All posts by Mathew McGann

#42 On objective exploitation

Dear Jamie,

I’d already read the Atlantic article of Between the World and Me, and read it again after your suggestion. To be honest I found it baleful and conspiratorial. The end kind of saves it with a Christian-like “we’re all struggling but some more than others”. Though rather than a cosmic evil or an entropic universe his struggle is against a white conspiracy beyond the knowledge and intention of most of those involved. One of the issues with subjective experiences as we’re discussing them is that they can be annihilated when in contact with an opposing one.  At the time I also read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s response, a more optimistic reading of America despite her subjective plight being obviously more violent and horrible than Coates’.

Two topics have been rolling around in my head since reading your letter. Can subjective experience add up to an objective indictment? And what is the role of exploitation in history?

To the first question I think the answer is no. Subjective experiences may indicate an objective flaw of the regime, but are not true simply because a lot of people believe it. That’s only true if one believes regimes should have the job of giving no-one things to complain about because in that case criticisms are failures. The main issue is that people are so fallible that they can be wrong about what they dislike or what makes them happy. Especially about what makes them happy. When the Tyrant cries “They don’t know what they need” he’s probably right, but the tradgedy is that he’s probably even more wrong about what they need.

I had the dangerous thought the other day that the more objectively better the lives of “those at the bottom”, the more wrong they are about their plight. I don’t think this is true per se, but it seems to be close nugget of truth in there somewhere. Is it a consequence of the definition of objectively better? It’s certainly true that we consider people more wrong about their own plight the better off they are within a society (middle-class students, highly skilled labourers, baby boomers). So if that comparison is possible it must be possible when comparing our “bottom” to cross sections of other societies, which is the same thing as objectively comparing standards of living. That’s the logic anyway, thoughts?

When the left drops “exploitation” many times when talking about power I get a similar reaction to when the right keeps dropping the word “theft”. Most of the time they’re mirages that result from limiting one’s scope in time and space. When I hand over taxes each year, if the only things I considered were me and “the man”, then I’d protest it as pure theft while ignoring the second, third order benefits I accumulate trough infrastructure and protection because I’m incapable of getting past the immediate moral problem of “stealing”. Analogously the left is incapable of getting past the immediate moral problem of “exploitation”, which is clear when you only see workers getting paid less than business owners, but a slight relaxation shows second and third order effects bringing economic benefits to all.

This comparison seems more than an analogy, in one the elite are stealing what you own, in the other they are stealing what you’re entitled to. There are cases of real exploitation and they are naturally morally repugnant to most people as cases of genuine theft. These are rare but tend to be obvious. Theft at one level can be civic cooperation at another, exploitation at one level can be specialisation of labour at another. The danger is not accounting for all scales. The irony is that’s impossible to.


#40 On integrity

Dear Jamie,

Thank you for your answers, but I think I disagree with almost everything you said. Let’s begin.

I haven’t heard skin in the game used the way you use it. My understanding is its primarily used as a tool to correctly align incentives. People tend to cut corners or cheat when they don’t need to face the consequences. It’s not the exact same as saying that people who have it good have an incentive to keep it good. That seems more like straight ownership or risk aversion. Actually it’s a conflict of interest.

Thinking about it more, I’ve come to the conclusion that skin in the game really only suits zero or negative sum games. It’s used to make someone feel the losses in case they can achieve a win at the expense of others. Trading, or cooperation in civilization is not zero sum, and it doesn’t really make sense to insist that someone take a loss in case they might win, or because they won before. Skin in the game may dampen win-wins and could even make zero sum games negative sum.

Independent of whether I’m right on the above it’s still worth asking if we have an obligation to share in privilege (moral luck) at all. I don’t think there is. While I’m sure you’ll want to know why I don’t think it is at the heart of what separates our opinion.*

I have to say I’ve never heard civilization described as something that “didn’t work”.** No. Civilization worked and works. Humans have a method that, provided they follow certain roles, means people don’t get eaten by bears or die of exposure. If civilisation is lacking, then it’s lacking compared to a theoretical ideal not to what we know about how hard it is to get billions of individuals to work together.

And the continued success of civilisation is why Peterson focuses on pathology. Pathology isn’t something that delineates a class of “dysfunctional people” from a class of “rational, peaceloving libertines”. It’s a delineation that runs through the heart of every human, as we explored in earlier letters.  Even the most put-together of us are one threat or trick away from dysfunction. You said so yourself when you admitted you too could have kowtowed in the thirties, and you’re literally the most well put-together person I know.

The ideas of Peterson you’re talking about are his genuine attempts to explore the breaking point of civilisation. And if you buy that a civilisation has an integrity related to the integrity of its people, then pathologies are probably the right place to look. They tend to emerge when personal responsibility is removed, or when people find an end with infinite value (e. g. ideology, religion, compassion).*** Please take his focus on pathology as a study of integrity at all scales.

You described motherhood roles (and things that libertarians like) as the “status quo”. Do you think the effectiveness of civilisation is a matter of opinion? I was sure you didn’t but then you said that it “doesn’t work from the point of view of [outsiders]”. I was thoroughly disoriented by that. I don’t believe someone’s point of view can evaluate whether a society works. A functioning civilization has more in common with the mileage of a working car than the value of an artwork. Indeed utilitarian assumptions require this to be the case.

