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In Defence of Suicide

Content Warning: Arguments for suicide. No catch.

There’s a lot of arguments against suicide.

This is a good example. On the surface, it looks like everything an argument against suicide should be. It’s well-written, and it actually raises the reasons suicidal people have for it before making the counterarguments against them. I still think it’s wrong. For one thing, it has motivated reasoning (nobody wants suicidal people to be right). But from inside the argument, there’s something off about it. It reasons backwards: It assumes people shouldn’t commit suicide, comes up with scenarios where that’s the case (a guy who’s a useless burden now might have been useful as a dockworker a hundred years ago), then kind of implicitly assumes the change in circumstances shouldn’t matter.

If we don’t have any motivated reasoning, the case for suicide seems pretty clear: Some people feel like burdens. They’re net negative drains on the world, draining resources that could better be used for someone else. Are they wrong?

Scott brings up Robin Williams as a counterexample, and some guy who designed safety mechanisms for cars. Alan Krueger’s another potential counterexample that’s come up since. But how sure are we that they really are counterexamples? You’d expect them to know more than us about the situation. Maybe the car safety guy knows his designs aren’t really effective or useful, or maybe he doesn’t really do much and only got to keep his job because of office politics. We found out Robin Williams had Dementia. I don’t know why Alan Krueger died, but nobody else seems to either. He probably had his reasons.

In general, every bias we know should push people away from suicide. People tend to believe they’re more important than they are, that they’re more useful, that they know more. People tend to be unreasonably optimistic. People have status-quo bias. If we’ve reached the point where even the person in question thinks suicide is a good idea, it probably is.

There’s a counterargument to suicide, saying that suicidal people often get better, even grow to regret it. That’s not inconsistent with suicide being the right choice. We’d expect people to become suicidal at their worst point, so we should expect some reversion to the mean for most. But if suicidal people are reasonable about it, they’d leave some buffer – they price in the possibility of mean-reversion, so they don’t jump to being suicidal as soon as they can. They wait until they’re thoroughly convinced. And sure, if they don’t commit suicide, they’ll probably go back into the uncertainty band  – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t kill themselves. And in general, we trust people to make their own decisions. Not because they’re always right, but because we don’t have a better method, and people’s judgement in the moment is generally the most accurate way to judge things.

The common sentiment is to treat each suicide as an unbearable catastrophe. This seems wrong. We have a lot of humans, and most of them are pretty easily replaceable. If anything it seems like it would be helpful for humans to be a little more k-selected, rather than keep everyone we possibly can alive.

Alternatively, we can think of internal experience as inherently valuable. But suicidal people are generally pretty miserable and probably have net negative internal experience anyway. Unless there’s some reason to assume things will suddenly get better for them (say if they’re in an abusive situation they can get out of soon), this doesn’t really change the calculation.

I’m not actively suicidal, but I’m increasingly convinced that I should be. In theory I have a lot of talents, but in practice I don’t seem to contribute much, and I seem to be a net drain on the people around me. There’s a limit on how much I can blame other people for this.

Is this evidence for or against the above argument? It’s at least consistent with it – it makes sense that I’d be in the uncertainty band, at least (I can come up with reasonable-sounding arguments for why I actually contribute more than I drain, or might in the future). I’ve only been convinced I shouldn’t exist for a few months now, maybe I just haven’t reached the tipping point yet.

There is one good counterargument: I have friends who are suicidal, and there are people I know who the world would probably be better off without. As far as I can tell, the two groups are entirely distinct (although, of course, plenty of suicidal people probably haven’t told me about it). My suicidal friends are some of the kindest, smartest, most helpful people I know. They’ve done a lot for the world. And they’ve done a lot for me.

But then, my judgement about worth might be suspect (remember, I’m one of the people who shouldn’t exist). But if my judgement’s that far off I can’t trust anything I say anyway, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.


The libertarian case against Nimbyism

Epistemic status: Only considering the libertarian arguments for and against Nimbyism. In practice there are a lot of consequentialist arguments that could apply. For example, urban concentration increases economic productivity and reduces pollution and rents, but may be more vulnerable in case of an unexpected disaster.

Next Door in Nodrumia raises an interesting question: Is local government libertarian?

The obvious answer is no. Libertarianism is about having less government, and local government is, well, government. So libertarians should be against local government.

The obvious answer is also yes: Local government is just towns deciding about their own community, and the real meddlesome government intervention is the state stepping in to our nice wholesome local community forcing us to change our laws.

