Epistemic status: Exploratory. Trying to figure it out.
There is a feeling I often find myself feeling. It is an uncomfortable feeling, and the fact that I have trouble labeling it makes the discomfort even worse. I think I may have arrived at a solid label though: tentative anger.
Let me start by giving some examples of what I mean.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, so let's talk about football. I am a Steelers fan. However, I'm not really a fan of their head coach, Mike Tomlin. Why? Because he does stupid things.
Here's one example. We always end up in these situations where linebackers are covering slot receivers. Linebackers are generally about 250lbs or so, whereas slot receivers are more like 200 pounds. Which means those receivers are almost always faster and more agile, making it really hard for linebackers to cover them. It's like asking a boxer to fight outside of his weight class. Usually you'd have ~200lb cornerbacks guarding those receivers instead.
No one, including Tomlin, actually thinks that it is a good strategy to put linebackers on receivers. It's just that... I'm not sure actually. For whatever reason, sometimes these mismatches happen. But Tomlin doesn't seem to mind very much. Compared to other coaches, he doesn't seem to try as hard to avoid them. And when they do happen, his response is something like:
Tough luck. The standard is the standard. You've gotta step up and meet the challenge. I don't care that he's 50 pounds lighter than you.
What makes more sense to me would be something like:
I got outcoached. My bad. I've got to put my players in a position to succeed, and I didn't do that. I'll hit the drawing board and try to prevent this from happening in the future.
But here's the thing: he's an ultra successful football coach, and I'm not. Maybe he knows better than me. Maybe there's a Bayesians vs Barbarians angle to this.
That's plausible. But then why doesn't this happen to the other football coaches? And why do all the other fans get angry about this too? And why do journalists who seem to know football make the same points I make?
Ultimately, all things considered, I do suspect that Tomlin is being dumb here, and that I am justified in being angry. However, I'm only something like 80% sure. There is still a very reasonable chance that I am wrong and that my anger would be misplaced.
So what is the appropriate response? Hold off on feeling angry until I am more like 95% or 99% sure? Or am I justified in being angry right now?
Here's the deal with Paxlovoid. It's a drug for treating covid. They had clinical trials. The results of those trials were so good that they decided that it would be unethical to continue the studies, because people in the control group shouldn't be denied Paxlovoid. But, simultaneously, the FDA isn't ready to approve it yet.
Notice the hypocrasy? Zvi does. So does Alex Tabarrok. And Scott Alexander. And Elizer Yudkowsky. And probably a bunch of other internet people who I trust.
It seems pretty fucked up. If the drug is so good that it is unethical to continue studying it, then shouldn't we let people take it? Shouldn't we at least leave that decision up to them?
On the other hand, I can think of reasons why it might make sense to act the way they are acting. Well, those bloggers I mentioned above addressed a lot of those reasons actually. But maybe there are things those bloggers missed. Maybe there are things those bloggers don't understand. Maybe they are being overconfident. Maybe the bloggers just don't have access to the same information the FDA does, and there is something the FDA knows that we don't that makes it a good idea to do what they're doing. Maybe we just are at some sort of inadequate equilibrium where no individual actor is doing something that would justify my being angry at them and instead it's just the situation and incentives that is to blame.
I don't know. It does seem pretty likely that individual people are blameworthy and that I should be angry at them. I just don't have a good enough understanding to know that to be true. I'm maybe like 90% confident I should be angry at someone. Vaguely, "the politicians and the FDA".
But like the case with Mike Tomlin, this isn't 100%. It's not even 99%. There's still a reasonable chance that my anger would be unjustified.
Here's what happened with Stallings (YouTube, news article). George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin. Then there were protests in Minneapolis. Stallings showed up to those protests with a gun. Police were patrolling the streets, shooting rubber bullets at people in an attempt to enforce a curfew and get them to go home. Stallings got hit in the chest with one of those bullets and then shot back real bullets at the police. He didn't know it was the police. He was recently acquitted of various charges.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. One the one hand, what are you doing bringing a gun to a situation like that? On the other hand, aparently that's legal. On the other hand, so what? On the other hand, maybe there's a decent reason that I can't think of? Or maybe intent is what matters, and he had good intent? On the other hand, it seems unlikely that he had good intent. My money is on him having some sort of tough guy attitude. On the other hand, that isn't illegal. On the other hand, the legal system sucks and illegal is not a prerequisite for something being wrong. On the other hand, the topic here is whether it was right for them to acquit him. On the other hand, maybe that isn't actually the topic.
As you can see, I'm a little confused. And that is precisely the point. I have some sense that something unjust happened, so I want to be angry. But I'm not sure. And if something unjust did not happen, then I don't want to be angry.
At first I was going to call this "tentative indignation", but then I realized that it is more broad than that. There are situations where indignation isn't the right word. Like with Mike Tomlin. There I'm simply angry. I don't feel indignant. It's just football.
Anyway, what is the proper way to handle such situations? I think what happens in practice is that my anger just gets diluted. If someone does something that is an 8/10 on the badness scale, and I am only X% sure that they did it (or were wrong, or whatever) my anger gets brought down to something like a 6/10. But that feels uncomfortable to me. If they did it, I want to be 8/10 angry. If they didn't, I want to be 0/10. Either way, my 6/10 isn't "correct".
I guess we need to dive into what makes an emotion like anger "correct" in the first place. Well, it should be based in reality, for starters. Our understanding of reality is probablistic, so maybe this 6/10 anger thing is perfectly fine. Let's explore a little more.
Suppose hugs made me angry, I saw someone hug someone else, and I experienced anger. This feeling would be based in reality, but it still seems wrong. It seems wrong because, well, hugs shouldn't make me angry! Hugs generally just bring happiness to the world without having any harmful side-effects. They are a pareto improvement. So feelings should be based in reality... and... correspond with what is "good" for the world? We can dive further into the ethical philosophy another time. For now this seems to be roughly correct.
And with that said, my diluted anger does actually seem appropriate. Think about it: what are the alternatives? Going to the full blown 8/10 is the same response I'd have if I was 100% sure they did it, but here I'm only X% sure. Thinking about what is good for the world, from behind a veil of ignorance, if everyone went to full blown anger every time they were only X% sure of something, that just seems like it'd be too much anger. So my true level of anger should be less than an 8/10.
Let's explore it from the other side now. Should it be a 0/10? No. Asking the same question about what would be good for the world, if it took 100%, no, let's say 99% confidence before people got angry, then I think it wouldn't be enough. Anger is useful. It imposes social punishments on people who do bad things. It draws a spotlight on people who are suspicious. Stuff like that disincentivizes bad behavior, which we want.
So yeah, dilution is really seeming like it is in fact the correct response. Now let's revisit something I wrote earlier:
But that feels uncomfortable to me. If they did it, I want to be 8/10 angry. If they didn't, I want to be 0/10. Either way, my 6/10 isn't "correct".
Emotionally, I still feel this, even though logically I think dilution makes sense. Is that weird?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I feel that way emotionally because of some sense of justice, where I don't want to wrongly point a finger at someone and chastise them, but I also don't want to pull my punches when someone truly is at fault. I suppose this sense of justice isn't such a bad thing though.
If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email: email@example.com.
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