Vote utilitarian! Maybe

[originally from October 13th, 2014]

Classical liberal (i.e. borderline libertarian) ideas about rights are very deontological in their nature. It is postulated that certain rather abstract ideas about rights are good just because they are (usually they do sounds quite self-evident though), and the legislation is there to protect them. It doesn’t matter how unhappy someone’s executing their rights makes others – as long as they’re not infringing their rights, it may be immoral, but has to stay legal. This is an important point: something immoral can be legal, since the rights aren’t protected in order to make people happy – they’re protected for their own sake. That’s why the conservative position on minimum wages is that the right to make any mutually agreed contract overrides the unhappiness of minimum wage workers (and probably because conservatives are largely protecting the interests of big companies, but I’m talking about the rationale they give, that is consistent with the classical ideals). And that’s why Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to picket funerals – however offended others are, these guys do have the freedom of speech (and probably because they’re Christians, whereas Muslims or atheists doing the same would very likely be beaten up a long ago – but again, it’s about the justifications, not the hidden motivation of people who choose these justifications).

Modern social democratic ideas (more or less corresponding to modern American liberal ones) are generally way more consequentialist. They didn’t go full social engineering (like communists did), but the overall shift of the focus from ideals of rights to people’s wellbeing is very clear. It doesn’t matter whether something protects or infringes rights – if it hurts people, it should be fixed. That’s what justifies gender quotas: the actual position of women in the society matters more than the abstract virtue of gender-blind legislation. And that’s what justifies outlawing Holocaust denial: offending people and harming the society matters more than the abstract virtue of freedom to say anything you want.
What’s interesting though is that in the consequentialist approach to legislation there’s very little reason why something immoral can be legal. Immoral is something that harms people. And things that harm people should be fixed by a legislative action. The only options I see here is either deciding that something is not harmful enough compared to the difficulty of enforcing it, or deciding to leave a margin of error, for the case of the legislators being wrong. The last one is particularly interesting, since admitting that a piece of legislation can be wrong has all sorts of implications on the penitentiary system.


Cake or death, PETA or cockfights

[originally from October 16th, 2014]

what if I were rational, and truly believed that an animal life has exactly the same ethical value as a human life. Or even ten times less. Or one hundred. Generally, this equation:
value(human) = x * value(animal)
For different x, what would I think?

Actually, for all non-zero positive x it’s pretty much the same. When Nazis were putting Jews into death camps to make the whole thing work (I don’t know if they ever had the exact wording of “obviously they’re better off in death camps: if you just throw them in a forest they will die”, but you can imagine how ridiculous this excuse sounds), would you be content boycotting the good they produce, and trying to convince them that killing Jews is bad? No, you would bomb them, you would storm the death camps, killing the guards and freeing the prisoners. And if any of the guards survived, they should be put to trial afterwards. This is what you do. So, the only animal rights organization that actually does something sensible is PETA, although they’re not harsh enough: if they cannot sneak into a farm to liberate the slaves, they should just bomb the entrance, and to the hell the lives of farmers.
How big should x be for this kind of thinking? Well, if “the total number of all animals killed for food in 2000 was 9.7 billion” then believing that animal live costs one thousand times less than a human life (which doesn’t sound like a crazy idea on the first sight) makes farming just as bad as the Holocaust.

Hmm… what if we make x equal to one in ten billion? That definitely sounds like a statement from someone who doesn’t give a single shit about animals, and probably enjoys cockfights. Still, points stands. If to feed the Earth to the same extent we’re doing it now we had to murder one innocent person per year, wouldn’t you take some action? Going below one human per year only gives you murdering one human in several years – still terrible.

Thus, if you’re utilitarian, and x is positive, you shouldn’t go vegan, you should go terrorist.

OK, what if x is zero? Well, as I said about cockfights, but worse: if animal lives worth nothing, then it’s totally ethical to slowly wring a living cat for entertainment. No worse than doing so with a plush toy – the only minor problem is that is could be someone’s favorite toy.

