Optimizing for the Apocalypse

If you’ve read many of my past posts, you’ll know that I have sometimes struggled with an internal conflict between what I would basically characterize as conservative or right-wing intuitions, and a fairly liberal or left-wing set of concrete beliefs. It’s also one of the things that I mentioned in my initial brain-dump of a post after reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I guess this is technically a continuation of the posts spawned by that book, but it pulls in enough other things that I’m not going to number it anymore.

Haidt’s book doesn’t really address my internal conflict directly; what it does do is talk about liberal and conservative moral intuitions in a way that I found really clarified for me what the conflict was about. Conveniently, in the way that the universe sometimes works, shortly after thinking about that topic a bunch I then read A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. This post by Scott Alexander has nothing to do with Haidt, except that it ends up doing for the “why” of the question what Haidt did for the “what”. And so I now have a pretty nicely packaged understanding of what’s going on in that section of my brain.

Moral Foundations Theory

Let’s start with Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt there are six “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Each of us has moral intuitions on roughly these six axes, and the amount of weight we put on each axis can vary between people, cultures, etc. Conveniently according to Haidt, the amount of weight we put on each axis tracks really nicely as part of the right/left political divide present in the Western world. Libertarians (sometimes called “classical liberals”) strongly value liberty; liberals (the left) put much more emphasis on harm and fairness while mostly ignoring the others; conservatives (the right) value all of them roughly equally, thus leaving them as the effective champions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This is already a very helpful labelling system for me, since it lets me be clearer when I talk about my conflicts. I tend to believe in a lot political ideas that are associated with the left, like a robust social safety net. But, I believe that loyalty, authority, and sanctity have real moral value, and are generally undervalued by the modern left. This isn’t a direct logical conflict (there’s nothing about loyalty that is fundamentally incompatible with a robust social safety net) but it does put me in a sometimes awkward spot between the two “tribes”, especially as the left and right become increasingly polarized in modern politics.

Thriving and Surviving

So Haidt’s system has already been pretty helpful in giving me a better understanding of what exactly the conflict is. But it doesn’t really explain why the conflict is: why I came to hold liberal views despite conservative intuitions. I imagine most people with my intuitions naturally grow up to hold fairly conservative political views as well; it’s the path of least internal resistance. This is where thrive/survive theory comes in. Alexander summarizes it like this:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

This is conveniently similar to behaviour observed in the wild among, for example, slime molds:

When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows. 

This combined slime mold expends a great deal of energy, and ends up sacrificing itself in order to spore and give the mold a chance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s the slime mold equivalent of Gandalf facing the Balrog, spending his own life to ensure the survival of his friends.

And, it also conveniently aligns with Haidt’s moral foundations: of the six foundations, there are three that are fundamentally important for the survival of the group in an unsafe environment: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The other three (care, fairness, and liberty) are important, but are much more likely to be sacrificed for “the greater good” in extreme situations.

This all ties together really nicely. I grew up in a stable, prosperous family in a stable, prosperous country that is still, despite some recent wobbles, doing really really well on most measures. The fact is that my environment is extremely safe, and I’m a sucker for facts combined with rational argument. But twin studies have generally shown that while political specifics are mostly social and not genetic (nurture, not nature), there is a pretty strong genetic component to ideology and related personality traits which, I would hypothesize, boil down in one aspect to Haidt’s moral foundations.

In summary then, the explanation is that I inherited a fairly “conservative” set of intuitions optimized for surviving in an unsafe environment. But, since my actual environment is eminently safe, my rational mind has dragged my actual specific views towards the more practically correct solutions. I wonder if this makes me a genetic dead end?

In other words: I want to optimize for the apocalypse, but fortunately the apocalypse seems very far away.

Where the Magic Happens

A quick follow-up Q&A to some comments received (both publicly and directly) on this post. The comments and questions have been heavily paraphrased.

But what actually is moral capital? That doesn’t seem to be what those words mean.

I’m using it per Haidt, and I agree the definition he gives isn’t quite in line with what you’d maybe intuit based on the words “moral” and “capital”. In The Righteous Mind he defines it fairly precisely but also fairly technically. I won’t quote it here, but this link has the relevant pages. Better yet, the New York Times has a decent paraphrase: “norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”. Between the two of them those links do a pretty decent job sketching out the full idea.

