The Semiotic Fallacy
Acknowledgement: This idea is essentially the same as something mentioned in a podcast where Julia Galef interviews Jason Brennan.
You are in a prison. You don’t really know how to fight and you don’t have very many allies yet. A prison bully comes up to you and threatens you. You have two options: (1) Stand up to the bully and fight. If you do this, you will get hurt, but you will save face. (2) You can try and run away. You might get hurt less badly, but you will lose face.
What should you do?
From reading accounts of former prisoners and also from watching realistic movies and TV shows, it seems like (1) is the better option. The reason is that the semiotics—or the symbolic meaning—of running away has bad consequences down the road. If you run away, you will be seen as weak, and therefore you will be picked on more often and causing more damage down the road.
This is a case where focusing the semiotics on the action is the right decision, because it is underwritten by future consequences.
But consider now a different situation. Suppose a country, call it Macholand, controls some tiny island far away from its mainland. Macholand has a hard time governing the island and the people on the island don’t quite like being ruled by Macholand. Suppose, one fine day, the people of the island declare independence from Macholand. Macholand has two options: (1) Send the military over and put down the rebellion; or (2) Allow the island to take its own course.
From a semiotic standpoint, (1) is probably better. It signals that Macholand is strong and powerful country. But from a consequential standpoint, it is at least plausible (2) is a better option. Macholand saves money and manpower by not having to govern that tiny island; the people on the island are happier by being self-governing; and maybe the international community doesn’t really care what Macholand does here.
This is a case where focusing on the semiotics can lead to suboptimal outcomes.
Call this kind of reasoning the semiotic fallacy: Thinking about the semiotics of possible actions without estimating the consequences of the semiotics.
I think the semiotic fallacy is widespread in human reasoning. Here are a few examples:
People argue that democracy is good because it symbolizes egalitarianism. (This is example used in the podcast interview)
People argue that we should build large particle accelerators because it symbolizes human achievement.
People argue that we shouldn’t build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes division.
People argue that we should build a wall on the southern border because it symbolizes national integrity.
Two comments are in order:
The semiotic fallacy is a special case of errors in reasoning and judgement caused from signaling behaviors (à la Robin Hanson). The distinctive feature of the semiotic fallacy is that the semiotics are explicitly stated during reasoning. Signaling type errors are often subconscious: e.g., if we spend a lot of money on our parents’ medical care, we might be doing it for symbolic purposes (i.e., signaling) but we wouldn’t say explicitly that that’s why we are doing it. In the semiotic fallacy on the other hand, we do explicitly acknowledge the reason we do something is because of its symbolism.
Just like all fallacies, the existence of the fallacy doesn’t necessarily mean the final conclusion is wrong. It could be that the semiotics are underwritten by the consequences. Or the conclusion could be true because of completely orthogonal reasons. The fallacy occurs when we ignore, in our reasoning during choice, the need for the consequential undergirding of symbolic acts.