Humility As Kindness

I want to share one of my favorite Scott Alexander posts while we are still in graduation season.

✍️SSC Gives A Graduation Speech (21 min read)

It’s the commencement speech Slatestar would give if asked.

He caveats the speech as such:

[Trigger warning for deliberately provoking horror about graduates’ real-world post-college prospects]
[Epistemic status: intended as persuasive speech, may somewhat overstate case]

With that warning, go read it.

If you ever want to refer back to its themes, you are welcome to my notes:

Keepsakes From Slatestar’s Fake Graduation Speech (8 min read)

There is a lot to chew on in the speech but I want to zoom in on a bit at the end.

I don’t know how to fix the system, but I am pretty sure that one of the ingredients is kindness.

I think of kindness not only as the moral virtue of volunteering at a soup kitchen or even of living your life to help as many other people as possible, but also as an epistemic virtue. Epistemic kindness is kind of like humility. Kindness to ideas you disagree with. Kindness to positions you want to dismiss as crazy and dismiss with insults and mockery. Kindness that breaks you out of your own arrogance, makes you realize the truth is more important than your own glorification, especially when there’s a lot at stake.

In our household, we have 3 core values we treat as a coat of arms:

  1. Kindness
  2. Gratitude
  3. Curiosity

I could go into each of these and why these 3 values, in particular, stand out to us. The shortest explanation is that I feel that many object-level values like “being hard-working” are downstream of these.

I’ll just talk a bit about epistemic kindness as humility since Slatestar brought it up. Experience tells us that people do not form opinions after weighing all arguments or data and coming to conclusions. Spock is fiction. We believe, then we cherry-pick instances that confirm our beliefs.

I’m sure there are legions of PhDs studying how beliefs form. Don’t worry about that. Instead, let’s just remember the dress for a moment.

In case you suffered an EMP outage in early 2015, you should recall that we couldn’t agree on what color the dress was.

This was a profound moment for me. It messed me up. If we can perceive this dress so differently, good luck agreeing on anything that matters. The keyword here is “perceive”. The horrors of the past week and the various reactions are a reminder that I do not understand many people. I don’t understand their views. Or how they weight their views.

And they probably wouldn’t understand my views. And why I weight them the way I do.

There’s a part of me that feels we need to build bridges. And grimly, a part of me thinks it’s futile. We can’t even agree on the dress because we simply don’t “see” the same way.

This point was further driven home when I read Jared Dillian’s Manic/Depressive (6 min read). I’ve been reading Jared’s professional newsletter Daily Dirtnap for a decade. I’ve read one of his books. I’ve exchanged emails with him over the years. His work is deeply personal. I’m aware of his mental health struggles. Still, that post, like the dress, halted me in my tracks. It reminded me of how limited my lived experience is. In many ways, I see myself in Jared. Some superficial, some less so. But when I read that post I also realized how different we are.

That understates the case. His description of bipolar disorder affirms my sense that the potential distance between 2 people is wider than we can imagine. It’s possible to not have any shared values with a fellow human because their perceptions are different from yours.

There is a wide range in our emotional wiring. There are billions of people in the world so there are tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people with outlier hormonal balance. If intelligence follows a bell curve there are around 50mm Americans who have an IQ 1 standard deviation below the mean or worse.

Jared worked at Lehman when it went under. He wrote this about its boss Dick Fuld:

You can’t measure the intelligence of animals, but gorillas aren’t that smart. It’s safe to say that he didn’t have the intellectual horsepower to lead a complex financial firm through a decade-and-a-half of lurching from one crisis to the next. Lehman almost went tits up in 1998, then didn’t, and Fuld learned entirely the wrong lessons from that experience. He learned that you could cheat death by having the biggest balls. Hard to believe anyone was willing to own the stock after 1998.

