More on Ethics of Vegetarianism

Here I will make a very basic attempt at evaluating the ethics of eating meat.  Previously I argued that while it was clearly unethical to some degree to eat meat, the good that would come from shifting to vegetarianism is tiny compared to the good that comes from other causes (existential risks come to mind).  But that was a relative argument.  Now I will briefly explore the absolute level of moral wrongness associated with killing animals.

What is unethical about shooting a cow in the head?  I believe we can answer this by examining what is unethical about shooting a human in the head.  My thesis is that there are five, and only five, reasons why it is wrong to shoot a human being in the head*.  Thus I claim that the extent that these five reasons apply to cows is the full extent to which shooting a cow in the head is unethical.

The five reasons that it is wrong to shoot someone in the head are:

  1. The victim will feel some amount of pain
  2. The victim is deprived of their right to live their life
  3. Those who care about the victim will feel some amount of grief and sorrow
  4. The good for the world that the victim would have done will not be realized
  5. Other people will experience the fear of also being shot (i.e. the terrorism effect)

I posit that, if none of these five conditions hold, it is in fact not unethical to shoot a person in the head.  Specifically, I believe that it is morally permissible to shoot a person in the head provided that:

  1. The victim will feel no pain
  2. The victim willingly forfeits their right to life (i.e. wants to die)
  3. Those who know the victim will experience no grief or sorrow
  4. The victim would not have otherwise done good for the world
  5. No one will fear that they will also be shot

To what extent do these five conditions hold for cows in modern slaughterhouses?  My personal belief and understanding is that:

  1. The cow will feel no pain
  2. The cow does not have sufficient autonomy to have a right to choose to live or die
  3. No human, cow, or other creature will experience grief or sorrow
  4. The cow would not do more good for the world than it will by being eaten (in fact I think cows have a negative impact on the world due to greenhouse emissions and overgrazing)
  5. No other cow will fear being slaughtered

I wrote in the beginning of this post that I do still feel that eating meat is unethical.  But it is only because I believe that these five conditions are not absolutely true.  I believe that (1), (2), and (3) do not strictly hold.  The cow will feel some small amount of pain, the cow does have a sufficiently developed brain to have some primitive autonomy, and other cows will experience some small amount of grief.

I must make clear that I am only considering the ethics of shooting the cow.  There are almost certainly unethical components to the living conditions of the cow prior to being shot.  I believe this is where most of the practical ethical concerns of eating meat lie.

One implication of this reasoning is that I find eating monkeys and dolphins to be significantly more unethical than eating cows, mostly by reason (3) and a little bit by reason (2).  Another implication is that I do not find it wrong to kill and eat another human being in specific, extreme circumstances, i.e. I do not see an a priori reason against it.

I welcome disagreement to this stance, both by challenging the factual status of points (1) through (5) with regard to cows, and also by suggesting other ways in which it is unethical to kill cows (or people) that I have missed.


* I am still a utilitarian – if there are ethical reasons against shooting a person, but stronger ethical reasons in support of shooting that person, I would still advocate shooting that person.  For example, if that person would otherwise commit great atrocities, I would consider it ethical to shoot them.  Here I am only looking at the downsides of shooting someone, not the upsides.

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After over a year of procrastinating, I am finally performing my duty as a citizen-scientist and investigating nootropics.  (Technically I started a year ago with DHA, but omega-3s have the benefits of being (1) low-hanging fruit, (2) a preventative measure, not an enhancer, (3) socially acceptable, and (4) completely harmless.)

Currently my stack is DHA, potassium, green tea (notably l-theanine and caffeine), creatine, piracetam, and choline.

My research sources primarily come from and, as well as the relevant wikipedia articles.

I plan to update this post based on whatever I learn that is in contrast to the expected benefits, both above and below expected performance.


Update: June 2013

I have found a noticeable increase in lucidity as well as mental reaction time/acuity.  It is hard to compare this increase with the general increase with time that I’ve had all of my life so far.

My alcohol tolerance is astonishingly high.  This change happened rapidly within 2 weeks of beginning the stack and only decreased temporarily when I took a week break from the stack.

