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February 19, 2009


"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral."
-- Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert


With international affairs, isn't stopping the aggression the main priority? That is stopping the death and suffering of humans on both sides? Sure it would be good to punish the aggressors rather than the retaliators but if that doesn't stop the fighting it just means more people are dying.

Also there is a difference between the adult and the child, the adult relies on the law of the land for retaliation the child takes it upon himself when he continues the fight. That is the child is a vigilante, and he may punish disproportionately e.g. breaking a leg for a dead leg.

I don't think the teacher being punched by a parent is a good analogy. Here are two possible other scenarios that differ from the original in a small way:
1. The teacher sees one student punch another student.
2. Two parents are fighting (this does happen). The teacher does not know who started it.

Regarding judges, we consider it necessary for them to pass judgment but they can gain greater respect sometimes by practicing "judicial minimalism", or saying as little as possible while resolving the specific dispute.

Hold on. Neutrality can also be, and often is, a meta-value judgment about the importance of the considerations that would lead to non-neutrality. The international relations case is a precise example of this.. Sometimes it really doesn't matter who started it. It's not just laziness to say that it doesn't matter who comitted the first Israel-Palestine atrocity: both have committed so many atrocities that the additional moral opprobrium that comes from having started it is just rounding error. And raising "they started it" as a defense of the next atrocity is just a distraction from the fact that the atrocities are indefensible. Same for the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the Hindus and Muslims in India, and so forth. The moral importance of assigning blame for generations and generations of back-and-forth atrocities when both sides have megagallons of blood on their hands pales in the face of the moral importance of stopping the killing.

On a smaller scale, this holds for the schoolchildren too. If two kids are fighting on the schoolyard, sometimes it matters who started it (one kid is a bully), but often it doesn't - if one kid insults then thr other pushes then the other punches and the other stabs, both are so guilty that "he started it" is nothing more than a distraction to get out of warranted punishment.

On political issues, neutrality too can be a principled position, either because one has very low confidence in one's evidence or simply because one thinks the question isn't one that is appropriate to be resolved by politics.

"propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side."

Indeed. (I hope Robin is reading.)

A variation of this that I am very guilty of is only fighting my arguments on the other party's territory.

Instead of taking a position myself I just "try to understand" the other party's argument and in the process lead them down the garden path to a contradiction. When pressed on what I think, I usually reply "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."

Socrates seems to have fathered this tactic. He never claimed to be wise (but we call him wise).

Respectfully, I don't think he ended up all that wise, and neither am I when I argue this way. It does make me seem very wise, if only because it confounds my counterparties and I leave no target for counter-attack.

[sorry if this is a repost; my original attempt to post this was blocked as comment spam because it had too many links to other OB posts]

I've always hated that Dante quote. The hottest place in Hell is reserved for brutal dictators, mass murderers, torturers, and people who use flamethrowers on puppies - not for the Swiss.

I came to the exact opposite conclusion when pondering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Most of the essays I've seen in newspapers and on bulletin boards are impassioned pleas to designate one side or the other as Evildoers and the other as the Brave Heroic Resistance by citing who stole whose land first, whose atrocities were slightly less provoked, which violations of which cease-fire were dastardly betrayals and which were necessary pre-emptive actions, et cetera.

Not only is this issue so open to bias that we have little hope of getting to the truth, but I doubt there's much truth to be attained at all. Since "policy debates should not appear one-sided" and "our enemies are not innately evil", it seems pretty likely that they're two groups of people who both are doing what they honestly think is right and who both have some good points.

This isn't an attempt to run away from the problem, it's the first step toward solving the real problem. The real problem isn't "who's the hero and who's the terrorist scumbag?" it's "search solution-space for the solution that leads to the least suffering and the most peace and prosperity in the Middle East" There is a degree to which finding out who's the evildoer is useful here so we can punish them as a deterrent, but it's a pretty small degree, and the amount of energy people spend trying to determine it is completely out of proportion to the minimal gains it might produce.

