When It Snows

Nabokov loves going for walks with us, when we go up to the last house on the hill.
The fallen trees.
I love walking up winding roads.
The black dog which comes to my cottage is very cute.
It’s so picturesque when I look from above.
I wait for the morning sun when it snows.
Nabokov, standing behind my cottage.
Nabokov, below the last house on the hill.

Gail Wynand, My Favorite Fictional Character

“Gail Wynand lived with his father in the basement of an oldhouse in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. His father was a longshoreman, a tall, silent, illiterate man who had never gone to school. His own father and his grandfather were of the same kind, and they knew of nothing but poverty in their family. But somewhere far back in the line there had been a root of aristocracy, the glory of some noble ancestor and then some tragedy, long since forgotten, that had brought the descendants to the gutter. Something about all the Wynands–in tenement, saloon and jail–did not fit their surroundings. Gail’s father was known on the waterfront as the Duke. 

Gail’s mother had died of consumption when he was two yearsold. He was an only son. He knew vaguely that there had been some great drama in his father’s marriage; he had seen a picture of his mother; she did not look and she was not dressed like the women of their neighborhood; she was very beautiful. All life had gone out of his father when she died. He loved Gail; but it was the kind of devotion that did not require two sentences a week. 

Gail did not look like his mother or father. He was a throwback to something no one could quite figure out; the distance had to be reckoned, not in generations, but in centuries. He was always too tall for his age, and too thin. The boys called him Stretch Wynand. Nobody knew what he used for muscles; they knew only that he used it.

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Why Do Sexual Crimes Against Women Bother Us So Much?

If Monica Bellucci spanks me, it’ll make my day. But if I spank Monica Bellucci, she’ll call the police. This seems banal, but this says a lot about law, liberty and human nature. Men and women feel differently. The law recognizes this. Throughout human history, sexual assault was defined as a crime directed at women.

But is this rooted in genuine respect for human heterogeneity? The law doesn’t always acknowledge men can be victims of rape. Consensual, unnatural sex is punished more often, more severely. The definition is being broadened, especially in western capitalistic democracies. 

However, unusually large number of cases go unreported. People usually don’t believe male victims. Everywhere, the punishment is milder for sexual assault of men by women. This is, of course, not entirely unfair. Men are far more capable of physiological arousal without corresponding psychological arousal. Women are grossed out by the prospect of having sex with strangers. Women give birth to babies and nurture them, and they don’t want babies with strangers they aren’t attracted to. Men are eager to have sex with strangers, because they want to spread their genes widely, at a low cost to themselves.

Nevertheless, this is unfair to men. There is huge variance, but both men and women are capable of physiological arousal without corresponding psychological arousal. It’s not clear how often men are victims of sexual assault. Estimates range from about 2% of the cases to 60%. The truth probably is somewhere in between. But this doesn’t include kinds of assault. At work, gay men harass men more frequently than men harass women. In Australia, one-fifth of the perpetrators at work are women. 

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Trust And Trustworthiness

Scott Alexander, a psychotherapist, is one of my favorite bloggers. All his patients, he says, give calm and considered analysis of their problems. This isn’t the experience of all psychotherapists. Many of them often have patients who have emotional meltdowns. Why is this so, he wonders.  Scott doesn’t think they are all making things up. They are probably telling the truth. It could be just that emotional, dramatic psychotherapists have emotional, dramatic patients and calm, rational psychotherapists have calm, rational patients. This, he hints, says more about psychotherapists than about their patients. And this fits in well with a broader trend. Some people think the world is full of trustworthy people. Some others think the world is full of backstabbing Machiavellians. It seems we all live in different worlds.

I think I’ve a better explanation. I suspect autistics are more likely to see a world full of backstabbing Machiavellians. Neurotypicals are more likely to claim that people are basically good. I think there are reasons why neurotypicals find the world more trustworthy. Normal human beings love to see themselves and others as more trustworthy. This doesn’t mean, deep down, they really trust others. They don’t.  They speak as if these conscious beliefs are true, and act as if they are not. Deep down, they are extremely paranoid, and this is why it is much harder to take advantage of them. 