My mental health is shattered.  I assign a <5% chance that there is any connection with this and the nootropics, as I have undergone significant upheaval in my life.

I am still not nearly as awake as I’d like to be for as long as I’d like to be.

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Misguided but Effective Heuristics

I’ve been ruminating on a series of rules people follow that have two criteria in common:

  1. They are effective.
  2. The people who follow them have a misguided view of why they are effective.

I find these types of rules interesting because they are rational in the sense that one learns one such rule, experiments with it, concludes that it is effective, and adopts it.  But at no point in the process do they understand the underlying mechanism.  So I deem these Misguided but Effective Heuristics, or MEHs.  In some cases, were people to understand the underlying mechanism, they would be able to come up with a more effective rule.

Here are the examples I’ve found.

1. Don’t mix different types of alcohol in one night.

Effect: Less reckless behavior, milder hangovers.

Why people think it works: The folk theory is that different types of alcohols synergize to make you more intoxicated, or more hungover, than each type of alcohol would make you on its own.

Why it actually works: This rule helps prevent us from drinking too much.  The easiest way to consume too much alcohol is to have many different types.  It’s not too hard to have ten drinks by having a few beers, a few glasses of wine, and some bar drinks.  But if you stick only to beer, or only to wine, or only to mint juleps, it’s very hard to consume 10 drinks.

Better rule: Don’t drink more than 5 drinks in one night.

2. Don’t eat ice cream before bed.

Effect: Better sleep, less nightmares.

Why people think it works: Ice cream causes nightmares.

Why it actually works: In actuality, excessive overeating before bed causes nightmares.  Eating ice cream before bed is highly correlated with excessive overeating, because ice cream is usually consumed in addition to a full meal.  If people were to eat only ice cream, and not a full meal in addition, they would not have nightmares, even if they consumed it right before bed.

Better rule: Don’t overeat before bed.

(Similar logic applies to the “Don’t eat for half an hour before swimming” rule.)

3. Tap the top of a recently shaken can of soda before opening it to prevent it from exploding.

Effect: The soda is less likely to explode.

Why people think it works: ??? (perhaps driving the carbon dioxide away from the lid?)

Why it actually works: Tapping the top of the soda forces you to hold the can steady and wait before opening it.  The longer you wait, the more the carbon dioxide released by shaking the soda will be reabsorbed into the liquid.

Better rule: Wait before opening a recently shaken can of soda, and keep it immobile.

4. (For certain religions) Don’t eat pork/beef/any meat/<insert some religion’s forbidden food> in order to be closer to God

Effect: People are closer to God

Why people think it works: God is displeased when you eat pork/beef/any meat/<insert some religion’s forbidden food>

Why it actually works: Random dietary restrictions force people to eat with others with the same random dietary restrictions, thus preventing them from being exposed to ideas that challenge one’s beliefs.  (There are also other reasons that this works.)

Better rule: Eat with family and friends of the same religion as you.

5. Consume massive amounts of protein after lifting weights.

Effect: More muscle growth and strength building.

Why people think it works: When you lift weights, all the extra protein in your system gets converted to muscle.

Why it actually works: Again, this behavior is only correlated with optimal muscle growth.  Consuming insufficient protein will prevent optimal muscle growth, and overeating protein maximizes the chance that you haven’t undereaten protein.  Statistically speaking, those who overeat protein will fair better than those who don’t.

Better rule: Eat 1 gram of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight after a full body lift.


Please add any other MEHs you think of in the comments!

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Singularity Summit 2012

Scattered notes and afterthoughts.

Spending two days with an elite crowd of thinkers is extremely inspiring.  Just spending time talking to my personal heroes Eliezer and Robin justified the ticket cost.  Met some wonderful youngsters.  Highlights:

  • Laughing about how incredibly nice it will be when augmented reality glasses can identify people you recognize but have forgotten with a friendly fellow who does machine learning on sensor data at a company he started in San Diego
  • Admiring the stained glass in Grace Cathedral with several people my age while Fermi estimating the sun’s power output in kilowatts (hint: don’t start from the power/sq ft of sunlight that hits earth)
  • Receiving a primer in how timeless decision theory defeats causal decision theory in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma from a London-accented lad who promotes efficient altruism in Toronto
  • Having a dialect concerning the best mathematicians of all time, based on their contribution to the mathematics involved in technological acceleration (Turing was up there) with an Australian kid no older than myself who was visiting to teach some math to some of the researchers.

