Personal relationships with goodness

Many people seem to find themselves in a situation something like this:

  1. Good actions seem better than bad actions. Better actions seem better than worse actions.
  2. There seem to be many very good things to do—for instance, reducing global catastrophic risks, or saving children from malaria.
  3. Nonetheless, they continually do things that seem vastly less good, at least some of the time. For instance, just now I went and listened to a choir singing. You might also admire kittens, or play video games, or curl up in a ball, or watch a movie, or try to figure out whether the actress in the movie was the same one that you saw in a different movie. I’ll call this ‘indulgence’, though it is not quite the right category.

On the face of it, this is worrying. Why do you do the less good things? Is it because you prefer badness to goodness? Are you evil?

It would be nice to have some kind of a story about this. Especially if you are just going to keep on occasionally admiring kittens or whatever for years on end. I think people settle on different stories. These don’t have obviously different consequences, but I think they do have subtly different ones. Here are some stories I’m familiar with:

I’m not good: “My behavior is not directly related to goodness, and nor should it be”, “It would be good to do X, but I am not that good” “Doing good things rather than bad things is generally supererogatory”

I think this one is popular. I find it hard to stomach, because if I am not good that seems like a serious problem. Plus, if goodness isn’t the guide to my actions, it seems like I’m going to need some sort of concept like schmoodness to determine which things I should do. Plus I just care about being good for some idiosyncratic reason. But it seems actually dangerous, because not treating goodness as a guide to one’s actions seems like it might affect one’s actions pretty negatively, beyond excusing a bit of kitten admiring or choir attendance.

In its favor, this story can help with ‘leaving a line of retreat‘: maybe you can better think about what is good, honestly, if you aren’t going to be immediately compelled to do it. It also has the appealing benefit of not looking dishonest, hypocritical, or self-aggrandizing.

Goodness is hard: “I want to be good, but I fail due to weakness of will or some other mysterious force”

This one probably only matches one’s experience while actively trying to never indulge in anything, which seems rare as a long term strategy.

Indulgence is good: “I am good, but it is not psychologically sustainable to exist without admiring kittens. It really helps with productivity.” “I am good, and it is somehow important for me to admire kittens. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t sound that plausible, but I don’t expect anything good to happen if I investigate or challenge it”

This is nice, because you get to be good, and continue to pursue good things, and not feel endlessly bad about the indulgence.

It has the downside that it sounds a bit like an absurd rationalization—’of course I care about solving the most important problems, for instance, figuring out where the cutest kittens are on the internet’. Also, supposing that fruitless entertainments are indeed good, they are presumably only good in moderation, and so it is hard for observers to tell if you are doing too much, which will lead them to suspect that you are doing too much. Also, you probably can’t tell yourself if you are doing too much, and supposing that there is any kind of pressure to observe more kittens under the banner of ‘the best thing a person can do’, you might risk that happening.

I’m partly good; indulgence is part of compromise: “I am good, but I am a small part of my brain, and there are all these other pesky parts that are bad, and I’m reasonably compromising with them” “I have many parts, and at least one of them is good, and at least one of them wants to admire kittens.”

This has the upside of being arguably relatively accurate, and many of the downsides of the first story, but to a lesser degree.

Among these, there seems to be a basic conflict between being able to feel virtuous, and being able to feel honest and straightforward. Which I guess is what you get if you keep on doing apparently non-virtuous things. But given that stopping doing those things doesn’t seem to be a real option, I feel like it should be possible to have something close to both.

I am interested to hear about any other such accounts people might have heard of.

 

Realistic thought experiments

What if…

…after you died, you would be transported back and forth in time and get to be each of the other people who ever lived, one at a time, but with no recollection of your other lives?

…you had lived your entire life once already, and got to the end and achieved disappointingly few of your goals, and had now been given the chance to go back and try one more time?

…you were invisible and nobody would ever notice you? What if you were invisible and couldn’t even affect the world, except that you had complete control over a single human?

…you were the only person in the world, and you were responsible for the whole future, but luckily you had found a whole lot of useful robots which could expand your power, via for instance independently founding and running organizations for years without your supervision?

…you would only live for a second, before having your body taken over by someone else?

…there was a perfectly reasonable and good hypothetical being who knew about and judged all of your actions, hypothetically?

…everyone around you was naked under their clothes?

…in the future, many things that people around you asserted confidently would turn out to be false?

…the next year would automatically be composed of approximate copies of today?

…eternity would be composed of infinitely many exact copies of your life?

Added later:

…you just came into existence and got put into your present body—conveniently, with all the memories and skills of the body’s previous owner?

