I don’t believe everything written here. The point of this article is to shock you with something sufficiently far outside of your normal sensibilities that you may momentarily jump-start your moral outlook. If you had a negative reaction to that last sentence, you should stop reading now, because you probably won’t like my writing style, or what I have to say. The term “devil’s advocate” is one of many casualties of XKCD. The arguments in this article are not even a “steelman” arguments. Rather, they are devil’s advocate arguments, sometimes almost literally.
I should note that probably few to none of the ideas here are particularly new. I’m sure that many people have arrived at them independently. I just want to express the concepts in the way they came to me, because some people may be able to relate to that.
Might Makes Right
We’ve all heard of Machiavellianism, and of “might makes right.” The most provocative anecdote comes from ancient Greece. In 416 BC, Athens invaded Melos, an island in the Aegean Sea. They offered an ultimatum: surrender and pay tribute or be annihilated. The people from Melos appealed to morality and philosophy. You, Athenians, are well renowned for such things! Athens is known for its philosophical dialogues on morality, and now you are being hypocrites! The Athenians did not attempt a moral pretext. Instead, they responded, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Values vs Tools
There is a type of argument that has been gnawing at me for years now. The argument essentially follows this pattern. You find a proponent of a xenophobic culture. Then you tell them, “I don’t understand why you are so xenophobic. This [other culture XYZ] is very similar to you! They, too, are xenophobic. Furthermore, [other culture XYZ] is conservative, politically based, even oppressive in some of the same ways you are! You are anti-liberal, they are anti-liberal!”
If I was xenophobic, I would find this argument completely backwards. Imagine telling a soldier, “you should love the opposing army. Your army has machine guns; their army has machine guns. Your army has artillery; their army has artillery. Your army has tanks, their army has tanks. In fact, their tanks are quite a bit better than yours. I know, from your behavior, that you value tanks. Given this, you should prefer the army that has bigger tanks, because it better embodies your values.”
No! Your valuation of tanks did not spring from a platonic void, it is based on the aggressive ability of tanks, on their combativeness. Tanks are a tool to dominate the enemy, they would not be needed otherwise. Your core impetus is not for any tool, but for simple in-group preference, wanting your side to dominate over them.
Don’t confuse values with tools. If people use the same tools as each other, that is utility not unity. It is hypocritical to criticize groups for having the same values as you. It is not hypocritical to criticize groups when they use the same weapons for their cause as your side does.
The Virtue of Hypocrisy
On the other hand, the entire concept of hypocrisy may be flawed. This part may be difficult to follow or agree with, so feel free to skip it.
Debate is premised on the assumption that what makes one side better than another is the ability to argue their position logically. If you can successfully make a deontological argument that your values are superior, then you win. So far so good. But clearly, it does not follow that the “better” side in an argument will always win in the real world.
Self-interest, in the sense of valuing oneself over others, is a natural human tendency. As individuals, we want to get better grades than our peers, we want to be more popular than our peers, and we want to have more money than our peers. This is the competitive instinct that most people have, even if you personally don’t.
You can always take the moral high-ground. But are you willing to then settle for less than people more Miachiavalian? It’s easy to say “yes!” But talk is cheap. Chances are, you don’t really think so, if you’re being completely honest with yourself.
Especially as groups and nations, we are tribal, and in-group-loyal. We want more land than our competitors, more cultural influence, more economic influence, etc. How do you justify this with “debate?” You can’t. People say, “my side is better than their side” not because there is a Kantian absolutist principle that puts them in the right. Rather, it’s just a struggle for power, creating the apparent hypocrisy of people criticizing opponents for what they do themselves.
If we grant some level of inevitability to this process, then in many cases the only good position is the one some might call “hypocritical.” Forget deontology and think about self-interest. When you fall in love with someone’s girlfriend and steal her away, you think that it is good, because it benefits you. When some guy falls in love with your girlfriend and steals her away, you think that is bad, because it hurts you. You hate others for doing the same things that you do. Of course you do! When they do it, it hurts you, when you do it, it helps you!
The modern western world is absolutely consumed by the slave morality of Nietzsche. It is so omnipresent that you don’t even recognize it, like a fish doesn’t recognize water, and land dwellers don’t recognize air. It is an implicit cultural affordance. Everyone tries to describe their upbringing as hard, underprivileged, a struggle. This is what every college admissions essay, (the “here’s why I should be a member of the upper class” letter), is trying to convey. People from rich and privileged backgrounds tend to be ashamed of it, or at least conceal it publicly. It was not like this if we go far back enough in history.
