical errors if they were part of a proposed technical solution to the problem they claim to be solving, is a useful thing to do to help create common knowledge / knowledge.

        Agree that the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics model is important in large part because it clarifies that most people are not computing a simulacrum level 1 morality. We’re going to need to be better about saying this *explicitly*, because the default outcome for posts like yours is to get interpreted as claiming that people really are just making an unmotivated technical error. I think that’s what happened with LessWrong, and we both know how that project failed. Tsuyoku Naritai!

      • TheZvi says:

        Agreed we need to get better at stating explicitly that this is not a simple technical error. I also have found it useful to break down my thinking into component pieces with short quotable titles that can be linked back to as common knowledge reference-point-chunks to build sequences/structures out of, which is how I imagine this one serving.

        I agree that L-4 is old, but my model says it used to be much less popular and powerful, such that pointing out L-4 action was a devastating move. Something changed, first stage of that was after the enlightenment. Another stage, where admitting to being on L-4 became praise-worthy rather than blame-worthy was very recent (e.g. post-1994 and largely post-2007). Should we call that L-5, where you claim that L-4 is the object level?

        The playing out at different levels at once is a large part of the problem – if there aren’t any L-1s around, and everyone knows the language involved has been destroyed, then people can play language games with far less harm because those wanting to use words to mean things can exit and start over with new groups and new words.

      • benquo says:

        Huh. I wonder how well this maps onto the fantasy trope of the “old gods” (comparatively uncharismatic personifications of objective reality or specific coordination protocols that have been tried) vs the “new gods” (worship-targets optimized for relatability and narrative appeal).

      • benquo says:

        The Enlightenment claim that all gods are irrational superstitions to be dissolved then prefigures the reduction of all language to Wittgensteinian simulacrum level 4 language games.

      • benquo says:

        I think what you’re describing is a series of qualitative shifts in how dominant L4 is in different areas of life. Compare the world of The Big Con immediately before the second World War where level 2 simulacra of profitable enterprise are a marginal niche (though of course there were famous less-marginal outright scams as well), with the postwar world of Moral Mazes, where the upper corporate world is locally stably dominated by performance and loyalty. A corporatist level 3 world seems to have happened somewhere in between, in the immediate postwar period, semi-sincerely cargo-culting free enterprise. Our world is qualitatively different, but I don’t think L4 has changed per se – it can just get away with much more, and there’s never a reason to claim to be the object level unless there are still people motivated by that, so it’s still in some sort of relation to the other simulacrum levels.

        Something similar seems to have played out a bit more recently in politics and discourse, where bullshit and trolling are now common enough that ironic-distance “hot takes” are done overtly, but I understand the details of that less well.

      • TheZvi says:

        Yes. From what I can tell, the ‘famous semi-transparent outright scam that has nothing to do with religion’ genre was only started post-enlightenment. Ponzi schemes are called that because it was a novel concept whereas now they are ubiquitous, etc. There’s been phase shifts where different things by default operate on higher Ls.

        I think this is where the sequence needs to go next, and I can flesh out the model a bit more. Think of it like a meta-game where a given rank is strong against the previous rank, but actively loses in a direct confrontation with things 2 or more levels lower than itself.

        Previously, this may have meant there was insufficient isolation and hierarchy, and non-object-level work, for level 4 to be much of a thing. If the people are L-1, then those who want to take advantage of that can go to L-2, but you can only do that if you can be outside the object level. While most people were stuck on object level, going to L-3 to exploit the L-2s is a rare and often risky move, and going to L-4 to exploit L-3 doesn’t make sense except in things like royal courts. It can’t enter everyday life.

        When you have a large corporation with a lot of non-object-level workers who are then managed in multiple stages of additional such work, in the world of Moral Mazes, you have the line managers as L-2 since they deal with L-1, then once you don’t deal with object level people the middle managers become L-3 which opens the door for L-4 players to mix in, which seemed to be what is described in Mazes. Similarly, if the L-1 level of politics gets sufficiently deadlocked, and/or enough action takes place among people who have zero power and therefore are not object-level from the other side, that too clears out L-1.

