Is The World Good?

Continuing the discussion from Project: Part 0: Considering major life choices:

Everyone has lots of flaws.

Some of the people in power – the elites – are bad. They do a lot to stay in power which often involves suppressing change and innovation and attacking things they find threatening.

Some regular people are bad – e.g. criminals – but that is somewhat under control.

The elites are not under control and they make it hard to improve much in the world. They even make it hard to start a small business or build new housing in areas with housing shortages.

I think it’d be bad to help the elites. Did the scientists who gave them the atomic bomb do something wrong? Maybe. It’s worth considering. Similarly, I basically wouldn’t want any important job for the government or its military. Being their janitor would be fine because there are plenty of other people who can do that job, but selling them my mind would be bad.

The problem isn’t just the government. I’d be very wary of helping Google or Coca Cola. Every big corporation is highly suspect.

If you can get a job where you have substantial power and control to make changes and set policy, that’s potentially different. But those jobs are very hard to access. And people offering jobs will lie and say you’ll have a lot more power in a job than you’ll actually have.

If you independently make stuff and contribute it to humanity, it may be used in problematic ways.

I have considered whether sharing CF ideas is OK and for various reasons I think it is (it’s really hard for power to use it). Note that selling CF ideas, rather than giving them away, would make basically zero difference. If I didn’t want the government or the rich elites to have these ideas, charging even millions of dollars wouldn’t help – giving them away or selling them cheaply is actually safer so that everyone has access instead of only the elites.

Knowledge or wealth that you’d think would be pretty safe to contribute to humanity can be problematic. Many great industrialists set up foundations with trusts which are rich long after their death (as intended) and are now being used in some bad ways. Steve Jobs made Apple and Apple was a great thing while he was running it. But he lost control of his company and could easily have never gotten control back. And then later he died. Apple is still a good thing today but is getting worse and maybe in 20 more years it’ll be as bad as Google is today. Tim Cook is pretty good but he’s much worse than Steve Jobs and I think his successor is likely to be worse than him not better. Similarly, Rockefeller made Standard Oil and without doing much research my understanding is it made the world better back then but the oil companies today are more like typical large corporations with a lot of badness (they do some important good work too, which does help regular people but also gets harnessed by the elites and government a lot, and also btw we’d be less reliant on cars with better city design and other planning and policies from our elites and there’s actually a serious problem there).

For another example, insulin was worked on by many scientists for over 50 years (and they were building on previous science going back much further). Insulin seems good. What could go wrong? It’s a medicine. It helps lots of people. But there are problems. The elites got control over it and insulin has been involved in a lot of oppression and has funding some undeserving elites being rich and powerful.

Insulin - Wikipedia

concerns remained that a private third-party would hijack and monopolize the research (as Eli Lilly and Company had hinted[130]), and that safe distribution would be difficult to guarantee without capacity for quality control. […] On April 12, Banting, Best, Collip, Macleod, and FitzGerald wrote jointly to the president of the University of Toronto to propose a similar arrangement with the aim of assigning a patent to the Board of Governors of the university. […]

The patent would not be used for any other purpose than to prevent the taking out of a patent by other persons. When the details of the method of preparation are published anyone would be free to prepare the extract, but no one could secure a profitable monopoly.

The assignment to the University of Toronto Board of Governors was completed on 15 January 1923, for the token payment of $1.00.

And yet Eli Lilly got very rich off of insulin anyway.

Eli Lilly and Company - Wikipedia

Insulin, “the most important drug” in the company’s history, did “more than any other” to make Lilly “one of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers in the world.”

Eli Lilly were in the news recently because 1) people hate them 2) due to heavy pressure, they lowered the price of insulin. (If insulin is overpriced, why doesn’t a competitor just make and sell it cheaper? I haven’t researched the specifics, but I think basically the plan with the patent didn’t work as intended).

They were also in the news previously:

In 2009 Lilly pleaded guilty for illegally marketing Zyprexa and agreed to pay a $1.415 billion penalty that included criminal fine of $515 million, the largest ever in a healthcare case and the largest criminal fine for an individual corporation ever imposed in a US criminal prosecution of any kind at the time.[7][8]

I don’t think it is. I don’t think our society is that capitalist.