The implicit logic seems to be something like this. People who came from less privileged backgrounds had to overcome more to get to their current situation. Which is more impressive than if they didn’t. Therefore, if two people obtain similar success, the success of the less privileged person is more impressive. That person is a better candidate. That is the gist of the argument – I don’t think it’s ever taught so explicitly as I’ve just described it, but it’s not difficult to surmise. It is assumed that all left-educated people hold this view, and it is never challenged. It’s the “default view.”
But it isn’t the default view in all places and time. It is the modern-day-western default view. Throughout most of human history, the default, unquestioned view was much similar to might-makes-right. If anything I’m saying sounds extreme, I will fall back on the old appeal to consensus, “I’m just like a normal person who lived in the premodern era, even most people alive today.”
In a conflict, everyone wants to portray themselves as the oppressed or weaker side. For example, in the Israel-Palestine conflicts, Palestine always likes to emphasize their underdog position, “we are being oppressed by the Israelis, you can’t make false equivalencies, they have so much dominance, etc etc.” Personally, I don’t like underdogs. I don’t care a single bit about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but if anything, I would prefer the dominant side.
It seems to me like there’s a gendered aspect to this. Men want to become self-reliant and surround themselves with other strong, dominant men. Women want to make sure that everyone is taken care of, even the weaker parties.
Bitter People Case Studies
Consider Bobby Fischer, definitely an extraordinarily accomplished person. Very telling, I think, is this video of the old, crazy Fischer. At about the 19 minute mark, (and elsewhere), he goes on a series of long diatribes about how he was shafted in a copyright dispute. Some other person/company “stole” the trademark to “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.”
Look. Maybe Fischer was shafted in that dispute. Maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know, and I frankly don’t care. And if I met him then and there, I would tell him. “It sounds like you got screwed, Bobby! Try reading the fine print next time! Kind of stupid of you to loose the trademark like that, maybe try standing up for yourself? But, on this topic: this is such a petty dispute. You are going to die at 64. How much more time and mental energy do you want to spend ruminating on this? What are you trying to achieve?”
Fischer spent the rest of his life crazed with such things. His legacy in popular culture is of a young genius who wasted away later in life into an anti-Semitic, borderline-schizophrenic weirdo. After he stopped delivering what the world wanted (chess wins), the world stopped caring about all the ways he was supposedly “wronged.” As it should. The world only wants what it can get from you.
Now let’s talk about someone who I have mentioned on this blog a lot: Eric Weinstein. He has been a partial inspiration for many of my articles. A while ago, a large and devoted community sprung up around him. It would have been a cult, except that it was (for a time) extremely tolerant of critics.
I’m going to get this off my chest. The community was, in its hay day, an absolute marvel to behold. It felt like the average member was a genius. The space felt like an enlightenment salon. Every sort of abstract topic was discussed. Politics, economics, physics, math, philosophy, technology, anthropology, cognitive science – but all in greater nuance and depth than virtually anywhere else online. You could hear 100 people talking with each other at one time, on the internet, with no one interrupting anyone else. The community was so high-quality it was almost humorous to remark on that fact, because it was so obvious.
But naturally, it went through a schism and gradual decline. Eric Weinstein, how do I put this — people started to see him as a bit of crank. This article provides a little bit of insight into the later era. Basically, Eric Weinstein is a bit of a crank. He trusts the wrong people, he always feels himself embattled, he has delusions of grandeur. (I would link you an example of how he responds to criticism, but the video I’m looking for appears to be taken down.)
One time, Eric told the story of his university years to the community. I’ll admit I found that story interesting when he first told it. The gist is, he claims that he was wronged in various ways during his academic career, and as a result he is so disillusioned from academia that he refuses to work within the system. He was excluded from things, they made it harder for him to get his degree, he was subject to targeting efforts, people took credit for his work, didn’t give him proper recognition, the whole shebang. But as Eric mentioned these events in more and more interviews, it started to become clear that they played a formative role in his self-identity.
One moment it hit me. Eric Weinstein is almost 60. And he is still complaining about his university years. That’s cringe. If you were shafted in college, consider it a fun war story. And that’s what I thought it was, at first. It should not be an ongoing grievance. You should expect to get fucked over many times in your life, by all types of people and organizations imaginable. You should expect that in the same way you expect bad weather. Those things add color to your life, and form the basis for those “I overcame…” stories, which, in our current culture, are commodities.
Life Failure Inflection Point
Almost everyone is either unambitious, starry-eyed, or bitter.
Unambitious people don’t have very radical goals. Almost no one will ever live up to the full realization of ambitious goals; the solution for the unambitious is to not expect much from themselves. They are resigned to the lives of ascetics.
Starry-eyed people convince themselves that great success is just around the corner, that they are one big break away from accomplishing all of their hopes and dreams. In reality, They are deluding themselves.
