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eyes black and white

Denying moral agency to justify Cosmic Sacrifice

Once in a while, I visit the blog Overcoming Bias where Eliezer Yudkowsky and friends of his sometimes have interesting articles on rationality. At the same time, reading this blog leaves a feeling that there are some deeply flawed assumptions behind it. And so, reading a piece of science-fiction that Eliezer wrote was a good opportunity to examine what these assumptions are: fiction lets you see what aspects of reality the author considers essential, what aspects of reality he omits. The dilemma proposed by Eliezer made me post several comments on the kind of mistakes that even some obviously extremely intelligent people make. If you enjoy reading such short a piece of Science Fiction, do it before you read my comments below.

I'll gloss over the part of political hero-worship where the life-and-death destiny of whole societies, species, galactic collections of species even, is decided exclusively through the individual interactions between each party's great leaders. I'll also forgive an author's hubris of obviously projecting himself as the great leader who ultimately decides the fate of mankind. Who doesn't have such grandiose fantasies? And where better than in a Sci-Fi short story to indulge in them? I don't expect himself or anyone else to fall in the trap of taking these aspects of the story seriously. Such defects are par for the course, and come with the genre. On the other hand, since the story is meant as a fable on morality, I will discuss mercilessly the flaws in its ethical assumptions.

Eliezer poses as universally accepted the notion of a moral duty for everyone to altruistically minimize the unhappiness of everyone else. All sentient beings in the universe known or unknown count more or less equally in the total unhappiness than one must minimize. That total may be optimized in the long run at the cost of a few temporary victims to be sacrificed for the common good. Notably parents may be sacrificed in the alleged interest of their children, and whole classes/races/species may be eradicated because they are not a good fit for the Happy Future.

Eliezer conflates pain with unhappiness, and presents as a serious option the complete elimination of pain for universal good, sentientkind thereafter living a life of perpetual pleasure. But pleasure and pain are signals that indicate we are on the right or wrong path to whatever our goals are. There's a point in making it a better signal that more precisely shows the path — assuming you can somehow come up with such a statistically better signal. But it is absurd to claim to eliminate pain itself: that's eliminating the signal, and removing our guide to achieving our goals. It is about as absurd to claim to change people's neural systems to feel either more or less pain in the average: that's only bias the signal so it carries less information per feeling, making for slower, more expensive emotional feedback. Eliezer denounces the habituation that makes pain and pleasure disappear as some dulling of moral sense; on the contrary it is how we keep functioning at the margin, where the effort is needed, instead of obsessing on things we can't marginally improve. And that's why it is good to use painkillers for a disease that has already been taken care of as much as could be, but not for a disease that has not yet been diagnosed.

Worse than that, to forcefully arrange for others to never possibly have pain is to destroy their very moral agency; in the name of their happiness, you deny them as sentient agents, you disconnect them from reality, you anesthesize their moral sense, you pander to their every whims until reality strikes back despite all your shielding. And in the name of this Greater Common Good that is the annihilation of individual morality, the altruist justifies mass murder.

Eliezer fancies himself as a thinker for the morality of the future, but his vision of morality is the ancient rotting cadaver of collectivist egalitarian altruistic utilitarianism, as inculcated to him by his judeo-christian upbringing (judeo in this case). It is the same stinking collectivism that in the past inspired all totalitarian mass-killing regimes and their singers, from Ancient Egypt to North Korea, from Plato to Pol Pot. The same stinking collectivism that still poisons politics today, and serves as a pretense to justify all oppressions. Trampling on people's Liberties in the name of the Greater Common Good.

Yet those who seek a world of equal happiness for all are ultimately bound to find that Life is the worst of all social inequalities. To suppress inequalities, they must either resurrect all the dead people (and give life to all the potential living people), or exterminate all the actually living. Egalitarians, since they cannot further their goal by the former method, inevitably come to further it by the latter method.