There is a very nice and simple hack to resolve the paradox: simply claim that the value of a human life is ontologically different from the value of an animal life. You can optimize for them separately, but making trade-offs between them is deontologically prohibited. And whereas it doesn’t sound even remotely as crazy as the two options described above for the general non-utilitarian public, unaware of the word speciesism, it covers a deep problem in decision theory: pure utilitarianism doesn’t work. Also, any utility-based AI will be a crapshoot.

[originally from January 10th, 2015]

The picture is just an argument to moderation, which is decidedly not the best way to represent the article. Besides, using the treatment of dogs to illustrate an ethical point about animals isn’t a very good idea either – chickens or cows would work better. If the author’s point is that it’s OK to use and kill animals as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t cause a lot of suffering, then it’s way more fair to illustrate it with the animals that actually get used and killed at the rate of few billions per year, instead of those that get toys, medications, and surgeries.

But as for the actual argument, it’s not that easy. Sure, conflating animal rights and animal welfare could be a mistake or even malicious equivocation, but it’s not fair to say that they’re completely disconnected either.

Classic libertarian philosophers, when inventing the idea of unalienable human rights, basically justified it by saying “just because”. Well, OK, the justification was a little bit better, but it boiled down to the idea that it’s the natural order of things – IIRC, they even used the idea of soul to argue that humans and only humans have rights. For this kind of philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether certain rights increase or decrease welfare; they’re valuable by themselves (thus, the idea that freedom should never be sacrificed for safety). Within this framework, one may or may not care about the welfare of other humans or animals, but this is indeed a matter of choice, not the universal ethical standard. Descartes, for one, didn’t:

The problem is that in the modern social democratic philosophy, within which the author presumably operates, welfare supersedes the rights. Humans are still believed to have rights, but the reason for that is the belief that having rights increases one’s welfare, and human welfare should be cared about, because humans are moral patients. This idea is very important, since otherwise it’s impossible to argue in favor welfare-increasing actions that limit one’s rights, like regulating the economy, thus helping the poor, but limiting the possibility to make any kinds of arbitrary contracts. Also, it’s important that the human welfare should be cared about because of their being moral patients. For example, I care about the state of the oceans and rainforests, but only because their state indirectly affects me and other humans; there’s nothing unethical in cutting down a tree per se. So, within this framework, we can either say that we don’t care about animals at all, or say that we do care about their welfare, and do so not just because the meat of a stressed animal tastes worse [citation needed], but because they are in fact moral patients. In this case, it’s only natural to ask why then we don’t think they have rights, since having rights is a direct conclusion from being a moral patient for humans.

Now, the author may actually have an explanation for why it is different for non-human animals. Intelligence is an obvious candidate, but it’s a rather weak point: we still believe that infants and even patients in coma (unless diagnosed as brain dead) have right to life, which is refused to other animals. Saying that animal welfare is less valuable than human welfare is also an option, but given the sheer number of animals used in farming, to make it look OK we have to tune it so damn low that we’d have hard time arguing why vivisection and cockfights are bad, leave alone zoophilia (in which case it’s often quite hard to argue that the animal is suffering at all; the strongest argument against zoophilia involves the notion that animals cannot consent to sex, which automatically assigns them the right to autonomy).

So, animal welfare is a very slippery slope, that leads to PETA pretty quickly, once you start trying to apply ethical principles in a consistent way. We can possibly set a Schelling fence on that slope (alternatively, either discover that cockfights are OK, or PETA was right all along), but doing so would require far stronger arguments that the author presents.

Utilitarianism of offense

[originally from November 14th, 2014]

“Group X does Y, but that offends a certain group Z, and therefore should be stopped” is actually almost a preference utilitarian statement. To be fully preference utilitarian, it should also consider the degree of offense taken by Z, compare it to the frustration of X for not doing Y, and weigh them with the sizes of the groups. But it does catch the most crucial concept of preference utilitarianism: ethical value is not intrinsic to the actions, but they are rather evaluated by their impact on other people. More poetically, it’s people who matter, not abstract moral guidelines.

