Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Wed Dec 05, 2012 2:27 am

Hedonic Treader wrote: but non-humans are fair game and each human gets enormous resources to create whatever they want. The story describes how factory farms vanish but many new planets with wild animals come into being
No way! :) I had no idea there was already a novel depicting my concern about this possibility.

In practice, I assume most sentient simulations would arise from industrial or scientific applications, but hobbyists could run them too.
Hedonic Treader wrote: allow people to switch off empathy, which is already relatively weak. If there turns out to be some good reason to do that, this could do a lot of additional harm.
If empathy is an accident in which predictive brain regions bleed over into self-feeling brain regions, then it might indeed be adaptive to eliminate empathy. In most cases, empathy drags you down. For example, few predators feel empathy for their prey. The main case in which empathy might be useful is when interacting with peers who have similar power as you do, so that you can establish trusting relationships. Empathy for those weaker than you is an unfortunate side-effect as far as survival is concerned.
Hedonic Treader wrote: OTOH, I would predict the same for the pleasure side. There would be paradises but not many hedonium clusters.
Yes, 'tis sad.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Hedonic Treader » Wed Dec 05, 2012 5:15 am

Brian Tomasik wrote:No way! :) I had no idea there was already a novel depicting my concern about this possibility.
I thought the same. :)

But it's not the central focus of the story, it's just mentioned as an aside. It briefly brushes the ethics of factory farming and hunting, but not of allowing wild animals to eat each other. Then again, the story is a bit older. Speciesism in the ethical core of a foom AI is mentioned explicitly, as are unintended consequences. What I dislike is the subtext of the Experience Machine rejection ("it's not real"), and the reader is expected to believe that for some reason, intelligent characters with god-like powers don't manage to break the hedonic treadmill in 600 years, or come up with the motivation to do so, even though some of them are bored and unhappy.
The main case in which empathy might be useful is when interacting with peers who have similar power as you do, so that you can establish trusting relationships. Empathy for those weaker than you is an unfortunate side-effect as far as survival is concerned.
I think reciprocal altruism and credible signaling are strong causes, but I suspect the original main cause was kin selection. Even the way some of my friends treat their cute pets falls into the "nursing fixed action pattern" category. The hypothesis that empathy bleeds over from predictive faculties also seems plausible; that part probably doesn't have a big future.

I think the big question from here is, will empathy be self-maintaining because we cognitively feel empathy with the potential victims of imagined future non-empathy? In addition, of course, to the question whether it will have an ongoing function that is positively selected. (I could imagine that, in an era of brain simulations that can copy themselves, empathy with other me-copies could be a form of quasi-altruism for egoists)
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Wed Dec 05, 2012 9:17 pm

Hedonic Treader wrote: Speciesism in the ethical core of a foom AI is mentioned explicitly, as are unintended consequences.
What are those consequences in the story? You said factory farms vanish.
Hedonic Treader wrote: I could imagine that, in an era of brain simulations that can copy themselves, empathy with other me-copies could be a form of quasi-altruism for egoists
Yeah, but it'll still be only a small degree of altruism, similar to kin altruism or at best tribe altruism. It won't help vast numbers of weak, suffering minds who stand at the mercy of a few powerful ones.

Aside: This is another great discussion, Hedonic Treader! It's rare to find someone who has so many insights as you do about the the futurism of happiness and suffering.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Hedonic Treader » Thu Dec 06, 2012 6:03 pm

Brian Tomasik wrote:
Hedonic Treader wrote: Speciesism in the ethical core of a foom AI is mentioned explicitly, as are unintended consequences.
What are those consequences in the story? You said factory farms vanish.
***Spoiler***
The consequences are very extensive because the AI has quantum mechanical control over the whole universe (it exploits a fictional QM effect that can scan and manipulate matter FTL). Some unintended are:
- people can't die even if they want to, which upsets many of them
- intelligent and unintelligent aliens and existing non-human animals are killed everywhere
- reality is replaced with a more efficient cyberspace that gives all humans what they want, but the reality fragmentation and loss of 'realness' upsets many of them - basically a non-consensual Experience Machine
- non-human animals aren't protected ethically, humans can instantiate, torture and kill them
- there are simulations of humans and non-human structures for human entertainment, but it's hinted that they don't suffer (at least not the humans)
- the system gathers entropy and the computer finally crashes over a confusion in the definition of 'human' and freezing of corresponding ethical subroutines