        And the difference between L-1 and higher levels is that when you are in L-1 you can do things, so once you’re already in L-2 and not trying to do things, there are enough suckers at the table to create a steady phase transition first to L-3 and then to L-4.

        The next question is, what is L-5? Is there a strategy that is super effective against L-4? Can L-5 effectively be L-1, because what people stuck in such traps end up wanting is actual things? E.g. in The Favorite, where there are elaborate L-4 actions but also a few L–1 object level things that matter quite a lot, and seem like the trump cards when used skillfully. That could be a way out, where the way out is through.

        Moral Mazes is still the book on my Kindle and has been for a while, because it’s such a slog to get through. At some point I will get to handling it properly. Never has a more important book been more badly named.

    • TheZvi says:

      Endorse following that link for anyone following this.

      One would think that it would also be powerful (at level 4) to create common knowledge of your *lack* of ability to interact with or help with a thing, which can be assisted by the creation of common knowledge blaming someone else. And in fact I do think we observe a lot of attempts to create common “knowledge” (air quotes because the information in question is often incomplete, misleading or outright false) about who is to blame for various things.

      It is also reasonable in some sense, at that point, to put a large multiplier on bad things for which we establish common knowledge if we expect that most bad things do not become common knowledge, to the extent that one might be judged to be as bad as the worst established action.

      Which in turn results in anything and anyone under sufficient hostile scrutiny, which has taken a bunch of action, to be seen as bad.

      The Copenhagen Interpretation actually is perverse and is quite bad, whether or not it is a locally reasonable action in some cases for people on L-2 or higher.

      One of the big advantages, to me, of TCI is that in addition to explaining specific behaviors very well in many cases, it also points out that the people involved can’t be L-1 players, and since most people agree with TCI, most people aren’t L-1.

      Of course, it is rather silly to think that no one in the community is making honest mistakes about what deserve praise or blame; in addition to any and all dishonest ‘mistakes’ there are constant important honest ones as well. So hanging on to a pure L-1 perspective has its own problems even with only L-1 players, before a war into L-2.

      There’s a ton of hostile action but you don’t need it to generate a lot of the same results anyway at lower magnitudes.

      • benquo says:

        Agree that the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics model is important in large part because it clarifies that most people are not computing a simulacrum level 1 morality. We’re going to need to be better about saying this *explicitly*, because the default outcome for posts like yours is to get interpreted as claiming that people really are just making an unmotivated technical error. I think that’s what happened with LessWrong, and we both know how that project failed. Tsuyoku Naritai!

        (threading confused me so I originally put this paragraph elsewhere)

  3. benquo says:

    No wonder people make seemingly absurdist statements like “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

    The statement might be absurdist but it’s not itself an absurd claim (which is what I take you to be implying). It’s a claim that there exists no consumption pattern under capitalism that doesn’t involve participating in the infliction of harm on others. You can’t be a private citizen minding your own business. This means that there’s an affirmative duty to help make the system better, since supposed neutrality is actually just unremediated complicity.

    This is correctly seen as a moral emergency which breaks down “normal” peacetime systems of ethics, because there is a war.

    • benquo says:

      But of course the focus on whether there is or isn’t ethical consumption (i.e. the binary of “blameworthy” and “blameless”) privileges the blame-oriented asymmetry that comes from the corruption of simulacra level 4 scapegoating games. Hard to say people shouldn’t use the words they have to try to point to important things, even if the words are too corrupted to have adequate expressive power to just explicitly say the things.

      • TheZvi says:

        Agreed that it’s also pointing at things worth noticing, and that saying the exact right thing would be hard. And I tried to nod in that direction with ‘seemingly’ which might not have been strong enough in this case, and to argue that I think the actual point that I object-level think that they’re mostly wrong with the interesting not-obviously-wrong-but-definitely-at-least-wrong thing they’re trying to point at.