To judge ourselves and others, normal human beings rely on certain assumptions, which they aren’t really conscious of. Their conscious beliefs usually clash with these assumptions. “I trust people” is just a conscious belief that helps them deceive themselves to deceive others. They don’t really believe that. This is why they are so good at manipulating others. They’d have found it very hard to manipulate people if they had allowed their dark view of human nature to come to surface. But they are driven by such dark assumptions nevertheless. The dark assumptions about human nature which neurotypicals rely on to deceive other people are the same assumptions which they use to avoid being deceived. In other words, we use the same tools to deceive others and to avoid being deceived. 

People are basically good, for example, is one such fraudulent assumption. People donate to charity because they want to help others, is another such fraudulent assumption. Neurotypicals speak as if these assumptions are true, but act as if they are not. So for people who are deceptive, it doesn’t look like the world is full of backstabbing Machiavellians, though deep down they know that it is. To get good at deception, it is important to maintain these conflicting views of human nature. 

This also explains why some people, especially autistics, feel cheated by everybody. People who are more clear-headed find the world full of backstabbing Machiavellians. They tend to be more trustworthy. But to form inferences about human nature, they rely too much on introspection, and are shocked to find out that normal humans are so different from them. They end up feeling disillusioned, and are more likely to rant against people who are not trustworthy. They are bad at maintaining such conflicting views of human nature in their minds.

Economist Garret Jones once asked, “Why do people talk so much about trust when genuine trust is impossible without trustworthiness?” I think that’s an important observation, and has a lot to do with people maintaining these two conflicting view of human nature. 

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy

I think the most impressive critique of Paul Bloom’s views on empathy is that of Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu. Usually, critics of Paul Bloom disagree with everything that’s true in his work. I find it impressive that Ingmar and Julian acknowledge all that’s true in Paul Bloom’s thesis. But unlike other critics, they’re really good at seeing where he has gone wrong. I’m really glad I found this paper, because for years, I thought there’s nobody who agrees with me on this.

I read Paul Bloom’s book about half a dozen times because I feel very strongly about this. Paul Bloom thinks people with Asperger’s Syndrome have low cognitive empathy, and are argued to have low emotional empathy as well. I feel very deeply about victims of injustice. When I read other Aspies, I notice they feel quite the same way too. Why isn’t it possible that this is why Aspies show no propensity for violence and exploitation? Now, there’s growing evidence that, if anything, Aspies feel more deeply. That’s what they call “The Intense World Hypothesis”. I’m not sure whether Paul Bloom would agree this is empathy, but it seems his book is against feeling deeply, though he claims it’s against empathy. It’s not a book against empathy, but a book against high arousal.

Julian and Ingmar also gets the definition of empathy right:

“Empathy is not actually feeling what you believe others to be feeling, as Bloom and Prinz would have it. For instance, when you empathize with somebody whom you believe to be feeling physical pain, e.g. because they have hit their thumb with a hammer, you do not feel physical pain; instead, you more or less vividly imagine feeling a pain like the one you believe they are feeling. You imagine what it is like to be them, feeling what they do. Notice that it is not imagining that you yourself are feeling what you believe they are feeling (which is what e.g. Smith usually takes sympathy to involve); it is imagining being them, feeling as they are believed to be feeling.2 However, it would be too strict to demand that empathizing with someone requires succeeding in imagining feeling something which is quite similar to what this individual is in fact feeling. You may be said to empathize with someone when you imagine feeling as you believe they do, though your belief is only very roughly right. Nonetheless, empathizing requires imagining having the right kind of feeling: for instance, you cannot be said to be empathizing with somebody if you imagine being glad when that individual is in fact sad.”

Paul Bloom thinks people who feel too much empathy maybe overwhelmed by other’s suffering, and run away from such situations. Aspies seem to fall in to this category, but that doesn’t seem to lead to inaction. Even Simon Baron-Cohen admits they’re usually the most passionate defenders of victims of injustice.