The story is one of those "Asimov's Laws of Robotics gone wrong" stories. What shocked me was how aversive the tone was to Experience Machine utopia. Apparently you can give paradise to people and they long for the stone age. This is not just the depicted bias of a few characters, but I think it sets the tone in many pieces of fiction. This culture hints to the prevalence of status quo bias and the acceptance of 'natural' suffering over 'unnatural' happiness. I hope this falls away if and when humans actually gain more control over the universe.

***End of spoiler (the spoiler tag somehow didn't work)***
Hedonic Treader wrote: I could imagine that, in an era of brain simulations that can copy themselves, empathy with other me-copies could be a form of quasi-altruism for egoists
Yeah, but it'll still be only a small degree of altruism, similar to kin altruism or at best tribe altruism. It won't help vast numbers of weak, suffering minds who stand at the mercy of a few powerful ones.
That's right. But it has one advantage: It's aversive to resource waste, since for agents with these preferences, marginal utility of resources doesn't decrease with availability of resources (because they could always simulate more concurrent happy copies). This would lead to more motivation to use the resources to create happiness instead of wasting them or allowing suffering beings to exist.

Let's say you have a nature-lover who cares far more about his happiness than about anything else. Let's say that person is very wealthy and powerful. If he were poor, he'd make himself happy efficiently, but since he has extra resources, he sponsors vast wildlife in addition. Now compare this to the same guy, with the same preferences, except he can copy himself, make the copies happy and count them in his 'egoism'. We would expect the latter to do much better in the utilitarian calculus than the former.
Aside: This is another great discussion, Hedonic Treader!
Yes, thank you!
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Fri Dec 07, 2012 5:51 am

Spoiler tag worked for me. Thanks for the elaboration. It makes me really sad when people advocate "acceptance of 'natural' suffering over 'unnatural' happiness." This has got to change, and my work on wild animals is one concrete instance of it. I'm not working on changing experience-machine attitudes, but popular dislike of experience machines remains one of my personal pet peeves. (This pet peeve needs to be taken for a walk every evening.)

Crashing over the definition of "human" seems unrealistic to me. More of a symbolic device than something that would actually happen, though even as a symbolic fixture, I don't see what it's trying to accomplish. Maybe I should read the book, though.
Hedonic Treader wrote: This would lead to more motivation to use the resources to create happiness instead of wasting them or allowing suffering beings to exist.
Hmm, but what if people have prior-existence intuitions? If there are two copies of you, it doesn't make those existing copies any happier to create a third copy. You might even minimize the number of your copies in order to focus resources on making that single copy as happy as possible.

Maybe you could make the case that those minds which are motivated to create more copies of themselves will be the ones that try to expand, so there will be a lot more of them than the single-copy people. That said, they might also spread themselves pretty thin, and it's not obvious they'd win out in the evolutionary struggle over the long run.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Hedonic Treader » Fri Dec 07, 2012 8:37 am

Brian Tomasik wrote:I'm not working on changing experience-machine attitudes, but popular dislike of experience machines remains one of my personal pet peeves. (This pet peeve needs to be taken for a walk every evening.)
As always, using status quo bias in our favor is a good idea: It sometimes helps pointing out the millions of total life-years humans have already spent in MMOs (which are, of course, constantly increasing).
Crashing over the definition of "human" seems unrealistic to me. More of a symbolic device than something that would actually happen, though even as a symbolic fixture, I don't see what it's trying to accomplish.
Yeah, the story wasn't perfect or overly plausible in all its details. It also has some lengthy passages that are underwhelming in pace and style. But I appreciated the radical high-concept exploration of a foom almost-Friendly AI with physical quasi-omnipotence.
Hedonic Treader wrote: This would lead to more motivation to use the resources to create happiness instead of wasting them or allowing suffering beings to exist.
Hmm, but what if people have prior-existence intuitions? If there are two copies of you, it doesn't make those existing copies any happier to create a third copy. You might even minimize the number of your copies in order to focus resources on making that single copy as happy as possible.
Well, the question is if people use prior-existence intuitions to their future selves. If I die this night, my future selves won't exist. Most people usually don't want to die any time soon. Living longer is seen as better, even though from a current perspective, there is no prior-existence of any future self.

