Longreads + Open Thread

Utopia, LLMs, Enron, Michael Nielsen, Ponzi Schemes, Workaholics, Buzzfeed, Honor



One delightful subgenres is very nerdy people reverse-engineering conventional behaviors. There are just a lot of people out there who broaden their horizons until those horizons can encompass living in the suburbs and driving a minivan, or who conclude that in light of game theory and Darwinian evolution, grandma made some very good points about the nature of the good life. Another entry in this is Why Honor Matters, a philosophy professor's full-throated defense of the concept of honor and prudently spotty defense of all that it entails.

A lot of the energy from this argument arises from the Chestertonian observation that many cultures believe in honor as a concept, and they presumably outcompeted the ones that didn't. Honor works especially in places where law enforcement is uncertain and where property is mobile: it's hard to steal a farm but relatively easier to steal a cow, or a herd of them, so modern groups descended from agrarian ones tend to use dignity culture rather than honor culture, i.e. if there's a personal dispute, it gets settled by an impartial authority figure rather than a one-on-one or clan-on-clan dispute. If that dispute doesn't happen to violate specific rules, it doesn't get resolved. (Or, in practice, someone finds a way to turn an honor culture-style problem, i.e. that they've been personally insulted, into a legal dispute.)

There is a lot to be said for dignity culture. For one thing, it's led to both richer and safer countries; call the cops on your neighbor for playing loud music, and the odds that this will lead to a multi-generational blood feud are pretty low. We don't have to personally enforce every single behavioral norm. And if we let something slide, it doesn't permanently impair our expectation for future fair treatment. But honor culture resonates with people in a way that dignity culture doesn't. A story about honor is a story with a protagonist, even if the plot is sometimes pretty stupid, while a story about dignity culture is ultimately about being beholden to powerful abstract forces. The John Wick franchise would be less popular if it followed Keanu Reeves through the arduous process of taking Russian mobsters to small claims court to get back the cost of his dog plus $5k for emotional distress. And the completely unfair sense in which honor culture forces people to atone for problems that are not of their doing also means that it binds people to their past and the context in which they were born, while dignity culture separates them from it. The latter is, again, a much more straightforward way to organize society, but it does leave something behind.

This book explained some other features of honor culture. One thing I'd wondered about it was: even if everyone's more willing to fight, why do they end up in situations that call for violence so often? But there's a good theory for this: if you exist in such a culture, you want to constantly evaluate members of your ingroup to see if they'd have your back in a fight, while you'd constantly probe members of the outgroup to see if they're vulnerable. So an honor culture will have more trash-talking and more antagonizing strangers—it's the only way for participants to situate themselves in the hierarchy.

Honor cultures are vulnerable to aggressive bullies. Dignity cultures are vulnerable to passive-aggressive bullies. A sociopath who has memorized the rulebook can get away with a lot of unethical behavior that nominally follows the rules, and many of them seem to delight in doing such things. D&D players call this "Munchkining," and they frown on it. Like Jonathan Haidt, this book is defending a set of rules partly on the grounds that, deep down, we still believe in them, and ought to preach more of what we practice.

Open Thread

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