Plain introspection tells me it’s important to feel a bit certain way to see others’ pain as important. I don’t feel offended when someone disagrees with me. So I don’t think their “pain” matters when people claim they’re offended. This is as it should be. But when somebody is fired for saying something that offends others, I feel his pain. If this wouldn’t have any bearing on how I act, I’d be very surprised.

The fact that Aspies feel deeply is very important here. Paul Bloom says psychopaths don’t feel anything much. Aspies and psychopaths seem to be at different ends of the spectrum. Aspies are too nice and psychopaths are very cruel. But Paul Bloom doesn’t draw the inference that the depth of their feelings may have something to do with this. He doesn’t even consider that possibility. I find that strange.

Paul Bloom says cognitive empathy, while a force for good, is overrated and neither sufficient nor necessary. Aspies, he say, are a case in point because they lack cognitive empathy. Psychopaths are good at it. The problem with this argument is that Aspies are very bad at reading neurotypicals and neurotypicals are very bad at reading Aspies. Far from proving that Aspies lack cognitive empathy, all this proves is that they think and feel differently.

We assume normal people have better cognitive empathy because they think and feel as other people do. So they’re better at figuring out what makes them tick. This maybe a bad thing, because we descended from rising apes and not fallen angels. Our understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong is shaped by our evolutionary past. Isn’t it quite likely that descendents of rising apes may have quite demented views on what’s right and what’s wrong? And that’s what we see. Many social norms are based on certain assumptions about human nature such as envy is ubiquitous, people are mean-spirited, petty and cunning, and that they are offended when social hierarchies are violated. These assumptions accurately describe most normal human beings. These assumptions are so bed-rock in the minds of neurotypicals, and this is why they are so good at reading other normal folk. This is what makes them cruel. So, cognitive empathy, as it’s usually defined, seems to have a dark side. The biggest problem with “empathy”, according to conventional notions, it seems to me, is this. But Paul Bloom doesn’t even bring this up.

The Problem With Effective Altruism


Ruritania, let’s suppose, is flooded with water. There are 100 people in Ruritania, half of them Muslim and the other half Hindu. You hear that aid flows from Muslims in other countries to Muslims in Ruritania. If you’re an alien from Mars who wants to really help the flood victims in Ruritania, what would you do? You’d try to find out whether that’s true because that’s important. If that’s true, you’d donate to people who aren’t already helped, which means, mostly to Hindus. If that isn’t true, you’d still try to help the ones who aren’t helped yet.  You wouldn’t worry too much about their identity, and where aid for the other guys comes from. You won’t care much about that, partly because, coming from Mars, you don’t get why these people hate each other so much.

But that isn’t how people responded when Rajiv Malhotra said Hindus should help their own, because Christians and Muslims are already doing that. They went ballistic, instead of treating that as an empirical matter. I’ve no doubt his intentions are bad, and from what I hear, he got the facts wrong.  But let’s suppose he’s right. What would you do? 

If you believe in effective altruism, I’d like to hear what you think about this. For an effective altruist, the most important question here is whether he’s right about this. He says he has some important information to share. To do the most good, you got to find out whether he’s right. If this makes you uncomfortable, then some introspection is in order.  It’s important to remember that you aren’t harming anyone by helping the ones who aren’t helped yet. You’re helping people who need it more. Why would that make you uncomfortable?  If you agree it’s rational to feel discomfort, it isn’t hard to understand why people like me are uncomfortable with effective altruism.

Doing the most good can often be repulsive, and there are good reasons why it’s repulsive. 1) To do the most good for large numbers of people, you may have to sacrifice people who are truly good. 2) When you do the most good for large numbers of people, you help plenty of undeserving people.

Effective altruists think people who disagree with them aren’t rational. Hardly anybody is against charity. Why would anybody be against doing good better, they wonder, unless they want the warm glow that comes from buying food for the starving child they see on the street? I think this is just because they haven’t encountered intelligent criticism. It’s lack of imagination on both sides. It’s easy to make a rational case against charity— except in the exceptionally rare cases when somebody deserves it.