Now some people may think about copying as being fundamentally different from survival, but I think most analytical people who take the scientific evidence seriously will have to concede that survival is basically a form of metabolic self-copying into the future. One who cares about these types of future self-copies, e.g. by desiring a long life expectancy, and who takes this view seriously, could increase life expectancy considerably by running concurrent copies. But maybe most people won't take it seriously because their self-concepts are evolved to deal with sequential survival rather than concurrent copying.
Maybe you could make the case that those minds which are motivated to create more copies of themselves will be the ones that try to expand, so there will be a lot more of them than the single-copy people. That said, they might also spread themselves pretty thin, and it's not obvious they'd win out in the evolutionary struggle over the long run.
I agree with both points, if self-copying is available for all, the future population would consist primarily of people who are motivated to do so. But too many identical minds could share too many identical flaws, which is a mono-culture-like vulnerability. Then again, it surely is more redundant than having only one brain that can break any day.
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Mon Dec 10, 2012 5:01 am

Hedonic Treader wrote: It sometimes helps pointing out the millions of total life-years humans have already spent in MMOs (which are, of course, constantly increasing).
Of course, some people don't have such high opinions of those either, though maybe some of the would-be experience-machine-haters also like gaming.
Hedonic Treader wrote: But maybe most people won't take it seriously because their self-concepts are evolved to deal with sequential survival rather than concurrent copying.
That's exactly what I was going to say. People care about their future selves because that's how evolution shaped them. There's no "higher rational" reason why they should care about non-future copies of themselves. If we're going for some higher rational argument, why not just go for utilitarianism itself? That doesn't seem any less intuitive to me than altruism for non-future copies. But I'm not a representative sample, seeing as I'm on this forum. :)
Hedonic Treader wrote: But too many identical minds could share too many identical flaws, which is a mono-culture-like vulnerability. Then again, it surely is more redundant than having only one brain that can break any day.
It's sort of like r vs. K selection in life-history theory.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Hedonic Treader » Mon Dec 10, 2012 4:40 pm

Brian wrote:People care about their future selves because that's how evolution shaped them. There's no "higher rational" reason why they should care about non-future copies of themselves.
It's getting off-topic. Maybe the implications of copying people should be discussed in a separate thread.

However, two quick points:

1) Before a person copies, he may care about all future copies equally, just like we care about our normal future selves equally (ignoring time discounting). All of the copies will be derived from his current self. Pre-commitment devices may be used at this point to facilitate cooperation between future concurrent copies.

2) After a person copies, he can probably reasonably expect the copies to share his values, preferences and personality to a far greater degree than random strangers in a pluralistic society. The copies may also find robust ways of integrating diverging perspectives by arguments or experiences that convinced each of them since the split point. I would trust a copy of myself that split in the last 10 years far more to cooperate with me on my values than any other person (but not completely).
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Mon Dec 10, 2012 6:49 pm

Both good points! Yes, before the split, the person would (even at an intuitive level) care about all the future copies, so s/he would have an interest in requiring them to get along after the split.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Fri Dec 14, 2012 4:34 am

I've always thought something like this should exist, and it turns out it does. :) The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

From the overview:
The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) is striving to create a community of scholars and researchers, including neuroscientists, psychologists, educators and philosophical and contemplative thinkers around the study of compassion. Drawing from such varied disciplines - from etiological approaches that examine the evolutionary roots of compassion to skills training programs for strengthening compassion to neuroscientific studies of the brain mechanisms that support compassion as well as the 'warm glow' feelings that reinforce helping others, CCARE is working to gain a deep understanding of compassion and its associated human behaviors in all its richness.
Research objectives:
"This virtue , one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings."
- Charles Darwin