IQ has a mixed reputation, and it’s kind of a political third rail these days, but I think it’s useful to have a discussion about intelligence, and how some people have less of it than others. The average IQ of the population is 100 (by definition), and the standard deviation is 15. If Fuld had an IQ of 115 (which is probably a pretty good guess), and you had an IQ of 145 (roughly 1 in 1000 people do, and there are lots of them at investment banks), then you would be two standard deviations above Fuld. Which is to say that you talking to Fuld would be like an average person talking to an eggplant.

Variations in culture, trust, and mental compute power mediate what we give attention to and how we weigh it. IQ is an incomplete measure of compute and is sensitive to cultural artifacts. But it’s not hard to understand that large differences in it can leave you feeling like you are talking to an “eggplant”. There are things you cannot explain to a mentally disabled person (I’m not calling them eggplants, and Jared wouldn’t either.) This obviously doesn’t devalue them as people. But it does devalue them in certain contexts. For example the context of driving. The public good requires drivers to exceed a minimum bar of cognitive and sensory capacity.

There is a real spectrum of measured intelligence. A person with a 100 IQ (average) would be frustrated dealing with someone with a 70 IQ. The distance between 100 and 130 is just as wide to Jared’s point. My point isn’t that someone who disagrees with a smart person is wrong. Smart people are outstanding at being wrong. They are clever in rationalizing how they are right which makes them especially dangerous and prone to overlearning the wrong lessons (the classic “midwit” meme). The point is that intelligence, like delusions and hormones, constitutes an axis of perception. How that axis intersects with culture, trust, and ambition will find people of all abilities scattered across the political map.

When I disagree with others I do my best to keep the dress in mind. To remember others’ mental and psychological composition may be impossible to relate to without a lot more information. Experience and perception shape our beliefs which we then rationalize. This means our conclusions are slaves to the tyranny of path-dependence. A single draw from a million possible lives. We suck at counterfactuals and we can’t tell the difference between “because of” and “in spite of” (You’ve surely heard justifications that follow this pattern: “There’s nothing wrong with playing video games 8 hours a day, I did it and I turned out fine”. Sigh. See my post Video Game Veto).

So what does humility look like when you vehemently disagree? It looks like more questions and less statements. You must ask questions.

[I’ll issue my own warning: personal takes to follow]

I’ll use the recent gun controversy as an example.

There’s a hardline strand of gun advocacy that prefers to sidestep any discussion of restrictions or background checks by sticking its fingers in its ears and crying “Second Amendment”. This easily devolves into strange debates about what the framers of the Constitution meant and to what extent citizens today should even care about proclamations from the graves of people who never saw a telephone never mind a smartphone.

That debate feels like a distraction. It’s a convenient way to avoid deeper questions when one’s stance is “I can appeal to a document’s authority to justify not needing any justifications”. Instead of getting tractor-beamed into a pointless debate, I’d rather ask questions to understand gun advocates further. It might go like this:

Hey, you were once a 19-year-old young adult interested in dogs, video games, baseball, DJ-ing, cooking, public speaking, and what you were going to do for a living. You remain interested in some of these things but now the 2nd Amendment and guns occupy a conspicuous amount of your mindshare.

  • Perhaps you feel threatened by gun control measures, teach me why.
  • The interpretation of the First Amendment includes prosocial concessions that restrict some freedoms. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. That’s not your right. You are suddenly put in charge. What prosocial concessions would you build into the Second Amendment?
  • Do you believe your current position on guns is best for society or best for you? It’s ok to say “best for you”. I’m not naive. This country has pursuit-of-narrow self-interest as a higher value than cooperation in its DNA. Whoever you think your stance is best for, teach me why.
  • What would need to be true, or what argument that currently supports your position would need to be false, for you to update your beliefs?

On an individual level, I still believe humility is critical to understand one another.

Regrettably, I’m not sure that view scales.

