Fairness

The word “fair” is problematic.

In discussions on fairness, particularly in discussions about social justice, the assertion that an evaluation of fairness is absolute is increasingly prevalent. In the modern landscape, it seems there is an ever-enlarging population of people unwilling to admit that what constitutes fairness could be rather unclear, many making stronger assertions that one has certainly considered all factors there really are to consider in evaluating the fairness of a decision.

I will attempt to make some points in the general, rather than across specific situations and threads of discussion, that are intended as thought experiments for the purpose of analogy. There are multiple questions to evaluate in these situations: What is actually fair? Can multiple solutions be considered fair? Is the fairest solution actually the best solution? What principles are our decisions based on such that this question is answered in this fashion but another otherwise?

Here’s the problem to consider.

There are n people, and nk units of food. What is a fair distribution of the food among these n people?

If your answer is “each person gets k units of food”, my next question is “in all situations?”

What if some of the n people are genetically predisposed to continue feeling hungry until they’ve eaten a noticeably greater amount of food than others?

In this event, distributing the food evenly does give everyone a fair exact quantity of food, but is not a fair distribution from the perspective of the degree to which each individual’s dietary needs are fulfilled.

What if some of the n people are genetically predisposed such that k units of food aren’t even enough to keep them alive, but a substantially larger quantity will?

What if one of the n people is genetically predisposed such that the amount of food necessary to keep them alive is so high that if their need was fulfilled someone else will not be able to stay alive?

What if, instead of genetic predisposition, a certain lifestyle choice, totally in an individual’s control, causes someone to need a greater amount of food? Do they deserve to not get their needs fulfilled because it is their fault?

What if both genetic predisposition and controllable lifestyle choice could cause someone to need a greater amount of food, and the current tools of science cannot reliably pinpoint the cause?

What if the probability ratios of the two were 99.9% and 0.1%, or 0.1% and 99.9%?

How likely is it that this is the case and science has not discovered the 0.1% yet?

What if both genetic predisposition and controllable lifestyle choice could cause someone to need a greater amount of food, and the current tools of science can actually reliably pinpoint the cause; should we now deploy these tools?

What if a lifestyle choice causes the need for a greater amount of food, but an individual who made such a lifestyle choice in the past did not have the education to understand the ramifications of the lifestyle choice?

And if this matters, how does one determine whether someone had the education to understand these ramifications?

What if a scientific study publishes that there exist no genetic predispositions that cause individuals to need greater amounts of food, but an individual claims that they have such a predisposition anyway?

What if the total amount of food that there is to distribute among n people is such that evenly distributed, everyone will not have enough to stay alive, but feeding only a smaller set of the n people, they could live?

How would you choose which people are in this smaller set, if you choose the latter option?

Suppose there were two types of food, but one type is substantially more expensive than the other type. One group of people prefers the cheaper type of food, whereas one group of people prefers the more expensive type of food. What is the right thing to when:

1) The society has just enough resources to satisfactorily feed the first group the cheap type of food, and to feed the second group the expensive type of food?

2) The society has enough resources to satisfactorily feed everyone the cheap type of food, but not enough to feed the second group the expensive type of food?

3) The society doesn’t even have enough resources to satisfactorily feed everyone the cheap type of food?

How does the right decision change if the second group of people were genetically intolerant to the first type of food (say, an allergy)?

How does the right decision change when the first group of people slightly prefers the second type of food?

In the case of an allergy, does this change depending on what sort of an allergy this is, that is, life-threatening, illness-inducing, just a few rashes?

I often hear conversations about fairness that seem oblivious even to the second question on this list. I do hope this does not become the norm of discourse.

Expanded Overthinking on Elevator Usage

I’ve previously talked about choices regarding elevators in this post.

Many of you have probably experienced or can understand the feeling of being minutely judged upon accidentally hitting the button for the wrong floor on the elevator and/or the feeling of minutely judging someone who you saw pushing the button for the wrong floor.

Today, as I entered an elevator in the MIT student center, alone, I accidentally pressed the wrong destination floor. As no one else was in the elevator, I corrected myself. (See the above link for why I might not have corrected myself otherwise; this situation reduces to the “a nearby floor was already called” case.) As the elevator headed up, I thought about what I would’ve done if at the moment, someone else was rushing to enter the elevator.