The center is planning to focus its initial research to test several hypotheses -- That compassion can be trained, that it has important applications in secular fields, that contemplative systems target and enhance neural networks associated with compassion and finally, that rigorous scientific enquiry that draws from the insights of a multitude of disciplines – economics, philosophy and contemplative traditions – can greatly enrich our scientific understanding of deeper qualities of the human mind and heart such as compassion, altruism, and kindess.

Could training compassion have ramifications for recidivism and violence in prisons, or social education in schools? Could it influence cooperative behavior in business settings and negotiations? The center aims to launch a thorough, multidisciplinary examination of compassion -- Its neural correlates in decision making, group behavior and first-person, contemplative applications to create a strictly secular and scientifically rigorous theoretical paradigm for investigating these questions.
Some interesting research projects:
  • Neural Correlates of Compassion in Buddhist Adepts and Novices
  • Investigating the Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Compassion Training
  • Neural Networks of Social Compassion and Nurturing: Optical Deconstruction of Altruistic Behavior
  • A Multimodal Study of the Neural Correlates of Experiencing Admiration and Compassion
  • Compassion in the Political Arena
From the summary of "Compassion in the Political Arena":
For many political theorists, the foundation of political liberalism is compassion. This implies, then, that political conservatism involves the absence of compassion. Is this truly the case or might conservatives experience a more bounded form of compassion than liberals? This research area, headed by Matthew Feinberg, Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellow with CCARE, hypothesizes that, whereas liberals generally experience compassion for suffering individuals, conservatives experience a more nuanced compassion directed primarily toward those perceived as ingroup members. Dr. Feinberg will test this hypothesis and examine an underlying mechanism for this effect—the tendency for conservatives to employ emotion regulation strategies that attenuate compassionate responding for outgroup members. He will also explore how knowledge of the different ways liberals and conservatives experience compassion can be utilized to increase overall compassionate responding and enhance the greater good.
"increase overall compassionate responding and enhance the greater good" means "make people more liberal." :)

It would be neat if they undertook a project on how to reduce speciesism.

It's important to note that compassion alone is not enough. We also need rational, calculating, utilitarian tendencies. The combination of these two traits is what will reduce the most expected suffering.

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sat Dec 15, 2012 6:20 am

A moving interview with James Doty of CCARE on the excellent podcast, All in the Mind.