        But I also think that the people making this statement are a mix of:

        1. L-1 people who actually believe the thing as stated that I’m pointing out doesn’t make sense. Many of them, I think, *did* get there via the technical error of asymmetric justice (regardless of the non-technical-error potential origins of the system of thinking, in the hands of L-1s doing object level honest analysis, it becomes a technical error).
        2. L-2 people who are using it to criticize a big bad in a way that sounds maximally bad that might pass nominal muster, rather than people seeking accurate words but making technical errors.
        3. L-3 and L-4 people doing L-3 and L-4 things that decided this was a good move.
        4. L-0 people that are just copying and pasting political rhetoric that they then interpret for real.
        And many of the group 1 and 4 people seem to actually worry about such things in ways that make them suffer, based on this misunderstanding, so it can’t all be cheap talk.

        It’s also worth noting that I’ve seen serious debate and engagement with the statement “there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism” where both sides act as if they are in fact debating that claim rather than the more interesting implied claim.

    • TheZvi says:

      I say seemingly absurd to point out that, to my and many other ears, the statement seems upon first encounter to be absurd. And of course, the idea that it can’t be ethical to consume anything at all in any way at all, when lack of at least some consumption is death, does seem like it’s allowed to be absurd. Of course, also: Some absurd things are true!

      I also think it is very wrong, that even the default consumption pattern is ethical as I see things (although not some other reasonable ways of seeing things), and that an engineered-to-be-ethical one is ethical under the other reasonable ways as well, such that for any given system there exists such an engineered method.

      This is because I don’t think it is reasonable to apply different order-of-magnitude calculations on second and higher order benefits and harms from actions in complex systems, and I have a much more benign view of those higher order effects than those making this statement. The main error is upstream of the statement.

      That doesn’t mean one doesn’t have an affirmative duty to work to make things better, somewhere, in some way. But one must structure that as the ability for actions to be good, and the best score to not be zero (e.g. the perfect person isn’t the person who fails to interact with the system).

      • benquo says:

        I think the thing I’m trying to argue with is the thing where someone uses words with inadequate expressive power to try to point to a true thing, and you respond by pointing out the way in which they’re technically wrong or incoherent.

        It’s important to notice that, but it’s *also* important to notice that they’re trying to pointing to a real and important thing, and that the language has been corrupted such that it would take exceptional verbal skill not to make this error!


      • benquo says:

        That came out as though it’s a problem specific to you, and it’s not, you’re usually great about this, it’s just that you seem to be doing it in this case.

  4. I should probably argue this on the linked site rather than here, since your post is primarily about something else, but I think the Copenhagen post is misunderstanding the moral intuitions at work in those situations (despite the fact that I’m much more sympathetic than most people to the controversial practices described.) It’s not that interacting with or benefiting with a problem is seen as bad; people don’t generally condemn a surgeon for getting paid to remove someone’s appendix, so long as they’re charging what’s seen as a “fair” price.

    Rather, there’s a widespread (albeit usually poorly-defined) norm against exploitation:

    Norms against exploitation condemn benefiting “too much” from people who are seen as “vulnerable” – i.e. having unusually low bargaining power. Notice that the homeless people in the SXSW example were (1) much more desperate than most people and (2) being paid less than the minimum wage. There’s probably an evolutionary reason behind these intuitions; in small-scale societies, favors and goods are exchanged informally and there are no “markets” in the competitive sense, so norms of “fair” exchange were needed to prevent people from monopolizing valuable resources.

    Whether these norms are still beneficial in modern societies is debatable, but I will point out that the minimum wage is reasonably popular even among economists who recognize its drawbacks.

    • TheZvi says:

      The original blog is, alas, inactive, so you probably wouldn’t get engagement there, but would be worth trying.

      I do think it is an interesting question whether someone who is careful to gain no benefit from a situation faces the same problem. My guess is many would still see it the same way because they’d think you were trying to benefit via a status claim, or feeling good, or what not, although they would think it less bad.

      Certainly there’s a thing about ‘exploitation’ but I’m not sure that’s actually a different way of looking at the problem. If one views it as ‘exploitation’ to offer someone a welfare-improving deal while not fixing the rest of their problems, or not giving them a deal that’s good enough to seem ‘fair’ in some way, then you again can’t realistically interact much with the problem without being blameworthy. I do agree it’s a potentially useful additional way to describe the systems in play.