I might have actually let the elevator doors close instead of holding them, from embarrassment that I’ve pushed the wrong elevator button. This is arguably not the most commendable action, but I may have justified it to myself with an argument that entering the elevator may very well have not been the best choice for them as my incorrect elevator button push would have contributed to unnecessary time-inefficiency in their travel, and thus the other elevator might have been faster. This justification, sadly, reeks of an issue that seems analogous to the Gettier response to the “justified true belief” definition of knowledge: it seems that we’re really asserting a justification that happens to coincide with truth about the relative acceptability of letting the elevator doors close to an elevator whose ride is likely to visit an extraneous floor (it’s not even destined to visit an extraneous floor: that floor may well have been the floor of interest to the hypothetical person-rushing-in).

It is curious to consider these options, as much as this is an issue of very tiny importance in the grand scheme of life; it could encapsulate the ideas behind choices in decisions that matter much more.

On a higher level, elevator button-pushes really should just be revocable before fulfillment.

(On an even higher level of consideration, floor buttons shouldn’t be inside the elevator cars in the first place; a set should exist outside the elevator on each floor it services. This has actually been implemented, but the force of tradition led to people finding this awkward enough that they managed to successfully resist a better system.)

Shcool

As I was in the shower today, I suddenly thought of a certain set of pictures that spread through the internet a few times: roads with “SHCOOL” painted on them, pointed out as a demonstration of the failure of our school systems (or of the individual that painted it).

But here’s a thought: what if the person painting “SHCOOL” just wanted to spread the idea that school can be cool (as opposed to a chore, which certainly most kids view it as, unless kids these days are that different)?

They’d of course be mistaken. School isn’t cool. Learning is cool. School deprives you of learning.

But we could start using the term “shcool” to refer to a learning institution or organization that helps its members and others to understand the actually important things in life, the term symbolically reflecting the fact that slightly misspelling a word like “school” to “shcool” is really not a major detriment to communication (maybe you’d have issues running a computer search (say, a `find` or a `grep`) on a file for instances of the term “school”, but if you were on a computer, why didn’t you run a spell checker?), nor does it actually mean the misspeller is incapable of understanding Things That Actually Matter. Maybe of shcool and school, we can make school be the mistake.

Buttons

You have a button. If you press the button, you have a 50% chance to win $500 and a 50% chance to lose $200. You don’t get to press the button more than once. Do you want to press the button?

You have a button. If you press the button, your friend has a 50% chance to win $500 and a 50% chance to lose $200. You don’t get to press the button more than once, and you don’t get to consult with your friend ahead of time about your friend’s opinion on what you should do. Do you want to press the button?

B is considering murdering C, and currently has a 50% chance of deciding to so. You have a button. If you press the button, with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 80%, and with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 5%. (Suppose, say, the button causes a video to be shown to B that alters B’s impression of C.) Do you want to press the button? If you press the button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead? If you do not press the button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

B is considering murdering C, and currently has a 50% chance of deciding to so. You have a button. If you press the button, with a 20% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 100%, and with an 80% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 0%. Do you want to press the button? If you press the button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

B is considering murdering C, and currently has a 2% chance of deciding to so. You have a button. If you press the button, with a 1% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 100%, and with an 99% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 0%. Do you want to press the button? If you press the button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

B is known to have a mental illness and is considering murdering C, and currently has a 50% chance of deciding to so. You have a button. If you press the button, with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 80%, and with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 5%. Do you want to press the button? If you press the button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

B is considering murdering C, and currently has a 50% chance of deciding to so. You have two buttons. If you press the first button, with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 80%, and with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 5%. If you press the second button, you defer this exact same choice to someone else, and you do not know who it is who is next presented this choice. Will you press either button, and if so, which one? If you press the first button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead? If you press the second button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

B is considering murdering C, and currently has a 50% chance of deciding to so. You have two buttons. If you press the first button, with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 80%, and with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 5%. If you press the second button, with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes up to 70%, and with a 50% chance, B’s chance of deciding to murder C goes down to 1%. If you press the first button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead? If you press the second button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead? If you do not press either button, and C ends up murdered, how much are you to blame for the fact that C is dead?