And "how do we minimize suffering in the Middle East?" may be an easier question than "who's to blame?" It's about distributing land and resources to avoid people being starved or killed or oppressed, more a matter for economists and political scientists then for heated Internet debate. I've met conservatives who loathe the Palestinians and liberals who hate all Israelis who when asked supported exactly the same version of the two-state solution, but who'd never realized they agreed because they'd never gotten so far as "solution" before.

My defense of neutrality, then, would be something like this: human beings have the unfortunate tendency not to think of an issue as "finding the best solution in solution-space" but as "let's make two opposing sides at the two extremes, who both loathe each other with the burning intensity of a thousand suns". The issue then becomes "Which of these two sides is the Good and True and Beautiful, and which is Evil and Hates Our Freedom?" Thus the Democrats versus the Republicans or the Communists versus the Objectivists. I'd be terrified if any of them got one hundred percent control over policy-making. Thus, the Wise try to stay outside of these two opposing sides in order to seek the best policy solution in solution-space without being biased or distracted by the heroic us vs. them drama - and to ensure that both sides will take their proposed solution seriously without denouncing them as an other-side stooge.

A "neutral" of this sort may not care who started it, may not call one side "right" or "wrong", may claim to be above the fray, may even come up with a solution that looks like a "compromise" to both sides, but isn't abdicating judgment or responsibility.

Not that taking a side is never worth it. The Axis may have had one or two good points about the WWI reparations being unfair and such, but on the whole the balance of righteousness in WWII was so clearly on the Allies' side that the most practical way to save the world was to give the Allies all the support you could. It's always a trade-off between how ideal a solution is and how likely it is to be implemented.

Paolo Freire said, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

Consequences-wise, yes. But many people may not realize this fact, not realize its importance, or actually be working on something more important; and while pointing this out to them is good, doing so less than extremely carefully, I think, comes off as "you're with us or you're against us", and is alienating. (Especially if they think they do have something more important.)

Regarding courtroom judges:

I suspect that the big reason why they don't lose their reputation for impartiality simply by passing judgment is because in their situation, passing judgment ends the argument. Authoritatively.

Yvain, the most murderous dictator the world had ever seen and the biggest imperialist power of the day were on the side of the Allies and if our country had gone to war with his (and been as succesful) I am sure you would be talking about how lopsided the scales were in the other direction, having had it drummed into you through school and popular culture.

Buck Farmer, but surely revealing the tensions in the other party's argument contributes to the discovery of truth?

Religion is possibly to blame for the idea that suspended judgment = superiority. Only God is omniscient, so only He knows things for sure, everyone else must act unsure and tentative.

Priests are allowed to pass judgment and still retain their authority, because they are the voice of God on earth. Maybe the idea of judges evolved from priests and retained that immunity.

Good post. Nick's point is also good.

When parents say they don't care who started it, it may also be a strategy to minimize future fighting. Justice is not always optimal, even in repeated interactions.

Taking a hint from the babyeaters, I can say that the pro-life people are doing what's right' and what's right''', the pro choice people are doing what's right'' and what's right'''', Israel, what's right''''' and right''''''' and Hamas what's right'''''' and right''''''''. Then I can also say that if they wanted to switch to doing what was right, all groups would turn their efforts to FAI plus sustaining their actual existence.
However, it seems that there may be many situations where fairly intelligent and well intentioned SL1 political commentators in the US, who may identify as broadly conservative or liberal, agree about what is right^, where right^ is closer to right than most actions or preferences are. In this case it often seems to me that the conservative political commentators emphasize opposition to those who are right''' and right''''' because those perspectives are farther from their own thus more wrong^, while liberal commentators emphasize the imperfections of those who are right'' and right'''' because they treat those who are right'' and right'''' as subject to reasons, as moral agents, and thus as subject to correction/criticism while those who are trying to do what's right''' and right''''' are merely seen as moral subjects beneath reproach. Victims. Children deserving sympathy and protection but not blame.