Best part, taken from the pre-summit party on Thursday:

Scene: 9:30pm, Daniel, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Robin Hanson, and three other LB/OWs standing on a damp porch outside a suburban house in Berkeley.  It has just stopped drizzling.

The group has just finished considering a theory of one very emphatic talker concerning the cryptography involved in bitcoins.  We get to discussing the gold standard.

“The way to maximize the value of precious metals has been well established.”  I said dismissively.  “You dig a huge hole and bury it.”  I proceed to get laughs from both Eliezer and Robin.

Ok, you had to be there.

And the talks.  Incredible line-up.  TL;DR Jaan Taallinn > Peter Norvig > Robin Hanson > the rest

Ray Kurzweil: This talk was remarkable mostly due to the fact that his theory of how the neocortex works – sparsely distributed, layered, hierarchical – was indistinguishable from Jeff Hawkin’s theory as outlined in his great book On Intelligence.  That is a good sign in my book.  He also showed a lot of exponential curves with some really fun-looking acceleration.  He emphasized many times that his famous projections from thirty years ago have been proven accurate.

Peter Norvig: The last of the conference, this talk was certainly the most inspiring.  All he did was go over his predictions from his talk at the 2007 Singularity Summit and outline the progress he’s made with the Google superteam of AI hotshots.  He was correct on 5 predictions out of 6, being wrong only in forecasting that the Internet would become a significant factor in AI research.  He explained the basic science behind Google’s famous unsupervised youtube image classifier.  During the Q&A he mentioned that his team trains the programs via batch, i.e. one long training session on a fixed data set, but that they would ideally prefer it to continually crawl the web and learn, all the while deciding how to expend resources between searching, storing, and classifying.  Peter’s calm optimism was enchanting.  He spoke as if saying, “Artificial intelligence?  Oh, we’re working on it.  Yeah we’ve had some major breakthroughs in the past few years.  We’ll have more soon.  Want to see the cool stuff we made?”

Robin Hanson: This was the talk I was most excited to see, having missed him present this material in Redwood City a few months ago.  He did a very basic, but extremely compelling, microeconomic analysis of the advent of simple whole brain emulations, or “ems” for short.  He predicts increased urbanization, as the information delay due to distance becomes severe on very quickly operating ems.  He predicts a rapid reduction in wages, but at the same time an economy that at least doubles every few years.  It was left unclear which of these two factors was stronger, and weather wealth/capita would increase.  He predicts massive change to company structure with the elimination of the constraint that managers cannot work more than 100 subjective hours a week.  He acknowledges that these predictions apply only to the short period of time after the invention of whole brain emulation and before brains can be algorithmically improved.  I especially enjoyed this talk because, coming from a neuroscience background, I think that Whole Brain Emulation will come much before Artificial General Intelligence.

Jaan Taalinn: Jaan completely outdid the other speakers in his presentation.  He told, via an animated comic strip, the story of Fred, a software engineer who goes on a quest to understand how it is that he is helping to usher the universe into a new era of intelligence.  Along his way he meets philosophers and even a cosmologist who present new information and theories to our hero.  The general point made to Fred is that he shouldn’t be surprised that he’s inventing the future, based on bizarre arguments that draw heavily on the anthropic principle and the possibility of living in a simulation.  I don’t generally understand anthropic reasoning and this was no exception.  It did however accomplish the goal of inspiring forward thinking and planning, and I think inspiration was second only to networking as the primary value of this event.