Ring Species, Dialect Continuums, and Behavioral Policy

= is transitive. ≈ is not.

≈ is also not well-defined for general usage, but notice that no matter what error ε>0 one chooses for which one designates two quantities to be approximately equal (≈) if and only if their positive difference is less than ε, one can find quantities a, b, and c such that a≈b and b≈c, but a≉c. (For instance, use b=a+0.8ε and c=a+1.6ε. Note that we are assuming that the domain of quantities has a largest and smallest element more than ε apart, but this quite goes without saying considering otherwise the ≈ operator is useless.)

The important point here is that the sum of insignificant changes can be significant.

In particular, when one is trying to categorize a set of items into categories, it is possible that any sort of meaningful classification upon a particular quality can be defied.

Consider the typical definition of a species, that is, a set of individuals that can interbreed with each other. Interbreeding is something that can occur between organisms of slightly different genomes (thankfully, for the sake of life existing), but the genomes still need to be similar enough for two organisms to be able to produce fertile offspring. As such one could imagine that individual A can successfully breed with individual B, who can successfully breed with individual C, who can successfully breed with individual D, and so on, but, say, individuals A and H cannot successfully interbreed. This phenomenon can of course be generalized to not just individuals but groups of individuals, where no members of one group can successfully interbreed with members of another group. Thus, by the interbreeding definition of a species, these are clearly not in the same species. And yet, every step along the way we find individuals that can interbreed with each other, all the way from A to H, so each should be in the same species as the previous one. What gives?

It turns out this is not just a hypothetical. There are actual cases of this occurrence found on Earth, in what are known as ring species. It is an occurrence that fundamentally challenges the concept of a species itself, an instance where there is very clearly no acceptable line to draw to divide the individuals into members of different species. It appears necessary to accept that sometimes there is neither a line nor an equivalence, but rather a gradual continuum in species membership.

It also turns out this is not just a problem with species. Let’s turn to linguistics. What is a dialect? Let’s use a definition of a dialect as a version of a language with possible slight differences in phonological, morphological, and grammatical specification, such that these differences are small enough that what is spoken by people of different dialects of the same language is mutually intelligible, that is, people can readily understand what the other is conveying despite the differences in their speech. Well, then what constitutes a language? It turns out there’s several cases of what we consider different languages that are mutually intelligible, like with Norwegian and Swedish, or with Czech and Slovak. But also, there exist languages like Chinese for which there are so-considered dialects that are mutually unintelligible but for which there exist a set of intermediate dialects that are mutually intelligible with the next dialect in the chain, stretching the entire span of linguistic change between these dialects.

(Actually, mutual intelligibility gets even weirder. Mutual intelligibility is not only intransitive but also asymmetric. All sorts of weird relationships between languages that are different flavors of mutual intelligibility arise.)

Continue reading “Ring Species, Dialect Continuums, and Behavioral Policy”

The “Let’s talk”-or-“Fuck you” Response

So you’re in a conversation or a room and someone else has expressed an opinion or view you find unacceptable. There’s several things you could do here. You could try to discuss the large chasm between how you view a situation and how someone else does, and argue why you’re unokay with the other’s opinion, and they could defend their opinion and break down upon what principles and observations they form their opinion. Various things could come out of this conversation, including you getting convinced that the opposing opinion is actually reasonable, or you confirming a belief that the other person is nuts.

But you had a talk. What this means is that you had the chance to either civilly convince the other party that your view is more reasonable or bridge two very different opinions to find what in the differences in what you see about the world causes your different conclusions, and more importantly, even if you did not successfully reach an agreement, you reached a better understanding of how the other person built their views, and hopefully, vice versa. This is the “Let’s talk” response.

Alternatively, you could decide to not move to conversation and debate, possibly announce your disapproval briefly, and either silently judge the person inside or just loudly claim the view unacceptable. You may decide to avoid this person, or make a note to yourself to make choices or suggest to others to make choices to exclude or condemn this person. This is the “Fuck you” response. Unlike after the “Let’s talk” response scenario, either of you that was wrong about a fact will continue believing incorrect facts, you never got to try to understand where the difference in belief of the state of reality actually lies, and/or you never realize what the change in values between you and this other person is. And more importantly, at least one (and possibly the other) continues to believe the other person is just a sick and disgusting human being.