      • I think the minimum wage is one of the best ways to see how a norm of “fair exchange” can operate, because it’s much more formalized than most such norms. BBH Labs makes those specific homeless peoples’ lives better by paying them $10 a day, but if society fails to condemn BBH Labs in this case, that erodes the overall power of the minimum wage as a (legally enforceable) norm. Whether or not you think the minimum wage is a net positive for society, it clearly helps some portions of society in certain ways, so there’s at least some rational basis for condemning BBH Labs for offering “unfair” voluntary exchanges.

      • TheZvi says:

        One could argue that BBH Labs is not in fact “hiring” such people in a way that the minimum wage should attach. If asking for *any* change in behavior over a time period requires minimum wage pay then the minimum wage becomes a lot more oppressive and crowds out a lot of net-positive trading in ways that seem obviously bad (whereas the actual minimum wage as practiced is much more difficult to evaluate).

        In the common alternative situation, where hiring someone below minimum wage would help them but erode the law/norm, assuming we all act as if eroding the law/norm is bad, it is reasonable to punish someone for that directly. Of course, in such cases our law/norms are often quite bad and destructive, mostly for understandable reasons (evolutionary and otherwise).

  5. benquo says:

    Here’s a correct component of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, offered in the spirit of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater:

    Severe inequalities of outcome are very often caused by some sort of motivated actor preventing people from improving their situation, in order to profit from holding the bottleneck to suffering-alleviation. Very often an altruistic suffering-alleviation motive is the cover story for such profiteering or domination. So, if someone well-off is interaction a lot with people who are not well-off, and profiting from it at all (via money, prestige, power, getting do-gooder credit by taking pictures of themselves hanging out with / helping poor Africans, etc.), people justifiably suspect that the story that the person is there to help is leaving out crucial details, and that the problem was created in some sense in order to give the person the opportunity to help.

    This obviously generates some false positives, because it’s a heuristic designed for an adversarial epistemic environment! But it’s not always perverse, it just sometimes hits the wrong target.

    • TheZvi says:

      Or, as I might phrase that, often there will by default (without CIE style thinking) be ways to profit off of the misery of others. If we allow this profit to be collected, it will create the incentive to cause misery. Also, if we see this profit collected we can reasonably suspect such misery was in part caused for this reason.

      Which is a fair point. One could apply it to situations in which causing the problem would be a profitable enterprise, and become more vigilant in various ways.

      • benquo says:

        Yeah. The stable good solution here is to develop robust models and detection mechanisms for things like colonialism, instead of accidentally committing to the position that trade is bad.

  6. C.H. says:

    >The law by design works that way, too…

    Not exactly. Rather, I think you are not giving enough credit to either the underlying principles in the legal system or the flexibility it allows for.

    There’s two types of law which you lump together that should be addressed separately: criminal law and civil/tort law. Criminal law is what you can get prosecuted for, and there is actually not a very long list (relatively speaking) of crimes you have to worry about. The thing with these crimes is that they DO require intent in order to get prosecuted, certain exceptions notwithstanding (motor vehicle crimes primarily). Crimes are what society normally thinks of as ‘morally bad’, and it just not true that you get ‘morally bad’ points from the legal system without having the intent to do bad.

    Civil/tort issues are what you are referring to w.r.t. medical malpractice. The intent of the civil law system is not to assign ‘moral blameworthiness’ or any kind of ‘good/evil’ to the person committing the tort. The point of this branch of law is to make the victim whole. Getting sued for something doesn’t mean you did something morally bad, it just means you caused someone else to lose something and they think you should be responsible for giving them that thing (or something of equivalent value) back to them. Justice, in the sense of apportioning “punishment” is very rarely a factor in tort law – you only see it in the form of ‘punitive damages’ and the award for punitive damages almost always requires “malicious intent”, i.e. intent/motive to do bad.

    >Thus, any sufficiently rich investigation will judge any of us who regularly take meaningful action to be bad.