A sane moral person shall not feel responsible for any other person's pain, except when the first person indeed caused the pain by his own actions. And even despite any interference that one may suffer from other people, to claim that the primary responsibility on one person's fate lies in the acts of other people is to deny the fact that one is one's own moral agent. Temporarily denying one's responsibility on one's own fate is indeed to treat one as a child. Permanently denying one's responsibility on one's own fate is indeed to treat one as an animal. Those who deny this responsibility are not one's friends, but one's most mortal enemies.

Why should one be responsible for the fate of other people one has never interacted with? There is no reason, and cannot be one. On the other hand, there is a moral duty of justice, to not actively harm other people, to not violate on their life, liberty and property — or to have compensate them for the trouble. And this basic duty specifically forbids us to sacrifice anyone in the name of any Grand Scheme.

Comments

(Anonymous)

Notably parents may be sacrificed in the alleged interest of their children

It's a tad more complicated. In the story, killing the parents is morally justified because they are coercing their children. We don't *have* to do it, but it's moral to do so. This is clearly not sacrifice. An odd consequence is that since children grow into baby eaters themselves, they can in turn be exterminated. It implies that genocide over time is morally acceptable.

I think Eliezer does a good job showing that our moral intuitions derive more from our nature as humans than our nature as rational beings.

However, I reject the idea that since morality is a product of accidents, it is somehow arbitrary. Saying our morality is arbitrary is like saying "we should not be bound by it". However, this is a moral statement which only makes sense in the framework of this arbitrary morality. There's no escaping our nature.

A relevant quote by Rothbard in TEOL

But suppose, on the other hand, that the Martians also had the characteristics, the nature, of the legendary vampire, and could only exist by feeding on human blood. In that case, regardless of their intelligence, the Martians would be our deadly enemy and we could not consider that they were entitled to the rights of humanity. Deadly enemy, again, not because they were wicked aggressors, but because of the needs and requirements of their nature, which would clash ineluctably with ours.

A.B.

In whose name?

So you kill the parents in the name of the children (that exist), then the children in the name of their own children (that don't even exist)?

Neither is moral. The first mass killing is only imaginably valid if you side with the children, adopt them, and offer them a brighter future. If you're not acting as a proxy for those kids, you have no LEGAL INTEREST, no stance on which to claim to act. But the second killing clearly establishes that you don't care the least for those children, since to them you prefer imaginary grandchildren that not only don't exist, but that YOU prevent from existing.

Note that if you really cared for the children (which you obviously don't), instead of killing the parents, I'm sure you could convince at least some of them to offer you as many of their extra children as you'd wish to adopt. But you won't even try. (Note that I make the same offer to the killer anti-abortionist.)

(I don't see why you argue against the notion of morality being arbitrary. Is anyone arguing that it is?)

And with respect to Rothbard, his argument is obviously FALSE. He wrongly assumes that opposite values imply a conflict on the same resources even when he himself assumes there is no aggression. But wherever there is respect for property rights, opposite values may co-exist peacefully. Those who are the deadly enemies are not those who share or don't share same or opposite values, but those who deny property rights, independently from their values.

Wrongful claim to universality

Also, when you call for the mass killing of some class of people, you may possibly be claim conformance with your own sick sense of morality, but it is a blatant lie to then call this morality "universalist" and drape yourself in "universal love". The "universalist" philosophies are bunk. They cannot possibly be coherent in asking for cosmic intervention in the name of all, when what they actually do is making themselves enemies of some and masters of the rest for the benefit of a few.

Pseudo-universalists, pseudo-nationalists, pseudo-democrats, etc. Once again, the only true universalist is the one who understand the universal principle of property rights.

(Anonymous)

Re: In whose name?

So you kill the parents in the name of the children (that exist), then the children in the name of their own children (that don't even exist)?

No you don't, you wait until they themselves have children and try eating them. Then you kill them. I said"in turn" and "over time".

In principle the specie could survive since you kill them after reproduction, but most likely the children need the parents to survive so they'll die of starvation and the specie will surely disappear.

Neither is moral.

