In Praise of Baby-Eating

Overcoming Bias is an erudite blog out out Oxford which focuses on the general theme of self-deception.  It plays around with everything from God to zombies, from neuroeconomics to applied statistics.  It is sometimes dry, but always substantive — and now, for a limited time only, it is also fucking hilarious.

Blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky is serving up the kind of classic fifties-era first-contact story that Jonathan Swift might have written, if Jonathan Swift had had a background in game theory.  In the first installment we encounter an alien race whose peaceful, scientific, and undeniably moral civilization is predicated upon the eating of babies. Our earnest crew wrestles with the intuitive proposition that baby-eating is wrong, but has a much more  difficult time than you might think expressing just why that might be.  Then we get into the use of tentacle porn as a handshaking protocol.  It goes from there.

The remarkable thing about this series (so far, anyway) is that while an almost Douglas-Adamsesque sense of absurdity hangs over the proceedings, the author wrote the story “to illustrate some points on naturalistic metaethics and diverse other issues of rational conduct.”  The Prisoner’s dilemma shows up almost at the first paragraph; Bayes’ Theorem is not far behind.  And the fact that Yudkowsky’s aliens, biologically, are radically cool in their own right— no wrinkly-headed sock puppets here (and trust me, I know cool aliens when I see them)  — is pure bonus.

Nothing has blown up yet.  It’s not a Jerry Bruckheimer kind of story; so far the action consists of a bunch of people sitting around the conference table in their starship, tearing out their hair.  The most explicit act of violence to date consists of the captain banging his face on the table to try and knock the cognitive dissonance out of his head.

Still, each new development seems to be upping the odds of imminent catastrophic battle in the near future.  New installments are being posted daily:  if you run over there now, you can get caught up before the genocide starts.  Here’s the introduction to the exercise.  The story itself begins here.  Each installment links to the next.

See you there.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday February 01 2009at 09:02 pm , filed under fellow liars, ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

23 Responses to “In Praise of Baby-Eating”

  1. Holy crap that is the most awesome thing I have ever read. My mind has never been blown so many times in so few paragraphs.

  2. Here’s a teaser from Part III:

    “Someone should view the rest of it,” said the Ship’s Confessor. “It might contain important information.”

    Akon flipped a hand. “I don’t think we’ll run short of volunteers to watch disgusting alien pornography. Just post it to the ship’s 4chan, and check after a few hours to see if anything was modded up to +5 Insightful.”

    “These aliens,” said the Master of Fandom slowly, “composed that pornography within… seconds, it must have been. We couldn’t have done that automatically, could we?”

    It’s a really interesting take on the future. They’re pretty up front that a lot of technologies have to be neglected for this ‘future’ to work but they basically needed to set it up so that people are in charge of making their own stuff work.

    This and a lot of other stuff on the new crawl is awesome. I daresay I added Overcoming Bias to the hallowed 16 of my Fast Dial page.

  3. Oh, Jesus H. Chr… Okay, I’ll read it.

    This blog is starting to really cut into my time over here, but otoh this looks like it might not suck. Dammit. Argh. Off I go to read about Jonathan Swift in space….

  4. Do you think OB would take Milk+?

  5. Motherfucker. That’s a first contact story with teeth. I’ll be keeping an eye on that one.

  6. I liked that. Especially the combination of morals, game theory, and 4chan. I’ve grown to despise the whole “imperial navy in space” genre and I like people who poke fun at it. But… I have to admit this is not breaking a lot of new ground. SF has dealt with such subjects many times in the past. I mean, game theory was pretty much in play in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact”, dating back to 1945. As for baby eating, I can think of a number of similar works where the biology of an alien species is extremely disturbing to humans – spoilers follow.

    Larry Niven’s _The Legacy of Heorot_ has anintellignet (but not really self-cncsious, I think) monster that eats its own young. Granted, they are not, at that time, intelligent themselves.

    Iain Bank’s gas-cloud dwellers from _the Algebraist_ hunt and kill their young. The young are fully developed at this point.

    The children of the alien species from Vinge’s _Original Sin_ kill and eat their mothers as part of their birth process.

    The denizens of the planet Rakhat from Mary Doria Russell’s _The Sparrow_ are two different intelligent species, one of which is carnivorous and the other serves as food – willingly.

    And, of course, we have in our own past the people of Sparta. They didn’t eat babies, but they sure as hell killed them.

    My solution to the crew’s dilemma: run the hell back to earth. Put a large, intimidating “here be dragons” label complete with some scary illustration on the star map next to that planet and don’t let anyone else in. Pretend it all never happened. Before you go, send a suggestion to the third ship to do the same.