But is it really true that societies with more moral capital are healthier, happier, more efficient etc? What specific claims are you making?

I am unfortunately running off of intuition and some half-remembered bits of Haidt’s book (now returned to the library), but I can at least gesture in the right direction. There’s lots of work showing that belonging to a tightly-knit social community is good for happiness and mental health. Think religious communities, or very small towns; the most stereotypical examples in my mind (combining both religion and small town) are an Israeli kibbutz, or an Amish village. If I remember correctly, Lost Connections by Johann Hari has a good summary of a bunch of this research and related arguments.

Similarly, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the business world (it’s a more recent phenomenon there so I don’t know if it’s been formally studied yet) that the most competitive and efficient businesses are the ones that can foster this kind of belonging in their employees. It’s certainly working for Netflix and Shopify.

Being highly aligned and high in moral capital doesn’t prevent conflict or “bad politics” though?

It definitely doesn’t prevent conflict. It definitely does help prevent bad politics. In a high-moral-capital political environment, the conflicts that arise will be about means, not ends. It might be instructive to look at, for example, progressive and conservative opinions on safe injection sites. Progressives tend to believe in reducing harm. As such, two progressives debating safe injection sites will be able to have a well-reasoned and fairly trust-based debate about whether safe injection sites, or harsher penalties for possession, or this, or that, will have the best effect of reducing harm. They have different means, but the same end, so they ultimately feel like they’re on the same side.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are worried not just about the individual harm of drug use, but also its effect on moral capital. To a conservative, safe injection sites are likely a non-starter because while they do reduce harm, they have the net effect of enabling drug use and the concomitant erosion of moral capital. A conservative and a progressive debating safe injection sites are looking for fundamentally different things, a gap which is much harder to bridge with social trust.

Isn’t there a middle ground between a perfectly aligned but un-free society, and one that devolves into anarchy?

Of course there is, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. We are, quite literally, living it. But since I was writing for a primarily progressive audience who wants to move towards more personal freedom, I tried to emphasize the conservative side of the argument more. There are dangers in too much personal freedom, and advantages in requiring some conformity from a group.

How exactly is this a utilitarian argument for conservative politics? Your argument missed a step somewhere.

Yup, sorry, I over-summarized. To be a bit more explicit:

  • Societies with more moral capital tend to be happier, healthier, more efficient, etc. than their counterparts with less. This is what utilitarians want.
  • Conservative policies tend to focus on creating moral capital, at the expense of personal freedoms and preventing harm.
  • Progressive policies tend to focus on personal freedoms and preventing harm, at the cost of destroying moral capital.

(Obviously utilitarians tend to want to boost personal freedom and prevent harm too. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s a matter more of priorities than of absolute preference.)

Progressives want as few people to suffer as possible even if it inconveniences the majority, while Conservatives want to promote sameness and fairness as much as possible even if some people slip through the cracks.

Not actually a question, but a really good paraphrase of part of the argument I’m presenting here, and part of the argument Haidt makes in his book. It misses some dimensions (e.g. weighing personal freedom of choice into the mix for progressives, not just the avoidance of suffering), but very broadly Haidt is pointing out this distinction and then saying roughly “either side is terrible when taken to its ultimate extreme; we must find a balance”.

The Needs of the Many

This post is the third of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. Here are the first and the second.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Kirk: Or the one.

–  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Ah, Star Trek. Remember when Star Trek used to be considered progressive? I do, or at least the tail end of that era. Nowadays quotes like this feel oddly conservative in certain contexts. Today’s progressive viewpoint is all about the tyranny of the majority, breaking down power structures, and ensuring that everybody is free and valued equally in all of their diversity.

Most days, without thinking too hard, I manage to believe in both of these viewpoints. I believe in fighting for a world where people are treated equally without regard for their race, their gender, their religion, their culture. And I believe that when given no other choice, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. If one must suffer to save the village, then so be it.

But there is a conflict here.

It’s one thing to believe in the needs of the many from a personal perspective, and to freely make that personal sacrifice for the greater good. It is quite another to believe in it absolutely, and to therefore bless the tyranny of the majority as a net utilitarian positive. It’s actually kinda funny, since I tend to think of progressives as the more utilitarian, while conservatives are more deontological, but in this case it’s the progressive camp that clings to the right of personal freedom and the conservatives arguing for utilitarianism. Further proof, I suppose, of Haidt’s claim that neither moral theory is particularly well-aligned with human moral instincts.