Of course, this was more the case back when there were fairly intelligent and well intentioned conservative SL1 political commentators in the US, e.g. before about 2004.

The principal's "I don't care who started it" can be a poorly-phrased "both of you started it." In every case, each kid will put full blame on the other--how often do you expect to hear "he started most of it, but I'm responsible for some of the trouble as well?" Often, both kids will even believe what they're saying. But in almost every case (perhaps excluding the playground bully), both contributed to escalating the conflict. Anyone who has shepherded groups of children can confirm this, and it holds just as true for adults, tribes, and nations.

To add to the other points made, the example of Israel v. the Gazans seems to be cherry-picked to me, as there are plenty of conflicts where the Great Powers have taken sides- i.e. basically any UN intervention, since they require the US's support. Even so, the Great Power pretty clearly has chosen aside in the Gazan conflict, since the US Senate passed a resolution officially endorsing Israel's side.

More generally, I think people, at least part of the time, do realize that being neutral is effectively the same as endorsing the stronger side, and simply remain neutral in order to deliberately pick sides- that is, they side with the stronger side, without having to pay any real cost for their decision. To give a real life counterexample to your examples, it's congressfolk voting 'present' instead of yes or no, which is effectively the same as voting no, but without the cost of signaling your disapproval, and so convincing people to dislike you.

I should try and stay neutral in this, but what the hell :-)

I have to say I think this is a very weak point, Eleizer, and the examples reflect this. Sure, fetishising neutrality is a bad thing, and a bias - but as biases go, it doesn't make the top ten, or even the top hundred, and is closely related to a very sensible idea (see next paragraph). Others have pointed out how the headmaster/great powers are probably making the right decision in the examples you mention, and how they often don't stay neutral in many similar situations.

And though there's no good reason to never pick sides, there are many good reasons to not proclaim yourself as taking a Side(TM); "I am a libertarian" closes off conversation (and is often intended to do so), but saying "there are good arguments on both sides; however, I feel we should at least consider individual autonomy issues" opens up conversation. Proclaiming "I am neutral" at the very start, and then building gradually towards your position, is often the best way to go (would you start conversations with religious inclined AI-interested people with "God doesn't exist; get over it; now, let's talk?") In my experience, conversations that start with "you're both equally to blame!" generally end up with one side being assigned more blame than the other.

[T]rying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses - refusing to sum up evidence - refusing to pass judgment...

Do you think this is involved in the general reluctance to assign probabilities in the absence of scientific frequency data (e.g., to assign probabilities to nuclear risks so that one can attempt expected value calculations)?

The Pyrrhonians and Epicureans aspired to an emotional state of studied equivalence, 'epoche', attained by the diligent and conscientious elucidation of equally excellent argument (isothenia) which in perfect equipoise persuaded you of the contingency of all positions. Skepticism, in that classical sense, is profoundly humbling, requires care and effort, and counsels against precipitous action. Granted that's not especially worldly, but then maybe good philosophy never is.

I'd hesitate to dismiss that approach as 'pretentious'. If anything there's something rather appealing about its asceticism. And far from a being a pretence of wisdom, at least so long as you have gone to the trouble of evaluating both sets of arguments, the recognition that some disputes are irresolvable, even scholastic, and that strong preference in such debates is more often contingent on circumstance or a desire by what you call 'participants' to minimize cognitive dissonance than to discover the truth, sounds quite a lot like genuine wisdom to me.

I'm not sure about the judges example. There have been certain judges who've taken sides on high-profile issues (like abortion or gay marriage) and consequently their reputation turned to mud amongst those on the other side of the issue.

So what you're saying is, "Neutrality is a position"?

Regarding Egyptians and Jews, why the Egyptians left no records of the Jews, I answer you with a question: Why you cannot find anything related to the Jews in the stettl I was born in, Jaszbereny, Hungary? No one in Jaszbereny has any idea that half of the population used to be Jewish, that there were three large synagogues, that it had been a center of Jews scholarship. It appears that neither the Egyptian wanted to remember the Jews.

