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and commitment strategies
She sighed into my stretching silence. “I get you don’t like to talk about your mom, but I’ve heard about her and I live on another continent. People talk about her like she’s a saint.
Gwen Higgins, the mother of the protagonist of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, is a very skilled wizard who invents spells and heals people, both for free. The universe appreciates her generosity and repays it.
She got to the nearest road and stuck out her thumb, and a passing driver picked her up and took us all the way to the airport. Then a tech billionaire about to board his private jet to London saw her standing in the airport vestibule with me and offered to take her along. He still comes to the commune for a weeklong spiritual cleanse once a year.
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“… it’s one of my mum’s healing circle spells. You don’t get any return at all.”
That’s not true, at least according to Mum: she insists that you always gain more than you give when you give your work freely, only you don’t know when the return will come and you can’t think about it or anticipate it, and it won’t take the shape you expect, so in other words, the return is completely unprovable and useless. On the other hand, no venture capitalists are lining up to give me rides in their private jets, so what do I know?
The Lama in Kipling’s Kim is a Tibetan abbot on pilgrimage, begging his way across India in search of a river of spiritual healing. For a while he is accompanied by Kim, a worldly-wise street brat, the orphaned child of an Irish soldier who drank himself to death. Kim protects the Lama from the dangers of the world, including a local priest who drugs the Lama with opium in order to steal his money — which Kim has prudently had the Lama temporarily transfer to him. But after Kim, having stumbled across his father’s regiment and been identified by the papers he wears folded up as an amulet, is sent off for a white man’s education, the Lama continues to beg his way across India — and the dangers of the world pass him by.
Once, too, he strayed alone from the Grand Trunk Road below Umballa to the very village whose priest had tried to drug him; but the kind Heaven that guards lamas sent him at twilight through the crops, absorbed and unsuspicious, to the Rissaldar’s door.
Both Gwen and the Lama are believable portrayals of saints. Both survive through the ultimate superpower, author control. It works in part because the reader wants to believe it, wants to believe in a world where virtue is rewarded.
I came across a very different fictional saint in work published on Glowfic, a fan fiction site run by rationalists. Gwen was impossibly generous, Iomedae is impossibly honest, interacting with other people on the terms she would have agreed to if they had thought to demand them.
I really do not want people to be worse off by their own lights because they did not, before telling me a lot of information about the future which I valued highly, think to ask for my agreement not to invade any countries on the strength of that information, an assurance I would've given if you'd asked for it. If it's predictably a bad idea to tell me things - well, in the ultimate accounting it's still just a price to pay if it's worth it, but it's not a price you can pay selectively, and I don't think it's in fact a price worth paying."
Being an entity whose decision procedure doesn't make people regret telling me true information without carefully prenegotiating, and grants them the conditions they could've prenegotiated including the conditions they could've prenegotiated if they understood how to negotiate with Lawful gods, seems easily worth millions, probably billions, of lives in expectation. (From a thread by Lintamande)
To which her friend and ally adds:
If you're wondering if other mortals do this, no, it's literally just her.
In another thread, having been provided for free with valuable information, she works out how much she would have been willing to agree to pay for it — and pays it.
The gods see the world through prophecy. Iomedae, already an extraordinarily powerful paladin, plans to become a god and, in other threads, does. Making herself into the sort of person who will not betray trust even if doing so is in her interest makes a lot more sense if she is going to be interacting with beings who can see the future.
When I read Lintamande’s explanation of a rationalist saint it occurred to me that I had seen it before.
Indeed had written it.
The Economics of Virtue
There are people, probably many people, who will not steal even if they are certain nobody is watching. Why?
My preferred answer starts with the observation that many, although not all, human interactions are voluntary. In deciding whether to hire someone, one relevant consideration is whether he is someone who will steal if not watched. The benefit to the employee of being willing to steal is the amount stolen. The cost to the employer is the amount stolen plus the cost of keeping an eye on the employee in order to hold down that amount. It follows that the cost to the employer is normally greater than the benefit to the employee. It further follows that, if employers could tell which employees were honest and which were not, if the worker’s utility function, his preferences with regard to his own behavior, were written on his forehead, the wage premium for honesty would be greater than the fringe benefit of dishonesty, making honesty in the narrow self-interest of the worker.
Our utility functions are written on our foreheads, although with a somewhat blurry pencil. Each of us produces, in voice tones, facial expressions, body movements, a stream of information about what is going on inside his head. In order to send a false signal, to persuade people that your preferences are sharply different than they actually are, you have to simultaneously think as the person you actually are in order to decide what to do—for instance when it is safe to steal something—and as the person you are pretending to be, in order to project the signals that you would be projecting if you were that person. Humans are computers with limited processing ability operating in real time. If you require a computer to do twice as many calculations, it slows down. So do we. Most of us are not very good liars. It follows that it is easier, for most of us much easier, to pretend to be honest if we are honest than if we are not. It is in my selfish interest to be thought to be honest; the easiest way of achieving that result is to be honest.
The best con men take advantage of their talents. For most of the rest of us, honesty pays.
… What the argument implies is that, to the extent that you are engaged in voluntary interactions with people who correctly perceive what you will or will not do, it is in your self-interest to be committed to act in ways that maximize the summed benefit to the group of people with whom you are interacting. The value to the other people of dealing with someone so committed, which should show up in the terms they are willing to offer to do so, is greater than the cost to you. Virtue—defined as that commitment—pays.
(The Machinery of Freedom, 3d edition, Chapter 60)
Some readers may be familiar with the same issue, the distinction between how it is in your interest to act and what sort of actor it is in your interest to be, in the form of Newcomb’s Paradox.
An alien offers you two boxes, A and B. Box A is transparent and contains a thousand dollars. Box B is opaque and contains either a million dollars or nothing. You are offered a choice: Take box B or take both boxes. The alien tells you that he is very good at predicting human behavior. After choosing you to play his game but before showing you the boxes he put a million in box B if he expected you to choose only B, put nothing in if he expected you to choose both boxes. A trusted observer has watched a hundred previous plays of the game and tells you that the alien has predicted correctly every time.
Do you take one box or two?
If you believe that information can be sent backwards through time, that what you choose now will determine what the alien predicted an hour ago, you choose one box. Otherwise it seems obvious that you should choose both. Whatever is in box B is there already so cannot be affected by your choice; choosing both boxes gets you a thousand dollars more than choosing one.
It is in your interest to choose both boxes. It is in your interest to be someone who will choose only one box. That is the paradox.
Even if acting virtuously is not always in your interest, being a person who always acts virtuously may be. To the degree that you, like Iomedae, can shape yourself, make yourself into a person who will in the future act in certain ways, it may be in your interest to become a person who does not always act in your own interest.
Novik and Kipling have a solution to the problem of making virtue work, a saint survive, that depends on author control. It works as fiction. Making it work in the real world depends on the real world having the shape of their fictional worlds, which those of us who do not believe that our world is run by a benevolent god have little reason to believe.
Lintemande has a solution, virtue as a commitment strategy, that works in her fictional world. It also works, although not as well, in the real world.
For more on commitment strategies see this chapter, where I use them to explain the nature of rights, considered not as a legal or moral category but a description of human behavior.
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