In contrast with the quote from Star Trek, here’s a quote from a modern progressive TV show:

Tan: What’s wrong with wanting something that you just want, not that you need?

Joey: The way I grew up, I got it in the back of my head that that was selfish, you know, and so maybe that’s something I need to unlearn.

– Queer Eye: Season 3 Episode 2 (2019)

Thirty-seven years later, the progressive viewpoint is no longer “for the greater good”. Instead it’s become “for the personal good”. I want to be clear here that regardless of politics, basically nobody regards “the greater good” or “the personal good” as fundamentally bad. It’s just a matter of priorities: where before the greater good was seen as more important than the personal (when they even conflicted), now it is the reverse.

This raises another more interesting point though: when do the greater good and the personal good conflict in real life? Opponents of utilitarianism have lots of thought experiments they like to trot out at this point (for example, killing one healthy person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save five others). But these scenarios are oddly empty of the practical, day-to-day moral decisions that people tend to make in real life.

One of Haidt’s principle goals in The Righteous Mind is to clearly articulate the value systems of both progressives and conservatives in a way that is, if not precisely “objective”, at least fair and understandable to both sides of that debate. It is this articulation which brings him to the idea of a society’s “moral capital”, which is itself the linchpin of this conflict between the greater and the personal good. Interestingly I accidentally hit upon a very rough definition of “moral capital” myself in an off-hand comment a few years ago, so here’s me quoting myself:

[S]ocio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres.

Another way this sometimes gets talked about is through the phrase “Highly Aligned and Loosely Coupled”, which (I believe?) started out in Netflix’s culture document and has now made its way into a bunch of other corporate cultures. A group of people, whether a tribe or a company or a country, who are closely aligned on their long-term goals as a group, can afford much less internal communication and “bad politics”, and end up both more efficient and happier. Now, “alignment” and “conformance” have fairly different connotations in terms of amount of freedom, but practically they end up meaning the same thing: everybody believes the same thing and has the same shared vision of the future.


I admit to wandering around between a couple of different concepts so far, but here’s where we tie it all together. Haidt’s “moral capital” is in a very real sense “the greater good”. A highly aligned, highly conformant society is generally happier, healthier, and more efficient than one in which every social interaction has to start from first principles and deal with the risk of the unknown. The cost of this greater good is, of course, the personal good: a highly conformant society sucks for people who don’t want to conform, either because they have a specific different set of values or just because they’re generally non-conformist. Conversely though, a totally free society where personal good is king becomes anarchy, which ends up being bad for everybody. It’s a very weird kind of prisoner’s dilemma game we’re playing with each other.

At its heart this whole essay has been a strong utilitarian argument for conservative politics. Since I have a lot of friends who are both utilitarian and fairly progressive, I’m curious to see the hot water this gets me in 🙂

P.S. I realize this never really tied back into culturism like I promised in that post. It’ll bubble to the top of my brain again, I think.

This post sparked a bunch of confusion and good questions; a follow-up post addressing some of that is here.

Everything Looks Like a Nail

I just finished (about ten minutes ago) Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Everything looks like a nail now, because I have a bunch of new mental “hammers” to play with. I cannot recommend this book enough. Go, read it, I’ll wait.

I think the concepts here will likely influence several future proper essay posts, but I want to just dump an unsorted list of points on which this book has fundamentally changed my mind, added a whole new tool to my mental toolkit, or just articulated something that I’d never really been able to explain before.