So how do we resolve this? The solution to confusion, as always, is to try to derive everything from first principles.

There’s no universally agreed-on definition of libertarianism1, but let’s assume that the core libertarian principle is to maximize individual freedom, as defined by the number of choices each individual has. This seems like a good fit for most of what libertarians want – it fits with less government intervention over individual choices, or the idea that people should be free to decide what’s best for themselves and have government as uninvolved as possible.

Under this definition, the higher-level principles – less government good, taxes/laws bad – are heuristics rather than core principles. There’s good arguments for them – governments and laws almost always restrict individuals’ decision spaces – so we can think of them as theorems that follow from the core axiom.

The question of local vs state government, like Feynman’s sprinkler riddle, can’t easily be solved from heuristics, because they seem to prove two different things. But we can look at empirical results to see which one gives more total individual freedom.

In the case of Scott’s Nodrumia, local government gives better results2: Some towns have all-night drums, and some towns don’t. For someone living in the area, this is great, since he can just decide if he’d rather live in a town with or without all-night drumming3.

But the original debate was about zoning regulations. I’ll admit there are some ways town zoning regulations can be pretty great. Santa Fe mandates that all the buildings have to be stuccoed, and Jerusalem has a law that all buildings have to be covered in stone. They are, noncoincidentally, two of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to.

Image result for santa fe downtown

Image result for ‫קריית יובל‬‎
I lived in Jerusalem most of my life, and I still sometimes stop and look.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t like Santa Fe. And, well, most towns aren’t Santa Fe, and don’t have any particular aesthetic. But for the sake of variety, it’s nice that these towns exist. And in libertarian terms, letting towns vote on their preferred aesthetic seems to work pretty well in giving people their choice of preferred aesthetic.

But on density zoning, this is a colossal failure. Tennessee Williams said: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” I’ve never been to New Orleans. But in terms of density and a preference towards detached Single-Family homes and a car-based lifestyle, it seems like everywhere outside of Manhattan is Cleveland, San Francisco very much included. This varies a little bit – Boston and Chicago have at least some density and character – but due to whatever confounding variables, pretty much every town in America has “locally” decided on euclidean zoning.

And this isn’t a matter of there being no demand for denser cities – the denser cities we do have see skyrocketing demand and housing costs. But this demand isn’t being answered, because in practice there are misaligned incentives and local control means everyone wants to shove density somewhere else.

Compare Japan, which mostly sets zoning at the federal level. From an individual-freedom perspective, they get ideal results. Not only do they have a mix of low-density, multifamily, and high-rises, they get them within reasonable distance of each other – so you can make your choice for your preferred living style without even having to pay the costs of moving across the country.

Multifamily and Single-Family housing living in harmony

Japan tends to plan density around transit. This is obviously great from a utilitarian perspective. But from a libertarian perspective, it means you get a variety of neighborhood types, in reasonably close proximity to each other. And it also ends up meaning you pay less, whatever housing type you prefer.

1.This holds in any universe with at least two libertarians.

2.Unsurprisingly, given that Scott’s trying to argue for local government.

3.This isn’t a completely free choice – location and social network effects matter a lot to people, who usually can’t costlessly move somewhere with their preferred policies – but as diehard libertarians we are dedicated to ignoring this issue.

Be very wary of infohazards.

The orders were clear: As tempting as it was, we were not to let the psychics process the alien message. Instead, we were to send it through to an old-fashioned linguistics team, who’d work with pen and paper to decipher what they could of it.

This seemed impossible – this was the first-year alien message we’d ever received. Heck, until recent developments in long-distance communication the only evidence we’d even had that the aliens existed were some weird radiation patterns around a star that the astronomers said looked like a Dyson sphere. It was only the psychics’ abilities that had given me any hope we could read it at all. And now we were banned from using them.

When I went to the director to complain, she was apoplectic. “Think about it!” She shouted. “Psychics don’t just read symbols, the process information at the intent level. They make the message *real*. Does the word infohazard mean *nothing* to you?!”
“All we know about these aliens is that they have a Dyson sphere and they sent us a message. The first means they’re more advanced than us, maybe more advanced than we can even imagine. Can you tell me what the second means?”
“That… That they want something from us. And we have no idea what, or how they’re planning to get it.” I went white as I realized the implication.