Some of the other talks were excellent as well, but I didn’t find them particularly relevant to thinking about the singularity.  Steven Pinker’s talk about the decline of violence was wonderful, though I couldn’t figure out why he was delivering it to us.  Maybe he just likes us and wanted to raise the profile of the event?  I’d like to think he chose to speak at the summit because he knew just how many game-changers were in the audience.  Vernor Vinge, Melanie Mitchell, Carl Zimmer, and Daniel Kahneman were the remaining celebrity speakers, and I think only Peter Thiel (who helped found the summit in 2006) and Elon Musk could have improved the lineup.  Actually, I would have loved to see John Conway.  One can always dream for next year.

All told it was a delightful weekend.  It is marvelous to see the people who seriously address rapid technological advancement all under one roof.  Granted, the work of the Singularity Institute has the potential to be worthless just as it has the potential to save our species.  It comes down to having the comfort of knowing that if there is something to be done, namely developing Friendly Artificial Intelligence in advance of other types of AGI, many of our best and brightest are working on it.  Now, if only I can donate enough money for them to hire one or two more mathematicians…

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Virtue Ethics

It is widely agreed that there are three competing standard theories of morality [1].  In a sentence, consequentialism is the view that the goodness of our actions is derived from their consequences, and that we prefer various outcomes to others; deontological ethics is the view that goodness of our actions is derived from whether they follow various rules, such as “Don’t murder” and “Treat others as you would like to be treated”; and virtue ethics is the view that the goodness of actions is determined by whether they promote good personal characteristics, such as wisdom and courage.  In a shorter sentence, consequentialism refers to our results, deontological ethics refers to our code, and virtue ethics refers to our character.

As a novice to philosophy, I didn’t understand the appeal of virtue ethics.  For one, it has been out of fashion since medieval times.  More importantly, it appears that it must reduce to one of the two competing theories.  How do we determine if it would be virtuous to tell a white lie about our friend’s unfortunate haircut (or if fibbing is something that a virtuous person would do)?  If you answer that the good outweighs the bad, i.e. your friend’s happiness justifies the lie, you appeal to consequentialism.  If you answer that it adheres to the Golden rule, because you would want your friend to do the same for you, you appeal to deontological ethics.

However, as a slightly less novice student of philosophy, I have a new-found appreciation for virtue ethics.  Philosophical debates about morality often do not lead to practical advice about how to be more moral.  A big part of thinking about morality is pragmatism: how can we be clever about being good and overcoming our shortfalls?  When we are tempted to  to spend money on ourselves instead of charity, or to ignore a plea for help from a stranded driver on an empty highway, we would like to draw on our reasoning about the good to help us.  We need help both knowing what is right and how to actually get that right thing done.

Consider the case where I know that I should donate $50 to charity, but I am tempted to instead to buy a ticket to see Brad Mehldau perform with his trio at the Yerba Buena center in San Francisco.  Am I more likely to rationalize and buy myself the ticket if I draw upon consequentialism to motivate me, or if I draw upon virtue ethics to motivate me?  If I were to draw on consequentialism, it’s not hard to imagine that I might talk myself out of giving the $50.  “But if I don’t seek out the joy of music, I won’t be happy and thus will not be able to have a lucrative career, thus limiting my future donating potential!”

But drawing on virtue ethics, it’s unlikely that I’ll talk myself out of doing what’s right by asking myself, “Would a generous person really donate the $50?”  I know very clearly that the answer is yes.  If I want to be a generous person, I know I have to give the money.  And I do want to be generous person.

My point in this essay is that in most cases the problem of figuring out the right course of action is easy and the problem of figuring out how to motivate yourself to actually do that action is very hard.  I’m not taking a position on the issue of which ethical theory (if any) is correct.  I’m taking a position on which attitudes towards ethics are most likely to get the job done.  Is it better to strive towards having the best impact on the world, to strive towards following and ethical code, or to strive towards become the best person possible?  For me, it is the last option.

I must emphasize that all three attitudes, and some others, can be valuable motivators.  When trying to motivate myself to donate to charity, it can help to visualize the consequences. It could also help to remind myself of the rule I have for giving.  And it can help to work towards seeing myself as a generous person.  I have learned more and more that trying to be a virtuous person [2] works best for me.