  1. Moral relativism. Although I don’t think I’ve ever formally articulated it on this blog before, I used to philosophically identify as a moral relativist. At a certain abstract level this is still true; Hume’s Guillotine remains as sharp as ever. That said, relativism as commonly elaborated includes a particular claim which this book has changed my mind on. Specifically, I now believe that there are universal moral values, shared of necessity not just by all human beings, but potentially by all living beings with sufficient intelligence that have survived a few rounds of evolution.
  2. Group selection in evolution. Group selection is fairly widely rejected by evolutionary biologists, and so the popular view now (and one I used to hold) is that it just doesn’t happen. Haidt cites a number of more recent studies to argue that it is still conceptually useful, though in a much restricted sense from the original version that books like The Selfish Gene worked to demolish. (Interestingly, Dawkins et al. reject even this restricted version, but I don’t understand why; the rebuttal language gets very technical.)
  3. To any reader of some of my past writing, it should be clear that I am sometimes torn between a fairly liberal mindset and some conservative intuitions. Haidt neatly unpacks where those come from in terms of axiological values, and why. While I profess to value truth and beauty, the reality of my psyche is more complicated. (Interestingly in hindsight, I hit the nail on the head in an off-hand addendum to this Other Opinions link. I wish I’d recognized the power of that dichotomy sooner.)
  4. Speaking of unpacking moral intuitions, Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is a fantastically useful mental model for me to systematize a bunch more of human behaviour. I’m still exploring the implications, and making adjustments to my understanding.
  5. I have a very old, dear friend with whom I have had an on-again-off-again philosophical/political debate for several years now. While we’ve been respectful and have managed to resolve some of our differences, there has also always been a fairly substantial nugget of remaining disagreement. I believe I now have a far better and more charitable understanding of that friend’s positions and moral intuitions.
  6. I also believe I have a far better understanding of recent changes in political polarization. While I’ve always understood the basic nature of polarization (people are tribal, and reasoned debate gives way before team-membership-signalling), I’d never had a great explanation for why polarization has increased so much in the last couple of decades. The best I could do was make vague gestures at “the internet”. Haidt gives a much better explanation.

In summary: fantastic book, and I still have a bunch of it left to process.

This Means War – Is Trudeau Ready?

(Betteridge’s law says “no”.)

Last week, American president Donald Trump announced two major tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. This was a watershed moment in the relationship between the two countries, who have long shared a highly cooperative diplomacy and a tightly integrated economy. We are now in the midst of a trade war, and that requires a major shift in perspective. In the upper echelons of business, much is made of the difference between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. The analogy is drawn from politics of course, and now we have an opportunity to see the original essence of that analogy in practice, as Canada shifts diplomatically from peace to war. The question of the moment then, is whether Justin Trudeau is ready for it?

Trudeau’s first two years as Prime Minister have been characterized by positivity, just like his campaign. He continues to talk about opportunity, growth, and inclusion every chance he gets. He is, in other words, the very picture of a peacetime leader. But peacetime leaders tend to get crushed in times of war; just ask Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister leading up to World War Two. Like Trudeau he talked a good early game, pushing back against Germany when possible but also accommodating them in the name of a broader peace. Like Trudeau, Chamberlain combined calculated displays of strength and resolve with a general flavour of good will. His policies were widely popular among the electorate. And like Trudeau, Chamberlain was not ready for war.

Barely nine months in to the second world war, after a string of disasters culminating in a wholesale retreat from Norway, Chamberlain resigned. His replacement was none other than Sir Winston Churchill, a war-time leader if there ever was one. Churchill was everything that Chamberlain was not: one of the world’s greatest orators, direct, focused, and completely unwilling to back down. Where Chamberlain was diplomatic, refined, and heavily invested in keeping the peace, Churchill was a leader with only one goal: to win the war. He stuck to his guns even when his choices were massively unpopular, which in fact they were at the time. He was appointed Prime Minister on Chamberlain’s resignation, not elected, and lost the post at the very next public election.

So what does this mean for Canada today? I suppose it is possible that Trudeau will be able to pivot, transitioning from a peacetime role to a wartime one. If he can pull that off then he will likely go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest leaders. However, it seems unlikely. The required shift in perspective would be very much out of character, and his initial response to the tariffs has been… tepid. Retaliatory tariffs, yes, but dollar-for-dollar; literally a call, not a raise, and one that (per Coyne) will harm Canada far more than it has any persuasive power over the United States.

If Trudeau cannot pivot, then we are in for a rough couple of years. Barring a true catastrophe, Trudeau is unlikely to resign before next year’s election, but there is no-one currently on the ballot with the necessary capabilities. The NDP have always been a peacetime party, and Jagmeet Singh is no exception. Andrew Scheer was elected leader of the conservatives as a direct response to Trudeau, in an effort to win back some of the voters turned off by Harper’s determination and negativity. Ironically for them, (and for me, as somebody who voted against him in the 2015 election) Stephen Harper is now the Prime Minister we need.

Up until this moment, I have been generally happy with Trudeau as Prime Minister; he was a welcome breath of fresh air after so many years of Harper, and is generally closer to my positions on policy. Today, I wish we’d given Mr. Harper one more term.