  7. By merely eating babies, the aliens have proven themselves morally superior to the humans who installed 4chan on a star ship.

  8. Brian that’s fucking hilarious.

    However you could make the point that 4chan isn’t so much a technology as an emergent feature of humans when allowed to post anonymously about funny pictures.

    My point being, morals have nothing to do with it, 4chan comes prebundled with the human wetware.

  9. OK, everyone, but who do you think is right in their moral perspective? And why?

    Or do you think that there is no value system superior to any other? And why?

    My take: The Baby-eater’s thinking about their morality was incapable of objectivity and subject to extreme rationalization. Their views were simply wrong. The benefits were far outweighed by the suffering inflicted. The Superhappies reacted to mild human suffering with extreme distress. An overreaction and, again, an obstacle to their ability to view other perspectives objectively. The Superhappy value system isn’t, for the most part, wrong. Just different. But its marred by an inability to recognize an equally valid value system when they see it.

    The problem seems to come down primarily to a lack of objectivity.

    Not a surprising diagnosis from an advocate of ideal observer theory like myself.

    Of course, I don’t rule out the possibility that I, as a human, am as lacking in real objectivity and as prone to rationalization in my judgment as the aliens were but fail to see it in myself. If you think so I’d be glad to hear an argument to that effect.

  10. DB said:


    My take: The Baby-eater’s thinking about their morality was incapable of objectivity and subject to extreme rationalization. Their views were simply wrong. The benefits were far outweighed by the suffering inflicted. The Superhappies reacted to mild human suffering with extreme distress. An overreaction and, again, an obstacle to their ability to view other perspectives objectively.

    But I get leery when confronted with adjectives like “mild” and “extreme”. Surely these are contingent on the baseline expectation of the individual. Suppose, for example, that one were to restrict a person’s diet to two bowls of rice a day. There are people on the planet for whom that would be a windfall beyond their fondest dreams; to Bill Gates, not so much. In that context Gates could be said, quite legitimately, to be suffering more than the starving Malawiian dude. The only way to legitimately denigrate the superhappies as over-reactors and the baby-eaters as “simply wrong” is if you maintain that our Human standards of suffering and expectation should be taken as the norm to which all others should aspire. In the past, when groups have adopted such attitudes, it has rarely ended well.

    Except for cat people, of course. There’s no doubt that the world would be far, far better off if it were run by cat people.

    Oh, and environmentalists too. And we should probably throw fans of BSG into that mix as well, now that I think of it.

    But in any other instance, it’s very dangerous to assume that your own particular cultural baseline is some kind of universal standard.

  11. But I get leery when confronted with adjectives like “mild” and “extreme”. Surely these are contingent on the baseline expectation of the individual.
    Suppose, for example, that one were to restrict a person’s diet to two bowls of rice a day. There are people on the planet for whom that would be a windfall beyond their fondest dreams; to Bill Gates, not so much. In that context Gates could be said, quite legitimately, to be suffering more than the starving Malawiian dude.

    What I’m saying is that its precisely the subjective experience of the person suffering which is relevent in determining whether their suffering is “mild” or “extreme”. Not the intensity of the revulsion of the observer to it. The observer, to make a reasonable moral judgment about that suffering, must do his best to separate the one from the other. The degree to which he is able to accomplish this task is essential to his being able to make a good judgment on the relative merits of different moral opinions and valuations.


    The only way to legitimately denigrate the superhappies as over-reactors and the baby-eaters as “simply wrong” is if you maintain that our Human standards of suffering and expectation should be taken as the norm to which all others should aspire.

    I call the superhappies overreactors because they are going only on the basis of their own revulsion to the absence of total pleasure and the presence of any suffering rather than the actual nature of the experience the humans are having. Naturally its massively difficult to imagine what the subject content of the experience of an alien species is like so I dont judge them all that harshly on this failing. I’m sure we humans are subject to it as well. Which only goes to there being a serious difficulty in KNOWING the relative merits of the value systems of different intelligent species. Not to there not actually being a fact of the matter in regard to whether humans and superhappies are right that the suffering of the superhappy adolescents should be alleviated or whether the superhappies are right in thinking humans irrational for not becoming like themselves.

    What I’m saying is not that human norms should be the standard but that, in order to judge rightly which is the better perspective, one must understand the experiences of all involved from the inside and judge them all without bias one way or the other on what its actually like from within (including the experience of the agonized babyeater young).