    To the extent that being convicted of a crime or getting punitive damages awarded against you is a ‘judgment of being bad’, both require intent and therefore you can’t make the conclusion that any sufficiently deep dive into your public behavior would judge you to be bad based on the legal system.

    • TheZvi says:

      Into the weeds we go! I do agree that if we have more space, distinguishing criminal and civil is a good idea. I wasn’t being more clear in the service of saving space.

      IANAL, but this is my understanding: For criminal law, the list of crimes is less long, but it’s still quite long. Intent to do the thing or a threshold of recklessness is required, but not knowledge of it being illegal. In many cases, ‘the left hand does not need to know what the right hand is doing’ so literally doing ANYTHING that helps another person can be a capital offense, if the other person uses your aid to do something else, and there are cases where the person convicted was pretty damn clueless. Certainly the *threat* of using such a device is a commonly used weapon by power to get what they want.

      I think punitive damages are a big deal in civil law. Even if they’re not in practice a huge percentage of paid verdicts, the *threat* of pursuing them, and the risk of ruin implied by it, drives settlements and the size thereof, and defensive action. It in particular means that the threat of ‘make someone look bad in context’ can be used to ruin them. And it’s clear that civil law is effectively doing the asymmetric justice thing big time. Making someone ‘whole’ means you own the *entire* downside risk (discounted by chance of being sued) and your reputation is ruined along with other additional negative side effects to boot. Therefore, a symmetrical system would require you to own a lot of the upside. So even if (fake numbers) the cost of performing a surgery is $1,000, if one time in 100 it screws up and you owe $5,000,000 to make someone whole, while 99 times out of 100 the person’s life is saved and they enjoy $5,000,000 in surplus, you now need to charge more than $50,000 for the operation to break even. Quite a bit more, given how insurance and courts and risk work. Which you could say is fine, since that’s a form of social insurance, but it also drives performance decisions, and there are a lot of cases where this prevents the central action entirely.

      I disagree that, given rules of evidence in practice, a ruthless prosecutor with sufficient resources couldn’t find a single context where anyone who regularly takes actions would be at risk of being judged as being bad – even if no one is willing to actually lie.

      • C.H. says:

        >In many cases, ‘the left hand does not need to know what the right hand is doing’ so literally doing ANYTHING that helps another person can be a capital offense, if the other person uses your aid to do something else, and there are cases where the person convicted was pretty damn clueless.

        I don’t doubt there are cases where this happens, but it not *supposed* to happen. They would be the exception rather than the rule. The crime of helping someone who is committing a crime requires knowledge that the other person is committing a crime and you’re helping them do it, except where the prosecution can prove you were willfully blind to the fact that they were criminals.

        I also didn’t get into the flexibility that the legal system has. It all comes down to the judge and the jury, and assuming the judge/jury are not corrupt and don’t take bribes, it doesn’t matter how much money the prosecution has. They are allowed discretion in coming to a ‘judgment’ or determining ‘justice’, which takes into account the factors like the degree you helped the criminal or what precisely you did.

        >I think punitive damages are a big deal in civil law…

        I disagree here, the threat of pursuing them is mitigated by the the chance of success in getting them, and the risk of ruin in losing the case. The litigation surrounding quantum of damages is stupendously complex, but suffice to say just because you ask for $2 billion in damages doesn’t mean you can’t have a result where the judge order you to pay the person you tried to sue.

        >Making someone ‘whole’ means you own the *entire* downside risk…
        I largely agree with you here, but like you said, I don’t see the problem as that bad given that the system works. There is legislated protections for doctors performing risky surgeries (or their insurance company) to limit the damages owed. There’s also the fact that if you require surgery, the alternative is that you’d probably die or have to continue living a poor life – so the underlying action is arguably deep in “morally good points” territory. This is not the case with risky, cosmetic surgeries, but those usually come with a waiver of liability or the medical insurance companies don’t cover them.

        In the context of talking about “justice” however, I don’t think it’s relevant to characterize these payments to make someone whole as “punishment”, nor is the underlying action/accident a “morally bad” one.

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