Tag Archives: how to think

Is cryonicists’ selfishness distance induced?

Tyler‘s criticism of cryonics, shared by others including me at times:

Why not save someone else’s life instead?

This applies to all consumption, so is hardly a criticism of cryonics, as people pointed out. Tyler elaborated that it just applies to expressive expenditures, which Robin pointed out still didn’t pick out cryonics over the the vast assortment of expressive expenditures that people (who think cryonics is selfish) are happy with. So why does cryonics instinctively seem particularly selfish?

I suspect the psychological reason cryonics stands out as selfish is that we rarely have the opportunity to selfishly splurge on something so far in the far reaches of far mode as cryonics, and far mode is the standard place to exercise our ethics.

Cryonics is about what will happen in a *long time* when you *die*  to give you a *small chance* of waking up in a *socially distant* society in the *far future*, assuming you *widen your concept* of yourself to any *abstract pattern* like the one manifested in your biological brain and also that technology and social institutions *continue their current trends* and you don’t mind losing *peripheral features* such as your body (not to mention cryonics is *cold* and seen to be the preserve of *rich* *weirdos*).

You’re not meant to be selfish in far mode! Freeze a fair princess you are truly in love with or something.  Far mode livens our passion for moral causes and abstract values.  If Robin is right, this is because it’s safe to be ethical about things that won’t affect you yet it still sends signals to those around you about your personality. It’s a truly mean person who won’t even claim someone else a long way away should have been nice fifty years ago.  So when technology brings the potential for far things to affect us more, we mostly don’t have the built in selfishness required to zealously chase the offerings.

This theory predicts that other personal expenditures on far mode items will also seem unusually selfish. Here are some examples of psychologically distant personal expenditures to test this:

  • space tourism
  • donating to/working on life extension because you want to live forever
  • traveling in far away socially distant countries without claiming you are doing it to benefit or respect the locals somehow
  • astronomy for personal gain
  • buying naming rights to stars
  • lottery tickets
  • maintaining personal collections of historical artifacts
  • building statues of yourself to last long after you do
  • recording your life so future people can appreciate you
  • leaving money in your will to do something non-altruistic
  • voting for the party that will benefit you most
  • supporting international policies to benefit your country over others

I’m not sure how selfish these seem compared to other non-altruistic purchases. Many require a lot of money, which makes anything seem selfish I suspect. What do you think?

If this theory is correct, does it mean cryonics is unfairly slighted because of a silly quirk of psychology? No. Your desire to be ethical about far away things is not obviously less real or legitimate than your desire to be selfish about near things, assuming you act on it. If psychological distance really is morally relevant to people, it’s consistent to think cryonics too selfish and most other expenditures not. If you don’t want psychological distance to be morally relevant then you have an inconsistency to resolve, but how you should resolve it isn’t immediately obvious. I suspect however that as soon as you discard cryonics as too selfish you will get out of far mode and use that money on something just as useless to other people and worth less to yourself, but in the realm more fitting for selfishness. If so, you lose out on a better selfish deal for the sake of not having to think about altruism. That’s not altruistic, it’s worse than selfishness.

Explanatory normality fallacy

Only a psychologist thinks to ask why people laugh at jokes.  – Someone (apparently)

A common error in trying to understand human behavior is to think something is explained because it is so intuitively familiar to you. The wrong answer to, ‘I wonder why people laugh at jokes?’ is, ‘They are funny duh’. This is an unrealistically obvious example; it can be harder to see. Why do we like art? Because it’s aesthetically pleasing. Why does sex exist? For reproduction. These are a popular variety of mind projection fallacy. Continue reading

Freedom is slavery

These comparisons are sometimes made as arguments in favor of the former in each pair being forcibly prevented:

  • Selling equity in yourself is like slavery
  • Allowing organ selling is like stealing organs
  • Choosing genetic characteristics of your children is like eugenics
  • Languages dying out is like genocide
  • Selling babies is like slavery, or is like stealing babies and selling them
  • Sweatshops are like slavery
  • Euthenasia is like murder
  • Prostitution is like rape
  • Globalization is like colonialism
  • Any more to add?

The general pattern:

Freely chosen X is like X coerced. And as X coerced is bad, we should prevent X (coercively if need be).