Bitter people have reached the point in their life where they realize that any chance they once had to accomplish their hopes and dreams is now gone. They therefore live in the past, with rose-tinted glasses for their glory days back when they still “had a shot” at greatness, forever bitter about how they were supposedly shafted. You have probably met someone who can’t stop reminiscing about their high school days, telling you “I could have become a pro football player if only it wasn’t for the injury to my knee!” This is an “if only” person. The bitter person’s vision of the past is marked by a semi-paradoxical mix of yearning and regret.
There is a specific age, different for each ambitious person, wherein they transform from starry-eyed to bitter. It is the time when their hopes and dreams evaporate, and are revealed to be fleetingly unrealistic. I call this the Life Failure Inflection Point. Starry-eyed people would want to delay this as long as possible; always convince themselves there is still time.
Certainly, at some point, everyone will pass the age wherein they could say, “I am only [10-14 years old] and I did [XYZ], isn’t that so impressive for a kid?” But that was a cope anyway for not being able to live up to the standards of adults.
There is no way I will ever bring myself to be unambitious, and I would rather be dead than be bitter. That leaves starry-eyed, which has serious problems, but I see it as the only option.By all means try to have realistic expectations, but err on the side of avoiding the trap of unambition.
“She’s out of my league.” “This is above my pay grade.” “I’m no good at math.” These are examples of the loser mindset.
The biggest example of the loser mindset is the idea “comparison is the thief of joy.” You must compare yourself to others in order to properly contextualize your own progress. You will have no idea if you are progressing quickly or slowly if you can’t see how others progress.
Somebody is dating the girls you want to, and the fact that it’s not you should piss you off. Someone has the job you want, and the fact that it’s not you should piss you off. It’s ok to not want to be good at math, but you should not resign to having no control of it. Barring biological/physiological limits, you should be able to acquire any skill.
I have always assumed that intelligence will never be a limiting factor for me, so the only limiting factors are physical (musculature, appearance, etc.) But even when I work out or try to look good, I am in denial of any personal defects (which I don’t have).
Shifting away, there is a very silly trend of people obsessed with the idea of “trauma.” The concept of trauma itself is a net harm for mankind, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people learn to see past events as “traumas” and not just bad things that happened to them, and learn to see “trauma” as an ongoing handicap, then in accepting that frame they make it become true for their own case.
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was thrown in a prison camp, he could have said, “I have had such terrible luck. There is nothing to be done. I cannot go against an entire system, against an entire ideology. I cannot take down a nation as large as the Soviet Union.” But instead, he discredited the ideology that wronged him, helping to take down its nation. It’s not always your fault that bad things happen to you, but it’s your fault if you don’t do anything about it.
Podcast-world famous-masculine-guy navy-seal Jocko Willink has a book (which I haven’t read, but I get the gist) called “extreme ownership.” The concept of extreme ownership is that the best leaders must take ultimate accountability for everything that happens to their team. Blaming incompetent subordinates is not a valid option. If you are a true leader, the buck stops with you. You are completely responsible for your subordinates.
Within the rules of your organization, do some combination of 1) select competent people for your team, 2) train and mentor team members so they become competent, 3) create delegate tasks so that people are given use work appropriate for them, and 4) have correct expectations for your team. If your team fails your expectations, you failed in one of those areas.
I broadly support this. It reminds me of the adage of a captain going down with his ship. I was once debating with someone who said, “why lose good captains, when it’s not even their fault?” And he was right, it’s not always their fault. But we can’t distinguish when it is or isn’t, so we have to always treat it like it is. The adage creates skin in the game, which is to say, aligned disincentives, by making the person in charge of an endeavor bear the costs of its failure. You don’t want a leader to say, “I’m not going to account for random luck, because that is not my fault.” If the captain assumes everything is their fault, they will find a way to exercise control over things you thought they couldn’t.
The US navy has a position seemingly inspired by this doctrine: a ship’s captain is always held responsible for a maritime accident, regardless of if it’s actually their “fault.” They cannot appeal to bad luck, poor staff, etc.
There is a class of belief which I have called in the past “metaphorical truth,” but which in this context I will call “consequentialist truth.” A consequentialist truth is something that you should believe because it leads to good outcomes. A consequentialist truth is not necessarily factual/scientific statements of the world (descriptive). Rather, it is a way to phrase advice (a prescriptive statement) in such a way that it sounds descriptive.
“A captain should go down with his ship” is technically a prescriptive statement, an “ought” claim, but it seems to imply a modified factual claim, “a captain is always responsible for the sinking of his ship,” which is consequentialist truth. I will now elucidate some more consequentialist truth:
The Most Evil Possible Position
Or, more neutrally named, the most right-wing possible position. That position is: personal accountability taken to the most extreme extent. Essentially victim-blaming, but unapologetically. We will imagine there is no such thing as luck. We will further imagine that circumstances of birth are not an excuse (essentially, that there’s no good or bad luck with respect to birth situation either). This is equivalent to the religious idea that good or bad things happen to you because it is the will of a God who punishes or rewards you for your actions.
