Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.

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The Politeness Problem

One of the rules of “polite behavior” is not making other people feel uncomfortable, and that means not pointing out their shortcomings and failures, even (perhaps especially) obvious ones. Bringing up people’s flaws tends to be embarrassing, and harping on them comes across as cruel.

For example, if someone is clumsy due to a disability, it would be rude to draw attention to them dropping a glass. It would be

But politely not-mentioning-flaws is dependent on other people being already aware of their flaws–in this case, clumsy people are presumably not volunteering to carry your fine china. But what happens when people aren’t aware of their own failings? People don’t generally appreciate criticism, especially if they don’t believe they deserve that criticism.

There are three general approaches to the problem:

1. The Shit Sandwich 2. Be Rude 3. Retreat

“Shit sandwich” refers to the custom in fiction critiquing communities of “sandwiching” criticism of what’s wrong in a story between two compliments. For example, “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into your Smurfs/Harry Potter crossover. However, I think Gargamel defeated Voldemort with the flux capacitor a little too easily. Voldemort is pretty strong in the books and I think your story would have more tension if Gargamel had to work harder for his dastardly triumph. Overall I thought it was really creative and loved the part where Smurfette gave all of the house elves makeovers.”

Sometimes you can’t think of two nice things to say about a story. Then you lie and say you liked something about it, because “This story sucked from top to bottom and made me want to wash my eyes with bleach” tends not to inspire improvement. Even if a story has tons of problems, people can only focus on improving so many at once.

The shit sandwich works by softening the blow of the criticism and making the critiquer sound friendly and non-hostile. It reassures the writer that the critiquer is trying to approach the work evenly, appreciating its good and bad, rather than just looking for an excuse to insult someone.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes people react with anger and hostility to any criticism, no matter how softly it is framed. “How dare you not love my Thomas the Tank Engine Chainsaw Massacre? Horror is exactly what the toddler set needs!”

When the shit sandwich doesn’t work, people tend to escalate to option 2, Rudeness: “I threw up while reading this. There is no way I would read this out loud to my toddler.”

If that doesn’t work (or the mods step in,) people resort to option 3: avoid each other.

In online critique groups, avoiding problematic people works fine. Out i society where people often have to be around each other (you don’t get to pick your co-workers or fellow subway riders), it works much less effectively.

As a society, we are pretty bad at acknowledging our own flaws, politely pointing out unrecognized flaws, and acknowledging justified criticism. Instead we flail about yelling “I don’t suck, you suck!”

I could write a bunch of shit sandwiches about different groups, but chances are you’re already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Women are great at nurturing but can be over-emotional; men are courageous and daring but also commit the vast majority of crime; Asians are really smart but many don’t take time to relax with friends; whites run nice countries but many of them are lizard-people; blacks are really creative but often aggressive. Have I covered all of the stereotypes?

I’d like to think that people could dispassionately take stock of their personal weaknesses and try to do better. I’ll never be a quantum physicist, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about about it. But society seems more inclined to shut down any and all criticism on the grounds that self-improvement isn’t as useful as screaming your opponents into submission.

The alternatives to politely recognizing our own failings and trying to work on them are either becoming ruder or avoiding each other. People have been trying to avoid each other for decades–first in the Great Migration, blacks decided to avoid Jim Crow and Southern whites. Then crime skyrocketed in urban areas, and whites fled to avoid blacks. But this is incredibly inefficient–not only have whole transit systems had to be re-built to handle the flow of commuters going in and out of the cities every day, but millions of people lost money they’d put into their houses and communities were destroyed.

And there is only so much avoiding people can do: sooner or later we meet each other on the streets or in the office, at school or in the park. No matter what we think of each other, we are all–for the foreseeable future–stuck in the same country together. We live under presidents and lawmakers voted for by other people.

If we can’t avoid each other, then what? ? Rudeness? Violence? Anger? A world increasingly run by HR departments?

We’d better figure something out.

Increasing Diversity => Fascism: the difficulty of enforcing social norms via rules

I was recently reading a series of messageboard exchanges on the topic of increased integration of suburban neighborhoods, in which one person happily opined about the benefits of increased Section 8 housing in her neighborhood, and that any fears about declining home values could be solved by simply having stronger HOAs that enforced more rules.

And people call me aspie.

There are two major reasons why this is a bad strategy:

  1. Laws are, at best, an imperfect approximation of social norms; more laws => less freedom
  2. Disparate Impact

Let’s start with #1.

Most social norms are “unstated,” general rules of thumb that people understand almost intuitively, and apply with a fair amount of nuance. Failure to understand social nuance is annoying at best and a major symptom of certain mental disabilities; people who cannot understand social nuance are basically handicapped in social situations. The more rules are unstated, the worse off they are.

When two cultural groups mix, individuals often run into confusion due to having different cultural norms. In some cases these are easily worked out–just remember to take your shoes off when you arrive at your Chinese friend’s home–and in some cases they can’t be. If I think looking people in the eyes is rude, and you think not looking people in the eyes is rude, then we are going to have a conflict.

But let’s take an example that might actually come under an HOA’s jurisdiction. Let’s say you live in a community of about 100 households. The vast majority of the time–199 out of 2oo days, to be exact–everyone in the neighborhood takes their trash to the dumpsters, where it belongs. But 1 out of 200 days, each person has some unexpected thing come up–sickness, broken foot, whatever–and they leave a bag of trash out on their porch overnight. As such, even though everyone in the community agrees “people should not leave bags of trash on their porches at night, because rats,” every other night, there will be one bag of trash out on a porch somewhere in the neighborhood.

