Degrees of Radical Honesty

The Black Belt Bayesian writes:

Pro­mot­ing less than max­i­mally ac­cu­rate be­liefs is an act of sab­o­tage. Don’t do it to any­one un­less you’d also slash their tires, be­cause they’re Nazis or what­ever.

Eliezer adds:

If you’ll lie when the fate of the world is at stake, and oth­ers can guess that fact about you, then, at the mo­ment when the fate of the world is at stake, that’s the mo­ment when your words be­come the whistling of the wind.

Th­ese are both rad­i­cally high stan­dards of hon­esty. Thus, it is easy to miss the fact that they are rad­i­cally differ­ent stan­dards of hon­esty. Let us look at a bound­ary case.

Thomblake puts the mat­ter vividly:

Sup­pose that Anne Frank is hid­ing in the at­tic, and the Nazis come ask­ing if she’s there. Harry doesn’t want to tell them, but Stan in­sists he mustn’t de­ceive the Nazis, re­gard­less of his com­mit­ment to save Anne’s life.

So, let us say that you are liv­ing in Nazi Ger­many, dur­ing WWII, and you have a Jewish fam­ily hid­ing up­stairs. There’s a cou­ple of brown­shirts with rifles knock­ing on your door. What do you do?

I see four ob­vi­ous re­sponses to this prob­lem (though there may be more)

  1. “Yes, there are Jews liv­ing up­stairs, third door on the left”—you have pro­moted max­i­mally ac­cu­rate be­liefs in the Nazi sol­diers. Out­come: The fam­ily you are shel­ter­ing will die hor­ribly.

  2. “I can­not tell you the an­swer to that ques­tion”—you have not de­ceived the Nazis. They spend a few min­utes search­ing the house. Out­come: The fam­ily you are shel­ter­ing will die hor­ribly.

  3. “No, there are no Jews here”—your words are like unto the whistling of the wind. The Nazis ex­pect in­di­vi­d­u­als with­out Jews in their homes to ut­ter these words with near cer­tainty. They ex­pect in­di­vi­d­u­als with Jews in their homes to ut­ter these words with near cer­tainty. Th­ese words make no change in P(there are Jews here) as mea­sured by the Nazis. Even a cou­ple of teenaged brown­shirts will pos­sess this much ra­tio­nal­ity. Out­come: The fam­ily you are shel­ter­ing will die hor­ribly.

  4. Prac­tice the Dark Arts. Heil Hitler en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, and em­brace the sol­diers warmly. Thank them for the work they are do­ing in defend­ing your father­land from the Jewish men­ace. Bring them into your home, and have your wife bring them strong beer, and her best sausages. Over din­ner, tell ev­ery filthy joke you know about rol­ling pen­nies through ghet­tos. Talk about the Jewish-owned shop that used to be down the street, and how you re­fused to go there, but walked three miles to pa­tron­ize a Ger­man es­tab­lish­ment. Tell of the Jewish moneylen­der who ru­ined your cousin. Sing pa­tri­otic songs while your beau­tiful ado­les­cent daugh­ter plays the pi­ano. Fi­nally, tell the sol­diers that your daugh­ter’s room is up­stairs, that she is shy, and bash­ful, and would be dis­turbed by two strange young men look­ing through her things. Ap­peal to their sense of chivalry. Make them feel that re­spect­ing your daugh­ter’s pri­vacy is the Ger­man thing to do—is what the Feurer him­self would want them to do. Be­fore they have time to pro­cess this, clasp their hands warmly, thank them for their com­pany, and po­litely but firmly show them out. Out­come: far from cer­tain, but there is a sig­nifi­cant chance that the fam­ily you are shel­ter­ing live long, happy lives.

I am cer­tain that YVain could have a field day with the myr­iad ways in which re­sponse 4 does not rep­re­sent ra­tio­nal dis­course. Nonethe­less, in this limited prob­lem, it wins.

(It should also be noted that re­sponse 4 came to me in about 15 min­utes of think­ing about the prob­lem. If I ac­tu­ally had Jews in my at­tic, and lived in Nazi Ger­many, I might have thought of some­thing bet­ter).


What if you live in the im­pos­si­ble pos­si­ble world in which a nu­clear blast could ig­nite the at­mo­sphere of the en­tire earth? What if you are your­self a nu­clear sci­en­tist, and have proven this to your­self be­yond any doubt, but can­not con­vey the whole of the ar­gu­ment to a lay­man? The fate of the whole world could de­pend on your su­pe­ri­ors be­liev­ing you to be the sort of man who will not tell a lie. And, of course, in or­der to be the sort of man who would not tell a lie, you must not tell lies.

Do we have wig­gle room here? Nei­ther your su­pe­rior officer, nor the two teenaged brown­shirts, are Omega, but your su­pe­rior bears a far greater re­sem­blance. The brown­shirts are young, are ruled by hor­mones. It is easy to prac­tice the Dark Arts against them, and get away with it. Is it pos­si­ble to grab the low-hang­ing fruit to be had by de­ceiv­ing fools (at least, those who are evil and whose tires you would will­ingly slash), while re­tain­ing the benefits of be­ing be­lieved by the wise?

I am hon­estly un­sure, and so I put the ques­tion to you all.

ETA: I have of course for­got­ten about the un­re­al­is­ti­cally op­ti­mistic op­tion:

5: Really, truly, pro­mote max­i­mally ac­cu­rate be­liefs. Teach the sol­diers ra­tio­nal­ity from the ground up. Ex­plain to them about af­fec­tive death spirals, and make them see that they are in­volved in one. Help them to un­der­stand that their own moral­ity as­signs value to the lives hid­den up­stairs. Con­vince them to stop be­ing nazis, and to help you pro­tect your charges.

If you can pull this off with­out wind­ing up in a con­cen­tra­tion camp your­self (along with the fam­ily you’ve been shel­ter­ing) you are a vastly bet­ter ra­tio­nal­ist than I, or (I sus­pect) any­one else on this fo­rum.