On [there being more than] liberty
September 9th, 2019
Recently, Ayaz Matin sent me an email asking the following question:
When I was looking at your website I came across these words:Individual liberty is the single most important value that society should uphold.
- I’m more utilitarian and communitarian now.
- I still believe we should be extremely skeptical of sacrificing individual liberties for the sake of a greater good (in practice if not in theory), but I no longer hold liberty as sacrosanct.This was interesting to read because I also was on this journey where I believed in individual liberty as being most important for a long time but over the last 2-3 years have started to question it, and have become a tad bit more communitarian.I would love to hear about your experiences or the thought process which led you to question the long held beliefs and change your views.
The remainder of this post is the response I shared with him (slightly modified for clarity).
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It's always tenuous to explain why someone changed their mind—especially your own, since it's so easy to delude yourself—but I'll give it a try!
There wasn't a single lightbulb moment. Rather, it was a combination of several new frames of reference + a shift in my underlying values to which I only put a name after the fact + a radical change in my context.
I. New frames of reference
Some of the key new frames of reference I gained were:
1. Intuition about externalities
I internalized the significance of externalities in a far more profound way. I mostly picked up this frame up reference through more plain old life experience and recognizing more instances of positive/negative externalities in day-to-day life.
Moving to a city especially drove this home. The side effects of others' behavior (and your own!) become self-evident when you live in close proximity to many people. Every time a motorcycle roars down my street at 3am, I'm reminded yet again that externalities are real and omnipresent.
2. The framing of "coordination problems"
I learned the concept of coordination problems. This helped me see that some circumstances can systematically result in suboptimal outcomes for individual agents even when they're behaving in their own best interest.
I came to pick up this concept through stumbling upon game theory, studying it, and then extending its implications to daily life. I just plain didn't have this label when I was 16 years old, so it was much harder to recognize the importance of this category of problems, which meant my views didn't address them. I now can't help but see instances of this category everywhere!
3. Personal experience of working in a pack for the first time, rather than as a lone wolf
I personally experienced the feeling of joy that comes from being embedded in the fabric of a team that's greater than the sum of its parts. For contrast, I also saw people who I care about experience (and to some extent also personally experiencing myself) the isolation that can come about from being excessively independent.
This transition in my thinking occurred because I went from schoolwork, where excelling is a very individual activity, to actual work in the real world, where you really can't get much done without coordinating with other talented people.
II. Underlying shifts in values
Here are some other changes more as shifts in my underlying values, which are harder to explain from the result of specific events:
4. Physical laws aren't such a useful analogy for moral systems
16-year-old Devon thought of morals as something that could be reducible to axioms, much in the way that physics/mechanics is reducible to basic laws. I thought that moral axioms of some sort were "out there to be discovered", independent of whether or not humans followed them, sort of like how physics is real even if you don't believe it it. (It's not a coincidence this happened around the time I started to study physics.)
I came to realize that this was wishful thinking and not actually a "correct" way to view the world. Sure it'd be nice if morality were that simple—just find the Newtonian laws or Maxwell's equations for ethics, and you're good to go!—but that doesn't mean that's actually the way things work. I realized I couldn't actually think of a reason why moral laws would be discoverable and "out there to be discovered" in the same way the laws of physics were, so I stopped believing it.
This was a more gradual process than I've made it sound... there was no epiphany moment, the fact that what I believed was groundless over time steadily came into focus.
5. Preference utilitarianism as a new (theoretical) North Star
Related to the previous point, I now view preference utilitarianism as a more appropriate way to judge actions, at least theoretically. I don't think it's practical to actually know what everyone's preferences are, let alone to calculate them all out when deciding your own course of action, but in theory I do think it's the proper thing to strive for. At the very least it's a useful debugger. (I'll write more on that at some point in the future.)
The best (worst?) part is that it's nicely circular: my preference is for the world to maximize preference utility for all other conscious beings on earth, so within that system it's by definition correct! (Whether it's actionable is a different question...) This means it avoids the trap of "discoverable axioms" and the physical laws analogy mentioned above.
