Meta World

The Danger of Neutral Principles

Unless you happen to fervently believe in a principle itself, and no one ought to, because principles aren’t real, you should never use one to win an argument, because one day something you love will run counter to the principle, and then you will be forced to watch it die. The argument against the Iraq war was that it was a bad war; it should never have been that military intervention is always wrong as a matter of principle. Now we have a relatively non-interventionist President, and the price is the murder of an entire country.

Civilization Meta World


When other stars were reached, their civilizations were found to be in various stages of partial industrialization, at levels roughly comparable to those enjoyed on earth in the 18th century.  Further examination revealed that this had been brought about in all cases by government fiat. It was for this reason that the stars had failed to respond for so long to our calls.

It is a great provincialism of life in the developed world that we  assume that technological progress is unstoppable. Indeed, it is almost a nightmare, in that we see ourselves soon as either becoming something else, infinite-lived, technologically enhanced, engineered creatures, or dead by environmental disaster. In point of fact, one of the great successes of government in the 20th century was its perfection, proved in the blood of millions, of totalitarian governments capable of eliminating all technological progress, all dissent in favor of technology and growth. However horrible the methods of these governments, one must marvel at their ability to stamp out what in freer places seems a tectonic  motion toward continual development.

These totalitarian governments failed, and continue to fail, only by the intervention of outside elements. If a totalitarian form were ever to seize control of the earth entire, progress might be stamped out forever, and humanity frozen in its present form.

Our goal should be a mindful technological progress, one that we understand to be under our own control, leading us to a place that we actually desire, or nowhere, if we wish nowhere to go.


The Upward Surge

The hubris of this age is not that we have dared to be scientists but that we think we had a choice!



You think you have made a discovery and are filled with joy.  Later, you discover that you were wrong, but the mistake eventually leads to a genuine insight, accompanied not so much by euphoria as satisfaction.  Confidence seems to hold these steps together.  Believing you have discovered gives you the mental power for actual discovery.  A species of fake-it-till-you-make-it.


Flattening is the Point

Akira Kurosawa placed his cameras as far as possible from the action in Ran, using zoom lenses to capture it, creating the illusion of a two dimensional world.

I sometimes thought that perspective and the illusion of three dimensionality make Western painting superior to all other painting.  But that is crass.

Three dimensionality is our everyday! The greatness of painting is its flattening. Chinese painters understood that. Herein the corruption of film in relation to painting, too.





Don’t disdain those passed,
Thou no diff’rence from them hast;
Don’t admire the past.

Meta World

A Philosophy of War

Ask yourself: if all the military power in the world were controlled by a just ruler, how would it be deployed?

Support deployments of force whenever they coincide with the virtuous plan and oppose deployments of force whenever they fail to coincide with the virtuous plan.

So, for example, if a just ruler in charge of the world’s military power, including the U.S. army, would send in the U.S. army to save Syria, then you must advocate the sending in of the U.S. army to save Syria.

Objection: but you can’t trust the Americans to do the right thing once they’re involved!  Reply: according to my rule, you should advocate the sending in of the Americans to do the right thing.  If you don’t think they’ll do the right thing (in the sense that they’ll do what a virtuous ruler would do), then you shouldn’t advocate sending them in.  My rule is fine with that.

The rule is intended as a refutation of blanket rejectionists of all American military involvement in anything under all circumstances.  Suppose that you think that the U.S. government never ever means well toward anyone.  But suppose that it looks like, due to incompetence or luck, the U.S. government is about to engage in a military intervention that is precisely what justice calls for.  The fact that the U.S. government is behind it shouldn’t matter a lick.  You should support the intervention.  But only, of course, so long as it fully complies with the virtuous plan.

This might be an argument for the American intervention in Libya in 2011.

You might, of course, conclude that a just ruler would never use military force.  But once you pause to consider how the angels of justice would bear arms, it starts to become a lot easier to imagine just conflicts.  It seems more likely to me that you might conclude that there are plenty of just deployments of force, but no real military can ever be trusted to execute any of them, inadvertently or not.

Now, the rise of the war machines might make a difference to you, however, because with time one assumes that it will be possible to exert the finest control over their behavior.

Still, whoever is running them will have to want the right behaviors.


The Moral Rate of Legal-Technical Substitution

There are many things that should be illegal that the law need not proscribe because humanity lacks the power to do the thing.  As technology advances and humanity acquires the power to do more things, this set of things that need not be proscribed shrinks.  The law must be at the frontier between what can be done and what cannot, substituting rule whenever another bad thing comes up into the light of science.

In general, there is this rule: As technology advances, the importance of law increases.  As our power increases, our discipline must increase.  Eventually, there will be no natural laws left to bind us, only human laws.  Laws; but no laws of physics.


Preferences and Incentives

Our voluntary service he requires,
Not our necessitated, such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tri’d whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By Destiny, and can no other choose?