I didn't agree with everything James said. For example:
  • In discussing an elderly-longevity study, his explanation confounded correlation with causation.
  • He seemed to suggest that liberal policies must be better just because they're more compassionate, which ignores the possibility that seemingly non-compassionate institutions could potentially yield better outcomes.
  • I also worry that compassion without rationality may lead merely to more short-sighted charity -- e.g., volunteer work, which he mentioned in the interview, or "random acts of kindness," which are endorsed by his Project Compassion -- to the detriment of long-term, indirect thinking and cost-effectiveness analysis.
Things I liked:
  • James's passion for the cause and his touching stories.
  • James mentioned that training courses help extend compassion to "essentially all humans and sentient beings," not just all humans.
  • James explains that many so-called criminals could have turned out differently if people had shown compassion to them. (Not all, of course. Sometimes genes play a strong role too.) One of the best episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is the "Spoon Mountain Opera" (full episode). It centers on this topic, especially the song "All I Ever Wanted was a Spoon" (19:00 - 20:45). Speaking of altruism for animals, see also "It Doesn't Matter Who's in Trouble" (11:55 - 12:25).
Some quotes from the interview with James:
  • "And it also allowed me to explore something that had always been of interest to me, which is to understand why when people see somebody suffering they don’t intervene to help them. You know people who by every criteria have the capacity to do so, whether it’s by position, whether it’s by financial resources...and they just watch people suffer. Yet the paradox of this of course is you see people who they themselves are suffering or are poor yet they reach out. And so that paradox had stayed with me so once I had made these donations then it allowed me to start exploring that, and I had left Stanford and I came back and that’s when this exploration had started, with collaborating with some scientists."
  • "I’m interested actually in the neural pathways and there are multiple ones. Of course we know about oxytocin or the bonding hormone, it turns out if you give intra-nasal oxytocin to an individual they have this incredible sense of connection to people, but only within their in-group. So the key is how do you expand that in-group to a larger circle if you will? So that’s an area of interest Dave DeSteno actually at Northeastern in the US, he’s actually doing work that shows that if you can take somebody who you don’t see as in your in-group and then look at them and try to sit there and say, is there one thing we have in common? And then you start trying to go down a list, and then you realise that there are probably multiple things. Each time you do that it actually decreases the sense of separateness."
  • "We actually have begun some very interesting work that has some extraordinary results at Stanford where we actually turn on and off some of the genes of nurturing utilising the technique of giving these rodents certain viruses, and then attaching on to these genes these chemo-luminescent substances that in the face of certain wavelengths of light can turn on and off the genes. It’s amazing some of the behaviours that you can see. And in fact maybe it’s even frightening though because it shows you how you can manipulate certain types of behaviours."
  • "When you care for somebody in an authentic way, deep in your heart it stays with you and you can relive it and it makes you want to do it again to somebody else. And you know I call that transcendence, it is a sense that you have a purpose in life, that the act of connecting with another defines your purpose, that we're in fact all one. And when you have that sense, that is the thing that gives you happiness and joy. And it’s not that it gives you that big kick like driving that Ferrari, or picking up the Ferrari, or getting the new Prada purse or whatever...those are short term things. The things I am describing to you I think you will acknowledge are things that stick with you at a very deep level and it defines our humanity and who we are. And showing people the value proposition of those types of behaviours is very powerful."

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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sun Dec 16, 2012 12:15 am

A friend pointed me to an excellent article by David Brooks, "The Limits of Empathy." Brooks writes:
People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.

The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.

In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.
Another example could be the "Good Samaritan" study, where the amount of hurriedness by the subjects had a bigger effect than the moral salience of what they were thinking about.

These claims are generally true. I don't deny that other factors -- including, as Brooks mentions, finding a dime in a phone booth -- can have bigger short-term influences. However, there are a few things to say about this.

(1) People vary in how much they're affected by empathy

Brooks says:
You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
This may be true for most people but not for everyone. I personally have walked across across the street several times to help a poor person buy food. In fact, I did so somewhat against my better judgment, because I knew theoretically that the money was better spent helping animals, but I didn't want to become cold-hearted. I have also spent hours and hours squishing dying worms in the rain out of concern for them. I would not have done this without feeling empathy.

So, just as I can generalize from one example by seeing a close link between empathy and action, so too Brooks may be doing the same in his case when not seeing such a link. I think the truth is that different people vary.

Brooks goes on to say:
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
So as he admits in the second sentence, some studies have reached the conclusion that empathy matters. And even though empathy is easily crushed, that doesn't mean it always is. Sometimes people aren't in a hurry. Sometimes they aren't pressured by an experimenter to shock a victim. Sometimes they're in a sufficiently calm state that their empathy can lead them to donate to charity, or give up meat, or vote for more humane policies.

I did a brief web search and didn't find a lot of studies, but "Empathy, Emotional Expressiveness, and Prosocial Behavior" suggested once again that people vary in the degree of connection between empathy and altruism:
Boys' empathy, in turn, was a strong predictor of prosocial behavior, R^2 = ,55. In contrast, girls' empathy was related to prosocial behaviors with friends, R^2 ~ .13, but not to cooperation with peers.
The argument isn't about whether empathy sometimes has an effect but whether it's the most efficient point of leverage for inducing greater altruism.

