The consequentialist case for social conservatism, or “Against Cultural Superstimuli”

This essay was requested by the highly qualified rationalist and extremely-sex-positive Paul Crowley, who (like me) is frustrated by the absolute refusal of certain political groups to explain their actual ideas rather than shout at each other. The shouty people in this case are sex-negative conservatives and second-wave feminists, and the thing they’re shouting about is that our society has become too hedonistic. Do they have a point?

Well, the strongest argument in favor of social conservatism is common sense – in this case, the idea that society is the way it is for a reason, and that any large scale change is therefore liable to have severe negative societal consequences. Society might feel like a construct, but it’s actually evolved in much the same way as us. As such, trying to ‘fix’ society is like modifying human RNA to vaccinate against a disease – a completely insane notion that obviously demands extreme caution but something which can apparently be done if you put your best and smartest people on the job. The problem is that when it comes to modifying society, not only are the smartest people not in charge, nobody is in charge, there is no quality testing whatsoever and nobody even seems aware of how absolutely insane that is.

Liberal commentators dismiss this concern in the name of utilitarian consequentialism: the idea that even if a proposed change seems scary, you should just shut up and do the math and then implement it anyway if the numbers work out. And from the perspective of progressives, the math is firmly on their side. Conservatives warned that society would collapse if interracial marriage was legalized, and yet here we are. They said the same thing about gay marriage, and women’s rights, and literally every other time there was a proposal to make society even slightly more open and tolerant. And now they are singing the same tune about Trans people (No, unisex bathrooms and women’s sports are not their real primary objections – they’ve just gotten into the habit of censoring their own best arguments). Clearly, conservatives are just a lodestone whose existence only serves to slow down progress, and the best solution is to either silence them or else to simply ignore them until they become irrelevant.

But from the perspective of social conservatives, the exact opposite is the case. Sure, society didn’t collapse immediately when the most obviously necessary changes were implemented, but it’s hard to argue that democracy isn’t functioning less well now than it did before. Conservatives warned that doing away with even seemingly arbitrary rules would diminish social cohesion, and Americans are now more divided than ever. Conservatives warned that boys need male role models, and after losing out on male teachers boys are doing worse than ever. After progressives unilaterally took over schools and universities (sometimes through little more than bullying) the Flynn effect has reversed and IQ is dropping for the first time in forever. Suicide rates are up, and life expectancy is down for more reasons than just the pandemic alone.

If all of that is not enough to convince a reasonable moderate that there may be something to the notion that encouraging people to treat life like a fun game is a bad idea, the last US president was a literal reality TV star, and most Americans now support the idea of running a celebrity as president.

But okay, Paul originally asked about the appeal of sex negativity in particular, so let’s focus on that. It seems easy to grant that something might be up with society in general, but how could anything as simple and innocuous as porn cause a problem as big as that?

Well, I was raised with the idea that “the key to happiness is low expectations”, and I think that’s simply empirically true. I don’t agree with progressives that everything is relative, but some things really are, and happiness is definitely one of them. As such, I feel like Yudkowsky’s a sense that more is possible should have maybe come with a warning label in the same way that TVtropes does. You see, the hedonic treadmill means that if you make someone experience something ultra-fun just once, you can literally make the entire rest of their life more miserable simply by making everything else seem drab and grey in comparison. There are accounts of torture being made worse by intentionally giving the victim false hope of freedom, and the most naïve forms of utilitarianism simply cannot account for that.

For someone like Paul Crowley, there is an easy solution to this: Just have ultra fun superjoy all the time! And, well, maybe that’s an option if you look like an eternally young sexmeister like he does (pfffff), but sadly that’s not an option for the rest of us. To a homely straight dude who is trapped in a cubicle with no prospect of escape, dangling the notion of ultra-superfun in front of his nose may be downright cruel.

Similarly, there are entire communities of people who used to think that they were moderately attractive (because duh) until the modern media came along and they were bombarded with images of supermodels. It’s hard to know for sure why, but the happiness of women in particular has been declining for the last 50 years, even as their expectations rise. That doesn’t look like progress to me.