***

(Sometimes I or other people reframe the world for some philosophical or psychological purpose. These are the ones I can currently remember off the top of my head. Several are not original to me*. I’m curious to hear others.)

*Credits: #3 is from Plato and Joseph Carlsmith respectively. #5 is surely not original, but I can’t find its source easily. #7 is some kind of standard anti-social anxiety advice. #9 is from David Wong’s Cracked post on 5 ways you are sabotaging your own life (without even knowing it). #10 is old. #11 is from commenter Doug S, and elsewhere Nate Soares, and according to him is common advice on avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The fundamental complementarity of consciousness and work

Matter can experience things. For instance, when it is a person. Matter can also do work, and thereby provide value to the matter that can experience things. For instance, when it is a machine. Or also, when it is a person.

An important question for what the future looks like, is whether it is more efficient to carry out these functions separately or together.

If separately, then perhaps it is best that we end up with a huge pile of unconscious machinery, doing all the work to support and please a separate collection of matter specializing in being pleased.

If together, then we probably end up with the value being had by the entities doing the work.

I think we see people assuming that it is more efficient to separate the activities of producing and consuming value. For instance, that the entities whose experiences matter in the future will ideally live a life of leisure. And that lab grown meat is a better goal than humane farming.

Which seems plausible. It is at least in line with the general observation that more efficient systems seem to be specialized.

However I think this isn’t obvious. Some reasons we might expect working and benefiting from work to be done by overlapping systems:

  • We don’t know which systems are conscious. It might be that highly efficient work systems tend to be unavoidably conscious. In which case, making their experience good rather than bad could be a relatively cheap way to improve the overall value of the world.
  • For humans, doing purposeful activities is satisfying, so much so that there are concerns about how humans will cope when they are replaced by machines. It might be hard for humans to avoid being replaced, since they are probably much less efficient than other possible machines. But if doing useful things tends to be gratifying for creatures—or for the kinds of creatures we decide are good to have—then it is less obvious that highly efficient creatures won’t be better off doing work themselves, rather than being separate from it.
  • Consciousness is presumably cheap and useful for getting something done, since we evolved to have it.
  • Efficient production doesn’t seem to evolve to be entirely specialized, especially if we take an abstract view of ‘production’. For instance, it is helpful to produce the experience of being a sports star alongside the joy of going to sports games.
  • Specialization seems especially helpful if keeping track of things is expensive. However technology will make that cheaper, so perhaps the world will tend less toward specialization than it currently seems. For instance, you would prefer plant an entire field of one vegetable than a mixture, because then when you harvest them, you can do it quickly without sorting them. But if sorting them is basically immediate and free, you might prefer to plant the mixture. For instance, if they take different nutrients from the soil, or if one wards of insects that would eat the other.

Strengthening the foundations under the Overton Window without moving it

As I understand them, the social rules for interacting with people you disagree with are like this:

  • You should argue with people who are a bit wrong
  • You should refuse to argue with people who are very wrong, because it makes them seem more plausibly right to onlookers

I think this has some downsides.

Suppose there is some incredibly terrible view, V. It is not an obscure view: suppose it is one of those things that most people believed two hundred years ago, but that is now considered completely unacceptable.

New humans are born and grow up. They are never acquainted with any good arguments for rejecting V, because nobody ever explains in public why it is wrong. They just say that it is unacceptable, and you would have to be a complete loser who is also the Devil to not see that.

Since it took the whole of humanity thousands of years to reject V, even if these new humans are especially smart and moral, they probably do not each have the resources to personally out-reason the whole of civilization for thousands of years. So some of them reject V anyway, because they do whatever society around them says is good person behavior. But some of the ones who rely more on their own assessment of arguments do not.

This is bad, not just because it leads to an unnecessarily high rate of people believing V, but because the very people who usually help get us out of believing stupid things – the ones who think about issues, and interrogate the arguments, instead of adopting whatever views they are handed – are being deprived of the evidence that would let them believe even the good things we already know.

In short: we don’t want to give the new generation the best sincere arguments against V, because that would be admitting that a reasonable person might believe V. Which seems to get in the way of the claim that V is very, very bad. Which is not only a true claim, but an important thing to claim, because it discourages people from believing V.

But we actually know that a reasonable person might believe V, if they don’t have access to society’s best collective thoughts on it. Because we have a whole history of this happening almost all of the time. On the upside, this does not actually mean that V isn’t very, very bad. Just that your standard non-terrible humans can believe very, very bad things sometimes, as we have seen.

So this all sounds kind of like the error where you refuse to go to the gym because it would mean admitting that you are not already incredibly ripped.

