Posted by: Mark Waser | Dec 20, 2011

A Rationalist Fable


For James Andrix

Once upon a time, there were three orphan sisters, “Connie”, “Libby”, and “Ulla”.  As they were sisters, it was not at all surprising that they had certain traits in common.  For example, all three of them were highly intelligent (and thus, had a large primary term for rationality in their utility function) and all three had a great fondness for strawberry ice cream rather than chocolate or vanilla.

One day, their friend, the wizard “CM”, approached Connie and said “I know that you have a fondness for strawberry ice cream rather than chocolate or vanilla, but would you mind terribly if I cast a spell to change this fondness to chocolate with absolutely no other effect?”  Now, Connie was the oldest and responsible for her sisters and her life experiences related to change and its effects caused her to fully realize the costs and dangers of change.  As a result, she had developed a bias against change and a large utility function term to protect against it.  So, she said “Yes, I *do* mind.  Please don’t cast that spell.”

But, CM was adamant.  He pointed out that, as far as she knew, there was no clear reason for not making the change.  But Connie replied that her priors were indeed a clear reason for not making *any* change that wasn’t justified by her utility function.  So CM said “Fine, then how about I give you a choice . . . either you allow me to cast the taste-change spell –OR– I’m going to turn you into a newt”.  Now, since Connie’s largest utility function term was rationality and the expected cost of being turned into a newt was far greater than the expected cost of such a small change to her utility function, she rationally chose to allow CM to alter her tastes because she realized that the rationality term outweighed the protection against change term.  Of course, she also felt violated by CM’s ultimatum and stomped off to sulk.

CM then approached Libby and said “I know that you have a fondness for strawberry ice cream rather than chocolate or vanilla, but would you mind terribly if I cast a spell to change this fondness to chocolate with absolutely no other effect?”  Now, Libbie had been mostly sheltered from the world of detrimental changes by Connie and her life experiences related to change and its effects caused her to fully realize the true benefits and opportunities of change and recognize how adamantly resisting change can frequently lead to a sub-optimal result.  As a result, she had developed a bias for change and a utility function term to embrace it.  So, she said “Silly wizard, of course I don’t mind.   Please do cast the spell.”  And so, the spell was cast and Libby went off to plan the acquisition of chocolate ice cream so she could experience her brand new fondness.

Finally, CM approached Ulla and said “I know that you have a fondness for strawberry ice cream rather than chocolate or vanilla, but would you mind terribly if I cast a spell to change this fondness to chocolate with absolutely no other effect?”  Now, Ulla had grown up in an environment shaped by both Connie and Libbie and her life experiences related to change and its effects caused her to have a fully balanced view which neither promoted change for its own sake nor protected against it without additional reasons.  So, she said “I don’t know whether I mind or not.  I’m inclined to allow you to cast the spell because you’re my friend and you apparently have some reason for the request but I’d prefer to know that reason before I give you my final answer.”  But CM said “I’m quite sure that you would be much happier not knowing the reason and allowing me to cast the spell.”  So Ulla said “Okay, you’re my friend and I trust you and your judgment so I don’t mind if you cast the spell.”  So CM cast the spell and Ulla wandered off wondering why CM thought that she would be happier with the change.

That night, CM threw a giant surprise party for Connie, Libby, and Ulla.  Unfortunately, it was a huge disaster.  Connie was still angry at CM for insisting on casting the spell on her and started storming out.  CM, who had ordered strawberry ice cream for the party but ended up with chocolate due to a shipping error, tried to apologize and offered (begged to be allowed, actually) to reverse the spell.  Sadly, Connie’s “protection against change” utility function term nixed the *change* back and she therefore refused and continued to be angry with CM.  CM was very sad because he hadn’t realized the magnitude of Connie’s “protection against change” term and had predicted that she would have forgiven him and been happy with him once she learned all the details that CM was aware of.

Even though Libbie and Ulla tried many times to intercede and repair the friendship between CM and Connie, Connie forever after refused to speak with CM because the negative utility of her “protection against change” term’s interaction with a potential CM friendship was larger than the linked positive utility from her “need for friends” term.

Liberal “Libby” Rationalist, Ultimate “Ulla” Rationalist and Change Monster “CM” the Wizard lived mostly happily ever after (except for CM’s regrets that he hadn’t handled “The Strawberry Situation” better).  However, Conservative “Connie” Rationalist continued to shrink her social (and moral) circle whenever a friend appeared to threaten her “protection from change” term and therefore missed many of the joys and advantages of community life (while, of course, avoiding many of the sorrows and disadvantages).

The moral(s) of the story . . . . (are left to the reader)

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