Tag Archives: consistency

If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything

It seems many people think creating a life has zero value. Some believe this because they think the average life contains about the same amount of suffering and satisfaction. Others have more conceptual objections, for instance to the notion that a person who does not exist now, and who will otherwise not exist, can be benefited. So they believe that there is no benefit to creating life, even if it’s likely to be a happy life. The argument I will pose is aimed at the latter group.

As far as I know, most people believe that conditional on someone existing in the future, it is possible to help them or harm them. For instance, suppose I were designing a toy for one year olds, and I knew it would take more than two years to go to market. Most people would not think the unborn state of its users-to-be should give me more moral freedom to cover it with poisonous paint or be negligent about its explosiveness.

If we accept this, then conditional on my choosing to have a child, I can benefit the child. For instance if I choose to have a child, I might then consider staying at home to play with the child. Assume the child will enjoy this. If the original world had zero value to the child, relative to the world where I don’t have the child (because we are assuming that being born is worth nothing), then this new world where the child is born and played with must have positive value to the child relative to the world where it is not born.

On the other hand suppose I had initially assumed that I would stay at home to play with any child I had, before I considered whether to have a child. Then according to the assumption that any birth is worth nothing, the world where I have the child and play with it is worth nothing more than the one where I don’t have it. This is inconsistent with the previous evaluation unless you accept that the value of an outcome may  depend on your steps in imagining it.

Any birth could be conceptually divided into a number of acts in this way: creating a person in some default circumstance, and improving or worsening the circumstances in any number of ways. If there is no reason to treat a particular set of circumstances as a default, any amount of value can be attributed to any birth situation by starting with a different default labelled ‘birth’ and setting it to zero value. If creating life under any circumstances is worth nothing, a specific birth can be given any arbitrary value. This seems  harder to believe, and further from usual intuitions, than believing that creating life usually has a non-zero value.

You might think that I’m unfair to interpret ‘creating life is worth nothing’ as ‘birth and anything that might come along with it is worth nothing’, but this is exactly what is usually claimed. That creating a life is worth nothing, even if you expect it to be happy, however happy. I am most willing to agree that some standard of birth is worth nothing, and all those births in happier circumstances are worth more, and those in worse circumstances worth negative values. This is my usual position, and the one that the people I am debating here object to.

If you believe creating a life is in general worth nothing, do you also believe that a specific birth can be worth any arbitrary amount?

Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.

If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.

This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.

This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.

A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.

Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.

Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.

If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.

So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.

The Unpresumptuous Philosopher

Nick Bostrom showed that either position in Extreme Sleeping Beauty seems absurd, then gave a third option. I argued that his third option seems worse than either of the original pair. If I am right there that  the  case  for Bayesian  conditioning without updating on  evidence  fails, we have  a  choice  of  disregarding  Bayesian  conditioning in at least some situations,  or  distrusting the aversion to extreme updates as in Extreme Sleeping Beauty. The latter seems the necessary choice, given the huge disparity in evidence supporting Bayesian conditioning and that supporting these particular intuitions about large updates and strong beliefs.

Notice that both the Halfer and Thirder positions on Extreme Sleeping Beauty have very similar problems. They are seemingly opposed by the same intuitions against extreme certainty in situations where we don’t feel certain, and extreme updates in situations where we hardly feel we have any evidence. Either before or after discovering you are in the first waking, you must be very sure of how the coin came up. And between ignorance of the day and knowledge, you must change your mind drastically. If we must choose one of these positions then, it is not clear which is preferable on these grounds alone.

Now notice that the Thirder position in Extreme Sleeping Beauty is virtually identical to SIA and consequently the Presumptuous Philosopher’s position (as Nick explains, p64). From Anthropic Bias:

 

The Presumptuous Philosopher

39It is the year 2100 and physicists have narrowed down the search for a theory of everything to only two remaining plausible candidate theories, T1 and T2 (using considerations from super-duper symmetry). According to T1 the world is very, very big but finite, and there are a total of a trillion, trillion observers in the cosmos. According to T2, the world is very, very, very big but finite, and there are a trillion, trillion, trillion observers. The super-duper symmetry considerations are indifferent between these two theories. Physicists are preparing a simple experiment that will falsify one of the theories. Enter the presumptuous philosopher: “Hey guys, it is completely unnecessary for you to do the experiment, because I can already show to you that T2 is about a trillion times more likely to be true than T1 (whereupon the philosopher […] appeals to SIA)!”

The Presumptuous Philosopher is like the Extreme Sleeping Beauty Thirder because they are both in one of two possible worlds with a known probability of existing, one of which has a much larger population than the other. They are both wondering which of these worlds they are in.

Is the Presumptuous Philosopher really so presumptuous? Analogous to the Extreme Sleeping Beauty Halfer then shall be the Unpresumptuous Philosopher. When the Unpresumptuous Philosopher  learns  there  are  a  trillion  times  as many  observers  in T2  she  remains  cautiously unmoved. However, when the physicists later discover where in the cosmos our planet is under  both  theories,  the  Unpresumptuous  Philosopher  becomes  virtually  certain  that  the sparsely populated T1 is correct while the Presumptuous Philosopher hops back on the fence.

