Trifles

To be sure I’m understanding him, Gabriel is saying that one should cultivate impatience for busybody ethical “interventions” with ~0 expected benefit. Recycling (in the blue-boxes sense anyway) is a good example, but so are: unplugging phone chargers, endlessly haranguing smokers, posting “let’s take the stairs” signs on elevators, Raising Awareness, looking for satanic/sexist messages in rock songs and video games, etc.

I am sympathetic to Gabriel’s irritation with certain of these little “gestures”, such as the recycling ritual. But there is a thing or two to be said in defense of such rituals.

First, sometimes prosocial actions appear “low-leverage” because not many people have defected from the prosocial norm yet. (The first person to overgraze their sheep on the village green doesn’t see what the big deal is – there’s still loads of grass to spare. The first person to *fail to yell at* the first overgrazer, even less so.)

They may also appear low-leverage because practically everybody is already defecting from the prosocial norm. (There’s only a tuft of grass left; what difference does it make if my sheep finish it off?) In other words, rationalizations for defection are especially available at the beginning and the end of tragedies of the commons.

Second, prosociality rituals, even low-leverage ones, help maintain social capital. Conspicuous blue box recycling may be useless qua environmental intervention, but it signals to my neighbour that e.g. I am not the kind of person who will turn a blind eye when he fails to pick up his dog’s leavings. Social capital, supported by a huge edifice of cultural norms, is relatively invisible to the fish that swim in it every day, and like physical infrastructure it doesn’t disappear the very second its beneficiaries fail to maintain it. But disappear it eventually does, and the transition may be very swift indeed*.

It is also worth bearing in mind that norms can be a substitute for laws, usually operating in domains where the law would be too blunt an instrument. The latin formula “de minimis not curat lex” (the law does not deal in trifles) sums up this attitude. It’s not worth having a law requiring people to hold open doors for old ladies: it’s not important enough, it would cost too much in money and time, it would require all sorts of carefully specified exceptions (also it would reduce the signalling value of the behaviour, but I can’t decide whether that would be good or bad).

Yet holding doors for old ladies, while trifling, is one of many behaviours that by increments improve our social environment. Others include always giving the correct change even when you could cheat, washing regularly, thanking people, picking up your dog’s leavings, shovelling your sidewalk and maybe even your neighbour’s, and not making too much noise at night. Individually these things seem like trivialities, but failing at all of them adds up to misery by a thousand cuts. So if you want these trifles taken care of, but prefer not to have Sin Laws, get norming.

I said at the beginning that I was sympathetic to Gabriel’s point. I think the line between “Reusable Bags” in his pejorative sense and Social Capital Maintenance, which I want to boost a little, lies partly in who the audience is. When I take some low-leverage prosocial action, am I signalling at somebody whose own prosocial or antisocial actions affect my life (a neighbour, a friend, a member of my twitter circle, a family member), or am I degenerately signalling at some super-Dunbar audience of total strangers? These things feel very similar from the inside, but it is worth distinguishing them, because insufficient norming in real life leads to the soul-sucking anomie a lot of us live with, while norm enforcement chimp-outs are ruining the internet.

As usual, the opinions stated above are strongly stated, but loosely held.

* My crackpot theory is that cultural shifts in acceptable behaviour are often so swift because (trigger warning: handwaving) Common Knowledge about what social norms will be enforced easily collapses as soon as there is appreciable diversity-of-norms – look at a graph of e.g. divorce rates from 1960 to 1980.

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Have Mercy

I. Wall of Disclaimers

This is an essay about eugenics. I resisted the temptation to write it as long as I could (several days) but it remains, unavoidably, an essay about eugenics. You should stop reading this essay if you don’t want to read a thing that can be described as “an essay about eugenics”.

Before I make any positive claims I would like to draw some attention to some claims that I am not making.

I do not support involuntary medical interventions, be they sterilizations, treatments, or cures, for conditions in general, as long as the people with those conditions are capable of distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary for curious observers, they are not unremittingly deluded about the question being posed to them, and leaving them untreated doesn’t pose a public health/safety problem. (I’d like a term for people who have conditions and prefer to keep them but I can’t think of one that isn’t terribly stupid.)

As a policy matter I am against killing humans as long as they a) are not occupying other humans who find their presence unwelcome, and b) do not, themselves, actively prefer to die.

I am in favor of default voluntary immortality for anyone who wants it, and would also be in favor of rescue sims of past people if they looked feasible.

The above premises combine mean that I actively want to live in a world which contains not only every disabled (or trans, neurodiverse, etc.) person who prefers to remain that way who is alive now, but also all of the ones who have ever existed, as long as they themselves prefer to retain their characteristics. I embrace this conclusion; it is not a bullet I have to bite but a natural and reasonable output of my beliefs.

No one holds the position that because humans are valuable, we must embrace every way via which valuable humans may come to exist. My go-to example here is that my Beloved Spouse was once informed by his parents that he was conceived as a result of a broken condom. No matter how Beloved my Spouse, and I assure you he is Pretty Damn Beloved, this does not mean that I have to campaign for poking holes in condoms, or oppose attempts to make birth control ever more effective. A more generally applicable example is that it is approximately guaranteed that every human being living today has at least one, probably many, ancestors who were the result of rape. No matter how much you like existing, this does not mean you must endorse rape. We are all capable of distinguishing between “processes which have produced valuable humans” and “processes which should go on producing humans in the future”. I encourage you to do this now.

II. Value Cancellation

The rest of this section will assume that you have read my short story Threshold. Go do that now if you haven’t yet. Alternately, consider finding that trivially inconvenient and therefore ceasing to read this essay on eugenics (why oh why did I write an essay on eugenics).