Paradise Lost : V : 529-34.

Why is it so important that obedience be voluntary and not necessitated?  After all, if the point is obedience, either will do.  The problem with necessitated obedience seems to be that it is fragile.

Voluntary obedience means obedience that isn’t compelled by external circumstances.  I clean your home because I love cleaning homes or love you or think it’s my duty.  You’ll stop me cleaning your home when you kill me.  This contrasts with necessitated obedience.  If you take all my money and then offer me a buck to clean your home then I’ll do it because otherwise I’ll die.  But if you don’t create a situation in which I have no alternative but to clean your home, I won’t do it.

Voluntary obedience is choice in the sense of preference alteration.  Necessitated obedience is choice in the face of static preferences.  Voluntary obedience is when you make your own preferences, necessitated obedience is when your preferences make you.

Basic economics can’t really distinguish between voluntary and necessitated obedience because it tends to treat preferences as static.  So it only admits of the existence of necessitated obedience.  In economics, the only way you’ll clean my house is if you’re forced to choose between doing that and starving.

Let’s look at another example.  Suppose you have the following game.

A's payoff / B's payoff B Cooperates B Betrays
A COOPERATES 5 / 5 0 / 8
A BETRAYS 8 / 0 4 / 4

Cooperation is efficient in the sense that the sum of the payoffs to parties A and B is the greatest when both try to cooperate. The trouble is that neither will want to cooperate.  For each, the payoff of betrayal exceeds the payoff of cooperation both when the other cooperates (5 > 4) and when the other does not (4 > 0).

Economics typically solves this problem through redistribution.  Suppose the penalty for betrayal is that you must pay 4 to the other party.  Now the game looks like this.

A's payoff / B's payoff B Cooperates B Betrays
A COOPERATES 5 / 5 4 / 4
A BETRAYS 4 / 4 4 / 4

Both parties have a chance to end up better off if they cooperate, so now they will both cooperate.

Both parties behave well, but they do so only because redistribution compels them to behave well.  If the redistribution that compels good behavior is removed, then they will regress back to their old noncooperative behavior.  In this sense their good behavior is necessitated and therefore fragile.  It is a world in which each party bides her time, waiting for the moment when the system will break down and betrayal can again produce a windfall.

Suppose that instead of redistributing payoffs, you were to change the preferences of the parties such that betrayal ceased to have any value to the parties.  They value 8 in betrayal as 0 and 4 in betrayal as 0 too.

Now the game looks like this.

A's payoff / B's payoff B Cooperates B Betrays
A COOPERATES 5 / 5 0 / 0
A BETRAYS 0 / 0 0 / 0

Now both stand to gain only through cooperation, so both will cooperate.  The difference here is that no amount of redistribution can compel the parties to prefer betrayal.  They are no longer mercenaries, blowing with the prevailing wind.

If your goal is to create an enduring commitment to cooperation, you want this second scenario, because it is immune to changes in the power of government to create felicitous incentives.  You want to change preferences, not incentives.  Only in this way can you ensure that Abdiel

Among innumerable false, unmov’d,
Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d
His Loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single.

V : 898-903

For the economist, changing the betrayal payoffs to 0 makes the problem trivial, because the problem, for economists, is always how to achieve efficiency in the face of static preferences.  Rewriting preferences to make things work is cheating.  But of course rewriting preferences in real life is not as easy as zeroing betrayal payoffs in a matrix.  It was the major project of the pre-modern world; and remains a major project of the modern business world (though more in service of getting consumers to tolerate betrayal than of procuring universal cooperation).

It is no wonder that voluntary fidelity was elevated to divine command in the pre-modern world, where government was too weak to  redistribute wealth.   Where incentives could not be manipulated reliably, cooperation leading to an improvement in the fortunes of the group as a whole could be achieved only by manipulating preferences.

. . . unjust thou say’st
Flatly unjust, to bind with Laws the free,
And equal over equals to let Reign,
One over all with unsucceeded power.
. . .
Yet by experience taught we know how good,
And of our good, and of our dignity
How provident he is, how far from thought
To make us less, bent rather to exalt,
Our happy state under one Head more near

V : 818-21, 826-31

In many older cultures, the aggressive anticipation of needs is the signature of commitment, loyalty, and friendship.  You find that friends expend a great deal of energy giving you help you didn’t ask or pay for.  This behavior expresses felicitous preferences.  Your friends are showing you that they want to do these things, not that they must do them.




Natural Machines

“Machines — as in contraptions made with wire and metal and stuff — are not natural.  Sure, animals are like these machines in that they have nerves that connect things and bones and other mechanical parts.  But animals are really chemical contraptions; they’re not anything like the computers and cars that humans make.  That’s why animals are natural but computers and cars aren’t natural!”

But nature’s chemical machines have made her wire and metal machines.