6. I downgraded the importance of consistency
I now value intellectual/moral consistency far less than I once did. I used to think consistency was paramount, that if you were inconsistent then you must change your views to become consistent, and in turn to be moral. Now, I see consistency as a useful heuristic but not the be-all-end all. All things equal, consistency is still something to strive for, but all things are not equal. Life is full of uncertainty, so if you enforce consistency on all your beliefs then you're most likely to just be wrong about everything. All it takes is for your assumptions to be slightly off for you to now get everything wrong. Relaxing that constraint of consistency gives you more opportunity to error correct. And there will certainly be errors—it's foolish to think it's possible to always be correct—so error correction is crucial for having any hope of "correctness", whatever that means.
It's like if you're trying to get from point A to point B, and you know a few landmarks along the way but you don't know exactly how to get there. If you go in exactly the direction of the first landmark you see and refuse to change course when you see another one at a slightly different angle, then you're going to be way off base the farther away from your starting point you get. If you instead update your angle each time you see another landmark a bit off the mark from what you remembered, you'll zig zag a bit, but you'll end up heading in the roughly right direction on average. (Though of course you're totally screwed if you don't notice the landmarks in the first place!) Just like these sanity checks are crucial for effective navigation, they're also crucial for your moral judgements. If you're doing something because it's consistent with your other actions, but it feels like the outcome is horrible for the world, then that's good reason to change the action or at least reflect on it long and hard.
III. Changes in context
And finally here are the changes in context that had a big impact, most obvious being that I'm no longer an undergrad at a university in the SF Bay Area:
7. My identity is less centered on intellectual edginess than it once was
Here's the most cynical answer: I came to care less about "edginess" in my views than I did in high school and college. Valuing individual liberty above all else was controversial in my college environment. I was hooked on the feeling of being different and borderline extreme, and now I really care so much less. That's probably because I have more things on which to peg my identity and feelings of self worth than my opinions. I actually build things and make things happen in the world now! Far more satisfying than writing op-eds in a fringe college newspaper. Not to say that wasn't a good use of my time back then—I'm very glad I did it—but I'm glad that wasn't my peak.
8. When playing the part of Devil's Advocate, I accidentally became a method actor
I often play Devil's Advocate when I think a useful perspective was omitted from the conversation. When I see a conversation has gone too far in one direction, I often pull it in the other direction to give it more balance. Historically, I thought it would be necessary to make a more extreme argument than what I actually believed in the hope it'll average out. (It's a whole other conversation as to whether that's an effective strategy...)
For example, at Stanford there's a widespread, deeply-rooted belief across most of the students and faculty that guns can only be bad, and that the world would obviously be better off if we straight up banned them. My intuition was actually not that far off from that, but it was disturbing that no one around me questioned this dogma. And it was even more disturbing as I dug into it and found that my peers held this belief without actually having spent any time thinking about it. So I dove into research and made the case for why guns, concealed carry permits, etc were actually a great idea. I actually was not personally convinced that they're a great idea per se, but I was sure that (a) they're not literally the devil like the people around me thought they were and (b) they have some societal value, even if it's small. So I wanted to cause people to examine their beliefs a bit more and make the case, since it seemed like no one else was going to do it. I value having the best case made for every idea, no matter how terrible it is, so that the world can judge it as best as possible, and I saw a big gap for that particular issue (as well as others). That said, I mixed up trying to pull the Overton Window in a particular direction with actually holding the extreme view.
Now with this framing, let's zoom back out to the question "why the emphasis on liberty?". It's because that dimension seemed to be drastically undervalued by my peers and role models. The folks I knew in the Bay Area tended to suggest more government as the solution to most problems, and that seemed like to automatic an answer to me, so I wanted to challenge that. The people I work with most closely/spend time with now don't have nearly as strong a tendency to default to more government control, so I feel less a need to challenge them on that.
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It'll be interesting to see how my perspective continues to change in the coming years. 🙂
Keep in touch!