It’s not that simple. Factory farms and the giant food corporations are very problematic. If those problems were solved – if those companies reformed and became good – I think veganism/etc. would lose the majority of its public support. I think the genuine badness of those companies and farming practices is creating more support for the animal welfare cause than moral arguments related to animal sentience.

Similarly, I wrote some unpublished thoughts recently about the fossil fuel companies and Alex Epstein. Epstein believes that environmentalism has so much support because they make moral arguments and the fossil fuel companies cede the moral high ground. His counter is to make a moral case for fossil fuels, similar to how Ayn Rand made moral arguments in favor of capitalism rather than only practical and economic arguments. However, I think the majority of the opposition to the fossil fuel companies comes from them actually being bad, and if they reformed then anti-fossil-fuel environmentalism would lose the most of its support. Similarly, I think most anti-capitalism comes from companies being bad, and if the companies would stop sucking so much then people would stop being so anti-capitalist. Unfortunately, Epstein has done very little to criticize the fossil fuel companies and suggest they reform anything other than their talking points and rhetoric. (Ayn Rand, by contrast, wrote a lot of criticism of businessmen characters. Besides advocating capitalism, she also stood up to and opposed corruptions of capitalism that we might problematically call “crony capitalism”.)

I don’t think EA matters much. They get less disturbing if you learn how bad so many other things are…

Similarly, Amazon is awful (with yes some positives mixed in, but also a downward trend), but getting rid of Amazon would do very little to improve the world. We’d just get something else bad instead.

To improve the world in a major way, you have to tackle some root causes like power structures or powerful memes (more powerful than the ones EA spreads, I think), not just specific problematic groups like EA. Fixing or ending EA would just be a local optima. (The really powerful memes are often things most people take for granted, so if you see a group like EA making explicit arguments about some cause and trying to get more people on board, it’s a sign those memes they’re trying to spread are not top level powerful memes.)

Tackling root causes in effective ways requires high quality critical/philosophical thinking. EA’s biggest problem is it isn’t serious enough about truth-seeking and debate. The first thing I asked them is if they had any way I can request a debate about something or any organized debating going on. The answer was no. The second thing I asked was if they saw a problem with the lack of debate and how that would prevent error correction, and the answer was again no…

Goldratt is good about cause and effect trees and some relevant methods. Stuff like Paths Forward is important too. Otherwise you just end up with lots of do-gooders counter-productively working on the wrong causes and/or working on them in the wrong ways. EA tries to actually measure how effective they are, which is a good concept, but their measurement methods focus on local optima, so they often end up doing counter-productive stuff. I think being a good thinker who can participate in rational debates is the only realistic way to confidently know you’re actually doing something good rather than bad. Otherwise I guess you should stick to more traditional do-gooding activities to reduce risk (which EA very much does not) – in general the less you’re a skilled intellectual the more you should rely on traditional knowledge.

And since the world has a lack of knowledge and methodology for rational debate, anyone who is really serious about that stuff should try to make improvements there, as I have worked on. Like most smart people can agree that most debates aren’t very effective/productive, so that should lead to a lot more interest in improving debating methods, but it doesn’t seem to. Like it’s hard to find anyone who has made a flowchart for how they think debate should be done. (I have an flowchart that isn’t published yet, but I showed and explained it in my video Effective Altruism and Debate Methodology | Call with Emrik, plus I’ve written lots of explanations related to debate methodology.)

It’s actually weird how EA mixes substantial anti-capitalism with “earn to give”.

I’m not sure about government jobs. Though I think I agree on not giving government things it can use to do bad stuff, so e.g. I’d be very wary of scientific/research positions for government as that would make it easy to use the results for pretty bad stuff and suppress public information about it so it’s hard to do anything about.

But if I want government to ever get better I don’t see how that could happen without good people getting government jobs (or violent revolution, which seems worse). I don’t think I’d personally want to work for them, but I think good people who can try to influence the government in political/legal areas have potential for positive change and the least potential for making things worse.