    Normally, of course, this is a tall order and I’m willing to entertain the possibility that its impossible to even approximate to a degree necessary to make anything like a valid judgment on the values of an alien species. But I dont think so. I think we are capable of cultivating the imagination and objectivity necessary to make, at the very least, a decent judgment in at least some cases. And I think the babyeaters fall clearly into that category. Especially given the known influences shaping them in such a way as to be incapable of objectivity regarding their own value system.

    In that case, knowing how the value system evolved provides information particularly useful in judging whether the babyeaters are correct in their self-evaluation of their moral system.


    But in any other instance, it’s very dangerous to assume that your own particular cultural baseline is some kind of universal standard.

    That’s entirely opposite of what I’m suggesting. I’m saying that the degree to which one is able to see the situation from the other’s perspective and to experience it the way they experience it is a crucial part of the ability to make judgments about the relative merits of different moral systems.

    And I don’t discount the possibility that we humans, all of us, are as much bound by our own background and experiences as are the babyeaters and as self-deceived in our judgment.

    I don’t, however, think its a forgone conclusion that this is the case. Nor that it would necessarily be the case for all of the aliens in these stories.

    And, within the context of the story, the technology of the superhappies could probably provide the means to directly experience what its like to BE a member of the other species to a degree impossible to mere imagination alone (which is all we currently have to go on and is, admittedly, a limited tool).

  12. Another thing that should be pointed out in regard to the babyeater species is that we have mostly only been talking about the morality of the 1% that survives the winnowing. The perspective of the 99% of the species that dies a slow agonizing death is at least equally relevent.

    Perhaps what is needed is for the superhappies, instead of forcing them to alter themselves, is to force them to directly experience the agony of the adolescents. Some sort of technological mindmeld of this sort might be just what’s needed to break through their culturally and biologically induced rationalizations.

    Or maybe even that wouldn’t be enough. Who knows? They’re aliens after all.

  13. The story does indeed kick ass, and you’re absolutely right about cool aliens, Mr. Watts. Though I did feel the real juiciness of the moral/metaethical dilemmas was largely lost with the arrival of the Superhappies. The onus of whether to live and let live (and die) or to righteously crusade to meddle in the natural order of a species vanishes when the Superhappies will do it for them. There’s also no reason for humans to agree to the Superhappies’ agreement at all, save for the claim that they will be happier. I do like how there’s a not-terribly-subtle insidiousness to the Superhappies by both presenting the illusion of a choice and the idea that this is in any way a compromise on their part. “We will force you to eat your children and like it, and in exchange we will make art and tell jokes.”
    At the same time, I’m a little puzzled by the Superhappies’ motives. Their entire crew was so disturbed upon simply learning of the nature of the Babyeaters that they were incapacitated for the rest of the story. But looking at the situation again, Lady 3rd decided to agree to alter both their species and our own to embrace the very thing that left them in a horrified stupor. If they’re willing and able to change their own morality on such a fundamental level, why not simply alter their own morality to accept that a certain degree of pain is a necessary part of the human experience? They’re somehow overreacting and being entirely too understanding at the same time.
    And going off one of the comments to the story: if intelligent life is so common in the galaxy that one might encounter 2 alien races in one day around a single star, just how many intelligent species are there? And if the Superhappies blend (though by no means equally) with every race they encounter, how long will it be before they dilute themselves to the point of no longer being ” Super Happy”?

  14. As usual, I’m baffled, what a surprise…

    So remind me why I care about these babyeater’s babies?

    Consider – Akon and crew have pieced together from a translation of the db of a largely alien lifeform that they eat their children as population control, and because they’re tasty. They assume they have all the relevant facts (have they never seen The TWILIGHT ZONE?), that pain/suffering is meaningful to the Babyeaters , and that personal suffering is never enjoyed. That’s alot of guesswork.

    These are crystal aliens, guys, as DB Ellis notes. They are obviously not bothered by baby-eating, which should clue us that their POV doesn’t overlap ours in important ways. Any conversation they have with Akon etc can’t be depended on have any meaning or at least the meanings they think it has. Therefore the humans would have to be overbearing overconfident fools to stomp in there and rearrange the Babyeater civilization based on a moral violation they can’t even be sure exists.

    Seriously, we can’t be sure of their experiential DO NO WANT on any level. Hell, humans use pain for pleasure, religious insight, emotional release, to guilt others and on and on. For all we know, their religion has a secret component under which anyone eaten goes immediately to Crystal Babyeater Heaven, where All the Babies are Made of Chocolate. Or whatever.

    Maybe it’s a personal reaction? I had no feelings of parental horror or fellow-feeling for the Babyeaters, and I don’t see how they would be relevant even if I did? If the idea is look at this with utter rationality, how do my “feelings” about your moral system play in?