I think it’s more likely that that there is a real hierarchy of approaches that is overwhelmingly a function of practical realities and so unlikely to align with one political side. This would mean it is also unlikely that good approaches fit one’s desired role, and impossible to fit everyone’s desired roles. Take motherhood for example. There are certainly unconventional roles that would make someone a bad parent. I don’t think this stems from “the old way is tried and true” as much as it does “parenting is a fundamentally cooperative act, and cooperative acts take sacrifice, and sacrifice means losing bits of you, i.e. your identity”. Hopefully I’ve come full circle to the individual vs the group dynamic that is at the heart of everything. The integrity of one comes at the sacrifice of the other, but not too much.


* Oh OK. Luck is randomly (uniformly) assigned at birth but it is predictable from then on. It follows the Matthew effect (literally the least uniform distribution in existence). And it has its two interpretations: One is that the Matthew effect is caused by the top stealing from the bottom, the other is that it’s the natural consequence of efficiently producing systems. The latter camp is true in economics, so thinking of luck like money (which it’s at least convertable to in today’s day and age), everyone is luckier even though it is highly unequal.

** Apart from the way you framed civilisation in your last letter. As well as being called “always broken”, you awarded civilisation with solving problems somewhat satisfactorily. If that’s what you call solving it more than anywhere else on Earth, and more than at any time in history, and in the universe for all we know. I’ve heard the power of minorities in our civilisation described as “cosmically improbable”, “painfully rare”, I’ve even heard it called a “miracle”, but never “somewhat satisfactory”.

#38 On unfair, necessary or different differences

Dear Jamie

You said “women are treated unfairly in overt and subtle ways”. That’s true. All groups are to different extents in different ways. And groups on average are different in preferences, while individuals are all over the map in terms of capability. This is a multi-level, fractured problem that can never be perfectly solved. Indeed by definition it will never be even satisfactorily solved, because you can’t solve all competing, fluid preferences at once.

You’ve kind of walked the line with the dichotomy I gave you before (free market vs enforced ideology). You say they should “die by the sword” but do it on a “level playing field”. It sounds like you’re advocating a regulated capitalist system if I were bring back the economic analogy. But I can’t see that working at all. The competing fluid preferences problem would be the least of your worries. You would be Continue reading #38 On unfair, necessary or different differences

#36 On freedom and equity

Dear Master F,

We should just deal quickly with this notion of “rigidity” but then I think we can move on. If I understand you correctly you call M/F rigid because it has a broadness and simplicity that makes it difficult to change or to cope with the subtleties.* Whereas I take rigid to mean something so precise so as to be either very useful when applied correctly or very unuseful (or damaging) when incorrectly applied. So the fact that the M/F categorisation is so rough and barely adds any information makes it unrigid in my view but rigid in yours. You used the word reliable, that’s more what I meant.

Our earlier letters spent a lot of time on science and physics and I worried about their asymmetry. You’d spend most of your time asking questions and I’d spend my time rattling off opinion. But we’re moving well into your territory, so I look forward to stumbling through with mostly questions. I used to be on the same page as you but Continue reading #36 On freedom and equity

#34 On frameworks around complexity

Dear Jamie

The “innate maps” you talk about are the same toolkit I meant when I said “‘Heuristics, rules of thumbs, feel your way around locally, learn from error.” But I don’t think these have the weaknesses of the other frameworks and so aren’t maps in my analogy. These innate responses can definitely, definitely be wrong. And how. But the point I want to stress is that they in principle don’t exclude any physically possible course of action. While maps can be defined by the course of actions they exclude.

A map is a guide, an explanation, a rule, a representation but what makes it a map is that it is static and predictable. Like a good explanation it is fragile, it’s strength comes from its reproducibility. Innate responses are not consistent, often irrational and maybe even random. Which at least reflects how the world is. Maybe the right way to go is Continue reading #34 On frameworks around complexity

#32 On acting on maps

Dear Jamie

I’m forced to skip over those first few paragraphs based on “economic “modelling because as you said, a little bit of information changes the outcome completely. This is a symptom of a bad model, and bad models do more harm than good. My favourite demonstration of this is the following (originally Taleb’s).

Imagine you find yourself, for no real reason, waking up in the middle of unknown wilderness. Then imagine you stumble upon a map. Should you follow it?

Once I proposed this online in response to an Effective Altruism question about how to act on economic models). Someone took the bait by responding “It depends if the map is reliable or not”. Well that’s a wise application of scepticism, but its missing something as we’ll see. Continue reading #32 On acting on maps

#30 On honesty

Dear Jamie,

I agree about the evil in everyone. As Soljenistsyn wrote, the line cuts the heart of each individual:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

It takes real courage to say that you Continue reading #30 On honesty

#28 On wilful blindness

Dear Jamie,

At the moment I’m into Jordan Peterson’s ideas and his theories about morality and how to live so let’s pull that in. He says that we must act in a way so as to win multiple games. One must simultaneously question oneself as to how to play the “will I survive the day?” game, the “can I feed my family?” game, the “is my community stable?” game, the “is my nation going in the right direction?” game and the “is humanity going to survive the next decade?” game. I’ll call it the contribution hierarchy.

Notice that this is a perfect inversion (and I would say perfect alternative) to the despicable Bedouin saying: “I am against Continue reading #28 On wilful blindness