Lack of moral attention kills communities

What is moral attention, you might ask?

Moral attention is recognizing that the broken windows theory is real: if people seeing others getting away with breaking the rules, they’re more likely to break the rules.

Therefore, tolerate no actions which are destructive to the collective or the non-deviant individual. (You can do both at the same time; this places you out of the left, which only protects the individual, and the extremists who only protect the collective.)

Here’s someone who spotted this condition in the microcosm offered by web communities:

It was once a well-kept garden of intelligent discussion, where knowledgeable and interested folk came, attracted by the high quality of speech they saw ongoing. But into this garden comes a fool, and the level of discussion drops a little – or more than a little, if the fool is very prolific in their posting. (It is worse if the fool is just articulate enough that the former inhabitants of the garden feel obliged to respond, and correct misapprehensions – for then the fool dominates conversations.)

So the garden is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old inhabitants, already invested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to attract new blood. Or if there are new members, their quality also has gone down.

Then another fool joins, and the two fools begin talking to each other, and at that point some of the old members, those with the highest standards and the best opportunities elsewhere, leave…

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But when the fools begin their invasion, some communities think themselves too good to use their banhammer for – gasp! – censorship.

After all – anyone acculturated by academia knows that censorship is a very grave sin… in their walled gardens where it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to enter, and students fear their professors’ grading, and heaven forbid the janitors should speak up in the middle of a colloquium.

It is easy to be naive about the evils of censorship when you already live in a carefully kept garden. Just like it is easy to be naive about the universal virtue of unconditional nonviolent pacifism, when your country already has armed soldiers on the borders, and your city already has police. It costs you nothing to be righteous, so long as the police stay on their jobs.

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And after all – who will be the censor? Who can possibly be trusted with such power?

Quite a lot of people, probably, in any well-kept garden. But if the garden is even a little divided within itself – if there are factions – if there are people who hang out in the community despite not much trusting the moderator or whoever could potentially wield the banhammer –

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Maybe I understand on a gut level that the opposite of censorship is not academia but 4chan (which probably still has mechanisms to prevent spam). Maybe because I grew up in that wide open space where the freedom that mattered was the freedom to choose a well-kept garden that you liked and that liked you, as if you actually could find a country with good laws.

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I confess, for a while I didn’t even understand why communities had such trouble defending themselves – I thought it was pure naivete. It didn’t occur to me that it was an egalitarian instinct to prevent chieftains from getting too much power. “None of us are bigger than one another, all of us are men and can fight; I am going to get my arrows”, was the saying in one hunter-gatherer tribe whose name I forget. (Because among humans, unlike chimpanzees, weapons are an equalizer – the tribal chieftain seems to be an invention of agriculture, when people can’t just walk away any more.)

Less Wrong

Plato would agree, but he’d point out that it’s not just agricultural societies: any civilization imposes a collectivist obligation. You can’t just walk away. You can’t just do it your way, and take your toys and go home, like libertarians or anarchists.

Instead, you need to stand your ground and separate the smart from the fools, and either censor the fools or removing them, but either way, keep them from lowering the standard of your community, because they will, and soon your community will be only populated by people too silly to see they are selfish and destructive.

Common sense observations of someone who survived through discipline and careful perception:

“I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” Chan said. “I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.”

Chan added: “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

Chan said the problem with Chinese youth is that “they like other people’s things. They don’t like their own things.” Young people need to spend more time developing their own style, he added.


He’s not talking about just the Chinese, but the human species as a whole. If we are given no constraints, we do what is selfish, and then disorder occurs. With too much constraint, we rebel.

I suggest another form of society: the cooperative where we don’t overrate each other’s egos through polite conversation, but clearly view where we each stand and what our abilities are. That way it’s no surprise when a king’s a king and a peasant is a peasant, even if he pretends to be a king on the internet.

We need direction. What we don’t need are calcified power structures that no longer provide that direction.


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