It's immoral to kill someone to prevent him from eating an unwilling victim?

If you're not acting as a proxy for those kids, you have no LEGAL INTEREST, no stance on which to claim to act.

Agreed, but it is mentioned explicitly that the children are complaining vehemently, you can reasonably infer that they'll grant you the power to use their claim against their aggressor.

If you see a woman getting raped in the street, you don't go to her and ask her to sign a form transferring her claim against the rapist to you. You assume she does and bear the consequences if you were wrong.

As for a brighter future, I'm pretty sure the children prefer *anything* over the slow agonizing death lasting one month described in the story, including, yes, a quick death.

Note that if you really cared for the children (which you obviously don't)

Chill out, it's fiction.

I'm sure you could convince at least some of them to offer you as many of their extra children as you'd wish to adopt.

One of the premise is that the baby-eaters would find it horribly immoral not to eat their own children. It's not the winnowing they feel a moral obligation to perform, but the actual eating. You're free to discuss the plausibility of that premise but that takes us out of the story. So no, they won't give you their children.

But wherever there is respect for property rights, opposite values may co-exist peacefully. Those who are the deadly enemies are not those who share or don't share same or opposite values, but those who deny property rights, independently from their values.

Such as baby-eaters who do not respect the self-ownership of their sentient children ?

it is a blatant lie to then call this morality "universalist"

I did exactly the opposite, I claimed that this morality was intrinsically human, but that doesn't mean it only deals with human agents.

(Anonymous)

Re: In whose name?

(I don't see why you argue against the notion of morality being arbitrary. Is anyone arguing that it is?)

I think Eliezer is. See for example http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/08/pebblesorting-p.html

Eliezer is brilliant but I agree he is not selfish enough. Good job taking him on.

(Anonymous)

criticism is good but it's best if on target

It's good to see some more dissent at Overcoming Bias; it's too easy to just not voice disagreements if someone isn't stirring things up - your posts prompted me to express my own criticisms again as well, where before I had just been letting things lie.

That being said, I think the specific points you make in this post are off the mark.

The most important problem with your criticism is that Eliezer actually considers the eliminate-pain scenario to be a worse outcome than the outcome where Huygens is destroyed. His own comments make this very clear.

So, no, he is not a hedonist-type utilitarian.

It's harder to determine if he is a preference-type utilitarian.
He explicitly said he was a utilitarian here (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/01/the-intuitions.html).

However, he wrote a long series of posts about morality which seem to contradict the idea that he is a utilitarian at all - rather, it seems that his moral framework is one where he attempts to find a notion of rightness (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/07/the-meaning-of.html) that is singled out by actual human values - including deriving aggregation of values from a notion of fairness that itself comes from human values - but I suspect his analysis of what his framework actually leads to is distorted by his pre-existing attachment to informed preference utilitarianism or something very similar.

Back when I thought he was a utilitarian (before the morality series) I accused him of believing in objective morality, since utilitarianism is one - the framework for converting human utility (pleasure or preference) functions into a preference ordering is simply taken as a given. I now accuse you of having a partial objective morality - unless of course you can point to a source for the duty of justice. Maybe you can try to apply Eliezer's framework to conclude that it is implied by human values - you should read his morality series.

To the commenter who said Eliezer's morality is arbitrary: it depends how you define arbitrary - but I don't think it's really an appropriate use of the word. To the pebblesorters, the pursuit of primeness is hardly arbitrary - it is, after all, the essence of their values.

BTW I am a former libertarian and still libertarianish; Eliezer also claims to be a former libertarian but I am not sure if I really believe he ever 'got' it on a moral level considering that he seemed to claim (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/03/policy_debates_.html) that deontological libertarians believe that people deserve whatever they allow to happen to themselves.

- simon

(Anonymous)

Re: criticism is good but it's best if on target

bah, I guess the auto-formatting destroyed those links? It says <a> is allowed...

Anyway I was going link to this (I think) post: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/07/interpersonal-m.html
in connection to fairness but forgot.
eyes black and white

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