More Personal Thoughts

For many shooting and hunting are passionate hobbies. Growing up, my dad had a gun in the house, one of my closest friends in HS was an avid hunter. I was always at his house filled with shotguns and compound bows. My dad’s brother had an arsenal. I shot a .22 in Big Bear with that uncle when I was 9 (I turned down the chance to shoot the .45 that day because I was scared of the recoil). Guns provide millions of Americans entertainment and security.

Gun control deserves the same level of oversight we give to driving. Both domains need to square freedom with public health. Speed limits, seat belts, and lines on roads are not especially controversial. If there was an amendment with vague language about automobiles would we be debating the DMV while watching a high-speed chase on an LA freeway? Would O.J.’s right to speed in his white Bronco be as polarizing as his actual murder case?

To me, it feels that the gun debate overreaches suspiciously far into “freedom” discourse. Is there not a lot of room for reform without violating people’s rights in excess of the norms we voluntarily accept in exchange for public health? The debate is a source of power for a circle of politicians. They stand to benefit from scaring voters into making the gun debate about freedom.

These politicians use a sleight of hand — slippery slope arguments. Slippery slope is an argumentative technique for closing a debate before it starts by exploiting common thinking fallacies that make some end state appear inevitable even though it’s a single destination in a garden of forking paths. The user of such an argument is steamrolling you. If slippery slope arguments were universally valid, you would be paralyzed. You’d never do anything new. The left likes to invoke Hitler in every argument while the right pretends any change is a needless inhale that the government boa constrictor seizes to tighten its coil.

There are always people who argue in bad faith. It’s usually in the name of some abstract principle. In some cases, their minds are hacked. Yet there are others who know exactly what they are doing. They already have the Prisoner’s Dilemma boxes filled out in their minds. But we know cooperation is the basis of human flourishing. It would be grim to accept that the majority of people are unable to find mutually agreeable ground and even grimmer to think they have consciously abandoned the pursuit of cooperation. But it also feels like our system is selecting for bad faith leadership that has spawned a negative feedback loop where the most powerful signal you can send is who your enemies are. That’s what cartel warfare looks like. It’s a dangerous step away from principles to “might is right”. Barbarians beg for that world.

What happened this past week was barbaric. I’m ashamed of us. I don’t think it’s purely about guns but something more perverse in our culture. But the guns make the expression of that perversity convenient and amplify the impact. My initial reaction was sadness and anger. I didn’t have kids when Sandy Hook happened. I thought it was ghastly of course, but now I appreciate just how shaken every other American parent felt upon hearing that news.

It’s so disheartening.

The valence of guns seems to have a wider grip on people’s identity than other hobbies. There are so many things to possibly be interested in, how did this galvanize so much of their attention? Something about the discourse wreaks of manipulation. Like sophists with an extreme idealogy managed to successfully implant brainworms into a population. Or is a totally disproportionate minority hijacking us? I don’t study politics enough to understand the dynamic (happy to be educated if someone has a good grasp of it). Is the NRA more powerful than every other deep-pocketed non-psycho organization?

For the people who insist on arming teachers or suggest interventions that don’t explicitly create more friction to the wrong people accessing guns, I want to shout “who hurt you?” But this would be condescending instead of humble and I don’t think we get anywhere by attacking. We need a good-faith debate about the tradeoffs in our laws between freedom and public health.

The idea that more guns is the answer can only come from people who are not used to having their beliefs tested by reality. Imagine a futures contract that settled to 100 if the following were true:

“If we armed every citizen non-suicide gun deaths go down”

I’m a size seller at 50.

Convenience trumps self-control no matter what you tell yourself.

In David Epstein’s update this week:

A common argument, though, is that if those people didn’t shoot themselves, they would have just found some other way [to commit suicide]

Ample evidence (like this, and this) points to the contrary — that easy access to lethal means, like guns, increases the numbers of deaths by suicide overall.

The burden of proof is on the people who argue more gun control won’t help. And if they say you need to crack eggs to make an omelet, my question is how many eggs with baby chicks in them are you willing to sacrifice for that omelet?

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