Links & misc #3

careless2• Such a good book: Careless Thought Costs Lives, an exploration by Janet Radcliffe Richards of the practical ethics surrounding organ transplants. The topic isn’t something I had previously spent a lot of time thinking about, but I was waiting for someone at the library the other day and just grabbed a book to pass the time (I’m glad this edition happens to have such a bright red cover). The legislation involving transplants affects a huge number of human lives and works in a context of interesting incentives, so the task of carefully examining its justification is quite important in itself – however, the object-level discussion & the conclusions the author arrives at aren’t the main reason why I found this book so great: it’s the clarity of thought that’s really impressive about it. I feel like I should recommend it to everyone just because of the exemplary reasoning it presents, but I’m not sure how to convincingly gush about a book on organ transplant policy.

Should effective altruism be seen as an obligation or an opportunity? Initially, I was going to respond with the latter. I’m guessing most people aren’t going to embrace novel ethical obligations they didn’t figure out for themselves, and for me EA has always primarily felt like a positive-affect thing that allows me to do obviously valuable and good things with my life, something I’d rather not be without. But I guess I also think it’s obligation to some extent (reminds me of a tweet).

• The ethical problems of erasing traumatic memories. Andrea Lavazzi raises some points against full personal autonomy regarding memory modification, and while I’m not really convinced by his specific arguments, the issues discussed here are interesting.

• Lab-grown meat has dropped dramatically in price lately, which is excellent news. However, the researcher being interviewed still predicts that it will take a couple of decades more before the stuff is going to be widely available, which I guess matters more and isn’t soon enough to sound quite as astonishing. Then again, everything is for some absolutely mysterious reason always estimated to be a couple of decades away, even when it’s actually just around the corner, so make of that what you will – maybe the huge price drop is a more reliable indicator after all. (Milk might be a bit simpler to produce using modified yeast, and easily gets cheaper than raising dairy cows, so at least we’ll soon have cheese.)

• Sarah Perry on some core features of ordinary human experience and behaviour. A lot of the assumptions made here are quite bold & not necessarily based on uncontroversially accepted theories, but most of it certainly plausible and genuinely insightful. (I really like all of her writings at Ribbonfarm. Most of the stuff I read is very anti-traditionalist by default, so it feels refreshing and healthy to occasionally switch to such a completely different mental framework, especially when the writer is so good.)

• Predicting is applied believing, and the only way to figure out how accurate your models of the world actually are. Julia Galef lists 16 useful types of predictions at Less Wrong, so now we all have something to actually use PredictionBook for.

• A great bunch of studies published so far about ketamine, everyone’s favourite potential future antidepressant, in a meta-analysis. The studies pretty unambiguously show large effect sizes in reducing depressive symptoms starting almost immediately after infusion, which is remarkable given the normally much longer time required for antidepressive agents to work, but patients also seem to relapse within a couple of weeks at most. The addictive potential and apparent side-effects of long term use also sound pretty discouraging, so it will take a bit more to actually make it sound like a feasible treatment, but I’m glad it’s being investigated.

• Reward and punishment seem to have clearly asymmetrical effects on our choices: choice repetition after a reward scales with the magnitude of the reward, while choice avoidance after punishment is apparently unaffected by the magnitude of the punishment. The tendency to put a greater subjective weight on negative outcomes than positive ones of similar magnitude is a well-known feature of human decision making, but this idea suggests a more fundamental distinction between these two factors and could maybe help to explain a lot about human behaviour, especially once more research is done on what constitutes a reward or a punishment for different people (e.g. if nobody laughs at your joke, do you predominantly experience it on the reward scale (no reward) or on the punishment scale (mild social rejection)). Maybe utilitarian philosophy would also benefit from distinguishing between rewards and punishments more clearly instead of just always lumping everything that we assign value to into the single factor of utility/negative utility. I mean I get that it’s often reasonable to think about it in those terms especially withing preference utilitarianism, but I don’t think it’s recognised clearly enough that suffering isn’t just negative happiness.


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