But what is the alternative? Even if losing popular understanding of the reasons for rejecting V is a downside, doesn’t it avoid the worse fate of making V acceptable by engaging people who believe it?

Well, note that the social rules were kind of self-fulfilling. If the norm is that  you only argue with people who are a bit wrong, then indeed if you argue with a very wrong person, people will infer that they are only a bit wrong. But if instead we had norms that said you should argue with people who are very wrong, then arguing with someone who was very wrong would not make them look only a bit wrong.

I do think the second norm wouldn’t be that stable. Even if we started out like that, we would probably get pushed to the equilibrium we are in, because for various reasons people are somewhat more likely to argue with people who are only a bit wrong, even before any signaling considerations come into play. Which makes arguing some evidence that you don’t think the person is too wrong. And once it is some evidence, then arguing makes it look a bit more like you think a person might be right. And then the people who loathe to look a bit more like that drop out of the debate, and so it becomes stronger evidence. And so on.

Which is to say, engaging V-believers does not intrinsically make V more acceptable. But society currently interprets it as a message of support for V. There are some weak intrinsic reasons to take this as a signal of support, which get magnified into it being a strong signal.

My weak guess is that this signal could still be overwhelmed by e.g. constructing some stronger reason to doubt that the message is one of support.

For instance, if many people agreed that there were problems with avoiding all serious debate around V, and accepted that it was socially valuable to sometimes make genuine arguments against views that are terrible, then prefacing your engagement with a reference to this motive might go a long way. Because nobody who actually found V plausible would start with ‘Lovely to be here tonight. Please don’t take my engagement as a sign of support or validation—I am actually here because I think Bob’s ideas are some of the least worthy of support and validation in the world, and I try to do the occasional prophylactic ludicrous debate duty. How are we all this evening?’

Person-moment affecting views

[Epistemic status: sloppy thoughts not informed by the literature. Hoping actual population ethicists might show up and correct me or point me to whoever has already thought about something like this better.]

Person-affecting views say that when you are summing up the value in different possible worlds, you should ignore people who only exist in one of those worlds. This is based on something like the following intuitions:

  1. World A can only be better than world B insofar as it is better for someone.
  2. World A can’t be better than world B for Alice, if Alice exists in world A but not world B.

The further-fact view says that after learning all physical facts about Alice and Alice’—such as whether Alice’ was the physical result of Alice waiting for five seconds, or is a brain upload of Alice, or is what came out of a replicating machine on Mars after Alice walked in on Earth, or remembers being Alice—there is still a further meaningful question of whether Alice and Alice’ are the same person.

I take the further-fact view to be wrong (or at least Derek Parfit does, and I think we agree the differences between Derek Parfit and I have been overstated). Thinking that the further-fact view is wrong seems to be a common position among intellectuals (e.g. 87% among philosophers).

If the further-fact view is wrong, then the what we have is a whole lot of different person-moments, with various relationships to one another, which for pragmatic reasons we like to group into clusters called ‘people’. There are different ways we could define the people, and no real answer to which definition is right. This works out pretty well in our world, but you can imagine other worlds (or futures of our world) where the clusters are much more ambiguous, and different definitions of ‘person’ make a big difference, or where the concept is not actually useful.

Person-affecting views seem to make pretty central use of the concept ‘person’. If we don’t accept the further-fact view, and do want to accept a person-affecting view, what would that mean? I can think of several options:

  1. How good different worlds are depends strongly on which definition of ‘person’ you choose (which person moments you choose to cluster together), but this is a somewhat arbitrary pragmatic choice
  2. There is some correct definition of ‘person’ for the purpose of ethics (i.e. there is some relation between person moments that makes different person moments in the future ethically relevant by virtue of having that connection to a present person moment)
  3. Different person-moments are more or less closely connected in ways, and a person-affecting view should actually have a sliding scale of importance for different person-moments

Before considering these options, I want to revisit the second reason for adopting a person-affecting view: If Alice exists in world A and not in world B, then Alice can’t be made better off by world A existing rather than world B. Whether this premise is true seems to depend on how ‘a world being better for Alice’ works. Some things we might measure would go one way, and some would go the other. For instance, we could imagine it being analogous to:

  1. Alice painting more paintings. If Alice painted three paintings in world A, and doesn’t exist in world B, I think most people would say that Alice painted more paintings in world A than in world B. And more clearly, that world A has more paintings than world B, even if we insist that a world can’t have more paintings without somebody in particular having painted more paintings. Relatedly, there are many things people do where the sentence ‘If Alice didn’t exist, she wouldn’t have X’.
  2. Alice having painted more paintings per year. If Alice painted one painting every thirty years in world A, and didn’t exist in world B, in world B the number of paintings per year is undefined, and so incomparable to ‘one per thirty years’.