Under this framework, if a bad thing happens to you, it’s your fault no matter what.
Did you get mugged? Your fault: you shouldn’t have been in that part of town if you couldn’t defend yourself. Did your friend betray you? Your fault: you should’ve gotten better friends. Did your spouse divorce you? Your fault: the same logic as before. Did you get stabbed? Your fault: should’ve had better martial arts skills. Accidentally get a girl pregnant? Your fault: should’ve been more careful. Get a disease? Your fault: should’ve lived a healthier lifestyle. How about genetic diseases? It’s your parent’s fault: they should have known and accepted that possibility; why complain about something when you took actions you knew might cause it? As for you: feel lucky you were even born, because the alternative is your parents choosing not to conceive.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
If you want to talk about group outcomes, the same logic applies. (Ardent individualists may not want to talk about groups at all. They can just skip the next section then.) Many groups have grievances against other groups, “we have been wronged and deserve reparations.” But it is an admission of failure. If there was no failure, why did they allow themselves to be taken advantage of, by failing to take adequate measures to protect themselves? Under the following framework, if something bad happens to your group, it’s the fault of your group.
Did your tribe get massacred? Their fault: should’ve been better at combat. What if they were better at combat, but they just had a smaller population? Still their fault: should’ve gotten a bigger population if that was required to continue their existence. What if their invaders came from a continent they didn’t even know existed? Still their fault: should’ve been prepared for it. What if you were just so generous that you were not prepared for evil foreigners? Their fault: they shouldn’t have been so gullible; they should have been aware of what kind of evil exists in the world and prepared accordingly.
But what about geography? As epic genius (lol) Jared Diamond tells us, geography is the only thing that allows groups to dominate other groups! Well, that’s still the fault of the invaded. They should’ve picked better geography. But how could they possibly know? Human migration is opportunistic and so sporadic, there’s no way ancient migrating tribes could have possibly predicted what their future geography would be! I know. Didn’t you read the preface? But just to play devil’s advocate, let’s assume that they could.
I actually find this philosophy quite useful (albeit incorrect), as a way to think of oneself. One is essentially saying, “I had the potential to be the most competent being in existence, a being which can surpass any bad luck or poor circumstances. Therefore, any inability on my part to achieve any of my objects is simply an indication of a failure to take the appropriate actions that I would take if I was really serious about getting what I want.”
Not Entitled to Empathy
“Not another fool who thinks life should be fair”
-Shahmen, All in the Circle
Many years ago, I was volunteering with a group of boys. We had to carry objects about the distance of a football field. I complained that the object I was carrying was too heavy. A very squared-away and impressive boy near me asked, critically yet seriously, “do you want me to give it to me, to carry it for you?”. Never been so offended, I said no, of course not! What an affront to my manliness, to make another guy carry his stuff and my own stuff, because I alone can’t manage it! But, evident from that reaction, his statement laid bare the vapidness of my complaint. Why complain, if I didn’t want help?
There is a response to complaints that was very popular when I was younger. The response is, “sucks to be you!” What a wise and necessary retort. It should be more common again. Oh, you have wet socks? Sucks to be you! Oh, your parents are forcing you to do yard work, so you can’t hang out? Sucks to be you! And so on. It’s exactly as dismissive as it sounds. “Your problems aren’t my problems. What do you expect me to do, performatively sooth you?”
That retort was much more common in male-only spaces than in mixed-gender spaces. If you don’t understand the value of masculine culture, in “toxic masculinity,” it’s because you don’t understand the value of the above retort. It encourages self-reliance. Fix your own problems, if you possibly can, before burdening the group.
Given the preface, here is how I reconcile my devil’s advocate position with, generally speaking, that which I really think. I will posit the following. If you, as a person or group, are either severely unlucky or legitimately wronged, then you have every right to point out that injustice, and, if and only if my full help would actually nullify your complaint, you have every right to request aid from me to remediate the grievance, (although whether I am actually obligated to help you depends on whether I’m at fault, otherwise it’s up to me), but, barring those conditions, you are not entitled to my empathy.
Did your village get raided? Did locusts eat your crops? Are you being oppressed? I will help what I can, and I will side with you. But you’re not entitled to my empathy, and you shouldn’t want it either. I feel empathy like everyone else, but at the end of the day, that is not what is going to actually help you. In fact, my empathy only helps me, because it allows me to virtue-signal. And I don’t dream of eliminating all privilege, I don’t think that’s possible.