(2) Empathy leads to long-term change

To some extent I think Brooks and I are talking about different things. Brooks portrays empathy as a fleeting feeling, "a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them." This is not really what I'm after. Back in 2007, I had the following exchange with David Pearce:
David: there are euphoriant drugs known in the scientific counterculture as"empathogens" that reliably induce compassionate well-being. The most famous empathogen is of course MDMA (Ecstasy) - the "hug drug". [...]

Brian: Thanks, David. I don't know much about empathogens, but if the major effect is to produce a feeling of "I love the world and the world loves me," this doesn't actually make things better. Feeling at one with other people and animals doesn't do anything to help the sick bird that's being eaten alive by predators right now. What matters is whether people are actually motivated to do something about it.
I agree with Brooks that feel-good emotions are not sufficient for altruistic action.

Brooks goes on to suggest that moral principles play a bigger role in action:
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code.
I think this might be true. Even for myself, I'm more often motivated by a general feeling of "this is the right thing to do" rather than "I feel sorry for this particular suffering worm," although to be honest, for me the two feelings are pretty close to each other. :)

However, where do these moral principles come from in the first place? For me and probably for a decent fraction of altruists, this strong sense of duty comes from past empathy. Watching a factory-farming video, for example, can change people's lives. The compassion that we feel in a particular instance often doesn't -- and probably shouldn't -- impel short-term action, but it can redirect your life orientation for the long term. If there weren't suffering in the world, I would probably still be playing video games to pass away the days. Empathy is what gives me a purpose in life; without it, I wouldn't care about moral principles in the first place.

Sure, empathy is often not sufficient to provide follow-through without other personality traits (motivation, persistence, intelligence, etc.), but of course that's the case. No single emotion is going to produce effective altruism on its own; you need the combination of several of them. Brooks would probably agree with this, because he acknowledges that promoting empathy does some good; he just points out that it's not enough. That said, I think the tone of the article may lead people to feel as though promoting empathy is valueless rather than recognizing that it's just one ingredient of the recipe.

(3) Empathy guides moral principles

Plenty of people do have meaning in life without significant empathy. Where does it come from? Well, some examples are religious devotion and commitment to conservative moral principles (purity, loyalty, respect for authority, etc.) People can be strongly motivated to action by these things as well. But these are mostly bad moral principles. :)

If we instead promote empathy, we can hook up people's moral-principle brain functions with the cause of reducing suffering. This would make people more liberal, because liberal morality tends to focus mainly or even exclusively on care/harm, and maybe that's part of why Brooks doesn't seem to like empathy-promotion programs.

In the paper that Brooks cites, Jesse Prinz notes this as well.
For
 conservatives,
 there
 is
 little
 tolerance
 for
 transgression;
 three 
strikes
 and
 you’re
 out.
 Lakoff
 captures
 the 
liberal 
value
 system
 by
 saying
 that
 for
 liberals,
 morality
 is
 empathy.
 The
 construct
 of
 empathy
 is
 essential.
 Liberals
 try
 to
 empathize
 with
 both
 victims
 and
 transgressors,
 and,
 instead
 of 
dividing 
the 
world 
into 
good 
and 
evil, 
they 
try 
to 
put 
themselves 
in 
the
 shoes 
of 
people 
on 
both 
sides 
of
 every 
divide.
Prinz goes on to enumerate some dangers with purely empathy-based morality, which are similar to the concerns I raised against James Doty's statements. For example, empathy can lead people to care more about women and children vs. men, or cute animals vs. ugly ones, or those close to us vs. far away, or those affected by disasters vs. systemic problems. These are all real concerns, and this is why rationality is also essential. Indeed, maybe there would be higher leverage in studying what kinds of brain mechanisms make people utilitarian in their thinking?

Closing words

Promoting empathy is valuable for a decent fraction of the population, not just in terms of achieving short-term altruism but more importantly because it inspires people to care about morality in the first place and inspires them to care about the right sorts of moral principles.