Why is this error prevalent? I suspect it stems from assuming value to be in goods or activities, rather than in the minds of their beholders. Consent is important because it separates those who value something enough to do it and those who don’t. Without the idea that people value things different amounts, consent seems just another nice thing to have, but not functional. If most people wouldn’t make a choice unless forced, then that choice is bad, then others making it should be stopped.

Bought kidneys look like stolen kidneys; can you spot the difference?

Bought kidneys look like stolen kidneys; can you spot the difference?

I wonder if this is related to the misunderstanding that trade must be exploitative, because employers gain and the gain must come from somewhere. This also appears to stem from overlooking the possibility that people place different values on the same things, so extra value can be created by exchange.

This is related.

Mistakes with nonexistent people

Who is better off if you live and I die? Is one morally obliged to go around impregnating women? Is the repugnant conclusion repugnant? Is secret genocide OK? Does it matter if humanity goes extinct? Why shouldn’t we kill people? Is pity for the dead warranted?

All these discussions come down to the same question often: whether to care about the interests of people who don’t exist but could.

I shan’t directly argue either way; care about whatever you like. I want to show that most of the arguments against caring about the non-existent which repeatedly come up in casual discussion rely on two errors.

Here are common arguments (paraphrased from real discussions):

  1. There are infinitely many potential people, so caring about them is utterly impractical.
  2. The utility that a non-existent person experiences is undefined, not zero. You are calculating some amount of utility and attributing it to zero people. This means utility per person is x/0 = undefined.
  3. Causing a person to not exist is a victimless crime. Stop pretending these people are real just because you imagine them!
  4. If someone doesn’t exist, they don’t have preferences, so you can’t fulfil them. This includes not caring if they exist or not. The dead do not suffer, only their friends and relatives do that.
  5. Life alone isn’t worth anything – what matters is what happens in it, so creating a new life is a neutral act.
  6. You can’t be dead. It’s not something you can be. So you can’t say whether life is better.
  7. Potential happiness is immeasurable; the person could have been happy, they could have been sad. Their life doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t have characteristics.
  8. How can you calculate loss of future life? Maybe they’d live another hundred years, if you’re going to imagine they don’t die now.

All of these arguments spring from two misunderstandings:

Thinking of value as being a property of particular circumstances rather than of the comparison between choices of circumstances.

People who won't exist under any of our choices are of no importance (picture: Michelangelo)

People who won't exist under any of our choices are of no importance (picture: Michelangelo)

We need never be concerned with the infinite people who don’t exist. All those who won’t exist under any choice we might make are irrelevant.  The question is whether those who do exist under one choice we can make and don’t exist under another would be better off existing.

2, 3 and 4 make this mistake too. The utility we are talking about accrues in the possible worlds where the person does exist, and has preferences. Saying someone is worse off not existing is saying that in the worlds where they do exist they have more utility. It is not saying that where they don’t exist they experience suffering, or that they can want to exist when they do not.

Assuming there is nothing to be known about something that isn’t the case.

If someone doesn’t exist, you don’t just not know about their preferences. They actually don’t have any. So how can you say anything about them? If a person died now, how can you say anything about how long they would have lived? How good it could have been? It’s all imaginary. This line of thought underlies arguments 4-8.

But in no case are we discussing characteristics of something that doesn’t exist. We are discussing which characteristics are likely in the case where it does exist. This is very different.

If I haven’t made you a cake, the cake doesn’t have characteristics. To ask whether it is chocolate flavoured is silly. You can still guess that conditional on my making it it is more likely chocolate flavoured than fish flavoured. Whether I’ve made it already is irrelevant. Similarly you can guess that if a child were born it would be more likely to find life positive (as most people seem to) and to like music and food and sex and other things it’s likely to be able to get, and not to have an enourmous unsatisfiable desire for six to be prime. You can guess that conditional on someone’s life continuing, it would probably continue until old age. These are the sorts of things we uncontroversially guess all the time about our own futures, which are of course also conditional on choices we make, so I can’t see why they would become a problem when other potential people are involved.

Are there any good arguments that don’t rely on these errors for wanting to ignore those who don’t currently exist in consequentialist calculations?