Paolo Freire said, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

If the outcome of their conflict is not being affected by your existence, it can be said that you are neutral. If you disagree with me, I would be interested to hear what definition of "neutral" you are using.

OK, I get it.

Darnit TGGP, you're right. Right. From now on I use Lord of the Rings for all "sometimes things really are black and white" examples. Unless anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron.

That's why in the old days gentlemen were financially independent. If you are financially independent then there is little material incentive to compromise one's principles. Today, we're taught to become heavily financially dependent, and so people don't take hard stands.

Eliezer's post is also a good example of the dangers of refusing neutrality with regard to ID. Since choosing to be neutral is a position, choosing to take sides is also a position, and not necessarily the correct one.

With intelligent design, everyone thinks it comes down to whether I accept God created the world or not. It doesn't, it is about whether intelligent design (by humans, animals, aliens, whatever) is empirically distinguishable from the products of mechanical processes (computer algorithms, geological forces, quantum physics, etc). Many very successful and important disciplines are based on this principle (forensics, archeology, literature analysis, network intrusion detection, and so on). Those who are creating the theory behind ID, such as Dembski, make this point clear.

Therefore, I think ID has substance as a theory, and deserves to be studied. No scientists should be threatened and dismissed from their posts for thinking ID has merit.

Then someone asks me "So, you think God created the world in 6 days?"

I say, "Maybe, but that's a seperate issue."

Response: "No it isn't, you're just trying to remain neutral in a non neutral matter. Science has clearly shown the earth and universe are all very old, and came into being through a very lengthy process. You obviously take the side of fuzzy religious obscurantists over hard headed scientists due to existential concerns about meaning. Therefore, your rational processes are suspect and you are another data point demonstrating ID is just a political tool. End of discussion."

Since there is a big side taking issue (Creationism vs Darwinism) that is related to ID, it completely derails any possibility of getting at the actual ideas and whether they are any good. As I stated at the beginning, it is important to realize that just as neutrality is a position, taking sides is also a position. Thus, as it is a position, it may be the wrong position.

Now that I've made this argument, some probably have the nagging suspicion that the argument is just more intellectual obscurantism and I'm trying to muddy a clear choice between Creationism and Darwinism. To counteract your nagging suspicion here is a series of links to show you that while many experts claim Dembski is wrong, when you only accept their claims in their areas of expertise and aggregate them, they actually agree with Dembski:

1. Demski is a good mathematician, but doesn't use the No Free Lunch Theory (NFLT) correctly

Good math bad math

"In my taxonomy of statistical errors, this is basically modifying the search space: he's essentially arguing for properties of the search space that eliminate any advantage that can be gained by the nature of the evolutionary search algorithm. But his only argument for making those modifications have nothing to do with evolution: he's carefully picking search spaces that have the properties he want, even though they have fundamentally different properties from evolution."

2. Dembski uses the NFLT correctly, but doesn't fill in all the details to show that it applies to biological coevolution

Wolpert, one of the originators of the NFLT

"Indeed, throughout there is a marked elision of the formal details of the biological processes under consideration. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that neo-Darwinian evolution of ecosystems does not involve a set of genomes all searching the same, fixed fitness function, the situation considered by the NFL theorems. Rather it is a co-evolutionary process. Roughly speaking, as each genome changes from one generation to the next, it modifies the surfaces that the other genomes are searching. And recent results indicate that NFL results do not hold in co-evolution."

3. The NFLT applies to biological coevolution (see example 4 and conclusion)

Wolpert and Macready on coevolutionary free lunches
(example on page 2, but doesn't state the evolution finding in the conclusion)

(example on page 5, contains statement in conclusion)

"On the other hand, we have also shown that for the more
general biological coevolutionary settings, where there is no
sense of a “champion” like there is in self-play, the NFL
theorems still hold."

If you want to respond to this comment, please email me that you've responded, or email me your response.

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This article has too many cases of italicized words. I had to give up reading it.