    Lastly, they totally messed up with the Maximun Fun Fun Super Happy People. A group of aliens who greet me with “Want to Have Sex?” can’t be all bad, and all the humans had to do was make the Fun-Funs see the truth: Mankind adores its discomfort, it wallows in its physical and emotional misery, and not to get all Cap’m Kirk here, but it motivates and activates us. The struggles against misery drive humankind to new heights. WIthout it, we wither and die. Ask anyone who bicycles or runs about this one.

    Very thought-provoking, though.


  15. They are obviously not bothered by baby-eating, which should clue us that their POV doesn’t overlap ours in important ways.

    You’ve forgotten some of the details of the story. They feel intense sympathy for the pain of the adolescents they eat. But their whole ethical system has evolved around the idea of disregarding that empathy for the suffering of their children for the greater good of the community as a whole—so much so that they have become unable to separate the two (to the degree that the very word for moral goodness is the same as the word for baby-eating).


    Therefore the humans would have to be overbearing overconfident fools to stomp in there and rearrange the Babyeater civilization based on a moral violation they can’t even be sure exists.

    You also seem to have forgotten the massive infodump and the philosophical treatise composed by the crew of the babyeater vessel to pursuade the humans that theirs is the right perspective. As the story is presented the humans have sufficiently good translation and enough information to know the facts about what is happening.


    I had no feelings of parental horror or fellow-feeling for the Babyeaters, and I don’t see how they would be relevant even if I did?

    You actually don’t have enough general empathy to sympathize with a being who’s going to be subjected to weeks of agonizing torture while they’re being slowly digested? Simply because they look different from us?

    Interesting.


    And going off one of the comments to the story: if intelligent life is so common in the galaxy that one might encounter 2 alien races in one day around a single star, just how many intelligent species are there?

    You missed a salient point (I missed it too on first reading). The 3 species are at the same star system at the same time because they were all drawn to investigate the anomolous nova. Otherwise they might not have encountered each other for centuries.


    But looking at the situation again, Lady 3rd decided to agree to alter both their species and our own to embrace the very thing that left them in a horrified stupor.

    Again, I think you’re misremembering what happened. They will embrace babyeating only in a form where the babies are actually nonsentient and nonconscious(though they give the outward appearance of suffering). Much like the aliens in Watt’s BLINDSIGHT.

  16. As the story is presented the humans have sufficiently good translation and enough information to know the facts about what is happening.

    I disbelieve. *rolls saving throw against arbitrary plot device*

    Their analysis of the economic state of their own vessel is so buggered by the addition of alien ideation that the report ends with the the analyst throwing up his hands in bafflement. And yet, I am supposed to believe that they magically and correctly analysed an entire alien database. Er, nope, sorry, again – I disbelieve.

    You’ve forgotten some of the details of the story. They feel intense sympathy for the pain of the adolescents they eat. But their whole ethical system has evolved around the idea of disregarding that empathy for the suffering of their children for the greater good of the community as a whole—so much so that they have become unable to separate the two (to the degree that the very word for moral goodness is the same as the word for baby-eating).

    I didn’t forget. It just seemed to me that they had folded the “intense sympathy” into their heroic mythology surrounding the importance of babyeating. Not that they didn’t experience the sympathetic horror of lingering death, but they must have enjoyed it on some level, or they would have ceased to do it.

    Humans go to horror films to get scared, or watch American Idol to get vicarious humilation. If I had to project their mental state, and I’m loathe to do it, I’d call it Schadenfreude, my friend. And if we are going to project Babyeater “sympathy” as being the same as our meaning for sympathy, then I get to assume they had come to terms with the dissonance.

    They will embrace babyeating only in a form where the babies are actually nonsentient and nonconscious(though they give the outward appearance of suffering). Much like the aliens in Watt’s BLINDSIGHT.

    Actually, that is sort of the approach I took in thinking about the whole Babyeaters idea – that I can’t assume I know their experiential life, not really. All I can be sure of is their behavior. Internal states are moot other than for their predictive value. The end result of their moral calculus is “Yum, gonna eat me some babies!”

    You actually don’t have enough general empathy to sympathize with a being who’s going to be subjected to weeks of agonizing torture while they’re being slowly digested? Simply because they look different from us?

    Ha ha ha – yes, I am no better than Hitler. Go ahead and say it. You know you want to . Hee.


  17. I disbelieve. *rolls saving throw against arbitrary plot device*

    This is a piece of philosophical fiction designed to serve as a thought experiment on ethics and meta-ethics. Yes, some of its plot devices are implausible (the introduction specifically acknowledges that). But they’re there for a reason—to serve the purposes of the thought experiment.


    but they must have enjoyed it on some level, or they would have ceased to do it.