Essentially, the disagreement between social conservatives and progressives boils down to this:

Setting high expectations causes increased misery until they’re realized

I should note first, with great clarity, that I have no problem whatsoever with the inevitable future where, if we do not destroy each other first, everyone gains the technology to transform themselves into catgirls if they so wish. But in between now and then lies the point where people spend all day fantasizing about being and/​or having sex with a catgirl without actually having the technology to make that happen. And I’m not so convinced that there is any causal relation whatsoever between progressives angrily asserting that the world ought to be a certain way and us developing the technology to actually get there. So in this extended analogy, attempting to drive down the valley too fast may only result in us crashing at the bottom, never to rise again.

I should add that none of this is hypothetical. Right now, as we speak, young people are being actively encouraged by progressive parents, teachers and activists to ask themselves the question if maybe they’ve been born in the wrong body. And while progressives insist that this can’t possibly do any harm because all sex-related matters are unique in being the only human traits that are fully genetic and on which environment has zero effect, my counterargument is that that’s horseshit.

Even if you insist that the number of trans people is kept constant across time and space by some kind of universal law, their suicide rates are still some factor ~18 higher than the rest of society, and you cannot possibly expect me to believe that this has nothing to do with them being constantly told by trans activists that the world hates them and that there is nothing they can do about it (by the way, I don’t hate you.) So from my point of view, progressives are only making impressionable young people more miserable by convincing them that their current reality is intolerable and evil.

Porn is of course different from catgirls in that we do in fact have the technology to create porn itself, but it does tend to raise one’s expectations of what real sexual encounters ought to be like, and this may have contributed to a pandemic of loneliness and a huge drop in sexual encounters amongst the young. Now I realize that young people having sex is something social conservatives traditionally argue against, but we’ve reached a Godzilla threshold here where people like Ross Douthat are going out in the street screaming “PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GO BACK TO BEING DEGENERATE, OUR SPECIES IS DYING!” When your former worst enemies desperately beg you to please let them give you everything you ever asked for in exchange for not destroying the world, that’s probably something worth taking seriously.

Now, do I actually believe that banning porn or facebook would make the world a better place? Ehh… no. It didn’t work out with alcohol prohibition, and it wouldn’t work here. But do I think people are making sub-optimal choices? Ho yes. Whenever I see students survive on fast food and Coca-Cola and then prove unable to tell the difference between margarine and real butter, I can’t help but feel like they’ve calibrated their sense of taste to such an extreme that they’ve effectively ruined their taste buds. To give a more extreme example, would you give your kid crack cocaine if it didn’t make them medically addicted or cause ill health? If not, does it make sense to give them access to hardcore porn?

It’s worth mentioning at this point that some progressives really have tried to ban, tax or regulate sugary drinks. I actually support such a tax (not a ban) because internalizing negative externalities in the form of public healthcare costs is just good economic sense. But how can you be in favor of regulating taste-superstimuli, yet insist that porn (which is also addictive) is perfectly fine? It makes no consistent sense.

The same is true for highly addictive video games. If I play Hearthstone, I frequently end up feeling miserable, to the point where I wonder what possessed me to dig it out of the trashbin after I deleted it the last time. The economic notion of revealed preference just doesn’t seem to work here. And I can’t help but notice that conservatives don’t seem to struggle with Akrasia nearly as much as liberals do. They are also consistently happier, even when they have lives that objectively suck. And this is just from memory, but all of the politically effective progressives seem to have been raised by social conservatives. Could it be that a philosophy of applied hedonism makes people not want to subject themselves to the painful banality, theater and bureaucracy of modern politics? If so, it’s a good thing that programming as a field is relatively interesting and rewarding, or we’d all be fucked.

In summary, it’s true that the arguments from social conservatives tend to be pretty sucky, but there are underlying reasons for their taboos which are genuinely important and correct. Namely that too much fun can be self-destructive, that stoicism really does tend to make you happier in the long run, and that society cannot function if people’s expectations for life are too high.

In other words, porn itself is not uniquely evil, but drowning oneself in fantasies and escapism is. Like I said earlier, I don’t actually think that banning porn or putting social conservatives in charge of everything is a good idea. But it might not be such a bad thing to let them give us some advice now and then on how to raise our kids.