Argh, it seems to be not possible to write about ID without coming across as an ideologue. This is a good blog and I do not want to pollute it. Before anyone complains about those comments, I give the mods full permission to delete them if they don't pass the well written/interesting threshold.

@yters: that's awfully good of you to give the moderators permission (with an if) to delete your posts

i believe this is the same principle behind our system of taxation

"Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?"

Of course the words "Jews" isn't used, but it is well-documented that West-Semites lived in Egypt. (They even ruled it for a while as the Hyksos dynasty.) There is also the Mernepthah Stele, with a small mention of "Israel."

Though we do have written records from ancient Egypt, they are nowhere near complete or consistent enough for the absence of evidence to be treated as useful evidence of absence.

Not that I'm claiming to be wise or anything.

Yvain "anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron."
Brin has some interesting comments, including "Now ponder something that comes through even the party-line demonization of a crushed enemy -- this clear-cut and undeniable fact: Sauron's army was the one that included every species and race on Middle Earth, including all the despised colors of humanity, and all the lower classes."

Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering ("Banewreaker" + "Godslayer") has convinced me that this was what actually happened during the Third Age, and The Lord of the Rings was written centuries later by the victors.

> Q: But then how can we avoid the (related but distinct)
> pseudo-rationalist behavior of signaling your unbiased
> impartiality by falsely claiming that the current balance
> of evidence is neutral?

1a. If it is possible to be neutral, state that you have no opinion, and leave it at that.
1b. If it is not possible to neutral, state your bias, as completely as is possible.

Consider what motivates "false claims" of neutrality.

It is essentially a hedge against the risk/cost of bias.

Why is such a hedge necessary? It is an artifact of a "nuanced" or counter balanced situation. (The rope, essentially.)

What is pseudo-rationalist behavior, and why is it undesirable? This is the first I've heard the term, but I am assuming that refers to that noxious brand of fakery, which purports to be reason, when in fact, it is not.

To apply all this to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The neutral position of "human rights" is inferior to the nuanced position of "political desire for reconciliation", which is actually a status quo position. This can be determined simply by the relative sums of money towards each effort. The nuanced position presumes not to take sides on the big picture. The human rights approach would have to 1) take one side, for the people and 2) be empowered enough to compete with alternate dynamics present in the region.

A: I assert that an "authentically wise" position, would assert radical non-neutrality.

By analogy, radical non-neutrality, would be to assert a position, drawn from first principles, that automatically requires concessions from both sides to accommodate the viewpoint. (The alternative is both sides would assert that part be non-involved.)

Iff, the United States wanted to adopt this viewpoint, (Which is unlikely, since it's budget for FY 2008 for Israel was 2.42B), it would have to assert some viewpoint, which undermines both or supports both in some sort of fashion. Something like, free health care, education and retirement for everyone in the region, and ask Palestinian supported nations to contribute, and then have the fund distribute the resources on an equal level to individuals.

If the straw man that resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict were valid, we would have adopted a grass roots strategy in support of Palestine long ago, it is the obvious tipping point.

Solomon cutting the baby in half.

It is functional for leaders to be more reluctant than most to "take sides" in common disputes. Our leaders do this, and so one can in fact signal high status by being "above" common disputes. Our leaders are in fact wiser than the average person, and in addition we want to say they are even wiser, so it makes sense to call people who signal high status as "wise." Furthermore, on average across human disputes with near equal support on the two sides the middle position is in fact the more correct position. So in this sense it does in fact signal wisdom to take a middle position.

There is some incredible insight hovering in the background here but I cannot put my finger on it.

I am am trained as a lawyer and therefore "disputes" are my livelihood. That being said, I have engaged in all sorts of "dispute" resolutions over the years from jury trials to bench trials to arbitrations to mediations to just simply getting people together and trying to work things out.