    Quite possibly there is an element of unacknowledged underlying sadism in their psychology. That doesn’t really change the negative evaluation I make of their ethical system though. If anything it would only make it even more solid. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt on that to keep the question less black and white. The thought experiment has little value if the situation is too easy to make judgments about.


    Ha ha ha – yes, I am no better than Hitler. Go ahead and say it. You know you want to . Hee.

    I don’t need to. You’ve already acknowledged what amounts to a form of selective sociopathy (lack of empathy for those not much like oneself).

    I don’t particularly knock you for that though. I’ve long thought that all of us are partial sociopaths to a far higher degree than we’d like to admit to ourselves—growing up in a fundamentalist christian family and community where there was practically no qualms in most of the people I’m closest to in regard to the idea of a hell of eternal agony brought that home to me at a very early age—though it wasnt til much later that I put that term to it.

  18. I said: Ha ha ha – yes, I am no better than Hitler. Go ahead and say it. You know you want to.

    You replied: I don’t need to. You’ve already acknowledged what amounts to a form of selective sociopathy (lack of empathy for those not much like oneself).

    HAHAHAHAHAHHAAAA…*rocking back and forth in my chair*

    In the space of two exchanges I have gone from lacking sympathy to sociopathy, eh? Ah me.

    I feel okay about not yelling “OMG, WON’T SOMEONE PLZ THINK OF THE ALIEN CHIL’REN” at the monitor when I read Mr. Y’s foray into fiction. Probably cause it’s fiction, and the aliens are fictional, an impression reinforced by the crash in my literary “willful suspension of disbelief” somewhere about that time in the story.

    I’m not knocking it as a discussion ignitor, because clearly it functions very well as one! But it is, y’know, low on poetry, so it just didn’t engage my emotions, just my frontal lobes.

    I think it speaks well for your humanity and your imagination that his aliens caused a swell of feeling in your bosom; I just wasn’t similarly affected. Blame my lack of fellow feeling for virtual aliens life on lack of imagination, though, if you could? My humanity is pretty solid.

    Not offended,

    H

    Post Script – Did we already decide that any viable moral system includes the minimum suffering for other beings? If so, did someone tell the Babyeaters beforehand?


  19. In the space of two exchanges I have gone from lacking sympathy to sociopathy

    Selective or partial sociopathy. Something, in my opinion, all humans suffer from to one degree or another. So its hardly that huge of an insult (unless you’re insulted on behalf of humanity as a whole).


    But it is, y’know, low on poetry, so it just didn’t engage my emotions, just my frontal lobes.

    So you’re saying you WOULD care about the suffering of the children of these aliens if the scenario wasn’t just fiction? If so, I’m glad to hear that. Your statements, as I understood them, implied otherwise.

    But let’s shelve your (or my) personal psychology and get back to the philosophical question:


    Did we already decide that any viable moral system includes the minimum suffering for other beings? If so, did someone tell the Babyeaters beforehand?

    No, we didn’t decide that. If we had I would have concluded that the Superhappies had the highest moral system of the three instead of thinking that Humanity and the Superhappies had roughly equal moral systems (and I’m not decided, if I had to choose, which is superior). The only thing I am critical of the Superhappies for is their willingness to impose their values on a moral system which I consider to be the equal of their own. I’m not of the opinion that there’s only one possible “good” value system. I’m just of the opinion that the moral system of the babyeaters has been warped by an unfortunate set of selective pressures during their development and that as a result it is, in fact, an inferior system to that of the other two species.

  20. […] Bias, Eliezer Yudkowsky has written a novella, Three Worlds Collide, which Hugo nominee Peter Watts describes as: the kind of classic fifties-era first-contact story that Jonathan Swift might have written, if […]

  21. Are there “final contact” stories? Wherein the alien species says, “Sorry, it’s been great, but we don’t really see this working out long term”?

  22. Madeline asks, Are there “final contact” stories? Wherein the alien species says, “Sorry, it’s been great, but we don’t really see this working out long term”?

    Yes. There was even a movie about it, a sequel to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” called, “We’re Just Not That Into You.”

  23. You actually don’t have enough general empathy to sympathize with a being who’s going to be subjected to weeks of agonizing torture while they’re being slowly digested? Simply because they look different from us?

    I’d be interested to know if you’re a vegetarian because, if you’re not, this is going to look a lot like bullshit. Even if you are a vegetarian, it’s going to be a stretch unless you spend a lot of your free time campaigning on issues like rights for the great apes. Generally speaking humans empathize with things that look human, and I suggest you learn to live with that.