But chances are you’ve participated both in “Let’s talk” scenarios and “Fuck you” scenarios. Are you just acting suboptimally every time you decide to take the “Fuck you” route?

(I’m ignoring for now the other cases that sprawl on the various other dimensions of conversation on disagreement, for instance, being unwilling to discuss an issue because of the venue or environment in which a conversation happens—”Let’s talk, but not here.”.)

No, because the “Fuck you” response could be very appropriate. You’re here in the world, living, for only a few decades, you don’t have unlimited energy, and debating could be draining on your emotions. When you have to explain your perception of unacceptability again and again, you can easily get jaded. When you are discussing a topic for which one side has had a significant negative impact on your life, it can be emotionally difficult to discuss a topic. It’s also a big problem when the population of people that hold what you consider is an unacceptable belief is very large; you’d really squander your life choosing “Let’s talk” on every encounter. It’s important to weigh how important one thinks a belief is, how likely they think another person is to change their mind or more deeply understand opposing views, and how emotionally painful you expect talking about the topic in question with the person in question is, when one decides what side of the “Let’s talk”-“Fuck you” line a disagreement lies on.

There are many cases where locally the “Fuck you” response brings happier results than the “Let’s talk” response. But it’s important to realize that in the grand scheme of society, “Fuck you” builds tension and resentment in a way that the “Let’s talk” response doesn’t, and every “Fuck you” decision makes groups of differing ideology drift further and have more contempt and distaste for the other group. What this means is that those in the groups that believe that their answer to the question is that important, having seen that verbal communication fails, are more likely to support changing the other side by force, maybe by oppression, maybe by violence. The fault lines of ideological difference must quake when the slow-and-steady creep of discussion won’t do to release tension. We debate because we decide, probably pretty correctly, that exchanging words leaves life nicer than exchanging blows, and in order to keep this standard up, it is important to keep the size of views one says “Fuck you” to small, as well as curb the frequency with which we allow moments when we get angered by someone else merely saying something, in alternative to acting on it, to manifest outwards.

Now, across many forms of media, one can hear a lot these days, people asking “How did the rise of Donald Trump happen? How could it actually be the case that this much of this country loves Donald Trump?” Here comes my take.

Continue reading “The “Let’s talk”-or-“Fuck you” Response”

Saying “Use Common Sense” Doesn’t Make Sense

One often hears from people giving advice the phrase “Use common sense”. The idea of the phrase is that there are specific instructions that one is unable to more closely detail about approach under certain conditions but for which one can be expected through their experience or intuition to naturally apply the correct approach, even with explicit suggestions not given. Here, I closely examine the instruction “Use common sense” and analyze the purpose of the statement, and suggest that, chances are, the statement “Use common sense” is rarely helpful advice.

Consider the cases where the advisee possesses common sense or does not possess common sense, however one defines common sense, which, chances are, in a probably uncommon way. One who already has common sense will be using it anyway, since that’s the implication of common sense: it’s what people are expected to already know to do naturally. There’s no reason to tell them to need to use common sense; they’re already going to do it.

On the other hand, consider people who do not have common sense. In that case, the statement “Use common sense” does not elucidate anything to them. Without further specifying what common sense entails, and thus completely voiding the need to label such instructions “common sense”, one without common sense is in no way helped by being told to exercise it.

Reflecting on when the statement is actually made in the real world, it is typically stated to remind people who actually know better, when they are at a good chance to act recklessly, that they should remember to watch when the situation spirals out of hand. But if a person knows better, then they have the ability to evaluate risks and know when a situation allows for silliness and when it’s more serious and thus important for them to actually apply their common sense. Once again, those possessing common sense would already apply it without comment and those without would remain unable to apply common sense after being informed of its importance.

Yet it feels like making the statement is still sometimes helpful. What causes this? All that it could be now is that the statement serves the purpose of stating that after a certain amount of guidelines, a point is reached at which one can be fairly assured that intuition, whether already existent or to be gained, is likely to do them better than dogmatic instruction-following from here forward. But that is all that the statement “Use common sense” accomplishes, and that is much less than is typically thought to be contained in the often-stated big words “Use common sense”. The statement is really much less helpful and useful than is commonly thought.