The schoolyard fight example is intriguing. We speak of many things when dealing with dispute resolution. I think, if asked, most people would claim that one of the prime goals would be justice or fairness. You are correct that the goal of the teacher is to end the fight. However, in that circumstance, he or she is merely playing "cop" as opposed to "judge." I think it is fair to say that if a fight is occurring we want our police to stop it and not really worry about blame. Likewise, if there is a genocide occurring I would think that the initial priority of our government is to stop it.

However, therein lies some of the insight. We would probably be outraged if the police suddenly started "judging" on the spot and were not trying to merely "stop" the fight but perhaps assist those in the "right" as it may be.

The issue of "judging" is therefore different from the initial policing of an event.

Interestingly enough, I think that we would not actually want the policeman to also be the judge. While we would insist on "neutrality" in responding to the fight, we would probably not be happy that the policeman also judged the "fault." You would think that this person would be in the best position. However, in fact, he or she may not be. This person may have come along at a time when the victim appeared to be the aggressor. This makes he/she now a partial witness and therefore comes to the dispute with a predisposed "bias."

This now poses the question of what kind of "judge" do we want.

What is interesting is the social status involvement. I had not really thought about it that way. While judges are (as you point out) willing to make decisions (within constraints as I will discuss in a bit), I have noticed that arbitrators (ostensibly private judges) are somewhat less willing to do that. They sometimes try to play the "wise neutral" and come down with decisions that are ambiguous. Mediators are arguably there to "mediate" and therefore should be neutral. Nevertheless, that "neutrality" seems to get in the way sometimes. The best mediators sometime resort to tricks to get agreements. They give the appearance of leaning your way in order to get you to agree.

What I can say is that getting to a decision in our system is a long and difficult task. Even in situations where both parties are eager to get a decision, any decision, at times judges may try to dodge the decision. There are, in fact, constraints on judges that are separate and distinct from those on layers or lay people. Judges are worried about being overturned by appellate courts. They have their own reputation for efficiency to consider. They also have judicial precedent to consider. These are al "other" outside factors that serve to limit their decisions or provide some other basis aside from just personal whim. (A "proxy" for neutrality?).

This is a bit of a meandering discussion. However, the insight that an individual does not want to appear to "lower" themselves to the level of the disputants is an interesting insight that bears further thought. The "false" neutrality based on consideration of social standing could be a bar to achieving optimal dispute resolution. Perhaps there are situations where attempts to achieve resolution have failed not because the involved individual were not "high" level enough but maybe they were, in fact too high up the social scale and that we can expect their reaction to be "neutral."

After all, the concept of a jury trial originates as a jury of our "peers" not our overlords or those less than us. I had always thought that this was concerned with "bias" or perhaps knowledge of similar circumstances. I thought it was a system designed to "protect" those being judged. However, maybe it is really more than a "fairness" issue. Maybe it intuitively recognizes the inefficiency of having those higher (or lower) than us make decisions? Those higher than us may be less inclined to really appreciate the importance of those decisions and thereby default to "neutrality." Those lower than us may be too eager to make decisions to establish their standing in society.

*facepalm* And I even read the Sundering series before I wrote that :(

Coming up with narratives that turn the Bad Guys into Good Guys could make good practice for rationalists, along the lines of Nick Bostrom's Apostasy post. Obviously I'm not very good at it.

GeorgeNYC, very good points.


I said that just incase they had any empathetic qualms. I know they don't really need my permission.

Try the neutrality sex position? Even missionaries are known to recommend it.

How much does it matter today who started the first world war? Daniel Kahneman says something to the effect that it isn't particularly fruitful to look for which party to blame in a dispute as each party will be biased to believe that it is right, that it was injured,that the others are to blame. Taking sides would then just be the equivalent of entering into the fray, rather than trying to pull the combatants apart. In a second stage, which is the stage of trying to resolve the causes of the conflict, discussion of the merits of the situation may be relevant, but typically we just need to move on because its hard to get people to accept they have been wrong. Its much easier for them to accept they have been defeated.

Is Robin Hanson "pretending to be wise" when he says:

"My core politics is "I don't know"; most people seem far too confident in their political opinions."?

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