The problem is that this rule is seldom followed by those who most often invoke it, and for a good reason: it can backfire in a way that they definitely not approve of (nor do I). In various historical periods there have been people out there offended by all sorts of things: homosexual couple, heterosexual couples kissing or even hugging in public, interracial couples, black people on the front seat of the bus, women is skirts shorter than knee, women in pants, etc. Furthermore, for almost any fight for someone’s rights, on some point there has been a situation where the number of people willing to execute a certain right was smaller than the number of people offended by that execution. Otherwise there wouldn’t even be any struggle – everyone would just agree that the right should be granted.

It is not necessarily true, but still quite likely that in 2014 the number of people who live in an interracial marriage, consider this possibility, or just support it strongly enough to be offended by the opposing position exceeds the number of people who are offended by the interracial marriage itself. Thus, it is strongly preferable to have it legal. But it’s not considered good just because the number of radical racists is small enough. Nor did it change the minds of civil rights activists in 50s. Apparently, by the time that interracial marriage was legalized, it didn’t even have the majority approval:

. The whole point was that the opinion of racists and the offense that they may take is irrelevant to whether interracial marriage should be legal or not.The same idea applies to nearly every other civil rights or social justice issue as well. This idea is impossible to hold on purely offense dynamics basis. One should take a moral realist stance on the issue: “it’s not just bad because it offends someone, but it’s also intrinsically and objectively bad”.

This is actually fine – I would argue that all people implicitly or explicitly hold a lot of ethical opinions that aren’t reducible to preference utilitarianism (even imperfect and irrational). The problem is that if “it offends someone” is not a good enough reason to cease and desist in all these cases, then it’s not a good enough reason in others as well (unless you completely renounce Kant’s ethics, and think that hypocrisy is OK). Offense merely indicates that there is an issue, a moral dilemma, there’s a conflict of interests. But it does not suggest how to resolve this dilemma, in whose favor – for that you would need additional arguments, and possibly ethical axioms.

On dashcams and privacy

[originally from November 20th, 2014]

Sousveillance surely can violate privacy, but not even remotely as severe as surveillance does. It could only make sense to outlaw sousveillance and enforce the law only if all the privacy issues of surveillance were solved. At the same time, sousveillance can be and is effectively used to expose and to some degree fight the governmental power abuse, whereas surveillance only gives the government more power. Whoever pushed the legislation against sousveillance in California, Maryland, and Illinois was either heavily deluded or intentionally acting for the benefit of the government rather than the people.

In fact, a case could be made that the right for sousveillance should be protected under the Second Amendment (while it’s still here), since that was the spirit of the law: give the citizens enough force so that the government would never forget who’s the source of power here. Apparently, guns don’t scare the government anymore, but cameras do.

Just do it

[originally from November 22nd, 2014]

*imagine hissing voice and sinister smile yourself*
You know that spreading rationality is a strong net positive, right? How many lives could we save if people just stopped for a while and though about stuff in a relatively unbiased way? Even then the population of purely selfish but rational agents could do better than we do – and people usually aren’t purely selfish. If we could only spread rationality better. But you know as good as I do: it’s exactly the biases that make demagogy almost always sounds more convincing than the truth. It is so hard, so frustrating to explain the bitter truth, while competing against comforting lies, pushing all the buttons that – you’ve learned it – almost guaranteed to make one agree.
But what if you could do a little bit of… you know… marketing? Oh, spreading rationality through irrationality sounds so hypocritical!.. deontologically. But you’re utilitarian, you know how to make trade-offs. And you know better than to make trade-offs against some general principles that may be reasonable rules of thumb, but don’t even start to encompass the actual people and their happiness. How did you put that – shut up and multiply? Well, go on, multiply: billions of lives saved against millions slightly offended. And here is the thing – before learning about biases they won’t be able to recognize your little tricks, and the job would be already done. Many will probably agree that it would have been net positive. Oh, your reputation could be damaged? Well, I though you were an altruist.
Can it even get any worse than it is now? I’m not even talking about the marketing of commodities – adding a little bit of your marketing isn’t gonna change anything at all, even if you still believe in those deontological ideas. I’m talking about the market of ideas. You compete against people who learned some of the tricks, but use them with malicious intents, not for the benefit of the consumer. But you know better. They vaguely learned some buttons from classical novels and books by liberal arts majors. You learned how the whole machine works, with mathematical modelling. You know what buttons to push to make your point sweeter ans stickier. You can crush all that irrationality all at once.
After all, there are no arguments without any flavor with them. It’s just that you either select to give the randomness and subconsciousness to choose the flavor, and call it “fair”, or purposefully select the flavor, and call it “trickery” and “marketing”. But since when do rationalists consider obliviousness better than knowledge?
Why do you choose to not use your force for good? What stops you? What’s your choice?