Do you have an example of a job that isn’t immoral that can make a lot of money without doing much good? Or a job that does a lot of good but can’t make much money? (by “much money” I have in mind something like “enough money to make a living on”)

What powerful memes do you mean?
I think I have an intuitive agreement with this (that solving underlying problematic ideas rather than the groups that grow from them is better long-term) but don’t have a clear idea on what those ideas are. I’ve read The Selfish Gene but I’m not sure I’m super clear on memes or what “size” of idea you would call a meme.
Is that stuff like essentialism? Reductionism? Empiricism? Justificationism?

Books, podcasts, education, sharing ideas, political activism, etc.

Also it matters which government job it is. If they were actually willing to hire you as a “consultant on how to limit government to only its proper purposes” or “consultant on how to police fraud better as required by capitalism” that’d be fine (if it was for real and actually meant what you’d want it to mean, rather than e.g. them just wanting to appease a political interest group by hiring and ignoring some people).

It also matters what you’re willing to complain about if a job turns out to be worse than you reasonably expected it to be (e.g. if you’re that consultant and think you’ll have some power, but then you find you you really don’t and are ignored … are you willing to complain in public about that? that should be considered before taking the job. it’s a lot better to take the job if you’re willing to complain publicly than if you aren’t.)

But in general just taking a regular government job and trying to improve the system from within, by playing and winning office politics or otherwise trying to gain influence and status within the current system, is a bad approach.

I didn’t have any in particular in mind when writing that. It’s just an important, generic category.

Maybe some stuff about social status hierarchies or the ways people avoid debate and avoid responding to criticisms/questions.

Or more fundamental than that is how people approach learning, problem solving, evaluating ideas, brainstorming ideas. A specific mistake there is stopping learning when have some success using substantial conscious effort instead of continuing learning/practicing until it’s easy/subconscious. Another is too low intellectual standards and poor error rate management. I think issues like those are caused by powerful memes that aren’t understood/identified well. A sign of the memes existing is people generally don’t just change this stuff when you point it out; there is tons of resistance to change. So the issue wasn’t just that they didn’t know better. There’s also a lot of resistance to revisiting and improving people’s more basic or lower level knowledge to a higher quality standard (or in other words, admitting they aren’t already great enough at stuff that school kids work on).

Those could be relevant but the most powerful memes tend to be unnamed and unidentified. Presumably there’s something deeper behind e.g. justificationism. Or even if “justificationism” is a good answer you still have to understand it way better. Like “Christianity” is an accurate name of a powerful meme but that doesn’t mean I know which parts matter most, where the leverage points for change are, what parts exist and their cause/effect relationships, etc. There are presumably parts of Christianity I haven’t identified even though, once I did identify them, I’d still use the name “Christianity” instead of needing a new name.

Working on this stuff requires tree diagrams, critical thinking, research, etc. There is tons of room for progress here. CF methods should help enable this work and I’ve done some work on it but I don’t have a bunch of finished conclusions.

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Am I right in guessing that you mean it’s better to change the ideas of people in general, which then improves their ability to vote for better representatives?

I don’t think there’s a limit on how much those approaches can make. Without some good people inside the government to vote for, it would just be the same bad politicians saying whatever they need to to get votes.

Yes I think this is very important. It reminds me of what I said in my project thread.

Being willing to publicly speak out against a chosen career is another situation where it’s important that a person’s life is compatible with radical changes. It would be important to either allow for the possibility of a total loss of the career, or to focus on a career that has a lot of widely valuable skills that make it not very difficult to switch to another career.

I had some intuitive conflict with this but I think I resolved it and now agree.
Part of me was thinking that if a system operates on status and influence, those are the tools you need to use to change it.
My answer is that using irrational methods to pursue rational goals is fundamentally flawed, and can’t be expected to do anything but replace one irrational system with another one which will be roughly as problematic.

Still I consider it possible that there are government jobs where change can be made without using influence and status, and if a good person can find such a position that could have good results.