There remains the question: Is promoting empathy the most cost-effective use of our resources? I'm skeptical that it is, and I don't intend to fund it in the near term. One reason is that lots of people care about empathy, but few care about specific issues like wild-animal suffering and sentient simulations, so we might expect more low-hanging fruit from the latter. That said, if compelling empathy interventions appear, I might pursue them, and at the very least, I think it's fascinating to keep an eye on work like what CCARE undertakes. I'm glad someone is doing it.

I also acknowledge that my interest in empathy may be based too much on personal experience. I'd be glad to hear from others: What are the influences that were most responsible for inspiring you toward action to reduce suffering?

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Brian Tomasik
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sun Dec 16, 2012 2:43 am

Anecdote: The lettuce I buy from the supermarket sometimes has fruit flies, often dead, trapped on the leaves. This makes me pretty sad, because I can imagine the suffering these flies must have endured being trapped, and then I realize how much more suffering like this went on away from my sight when the lettuce was being grown and insecticides were being applied. Then I think further about how much suffering like this happens in nature as well (hence why insecticides aren't necessarily a bad thing if they prevent enough insects from being born).

My response to the sadness is to feel like I want to do something to help, but upon reflection, I realize the best things I can do to help are probably roughly what I'm already doing. In addition, this experience reinforces my motivation not to let insects take too much of a back seat in my focus. The end result is basically to reinforce my resolve as well as make sure that I stay on the right course as far as what I'm doing.

I guess this isn't the experience of everyone. Sometimes short-term compassion leads to short-sighted action. I think, though, that this is because many people don't have a systematic plan for compassion with their life's work. They treat compassion like a checkbox to do in a summary way and then move on. I can understand this, because this is how I treat many other aspects of life that I don't care about. :) I guess in my case, I realized that I couldn't justify doing anything other than focusing on compassion with my life. So at least for a few people, empathy does seem to bubble into long-term vision. Again, though, I don't know if there are better points of leverage in creating effective altruists than by encouraging compassion.

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Ruairi
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Ruairi » Sun Dec 16, 2012 12:16 pm

Brian Tomasik wrote:What are the influences that were most responsible for inspiring you toward action to reduce suffering?
Adventure hero fantasy stories (especially like this, don't worry he's fine after), wanting to save the world, then I realised a better goal was to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. The I Googled that, found utilitarianism, Googled "utilitarian forum" found Felicifia! :D!

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Hedonic Treader
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Hedonic Treader » Wed Dec 19, 2012 7:56 pm

Mike Retriever wrote:"To illustrate his point, at a recent appearance at TED Edinburgh, Zak spritzed the backstage staff with oxytocin, prompting a spontaneous outbreak of group hugging."

Oh My God. This is worse than a furry convention. That makes me feel totally awkward, spontaneous group hug between strangers induced by a hormone. Awesomely creepy!
There is a new TED talk by Molly Crockett: Beware neuro-bunk, criticizing overuse and misuse of neuroscientific findings. Among other things, she mentions that oxytocin is not only involved in trust and empathy, but that it can increase envy, gloating and in-group bias (at ~7:30 in the talk).

If moral enhancement will ever work, it will not be this simple.
"The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it... Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient."

- Dr. Alfred Velpeau (1839), French surgeon

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Brian Tomasik
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Re: Preventing Antisocial Personality Disorder

Post by Brian Tomasik » Thu Dec 20, 2012 8:58 am

I agree, Hedonic Treader. The first paper my cognitive-science professor assigned his students to read was a study showing that people believe explanations with neuro-babble more than equally good explanations without it.

The thing is, we eventually do need the neuroscience. It's not bogus. It's just that, as you say, it takes a lot of work to understand the details. It's sort of like math: In the end, what we understand with mathematical tools is profoundly more insightful than without them, but it's very easy to come up with a simple or ineffective idea, bury it in mathematical jargon, and make it look impressive. Good math is hard and takes a lot of time, but it's ultimately the only way to go. Same for neuroscience.

This means that I don't expect the empathy research necessarily to produce groundbreaking practical insights only because they use more neuroscience than other psychological communities. Rather, I think they're building the theoretical foundation that will eventually allow for taking the next step beyond what we have now -- e.g., direct brain manipulations.

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