“That’s right,” she continued. “So we’re not processing this information, and we’re not going to put it anywhere it might harm someone. Instead we’re going to translate pieces of it, as slowly and piecemeal as we can. Maybe we’ll learn something about them out of it.”

So I gave the message to my translation team,and waited for results. At first they were as hopeless as I was about it, but after three days they started getting a few words. After a week, I got an alert that they’d found something. I went down to the bunker.

“We got a whole paragraph, we think” the head translator said. But then we had this idea – why not just go to the psychics? I went ahead and forwarded the message to them – the computer didn’t want to send it out, but we found a workaround-”

I stopped in horror. Surely they understood why they couldn’t do that! Hadn’t I explained? No, wait, I had explained. I remembered that quite clearly. And then I noticed the lopsided grin on the translator’s face, and the mad gleam in his eye.

I stayed there, transfixed in horror as he walked up and whispered in my ear. “It’s too late”, he whispered. “It’s already out.”

Epistemic status: Based on a dream I had, because sometimes they come with oddly terrifying plots

Song Translation: Crying To You

Original song, lyrics.

I’m about to cry to you
Be strong up there, my brother
I miss you now
Like ships lost in the night without a rudder

Forever I swear
Your memory I will bear,
And we will meet again, so don’t forget me.
And I have friends today,
but they all fade away,
Before the burning light you left me

When we are sad
We go to shore, that’s why the sea is salty
And it’s sad
You can bring back the things you lost, but not the people

Forever I swear…

And like the waves,
we hit the shore and break
Hitting the harbor,
feeling the ache…

Annual Birthday Post

Epistemic status: The annual post where I let go and just go full-on mopey. You have been warned.

It’s my birthday again. It’s been a bad week, and it’s been a bad year. Birthdays always feel lonely.

In fairness, it’s only Wednesday, and I’m using the Christian week for the purposes of this post. But the last three days have been a bit dispiriting.

Monday was kind of bad. I went to the SF meetup, which I haven’t been to in a while, hoping for some warmth. It was cooking meetup, which is usually great for those (in general, the odds of feeling happy and warm in an SF meetup were between one in three and even – which is far from certain, even if it is pretty good overall).

It wasn’t a good meetup this week. Maybe because of the holiday weekend, there weren’t a lot of people, and I didn’t manage to feel that close to most of the people there. Someone said she liked Worth The Candle because it’s great at escalating tension. I said Dresden Files is great for that and she should try it out. I knew it was a mistake before she answered and, sure enough, she answered that she’d read one, but wasn’t okay with how the author treated women.

This bothered me more than is obvious. Partly because I’ve always suspected she dislikes me, and that reinforces that suspicion. Mostly, it was a reminder of the barriers between us – not just with her, but with so many others. This isn’t just a superficial disagreement on what’s fun for her, it’s a fundamental moral belief she has on what worldviews shouldn’t exist. It’s an unscalable wall between us, even aside from any generic feeling of dislike.

There are a lot of these walls. Feminism is a big one. It’s hard for me to live with people who have a sacred value that it should be okay to hate me, or that relying on women’s kindness is exploitation. And I have my own walls, my own sources of anger. I have a hard time believing that people who hate Holden Caulfield (Or Gilbert Norell, or Scott Pilgrim…) are really capable of empathy. And all of this is before we get into politics. None of these are rare beliefs. It makes me wonder how rare real empathy is.

There’s probably also a meta-ethics point here, less about particular ideals than about how we think. For example, I don’t have a problem with how the women in the Dresden Files are written. I used to think it was because, not being a feminist, the entire concept of badly-written women as a deal-breaker didn’t exist for me. But then I read Worth The Candle, and I do have a problem with how the women are written there, I think they get dehumanized. And the same person who banned the Dresden Files from her reading list over its treatment of women loved how all the WTC characters were written. So I guess it’s not even really about feminism, so much as about how we think.

We all think differently, but sometimes it feels like I’m the only one willing to make the effort to try and bridge the gap. Objectively speaking, I don’t know if that’s true – I can think of cases where I tried to explain and got blown off, sure, but I can also think of times I was too angry to let someone else explain. So maybe it’s about other people not wanting to communicate, but maybe it is just communication being hard.