The Presumptuous Philosopher is often chided for being sure the universe is infinite, given there is some chance of an infinite universe existing. It should be noted that this is only as long as he cannot restrict his possible locations in it to any finite region. The Unpresumptuous Philosopher is uncertain under such circumstances. However she believes with probability one that we are in a finite world if she knows her location is within any finite region. For instance if she knows the age  of  her spatially finite universe  she  is  certain  that  it will  not  continue  for  infinitely  long. Here her presumptuous friend is quite unsure.

Statue of an unknown Cynic philosopher from th...

This philosopher has a nice perch now, but where will he go if evidence moves him? Photo: Yair Haklai

It seems to me that as the two positions on Extreme Sleeping Beauty are as unintuitive as each other, the two philosophers seem as presumptuous as each other. The accusation of inducing a large probability shift and encouraging ridiculous certainty is hardly an argument that can be used against the SIA-Thirder-Presumptuous Philosopher position in favor of the SSA-Halfer-Unpresumptuous Philosopher side. Since the Presumptuous Philosopher is usually considered the big argument against SIA, and not considered an argument against SSA at all, an update in favor of SIA is in order.

Where is your moral thermostat?

Old news: humans regard morality as though with a ‘moral thermostat‘.

…we propose a framework suggesting that moral (or immoral) behavior can result from an internal balancing of moral self-worth and the cost inherent in altruistic behavior. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story containing words referring to either positive or negative traits. Participants who wrote a story referring to the positive traits donated one fifth as much as those who wrote a story referring to the negative traits. In Experiment 2, we showed that this effect was due specifically to a change in the self-concept. In Experiment 3, we replicated these findings and extended them to cooperative behavior in environmental decision making. We suggest that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. However, when moral identity is threatened, moral behavior is a means to regain some lost self-worth.

This doesn’t appear to always hold though. Most people oscillate happily around a normal level of virtue, eating more salad if they shouted at their child and so on, but some seem to throw consistent effort at particular moral issues, or make firm principles and stick to them.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of moral issues; obligatory and virtuous. Obligatory things include not killing people, wearing clothes in the right places, doing whatever specific duties to god/s you will be eternally tortured for neglecting. Virtuous issues make you feel good and affect your reputation. Doing favours, giving to charities, excercising, eating healthy food, buying environmentally friendly, getting up early, being tidy, offering to wash up, cycling to work. Outside of these two categories there are what I will call ‘practical issues’. These don’t feel related to virtue at all: how to transport a new sofa home, what time to have dinner tonight, which brand of internet to get.

‘Moral thermostat’ behaviour only applies to the virtuous moral behaviours. The obligatory ones and the practical ones demand exactly as much effort as they take, or you feel like putting in respectively. The people who pour effort into specific issues are mostly those who are persuaded that the issue is an obligatory one or a practical one. A clear example of those who push a moral issue into the territory of obligation is of vegetarians, for whatever reason.

Agreeable ways to disable your children

Should parents purposely have deaf children if they prefer them, by selecting deaf embryos?

Those in favor argue that the children need to be deaf to partake in the deaf culture which their parents are keen to share, and that deafness isn’t really a disability. Opponents point out that damaging existing children’s ears is considered pretty nasty and not much different, and that deafness really is a disability since deaf people miss various benefits for lack of an ability.

I think the children are almost certainly worse off if they are chosen to be deaf.  The deaf community is unlikely to be better than any of the millions of other communities in the world which are based mainly on spoken language, so the children are worse off even culture-wise before you look at other costs. I don’t follow why the children can’t be brought up in the deaf community without actually being deaf either. However I don’t think choosing deaf children should be illegal, since parents are under no obligation to have children at all and deaf children are doing a whole lot better than non-existent children.

Should children be brought up using a rare language if a more common one is available?

This is a very similar question: should a person’s ability to receive information be severely impaired if it helps maintain a culture which they are compelled to join due to the now high cost of all other options? The similarity has been pointed out before, to argue that choosing deaf children is fine. The other possible inference is of course that encouraging the survival of unpopular languages is not fine.

There are a few minor differences: a person can learn another language later more easily than they can get their hearing later, though still at great cost. On the other hand, a deaf person can still read material from a much larger group of hearing people, while the person who speaks a rare language is restricted to what is produced by their language group. Nonetheless it looks like they are both overwhelmingly costs to the children involved. It may be understandable that parents want to bring up their children in their own tiny language that they love, but I’m appalled that governments, linguists, schools,  organizations set up for the purpose, various other well meaning parties, and plenty of my friends, think rescuing small languages in general is a wonderful idea, even when the speakers of the language disagree. ‘Language revitalization‘ seems to be almost unanimously praised as a virtuous project.

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