Two More Weird Moral Rules

In my previous post I unpacked a number of moral rules I’d developed as a child trying to be clever and hack adult morality. What I didn’t quite realize when I published it was that the list incomplete – now that I’m actively paying attention to my moral intuitions I keep running across additional things which belong on the list. Here are more things that are still part of my psyche in some way.

Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. I’d originally just edited this into the previous post after the fact, but now that I’ve found more rules it deserves a proper write-up too. This one is really interesting because in practice I’m sure I still hyperbolically discount my choices a lot of the time. However it has led to some weirder personal choices which I’m still not sure are entirely wrong. For example, I don’t drink coffee for largely the same reason I don’t do heroin: the long-term costs of an addiction seem to outweigh the temporary benefits. Clearly most people don’t think this way (or at least don’t bother to think this way), and the cost-benefit analysis for coffee is not as clearly one-sided as it is for heroin, but… it still makes sense in my head. It’s also worth noting that I do drink coffee occasionally, as a tool to stay awake when e.g. driving long distances late at night. But this is reasonable because caffeine is much less addictive than heroin, so it can be more safely used as a tool in certain situations without developing a habit.

Another weird one this short-term-long-term rule has affected is how I listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to listen to my music at a much lower volume than other people, I never use earbuds (in-ear headphones) if I can avoid it, and if I’m in an environment that is noisy such as an airplane, I tend to prefer turning my music off rather than turning it up to compensate. My brain tells me I do this because I strongly value my future hearing much more than whatever marginal enjoyment I’d get from slightly louder music. I imagine this is mediated in part because, as a fairly musical person, half the music I “listen to” is entirely in my head anyway.

Never seek status or be seen to be seeking status. My brain argues that it’s a waste of resources since it actually lowers your status among the people who do the real work. I need to get my hair cut right now (it is getting sufficiently shaggy to start being a problem) and I was avoiding it because it felt wrong. Digging into this made me realize that the barber I’ve been going to was “too fancy”, and that I was actively making myself feel guilty for spending money on “status” services that weren’t “practical” enough. There’s a clear kernel of truth behind this one; “shallow”, “vain”, etc. are all pejorative for a reason. And I’m sure a lot of it can be traced back to this Paul Graham essay which I have probably referenced way too much in the history of this blog now. But still, I’m clearly taking this rule too far. A haircut is a haircut.

Beyond those two additions, I want to leave one more thought on a group that showed up in my previous post: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t double down, don’t learn things the hard way. These four rules are all underpinned by a pretty fundamental intuition which is: you are not as smart as the system. Other people know what’s what, and if you try and cheat them (or even just ignore their advice) it will go badly for you. What’s weird about this one is how false it seems to be in practice now. It was certainly true when I developed it (I was a kid, my parents are both very smart, and my mother at least is also very perceptive (hey dad!)) but now I’m fairly certain that I could lie and cheat circles around most people without getting caught. I don’t. And anyway the people I actively spend time with tend to be just as clever as me and unlikely to be fooled. But it’s weird to think of an alternative evil version of myself that has a very different social circle and is a creepy manipulative bastard, and gets away with it. I don’t want that life, but it seems achievable, which is scary enough.

Layering Abstractions: More on Intelligence

As I discussed on Monday, I believe the fundamental underlying characteristic of intelligence is the ability to perceive and discover patterns, but I want to go a bit deeper on the resulting layering of abstractions that result from this. We all use many layers of abstractions every day.

The first, obvious layer of abstractions is on top of the underlying reality of fundamental particles (electrons and quarks and leptons etc). This lets our brain recognize physical materials like water, plastic, hair, wood, metal, etc. These elements are just abstractions; the same underlying particles could, in fact be arranged into totally different materials, or even be plasma. Arguably this isn’t a mental abstraction so much as one forced on us by the methods we have with which to observe the world, but the net result is the same.

On top of this abstraction of materials, we have an abstraction of objects. Wood formed in a particular pattern isn’t just wood, but also forms a table, or a chair, or a door, or any of another hundred things. A particular quantity of water in a particular location isn’t just water; it’s a lake, or a river, or an ocean. We could describe what I’m typing on right now as just a complex combination of plastic, metal (mostly silicon) and various other minerals, but typically we just abstract away that detail and call it a computer keyboard.

And there are yet even more layers of abstractions. There are abstractions we impose explicitly when laying out the rules of a sport or a game, and there are abstractions we impose implicitly when laying out the rules of behaviour in polite society. There are even, perhaps, abstractions we construct of each other. The ideas of “village idiot”, or “class nerd” are themselves abstractions on the social roles we play, and can have substantial impacts on how we socialize.

Abstractions are all around us, layer upon layer, whether we acknowledge them or not.

Matching Patterns: The Nature of Intelligence

From the nature of the brain, through the nature of the mind, we now move on to the last of this particular triumvirate: the nature of intelligence.

A good definition of intelligence follows relatively cleanly from my previous two posts. Since the brain is a modelling subsystem of reality, it follows that some brains simply have more information-theoretic power than others. However, I believe that this is not the whole story. Certainly a strictly bigger brain will be able to store more complex abstractions (as a computer with more memory can do bigger computations), but the actual physical size of human brains is not strongly correlated with our individual intelligence (however you measure it).

Instead I posit the following: intelligence, roughly speaking, is related to the ability for the brain to match new patterns and derive new abstractions. This is information-theoretic compression in a sense. The more abstract and compact the ideas that one is able to reason with, the more powerful the models one is able to use.

The actual root of this ability is almost certainly structural with the brain somehow, but the exact mechanics are irrelevant. It is more important to note that the resulting stronger abstractions are not the cause of raw intelligence so much as an effect: the cause is the ability to take disparate data and factor out all the patterns, reducing it down to as close to raw Shannon entropy as possible.