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Thoughts on the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings

I am going to try to remember and state all interesting thoughts that came up in recent Facebook discussions about this.


A friend raised the suspicion that many people who publish further Muhammad cartoons in response to the shootings do so to spite Muslim terrorism-sympathisers (and other finger waggers), not to support free speech.
I think the distinction between these two possible motivations for deliberate offensiveness is important.


Another distinction that I’ve found useful to emphasise is that between “not restricting our speech in response to the shootings”, and “engaging in *more* deliberate blashpemy in respose to the shootings”. There can be some temptation to engage in Motte-and-Bailey flip flopping when defending the latter of those two things.


I have not seen a good defense of the idea that deliberate blasphemy can be expected to have net positive results. I have seen statements of plausible scenarios in which it has net positive results. But it’s very easy to counter those with at least equally plausible scenarios in which it has net negative results. What makes many people so confident that net positive results are much more probable?


I wrote a FB post asking whether Bryan Caplan’s defense of appeasement applies to blasphemy-hating terrorists. His answer: Yep.


Most people who call the authors of deliberately offensive cartoons heroes for exercising their right to free speech in the face of credible threats also support migration restrictions, coercive funding of unnecessary, counterproductive, and/or immoral government programs, compulsory education, food and drug regulations, import tariffs, labour market regulations, bans on polygamy and incest, etc etc. In short, most of them support many freedom-restricting credible threats of violence.

Is this inconsistent? I think not.

For one thing, most of them believe in political authority* and oppose vigilantism. Extremely few of them would support vigilante terrorism as a way of policing any of those things they want restricted.

Also, I think it’s simply a matter of them supporting some violence in response to things they consider immoral, and opposing violence in response to things they don’t consider immoral. And as it happens, they don’t consider blasphemy immoral (at least not to the point of warranting any violence), whereas they do consider those other things immoral.

This still seems useful to point out, however: “Many people genuinely believe that it is immoral to draw the prophet Muhammad, and even though they know or should know that many others genuinely disagree,  they support some violence in response to such drawings.  You also believe that some things are immoral, and even though you know that many others genuinely disagree,  you support some violence in response to those things. How analogous are the two cases? Should you, too, rethink your support for violent responses?”


Externalities of deliberate provocation of terrorists: uninvolved bystanders killed or injured, tax payer funded body guards, property damage. Further arguments for appeasement.


I’ve seen many “Islam is a religion of X” statements.  I think it’s very unclear what such statements might even mean. But so long as X is considered virtuous (religion of peace, religion of love, …), they are commonly accepted without argument or explanation. I admit that this bugs me. I think those statements generally have no merit.


A great, provocative thought experiment someone posted on their FB: What would the response have been if the terrorists had targeted Pegida instead of Charlie Hebdo?


I’ve felt pretty sad contemplating the contrast between how much importance has been given to this “attack on free speech” and the attention given to other things that I consider so much more important, like ongoing attacks on freedom of migration. I think it is very sad, but that I’ve been feeling sad about it now indicates that I hadn’t quite recognised some things about commonly misplaced moral outrage yet.


*i.e. that agents of governments have the right to coerce their citizens, and that citizens have the duty to obey agents of their government

Another note on hypocritical altruism

At least by some definitions of “hypocrisy” and “altruism”, I suspect that non-hypocritical altruism is pretty rare. A lot of altruistic behaviour probably stems from the intention to signal socially desirable traits to others and to ourselves. Is that bad?

I think hypocritical altruism tends to be less effective than authentic altruism. Authentic altruism (if it exists) motivates people to employ effective means to the end of doing good for others. Hypocritical altruism motivates people to employ effective means to the end of appearing admirable to others. How much overlap is there between the most effective means to either of these ends? I’m afraid it’s usually very little.

I see two things you can deplore and/or attempt to change, here: (1) You can deplore people’s hypocrisy, and you can try to get them to be more authentic in their altruistic pursuits. Or, (2) you can deplore people’s admiration for acts of ineffective altruism, and you can try to get them to admire ineffective altruism less and effective altruism more.

(1) doesn’t appeal to me at all. Deploration-wise, while the result-side of hypocritical-as-opposed-to-authentic altruism bothers me, I don’t find myself caring about the intentions-side of it. (Is that weird?) Strategy-wise, I would be surprised to learn that promising ways to make people more authentically altruistic are known to anyone. (Though David Pearce’s calls for safe analogues of MDMA come to mind.)

(2) seems much more appealing. People’s misplaced admiration bugs me more than I’d like to admit. And, bugging aside, its effect of diverting hypocritical altruism to ineffective causes is a utilitarian disaster. As strategy goes, I think the prospect of getting people to direct their admiration toward more effective altruism holds much greater promise than hypocrisy abatement, through such simple means as providing information. If successful, the result here, too, should be more effective (if hypocritical) altruism.

You could object that “holds much greater promise than hypocrisy abatement” is setting the bar very low. I agree. I am not optimistic about the prospect of getting much of the general pop to recalibrate their altruism-admiration for effectiveness. But if Paul seeks to be admired, what’s relevant is not so much what “most people in the general pop” admire, but rather what people in Paul’s social circles admire. And there are many “social circles” within which the goal of creating an effectiveness-minded culture seems quite attainable to me. Spreading admiration for effectiveness in your social circles is a more modest goal, but even if its achievement results in no more than 2 or 3 new effective altruists, that’s a big deal. And the long-term potential of spreading the culture in niche after niche is much higher still.

Social and personality psychologists self-report discrimination against conservative colleagues

The authors of this study surveyed a large number (combined N = 800) of social and personality psychologists and discovered several interesting facts. First, although only 6% described themselves as conservative “overall,” there was more diversity of political opinion on economic issues and foreign policy. Second, respondents significantly underestimated the proportion of conservatives among their colleagues. Third, conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, they are right to do so: In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.

from the abstract of Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers

Inequality bad for growth, redistribution benign, #StudyFinds

This IMF published paper by Ostry, Berg, and Tsangarides presents empirical evidence on the relationships between inequality, redistributon, and growth. From the executive summary:

Second, lower net inequality is robustly correlated with faster and more durable growth, for a given level of redistribution. These results are highly supportive of our earlier work.

And third, redistribution appears generally benign in terms of its impact on growth; only in extreme cases is there some evidence that it may have direct negative effects on growth. Thus the combined direct and indirect effects of redistribution—including the growth effects of the resulting lower inequality—are on average pro-growth.


Quick review of “Zero to One” on Goodreads

I think it’s worth reading of you’re interested in starting and funding businesses, especially since it’s such a quick read. I found PT’s thoughts on and defense of monopolies particularly interesting.

But I was disappointed by the strength of his argumentation. I expected this book to read like the work of a sharp, keen thinker, but his reasoning throughout the book is actually very sloppy and relies very heavily on cherry picked examples.