The other day was my mother’s birthday and, not knowing what to buy her, I suddenly remembered this thread and comment, and decided to get her a copy of Rosling’s excellent book, which had conveniently just been translated into Spanish.
True, my mother is not a teenager (I’m not that young), but as you point out the book makes a great gift for anyone.
Clicking on ‘Open Image in New Tab’ indicates that the image is hosted by Google Photos, so I suspect the privacy settings are preventing us from seeing them. Maybe Google read Rob’s angry post and have now taken things to the other extreme. :P
oops, wrong thread.
Thanks, as usual, for these posts.
One potentially EA-relevant book not included in your list is Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan & Zach Weinersmith, published just a few days ago.
What kind of evidence will cause you to abandon the view that people always act selfishly?
Is this really important? A discrepancy of £700 relative to the £5000 projection seems acceptable to me.
To someone who already rejects Mere Addition, the Sadistic Conclusion is only a small cost, since if it’s bad to add some lives with (seemingly) positive welfare, then it’s a small step to accept that it can sometimes be worse to add lives with negative welfare over lives with positive welfare.
The question is whether one should accept some variety of CU or NU antecedently of any theoretical commitments to either. Naturally, if one is already committed to some aspects of NU, committing to further aspects of it will incur a relatively smaller cost, but that’s only because the remaining costs have already been incurred.
We don’t actually have a great definition of what suffering is and, if we model it in terms of preferences, it bottoms out. AKA, there’s a point in suffering when I could imagine myself saying something like “This is the worst thing ever; get me out of here no matter what.”
Proponents or sympathizers of lexical NU (e.g. Tomasik) often make this claim, but I’m not at all persuaded. The hypothetical person you describe would beg for the suffering to stop even if continuing to experience it was necessary and sufficient to avoid an even more intense or longer episode of extreme suffering. So if this alleged datum of experience had the evidential force you attribute to it, it would actually undermine lexical NU.
It’s also super hard to really understand what it’s like to be in edge-case extreme suffering situations without actually being in one, and most people haven’t.
It’s even harder to understand what it’s like to experience comparably extreme happiness, since evolutionary pressures selected for brains capable of experiencing wider intensity ranges of suffering than of happiness. The kind of consideration you invoke here actually provides the basis for a debunking argument of the core intuition behind NU, as has been noted by Shulman and others. (Though admittedly many NUs appear not to be persuaded by this argument.)
I’m a moral anti-realist. There’s no strict reason why we can’t have weird dicontinuities in our utility functions if that’s what we actually have.
Humans have all sorts of weird and inconsistent attitudes. Regardless of whether you are a realist or an anti-realist, you need to reconcile this particular belief of yours with all the other beliefs you have, including the belief that an experience that is almost imperceptibly more intense than another experience can’t be infinitely (infinitely!) worse than it. Or, if you want a more vivid example, the belief that it would not be worth subjecting a quadrillion animals having perfectly happy lives to a lifetime of agony in factory farms solely to spare a single animal a mere second of slightly more intense agony just above the relevant critical threshold.
So the suffering focused ethic that I am proposing, does not imply that sadistic conclusion that you mentioned… My personal favorite suffering focused ethic is variable critical level utilitarianism: a flexible version of critical level utilitarianism where everyone can freely choose their own non-negative critical level
As long as the critical level is positive, critical-level utilitarianism does imply the sadistic conclusion. A population where everyone experiences extreme suffering would be ranked above a population where everyone is between neutrality and the critical level, provided the latter population is sufficiently large. The flexibility of the positive critical level can’t help avoid this implication.
Yes, I agree that lexical NU doesn’t have that implication. My comment was addressed to the particular suffering-focused view I took Stijn to be defending, which he contrasted to CU. If his defence is of “suffering-focused views” as a whole, however, then it seems unfair to compare them to CU specifically, rather than to “classical views” generally. Classical views also avoid the repugnant and very repugnant conclusions, since some specific views in this family, such as critical level utilitarianism, don’t have this implication. [EDIT: Greg makes the same point in his comment; remarkably, we posted at exactly the same time.]
