ThoughtStorms Wiki

Reading today about the meltdown at the company Basecamp.

Background :

DHH view :

This is something I've been talking about for a while, as an example of QuantitativeEthics even though I didn't know the term "Pyramid of Hate". (Here's a definition / illustration :

One of the discoveries of the 20th century was how small badnesses add up to large ones. We struggle to understand how a catastrophic evil like the holocaust happened, until we see that for decades before, the ground-work was laid by smaller acts of racism. By antisemitic jokes and casual stereotypes that did the work of "othering" and dehumanising Jews.

The problem is we now understand how the great evil can emerge from the aggregation of many smaller evils.

But what do we do with that information?

One approach is to treat every small evil as though it is a part of / or tantamount to / or sharing in the culpability of the greater evil.

A few years ago I taught an extension course on using simulations for social "good" (ostensibly for social sciences, but I was aiming at political activists, and really wanting to get them interested in OPTIMAES). One of the things I taught was ThomasSchelling's work on RacialSegregation.

Schelling's model (a kind of early CellularAutomata) showed how agents with a tiny preference for living with their own "race" would quickly sort themselves into very dramatic racial segregation at the large scale. (I think we rebuilt this in Repast)

As I pointed out to my students, "this gives us a dilemma in that these small acts of preference are not racism. But they add up to a result that undoubtedly looks like racism."

To which a student pushed back. "But they ARE racism. Precisely because they add up to a large scale racist outcome."

I see his point. It's the same issue again. If you believe that the big evils are made from the small evils, you must address the small evils to fight the larger one.

And yet ...

... that in turn can make life intolerable. A world where every small slight or failure is mercilessly picked up on and castigated as if it were the greatest evil of all. Simply because it might be a slippery slope towards, or an "enabling" of, or a component of, a supporting bottom of the pyramid of, a greatest evil. One that may not even have happened.

This is the world it sometimes looks like we are building online, with SocialMediaThought. A world of zero-tolerance for any human flaws as everyone desperately tries to do their bit to avoid the greatest evil by policing all the small evils.

JonathanHaidt talks about this as "giving everyone a dart gun".

(Or maybe I'm being a "lawyer" in the DoctorsAndLawyers sense?)

What is the right response to this knowledge that big evil is made of small evil?

Do you blame or punish someone for doing small evils because they are like the small evils that have led to great evils in the past? Or is that mere "sympathetic magic" thinking? Or counter-productive hyperbole? Or simply applying "VirtueEthics" to society? Or a necessary precaution to prevent great evils from happening again?

I'm not here to argue one or the other side. But we should be aware of this dilemma, and that we suffer, perhaps unnecessarily, many passionate arguments and divisions, simply because people who are all well intentioned and opposed to evil, can take different positions on that particular question ... how to treat the small evils that may add up to the big evil.

Contrast :

See also :