I do worry about the feminism. It’s four years today since Holly broke up with me for the… forget which time that was. Maybe the second? The time I wanted to hang out for my birthday, and she said she didn’t want to hang out anymore. I wonder how much of her anger at me was about my antifeminism. I wonder if that’s something I’ll always have to live with, that’ll poison any relationship I have even if I ever get into a new one. It’s not really something I can fix. I can change my opinion on specific issues, I can care about people, I can listen to the issues someone cares about. But I’ll never be a feminist, really, it’s not a mindset I can honestly live with. And I wonder how much of a problem that will have to be.

I said earlier that it’s been a bad week because I count from Monday. Last week was pretty good. I was happier than I’ve been in a long, long time. It even felt a bit like real happiness, not just mania. But today I’m feeling lonely again. Maybe it was mania after all? Or maybe it’s just the birthday and the lonely week bringing me down, even after I was doing all right.

The year’s been bad, but time passes, and things happen. Maybe next year will be better, or the year after that. I have no special reason to think so – but heck, I never can tell the future.

Life doesn’t have a Break Glass option

See also Defining Freedom. Epistemic status: Emotional.

Here’s the most common anime trope: The hero’s been driven to desperation by an enemy completely beyond his power, and it looks like he (and, probably, the whole world) is doomed. But suddenly the hero discovers his hidden strengths, turns blonde, and punches the bad guy into oblivion (This may take several episodes).

This makes for a good story, and isn’t restricted to anime. Gilmore Girls starts off with Lorelei reaching out to her estranged parents once she’s desperate enough for money. TvTropes has a whole page about characters who’s despair finally drives them to an anguished confession of love. We want to believe in this story, because we want to believe we have hidden powers that we’re just not desperate enough to use. That if we were pushed to the brink, we’d not only find out we could deal with it, but that we have hidden powers once we lose our inhibitions. We want to believe in a big red switch that would make us powerful, if we’re ever hard-up enough to break the glass and hit it.

Life doesn’t have a break glass option.

I found this out when I was fifteen. For the first time in my life I had a best friend. Heck, I had two, the guy I competed with for the “best at math” spot and the girl I’d talk to on MSN messenger, who seemed like the first person who’d ever actually listened to me. I was happy. Inevitably, they started dating, and didn’t care much about me after that.

The hard part was the change. I’d had these people who’d cared what I had to say, and suddenly nothing I said could reach them anymore. And I didn’t have an emergency button to make them listen. There wasn’t something we’d fought over I could apologize for, there wasn’t something I could do to turn things back. They’d moved on, and nothing I could do could bring them back. It didn’t matter how hard I was willing to try.

A few months later we had our big fight and official falling out, but by then it didn’t really matter.

I know I was lucky. God knows there’s worse ways to find out what it’s like to have no way out.

Most cases we encounter aren’t like this. Most cases have a break glass button that doesn’t actually fix anything.

For example, it always seems a bit weird to me that women ever complain about being lonely. Lonely women can always get on a dating app or go to a bar and have dozens of guys showering them with attention and, if they want, sleeping with them. How can you say you’re lonely when you always have that option? If you were really desperate for companionship, you could always hit the button.

The answer is, it’s not a real option. Picking up a random stranger for a one-night stand doesn’t actually make you feel less lonely. It’s tempting to reach for an emergency button that might do something, but one you know doesn’t help won’t be particularly tempting even if you’re desperate.

(In the interests of gender fairness, I should mention the break-glass option men have that women don’t: If someone’s pushing us too far and we really, really don’t want to be in this conversation anymore, we can always get out of it by punching someone in the face. Like the option mentioned above, this comes with a cost and doesn’t actually make anything better, which is why most men don’t use it to get out of unpleasant situations much).

In defining freedom, I defined freedom as the number of directions in which you can act without falling off a utility cliff. You can think of break-glass options as small cliffs – not ones you’d actually jump off, but ones you could imagine jumping off when you’re not in front of them. It’s a lot easier to say you’d jump a ten-foot cliff to get out of the situation you’re in when you’re facing a hundred-foot cliff than when you’re actually in front of a ten-foot cliff.

This is a major barrier to empathy: When something’s not even an option to you, it’s easy to be dismissive of how trapped people feel when they have it as a break-glass option. And conversely, when you’re desperate enough to actually hit a break-glass option, it can be hard to make someone who doesn’t have that option how desperate you had to be to hit it. “Of course you went there”, they’d say. “You always had that option.”

Some people think suicide is the ultimate break-glass option, so they can hit it if things ever get really bad. These people are idiots. Suicide, like punching your boss to get out of an uncomfortable presentation at work, isn’t an option that can ever make things better. Sometimes people are desperate enough for a break-glass option to convince themselves that suicide is one anyway.