In “Threshold” I contrive to have two options from a single instance of child-having both exist as characters at once. This requires a freak accident in the story and is not, in real life, ever an available option. You cannot have both Mercy and Lyle. You can have Mercy or Lyle, one and only one.

I am pro-Mercy.

My understanding of the pro-Lyle position (or rather, the position that yields pro-Lyle if applied to this case) is that Mr. and Mrs. Long are not entitled to a referendum on the value of (in this example) trans people*. That because Lyle likes existing (and he does; I am the author and I’d know), or because other people similar to Lyle like existing, the Longs should have him.

I don’t think the pro-Lyle folks are entitled to a referendum on the value of Mercy. Advocating for Lyle in place of Mercy, and because Lyle is valuable and likes existing, only goes through if you are willing to say that Mercy is not valuable and doesn’t like existing (but she does; I am the author and I’d know). In the manner of an equation, their value and enjoyment cancels out.

You must decide between them on other parameters.

Mercy is more comfortable. Mercy has a better relationship with her parents (it would barely be a stretch to say that Mercy has better parents). Mercy requires less medical attention. This is all totally predictable from the moment Mrs. Long has her prenatal testing done and looks at the list of available tweaks.

Lyle is “natural”, admittedly, but this appeal to nature, if it is not presented as a bare fact and thus safely out of the repertoire of anyone I’m interested in arguing with, is ripe for a reversal test. Left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t think anyone would criticize the Longs for not supplying their firstborn with twenty younger siblings. Nobody, except maybe the Quiverfull types, thinks that people have to have as many kids as they can squeeze out. But once they have decided to have one at all, some people may get very defensive of Lyle’s right to exist, even though they’d never make a peep about Greta Long, Hypothetical Sibling #19, no matter what list of conditions I assigned her. (Whether those conditions began with “cerebral palsy” or “sufficient genius to solve the problems involved in premature silicization when she grows up”. Or both.)

Whatever leads you to prefer Lyle over Mercy or Mercy over Lyle, it cannot be something they have in common. And one obvious thing they don’t have in common is that Mercy is a lot easier on Mr. and Mrs. Long, who are the ones having a child in the first place and begin the thought experiment as the only people in sight. Mr. and Mrs. Long – when permitted by their other constraints to do so – choose Mercy.

III. Who Find Their Presence Unwelcome

Why do I get the feeling that hardline anti-eugenicists don’t want me to breed?

That is to say, here is my paraphrase of the aggregate position of the firm anti-eugenics people: “If you want to biologically reproduce, you may not make any decisions about what kind of child to have except indirectly through partner selection (and it would be tacky to inquire after candidate partners’ genotypes instead of phenotypes alone). You may decide whether or not to have kids at all, but if you choose not to because you or your partner may pass on a condition and that condition isn’t on our short list of Real Bad Shit like Tay-Sachs, then you are probably making that choice for bad reasons and should feel bad. You should have as little information about a fetus you are gestating as possible if there is any chance you will use this information to make a decision about abortion; in many cases, it should be kept technologically impossible to learn this information. If you are not ready for all of the possible babies you might have, keep your gametes to yourself.”

This would be one thing to say in an era of enlightened universal health care; it is quite another in the real world. But that doesn’t form the core of my argument.

I am not ready for all possible babies.

But I am ready for most possible babies.

I would like to make use of the tools that are available to me to increase the probability of getting a baby more like the sort of baby I am ready for.

I, personally, have room in my life where others might not for babies of any sex/gender combination, babies who will need to learn to roll instead of walk, babies who never learn to speak aloud and prefer to write. Other people have other needs, more or less restrictive along various dimensions. Some needs are going to be more common than others. Some of them will change in response to new information about their subjects and some of them won’t. Letting everyone make choices based on lots of information will change the percentages of new children who have various conditions.

So it makes some sense that people who have strong feelings about those percentages would take an anti-eugenic stance, even against the gentlest, most opt-in, least coercive form of eugenics there can be.

But I’m not sure where in their reasoning they think they become entitled to, in the manner of a statistical cuckoo, place children of their favored conditions in other people’s bodies and families who find their presence unwelcome if those bodies and families have tried to open the door to other kinds of children instead. This is not kind to the parents and their opportunity cost is high. It is not kind to the children and their childhoods will be hard. It is not kind to the society around them who suffer externalities from a parent/child situation that nobody really wanted except the anti-eugenicist three towns over who doesn’t so much as have to babysit.

I will end that I have seen one solid argument against the greater availability of parental choice in child traits, which is that parents will optimize for positional goods and in aggregate everyone will end up worse off. For instance, it would be bad if everybody made their kids taller and taller. It doesn’t seem that there is an obvious way to coordinate parents with freely available choices to break out of a race like that before it causes problems, the way skewed sex selection has caused problems in parts of Asia. I don’t have an especially good reply to this specific argument and wanted to acknowledge its quality as an endnote to this goddamn essay on eugenics.

*The original concept of the story involved Mercy’s medical history containing an adjustment for a much more impairing condition, exactly what I hadn’t decided. Lyle existed as a separate character at first; him being Mercy’s trans baseline-reality counterpart came later and overdetermined the nature of her tweak.

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The Fifteen Fundamental Properties

Pages 144-235 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life contain a theory of beauty as perceived by humans, conveyed in fifteen “fundamental properties.” Not every property occurs in every beautiful object, but in very beautiful buildings and objects, many of these properties are usually apparent, baked into the logic, structure, and detail.

Here I will briefly explain the fifteen fundamental properties, with reference to an early 20th century ivory dog netsuke and a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.

Here is the netsuke:
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