Concerning the merits of lexical NU, I just don’t see how it’s plausible to postulate a sharp value discontinuity along the suffering continuum. As discussed many times in the past, one can construct a series of pairwise comparisons involving painful experiences that differ only negligibly in their intensity. It is deeply counterintuitive that one of these experiences should be infinitely (!) worse than the other, but this is what the view implies. (I’ve only skimmed the essay, so please correct me if I’m misinterpreting it.)
Suffering focused ethics can also avoid the repugnant sadistic conclusion, which is the most counterintuitive implication of total utilitarianism that maximizes the sum of everyone’s welfare. Consider the choice between two situations. In situation A, a number of extremely happy people exist. In situation B, the same people exist and have extreme suffering (maximal misery), and a huge number of extra people exist, all with lives barely worth living (slight positive welfare). If the extra population in B is large enough, the total welfare in B becomes larger than the total welfare in A. Hence, total utilitarianism would prefer situation B, which is sadistic (there are people with extreme suffering) and repugnant (a huge number of people have lives barely worth living and no-one is very happy).
As pointed out recently, suffering focused views imply that a population where everyone experiences extreme suffering is better than a population where everyone experiences extreme happiness plus a brief, mild instance of suffering, provided the latter population is sufficiently more numerous. This seems even more problematic than the implication you describe, since at least in that case you have a very large population enjoying “muzak and potatoes”, whereas here there’s no redeeming feature: extreme suffering is all that exists.
the repugnant sadistic conclusion of total utilitarianism
Note that total utilitarianism does not lead to what is known as the “sadistic conclusion”. This conclusion was originally introduced by Arrhenius, and results when adding a number of people each with net negative welfare to a population is better than adding some (usually larger) number of people each with net positive welfare to that population.
Given what you say in the rest of the paragraph, I think by ‘repugnant sadistic conclusion’ you mean what Arrhenius calls the ‘very repugnant conclusion’, which is very different from the sadistic conclusion. (Personally, I think the sadistic conclusion is a much more serious problem than the repugnant conclusion or even the very repugnant conclusion, so it’s important to be clear about which of these conditions is implied by total utilitarianism.)
Interesting example. I have never taken such pills, but if they simply intensify the ordinary experience of sleepiness, I’d say that the reason I (as a CU) don’t try to stay awake is that I can’t dissociate the pleasantness of falling asleep from actually falling asleep: if I were to try to stay awake, I would also cease to have a pleasant experience. (If anyone knows of an effective dissociative technique, please send it over to Harri Besceli, who once famously remarked that “falling asleep is the highlight of my day.”)
More generally, I think cases of this sort have rough counterparts for negative experience, e.g. the act of scratching an itch, or of playing with a loose tooth, despite the concomitant pain induced by those activities. I think such cases are sufficiently marginal, and susceptible to alternative explanations, that they do not pose a serious problem to either (1) or (2).
I believe that Michael’s point is that, while we cannot imagine suffering without some kind of interest to have it stop (at least in the moment itself), we can imagine a mind that does not care for further joy.
The relevant comparison, I think, is between (1) someone who experiences suffering and wants this suffering to stop and (2) someone who experiences happiness and wants this happiness not to stop. It seems that you and Michael think that one can plausibly deny only (2), but I just don’t see why that is so, especially if one focuses on comparisons where the positive and negative experiences are of the same intensity. Like Paul, I think the two scenarios are symmetrical.
[EDIT: I hadn’t seen Paul’s reply when I first posted my comment.]
The latest Alignment Newsletter (published today) includes a review of Russell’s book by Rohin Shah. Perhaps he can publish it on Amazon and/or GoodReads?
Pinker lists ideology as one of his five “inner demons” in The Better Angels of our Nature, together with predatory violence, dominance, sadism and revenge.