Involving strangers in D/s activities – like kissing

[originally from November 24th, 2014]

OK, so there is this ethical problem with publicly engaging in D/s activities. The official position held by most is that it is unacceptable since it violates the requirement of explicit consent from everyone involved by exposing bystanders to the activity. And it actually makes sense to consider the bystanders to be a part of the scene: I imagine that for many activities like, I don’t know, walking your partner on a leash the experience may drastically differ between doing that privately and in public. Thus, the very fact that the activity was observed by the bystanders, and the knowledge of that by the parties directly involved changes their perception of the activity. That does sound like involvement, so it has to be consensual.

Buuuut… The same can be said about publicly kissing and otherwise expressing love, can’t it? It is also indirectly linked to sexual activities, and in many cases people have specifically reported the satisfaction from knowing how everyone around can see that the love each other. It’s not even that walking on a leash is done for sexual satisfaction, while kissing isn’t – many will get aroused from the latter, whereas the former is not necessarily done as a sexual thing per se, especially among the people in lifestyle D/s relationships. We simply rather arbitrarily defined acceptable and unacceptable forms of exposing the public to the fact that two people are attracted to each other. I imagine that if somehow third wave feminism happened before the sexual revolution, then one of the criticisms of public kissing, among its being disgusting decadent abomination, would be the idea that it engages random bystanders without without their consent. We just defined kissing an a non-sexual act before that happened.

How do we define then what activities are sexual and engaging enough to require consent from everyone who even just observes it, and what are not? Also, for specific activities, what is the acceptable degree of involving public in it? Requiring consent only from parties physically involved won’t really work unless we want to legalize public sex, masturbation, and flashing (the latter gets particularly odd in the jurisdictions that allow public nudity). The status quo doesn’t appear to be exceptionally consistent either.

What do youi think you know, and how do you think you’ve learned it?

[originally from November 27th, 2014]

There seems to be a special case of mind projection fallacy where people assume there’s an hierarchy of knowledge, and infer this hierarchy from their own experience of coming to the point where they are now (which is a sensible thing to do assuming the hierarchy exists – then there’s only one path to a certain piece of knowledge). That appears to be heavily influenced by formal education, that indeed organizes knowledge in this way.

For example: “This person talks about spectra. Clearly they learned trigonometry, then limits, then infinite series, then integration, then linear algebra, then Hilbert spaces, then Fourier series, and now know what spectrum is”. And they’re baffled that such person knows nothing about dot products, but is still comfortable with equalizers and spectrograms, because apparently they learned it practically rather than theoretically.

Another example is how I thought that understanding Schrödinger equation is a prerequisite for using bra-ket notation (which I don’t quite understand yet) until I met people who consider the former a much more complicated and high-level topic.

Or the fact that programmers with hacker-ish background, who grew up playing with computers, and learned programming as a next logical step after acquiring tons of practical (but not all that relevant) computer skills, are baffled to see programmers without suck background, who just learned programming as their major.

You don’t assume that every architect has built dozens of dog huts and tree houses as a kid, do you? But I would hypothesize that is this was someone’s path to the architecture major, they would probably be baffled at their classmates’ limited ability of the actual construction.

I would probably agree that some very highly specific pieces of knowledge may have universal prerequisites (although in most cases you should be able to get rid of them by reorganizing concepts), but in general they’re just floating around waiting to be learned. It’s very far from the pyramid people believe it to be.