This is all pretty depressing. To end on an optimistic note, I’ll say that just because there’s no desperation safety guard doesn’t mean things can never get better. But improvement is slow and incremental, and gets harder the worse off you are. You don’t get an emergency switch and you don’t get magical healing, but at best, you do get rehab. Slow, painful, gradual rehab, but eventually you can walk again.

On Religion and Dogma

Epistemic status: Not really saying anything new or revolutionary, but I run into people who forget this distinction enough that I’d like to have my thoughts on it written down somewhere in an organized way.

There’s a thing rationalists tend to forget about religion: It’s unashamedly dogmatic.

Well, maybe it’s not rationalists. Maybe it’s just me who forgets it. But it’s very easy to forget. I’m used to the world of math, or at least science, where you get credit for making arguments about things. Sometimes they’re rigorous mathematical proofs, or at least replicable studies with rigorous statistical standards, and any fair-minded person will become convinced of the truth of your claim. Other times they’re insane troll logic based on weird puns. But either way, you always need to have the pretense of justifying your claim.

People who live around a religious community… don’t really have that. They’ll assume the structure of the world is a certain way (based on the bible, or what their pastor or rabbi says, or whatever), and just go with it. The filter part – where you look at a theory or rule and try to decide if it’s really neccessary – just isn’t there. When my aunt says the reason Arab countries haven’t invaded and destroyed Israel is religious people’s prayers, it’s not really based on geopolitical analysis. When talk radio talks about how being gay is a sin, and the right thing to do is lead your families away from the sin, they don’t really stop to think if it’s the right thing. It’s a rule you can make, it sounds good and comes from a radio pastor, so we can just go with it. The point isn’t to be right, it’s to have an applicable rule.

This isn’t restricted to religious people. There’s plenty of people on the far left who’ll just assume any issue has to do with racism, without having to wait for evidence. But religion is a bit special in that it’s unapolegetic about it. The people blaming seemingly-unrelated things on racism will usually have an argument, or at least feel like they should have one.

There is a dogmatic fringe whose argument will just be “this is about racism because everything in a racist society is about racism.” This is probably just over the line from religion’s “This is about religion because God is everywhere, therefor <arbitrary rule>.” This is unsurprising, because you’d expect unapologetic dogmatism to be a feature of all sufficiently dogmatic people, not just those who believe in a specific religion.


There’s research showing religious people are healthier, happier, and less suicide-prone than non-religious people. This is usually blamed on religion’s community and purpose, but it doesn’t seem like you can get the benefits by having a purposeful community that’s not about a dogmatic religion. So I wonder if the real benefit of religion isn’t the community, but the enforced dogma. Maybe not having to think about the rules you live by, and just accepting them dogmatically, is the real mental health benefit.

I have a roommate who complains that I don’t clean the dishes well enough. By itself, this is a pretty standard roommate squabble that would resolve pretty easily – I make a bit more effort to clean to accommodate his needs, he bends his standards a bit to accommodate mine, and we reach a middle ground we can both kinda live with.

I’ve tried this with him, and it has failed catastrophically. It’s not really about the cleaning – I make the effort to clean more rigorously and faster than I would without him there, but in the end of the day I don’t have his standards and I’m going to slip up sometimes, either by not cleaning a dish until the next morning, or not doing it to his exacting standards. And whenever I do, he goes ballistic. And the interesting part (well, the part that would be interesting if it weren’t also annoying) is that it’s never about his preferences. He believes that there are objective standards of cleanliness that must be held to, and I’m violating them. I’ve tried explaining that we have different standards, and he just point-blank does not (and I think, can’t) understand things in those terms.

This is a guy who’s lived most of his life in fundamentalist religious communities. He grew up a hardcore Christian, the converted to being a Muslim, then went back and forth between religions for a bit. Every time, he left because the dogmas had some pieces he couldn’t agree with. And nowadays he’s not religious, but he misses it.

I wonder how much of it is him missing the dogma. When he talks about missing it, he usually talks about the community, but that may just be because he knows I’ll understand that part. I wouldn’t really understand the other part. I’m unusually bad at being dogmatic. But I’m pretty sure he needs it. And I wonder if the kind of person who needs dogma in his life can ever really let go of that worldview, even if he’s let go of religion.