[1] This is the classical trichotomy.  Modern views include moral nihilism, the view that there is no such a thing as good, and moral pragmatism, the view that goodness depends on our social constructs.

[2] Alternatively, trying to be an awesome person (in addition to a virtuous one) is a great motivator as well.  I learned this from Ivan, my freshman roommate in college.

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In my opinion, it is very worthwhile to study ethics and metaethics in order to answer questions like “What is morality?”, and “Now that I have a strong case for what morality is, am I bound by it?”  To answer these questions, one can study evolutionary psychology and philosophy, among other disciplines.

One aspect of ethical inquiry that I believe is widely under-appreciated is answering the question: “What is my brain’s current algorithm for determining how I feel about moral issues?”  Most moral inquiry, it seems, is more based on why we have our current beliefs, whether they are right or wrong (or if there is such a thing as a right or wrong moral belief), and what we should do about them.  But for now, put those question aside.  I want to focus on the seemingly much simpler question as to what exactly our current moral beliefs are.

When one encounters a stimulus with moral weight (say, someone is murdered, or someone makes a breakthrough in cancer research), our brains quickly execute an algorithm to that produces as output a moral emotion.  This algorithm can be very complicated.  It almost certainly isn’t as simple as “Moral approval if it promotes the greatest good, moral disgust otherwise”, or “Moral approval if it abides by the rules of this old book, moral disgust otherwise”, or “Moral approval if my community feels moral approval when this happens, moral disgust otherwise”.  If your algorithm is actually this simple, I have nothing to say and would recommend you focus your moral inquiry in the more standard directions.

We can test our moral algorithm by considering hypothetical situations and imagining how we would feel.  We have a long history of categorizing those results, and we can estimate how we’ll feel in a hypothetical situation with a high probability of estimating correctly.  In addition, our moral beliefs strongly inform our moral algorithm.  But they cannot fully determine it, just in the same way that beliefs about what make you happy cannot fully determine what actually makes you happy.  Like all emotions, most of the workings of the function that maps stimuli to the experience of the emotion is unconscious.  Think of how difficult it is to determine the algorithm underlying similar emotions, like happiness, desire, satisfaction, and love.  We are notoriously bad at knowing what makes us happy, knowing what we want, knowing what will give us satisfaction in life, and knowing what will spark our feelings of love.

I recently had an epiphany into the nature of my moral algorithm.  For me, morality is in large part a beckoning.  It is a desire for everyone in the world to appreciate beauty with me.  It is “Hey!  Come look at this awesome thing!”  Whatever moves the world towards this end, like ending suffering caused by poverty and disease, feels morally good to me.  And whatever opposes it feels morally bad.

My sense of beckoning is not a belief.  It is a desire and a preference.  I also happen to believe that people should have access to beauty and freedom from suffering.  But what that belief means, and whether it binds my actions, is another matter entirely.

What can you learn about your moral algorithm?  Put aside your beliefs, put aside any statements with the word “should” or “ought”.  Think on the level of preferences.  What is your moral algorithm like?

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Christopher Hitchens

I’m going to continue my sequence of quick exposés on the lives of influential thinkers with Christopher Hitchens.   Hitch, as he liked to be called, was a hugely famous journalist, author, and public intellectual.  He tragically died at age 62 in December 2011.  I draw my information from his excellent memoirs, entitled Hitch 22, which I strongly recommend to anyone for its great storytelling value and charming, erudite wittiness.  As with the previous article, I’ll begin with a quick primer for the unacquainted.

Christopher Hitchens started his journalism career in the 1960s by writing for New Statesman, a socialist political and cultural magazine in England.  He seized every opportunity to travel the world to aid struggling revolutionaries, most notably in Cuba, South America, Ireland, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union.  Over the decades he became very close with the leading English writers and poets of his era, especially Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, and Martin Amis.  Infatuated with the American spirit of revolution and counterculture, he became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and relocated his literary talents to the prominent leftist magazine The Nation.  In the U.S. he aimed his pen at Reagan, H.W. Bush, and the political blunders and myopia in South America.  He achieved perhaps his most weighty political impact with his push towards the Iraq War and the military removal of Saddam Hussein.  In the last decade of his life he pioneered the “New Atheists”, also known as the “The Four Horseman”, with Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins.  He debated opponents of skepticism and liberalism continuously throughout his life, never going more than a few weeks without a public appearance.  In his memoirs he wrote that he abhorred two things in life: religion and despotism.  And he made it his life’s purpose to extinguish the two as best he could, viciously (and cleverly) attacking and discrediting its proponents.  His early death was a tragic, but predictable, consequence of his lifelong alcohol and cigarette habits.