Suppose that person-affecting view advocates are right, and the worth of one’s life is more like 2). You just can’t compare the worth of Alice’s life in two worlds where she only exists in one of them. Then can you compare person-moments? What if the same ‘person’ exists in two possible worlds, but consists of different person-moments?

Compare world A and world C, which both contain Alice, but in world C Alice makes different choices as a teenager, and becomes a fighter pilot instead of a computer scientist. It turns out that she is not well suited to it, and finds piloting pretty unsatisfying. If Alice_t1A is different from Alice_t1C, can we say that world A is better than world C, in virtue of Alice’s experiences? Each relevant person-moment only exists in one of the worlds, so how can they benefit?

I see several possible responses:

  1. No we can’t. We should have person-moment affecting views.
  2. Things can’t be better or worse for person-moments, only for entire people, holistically across their lives, so the question is meaningless. (Or relatedly, how good a thing is for a person is not a function of how good it is for their person-moments, and it is how good it is for the person that matters).
  3. Yes, there is some difference between people and person moments, which means that person-moments can benefit without existing in worlds that they are benefitting relative to, but people cannot.

The second possibility seems to involve accepting the second view above: that there is some correct definition of ‘person’ that is larger than a person moment, and fundamental to ethics – something like the further-fact view. This sounds kind of bad to me. And the third view doesn’t seem very tempting without some idea of an actual difference between persons and person-moments.

So maybe the person-moment affecting view looks most promising. Let us review what it would have to look like. For one thing, the only comparable person moments are the ones that are the same. And since they are the same, there is no point bringing about one instead of the other. So there is never reason to bring about a person-moment for its own benefit. Which sounds like it might really limit the things that are worth intentionally doing. Isn’t making myself happy in three seconds just bringing about a happy person moment rather than a different sad person moment?

Is everything just equally good on this view? I don’t think so, as long as you are something like a preference utilitarian: person-moments can have preferences over other person-moments. Suppose that Alice_t0A and Alice_t0C are the same, and Alice_t1A and Alice_t1C are different. And suppose that Alice_t0 wants Alice_t1 to be a computer scientist. Then world A is better than world C for Alice_t0, and so better overall. That is, person-moments can benefit from things, as long as they don’t know at the time that they have benefited.

I think an interesting  feature of this view is that all value seems to come from meddling preferences. It is never directly good that there is joy in the world for instance, it is just good because somebody wants somebody else to experience joy, and that desire was satisfied. If they had instead wished for a future person-moment to be tortured, and this was granted, then this world would apparently be just as good.

So, things that are never directly valuable in this world:

  • Joy
  • Someone getting what they want and also knowing about it
  • Anything that isn’t a meddling preference

On the upside, since person-moments often care about future person-moments within the same person, we do perhaps get back to something closer to the original person-affecting view. There is often reason to bring about or benefit a person moment for the benefit of previous person moments in the history of the same person, who for instance wants to ‘live a long and happy life’. My guess after thinking about this very briefly is that in practice it would end up looking like the ‘moderate’ person-affecting views, in which people who currently exist get more weight than people who will be brought into existence, but not infinitely more weight. People who exist now mostly want to continue existing, and to have good lives in the future, and they care less, but some, about different people in the future.

So, if you want to accept a person-affecting view and not a further-fact view, the options seem to me to be something like these:

  1. Person-moments can benefit without having an otherworldly counterpart, even though people cannot. Which is to say, only person-moments that are part of the same ‘person’ in different worlds can benefit from their existence. ‘Person’ here is either an arbitrary pragmatic definition choice, or some more fundamental ethically relevant version of the concept that we could perhaps discover.
  2. Benefits accrue to persons, not person-moments. In particular, benefits to persons are not a function of the benefits to their constituent person-moments. Where ‘person’ is again either a somewhat arbitrary choice of definition, or a more fundamental concept.
  3. A sliding scale of ethical relevance of different person-moments, based on how narrow a definition of ‘person’ unites them with any currently existing person-moments. Along with some story about why, given that you can apparently compare all of them, you are still weighting some less, on grounds that they are incomparable.
  4. Person-moment affecting views

None of these sound very good to me, but nor do person-affecting views in general, so maybe I’m the wrong audience. I had thought person-moment affecting views were almost a reductio, but a close friend says he thought they were the obvious reasonable view, so I am curious to hear others’ takes.