Then a new guy arrives. New Guy looks around, sees the bags of trash, and decides it must be okay in this neighborhood to leave bags of trash on one’s porch. New Guy starts putting his trash on his porch regularly–3 nights a week. The neighbors start to complain, but there’s not much they can do about it–the HOA has no rule on the subject, because it was never a problem before.

So after people get into shouting matches with the new guy a few times, the HOA passes a new rule: no trash on porches. New Guy gets a letter from the HOA notifying him that he’s going to get fined if there’s any more trash on his porch.

Pissed off, New Guy wanders around the neighborhood with his camera, photographing bags of trash on other people’s porches. By the end of the month, he has 15 photos of trash on other peoples’ porches, and accuses the HOA of singling him out for something other people are also doing.

The HOA now has to send letters to everyone. Now the vast majority of people getting letters about their trash are people who were leaving their trash out at socially acceptable rates in the first place, and the small utility of occasionally not hauling trash to the dumpsters due to crappy life circumstances has been eliminated.

The HOA could, if it were extremely motivated, pass a law based on frequency of trash bags, and keep track of exactly how often people leave trash on their porches. As long as your trash bags are separated by 200 days, you’re good. But put one out a mere 190 days after your previous one, and get fined. This is unlikely, would require an uncomfortable level of monitoring by the HOA, and would cost more. The more oversight you have to do, the more your HOA fees go up to pay for it all.

Now let’s suppose that there are several New Guys, and they run into more issue than just trash on their porches. They have large dogs, who bark a lot and whose pee starts killing the grass outside the building. There’s no rule against dogs, of course–lots of residents have one or two small dogs, but who has five big ones? The residents all scoop their dogs’ poop, but the New Guys don’t. The New Guys sublet their units to a bunch more new guys–there’s no rule against subletting, after all–creating a parking situation. Neighbors start complaining that their guests can’t park in the guest spots and have to walk a long way because the New Guys’ subletters are always parked in the guest spots, and there aren’t anymore parking spots in the lot. The New Guys have lots of friends who visit frequently, and neighbors complain about car doors slamming in the middle of the night and strangers coming and going in the halls. The New Guys complain that they just want to have a nice time with their friends, you assholes.

Are you going to make rules about all of these things? If you make a rule about subletting, will you also enforce it against guys whose gfs are sleeping over? They also contribute to the parking problem, after all. And how on earth are you going to enforce a rule about car doors at night or forbid people from having guests in their own units?

After about a hundred angry letters from the HOA, many fights with their neighbors, and a bunch of fines, let’s suppose the New Guys realize that they all come from a different ethno-cultural group than everyone else. If they’ve received more fines from the HOA than their ethnically different neighbors, then the HOA is guilty of Disparate Impact, (see, eg, Griggs,) and they can sue the HOA for being racist.

“In United States anti-discrimination law, the theory of disparate impact holds that practices in employment, housing, or other areas may be considered discriminatory and illegal if they have a disproportionate “adverse impact” on persons in a protected class. Although the protected classes vary by statute, most federal civil rights laws protect based on race, color, religion, national origin, and gender as protected traits, and some laws include disability status and other traits as well.” —Wikipedia

In the case of Griggs Vs. Duke Power, the SCOTUS found that Duke Power’s policy of only hiring employees with either a highschool diploma or who had received a particular score on an IQ test was racist because it disproportionately affected blacks, who are more likely than whites to drop out of highschool and score worse on IQ tests.

If the HOA’s rules impact people from different cultural groups with different norms of behavior at different rates–and it seems nearly impossible for them not to, given that, you know, different people are behaving differently–then you have disparate impact. If the HOA’s rules aren’t impacting people from different cultural groups differently, then you aren’t enforcing the community norms that you had in the first place.

The examples I have given are all minor ones. In real life, people have much larger issues. What do you do about the neighbor who decides to disassemble a car on his lawn, or the guy whose party guests crash drunkenly into your car? Or people with different norms about the acceptability of shoplifting or honor killing? Polygamy or child brides?

There’s a certain irony in this. When I think of “People I wish lived in my neighborhood,” (generally friends who have moved to far-flung places due to the vagaries of life, college, and jobs,) I don’t think, “So long as I clearly articulate all of my rules, my friends will be able to learn how to behave so they don’t crash the home values in my area,” because people I think are nice to be around are already people who share my ideas of acceptable behavior. Saying that people of other ethnic groups need to learn the rules of acceptable behavior implies, therefore, that you do not think these people know how to behave themselves or that their cultures are immoral/bad/incorrect.

I have mentioned before (though I can’t find it now, so maybe it wasn’t here,) that I think liberalism is (or ought to be) a meta-value of allowing other people in other places to do what they feel like without interfering, so long as they aren’t affecting you. The Amish can do their thing, and I can do my thing, and we don’t need to mess with each other. The Sentinelese and Pygmies aren’t hurting me, so I leave them alone. This breaks down when people with radically different beliefs live in close proximity to each other. If your neighbors believe in human sacrifice and you don’t, you will come into conflict. If your neighbors believe that women who don’t wear burkas are whores and you believe in sex-positive feminism, you will come into conflict. Then either someone will have to step in and start enforcing a bunch of new rules to sort the mess out, or you will punch each other until someone gives in.

There is nothing particularly wrong with trying to clearly articulate the rules, but it is not a solution for a lack of shared values and understanding of social norms.