Having also recently read a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, it’s hard not to compare the two.  But beyond the fact that they both died at age 62, the similarities end.  Wittgenstein was singularly devoted; Hitch was a polymath.  Wittgenstein was curt and abrasive; Hitch was charming and gregarious.  Wittgenstein valued rigid self-control; Hitch filled his glass to the brim twice daily.  Perhaps they overlap in the acidity of their attacks on their opponents.  Wittgenstein was unbelievably dismissive of his well-respected Cambridge colleagues when he believed they didn’t understand his work.  Hitch withheld neither prose nor poetry to pour molten words over the heads of the dogmatists of the world.

One strong thread through Hitch’s early life was dealing with oppression.  He refers to his father, a naval officer in World War II, as “the commander”, and he acted as such.  Hitch went to boarding schools in England before they were reformed, which meant the jolly tyranny and corporal punishment “for your own good” that only religious fundamentalists can muster.  Combined with the fact that he turned 20 in 1969, and it is no surprise that he ended up in Havana supporting the communists.  It is hard to be surprised by the causes that Hitch undertook.  His incredible success and his infiltration of leading intellectual circles are what fascinate.

In his memoirs, Hitch writes fondly of the weekly dinners he had with young English intellectuals in his twenties.  He and other budding writers and poets would meet once a week over copious amounts of wine to joke, pun, gossip, vulgarize, and otherwise celebrate the pinnacle of the young culture that they helped to usher into the rapidly modernizing world.  He was graced with company that far outshone him.  Writers such as Ian McEwan were much more widely read than Hitch up until around 2005, when his books exposing the villainy of Mother Theresa and Henry Kissinger, as well as his wonderfully titled manifesto “god is Not Great” and his weekly Vanity Fair articles, made Christopher Hitchens a household name.  (But to hear him tell it, at these gatherings Hitch was the pièce de résistance.)  Their shared appreciation of literature drew them together, and their shared political activism propelled them forward.  His friends were allies, his allies friends, and he had plenty of both.  Hitch’s appreciation of, and dexterity with, the English language naturally drew him to comrades that helped him further his material aims.  It is inspiring to see how Hitch drew on his talents to propel his values.  He had no need to sacrifice his ambitions for his passions, or his passions for his ambition.  They were two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps the most striking element of Hitch’s life was his unwavering acceptance of psychological realism.  While his comrades fought against the idea of dictators, he fought against real dictators.  That meant alienating his fans on the left by supporting the Iraq War – most leftists favored diplomacy, but Hitch refused to believe that Saddam would act in his own self interests, or in any way resembling rational action. Understanding that the fight was against a madman, he advocated a war that the left was overwhelmingly against.   It also meant that, where his colleagues saw Islamic fundamentalists as simply an extreme, and possibly perverse, instance of freedom of belief, Hitch saw mentally deranged people brainwashing their children into sacrificial violence (notably the Iranian Ayatollah and the others behind the fatwa against Salman Rushdie).  And lastly, it meant his complete acceptance of the alcoholism that ended up killing him.  Even on his deathbed he had no remorse for his drinking.  By making people more interesting, it staved off boredom, which he described as the most powerful destructive force in his life.  Hitch maintained that, given his psychological makeup, a steady infusion of wine and spirits was a necessary part of his creative expression, and thereby his arsenal against dogmatism.

So the casual admirer can draw two immediate lessons from the great Christopher Hitchens.  Aline one’s ambitions with one’s creative outlets.  And be quick to side with, or make a hasty escape from, groups and factions – choose one’s allies carefully and often.

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