What would be the rational case against charity be like? Kerala is being flooded with water. A good rule of thumb would be to help people who wouldn’t take advantage of you given a chance. If you want to help a Malayali guy who lost his home in the floods, ask yourself whether he’d do the right thing even when there are strong incentives to be awful. Say, would he backstab you at work? If he wouldn’t leave you alone when he isn’t in trouble, then you have no obligation to help him when he’s in trouble. If he isn’t the sort of guy who would fulfill his negative obligations toward you, then you have no positive obligations toward him. It’s fine to do good, so long as you don’t ignore the moral status of recipients. I believe this is a controversial view. But I would like to hear why. If giving to GiveWell or Oxfam makes me uncomfortable, this is why.

When Philanthropy Moves Me

I’m not a big fan of philanthropy, and I’ve major disagreements with effective altruism. 1) It’s very hard to do philanthropy really well. 2) We don’t know much about the moral status of the people we help. 3) Philanthropy rarely supports unusual projects which are truly great. 4) Philanthropy isn’t usually intended to help victims of injustice. But in August, I came across Pioneer, an attempt to find the lost Einsteins of the world. If you’re a young person working on an ambitious project, Pioneer gives you the opportunity to get funding, and learn from the world’s experts. Two days ago, Tyler Cowen announced a new project, Emergent Ventures, to fund unusual projects. I think this is a sign we are living in exciting times. Spread the word as widely as you can, if you love this idea as much as I do. If you’re wealthy, donate as much as you can. Trust my personal judgment here. 

Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.”  Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence.  Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor.  What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government?  I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures.  Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.

Think of the goal of Emergent Ventures as supporting new ideas and projects that are too difficult, too hard to measure, too unusual, too foreign, too small, or…too something to make their way through the usual foundation and philanthropic process.

If you wish, you also can think of Emergent Ventures as a bet on my own personal judgment.  For some time to come, I will be devoting significant time to Emergent Ventures every single day (with a few exceptions, mostly travel-related).  Most applications will be processed promptly.

If you are interested, as a donor, in supporting Emergent Ventures, please write to my email.  It is a tax-deductible contribution.  Within a short period of time we expect to have a total of $4 million lined up, from a very brilliant set of donors, but we hope to do more.

Here’s another philanthropic venture I support.

Are Social Justice Warriors Snowflakes?

Philosopher David Livingstone Smith begins his book Why We Lie with the story of Mel, a little girl who digs out corm, an edible bulb, from rock-hard Ethiopian ground in the dry season when food is scarce. Little Paul watched her. When Mel was done, Paul started crying loudly. Paul’s mother came out and ran after Mel, assuming she had harassed Paul. Paul picked up the corm and started eating, making sure nobody was looking. Is Paul a “snowflake”, a “crybaby” who is too fragile to survive in the adult world? Is he too sensitive that we need to build “safe spaces” for him? Is he mentally ill? Is he, well, a social justice warriorWe know these are ridiculous questions. Paul is just misbehavingPaul is an annoying child. He is greedy and manipulative, not empathetic. He’ll do fine in the adult world, so long as it is governed by similar incentives. And in many ways, it is. We need to get real and see bad behavior for what it is. It is more productive to punish Paul’s bad behavior. It is more important to protect Mel and build safe spaces for her.

Read my essay Are Social Justice Warriors Snowflakes?

The Myth Of Mental Illness: The Case Of Asperger’s Syndrome

“The most popular theory of autism is that of Simon Baron-Cohen, who thinks autistics have an extreme male brain. Men are better at understanding systems (systemizing) and women are better at understanding other people’s mind (empathizing). Autistics are better at systematizing, and bad at empathizing, and this has led to the extreme male brain theory. But this leaves much to be desired. Men seem to be as social as women, though in different ways. People with autism are very unlikely to break the law. Most criminals are young men. Men tend to over-infer women’s sexual interest, while women tend to under-infer. Autistics tend to under-infer sexual interest. Boys use slang more than girls, but autistics tend to have a poor understanding of slang and sarcasm. If you look at autism as an extremely conscious mind, things fall into place. People who engage in conscious ethical reasoning are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to over-infer sexual interest, and less likely to be comfortable with slang which is often used to refer to questionable behavior.”

Read my piece on Asperger’s Syndrome in The Daily Bell.