Posts Tagged ‘Utilitarianism’

Utilitarianism is Useless

Utilitarianism is completely useless as a tool of public policy, Scott Alexander discovers (he doesn’t put it quite like that). In his own words: “I am forced to acknowledge that happiness research remains a very strange field whose conclusions make no sense to me and which tempt me to crazy beliefs and actions if I take them seriously.”

Why should that surprise us?

We’re all grown up (Darwinians) here. Pleasure-pain variation is an evolved behavioral guidance system. Given options, at the level of the individual organism, it prompts certain courses and dissuades from others. The equilibrium setting, corresponding to optimal functionality, has to be set close to neutral. How could a long-term ‘happiness trend’ under such (minimally realistic) conditions make any sense whatsoever?

Anything remotely like chronic happiness, which does not have to be earned, always in the short-term, by behavior selected — to some level of abstraction — across deep history for its adaptiveness, is not only useless, but positively deleterious to biologically-inherited piloting (cybernetics). Carrots-and-sticks work on an animal that is neither glutted to satiation or deranged by some extremity of ultimate agony. If it didn’t automatically re-set close to neutral, it would be dysfunctional, and natural selection would have made short work of it. (The graphs included in the SSC post make perfect sense given such assumptions.)

Pleasure is not an end, but a tool. Understood realistically, it presupposes other ends. To make it an end is to black-hole into wirehead philosophy (1, 2). It is precisely because ‘utils’ have a predetermined biological use that they are useless for the calculation of anything else.

Set serious ends, or go home. Happiness quite certainly isn’t one. (Optimize for intelligence.)

ADDED: SSC discussion threads are too huge to handle, but this comment is the first to get (close) to what I’d argue is the point. Quite probably there are others that do.

March 25, 2016admin 38 Comments »

Insect Agonies

Utilitarianism dominates the rationalization of morality within the English-speaking world. It is scarcely imaginable that it could be expressed with greater purity than this:

There are roughly 10^18 insects in the world. Suppose we give insects a .1% chance of being sentient, with their sentience being .1% of a human’s. (These values are intentionally small to demonstrate the scale to which insect suffering dominates) Assuming we assign moral weight to categories of beings by their number and the intensity of their inner experiences, this assignment gives each insect 1/1,000,000 of the moral weight for a human, meaning that the suffering of 1,000,000 insects equals the suffering of one human. Even when assigning insects this absurdly low moral weight, their suffering still dominates, as 10^18 insects comes out to 1 trillion human equivalents. If the number of insects were smaller, say around 7 billion, the consequences of not considering insect suffering might be acceptable. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and as we shall see, ignoring insect suffering even if we assign a low probability to insect consciousness presents an unacceptably high risk of ignoring a catastrophic moral harm.

There’s no need to condescend to this argument by pretending to ‘steelman’ it. It’s already quite steely. For a start, it’s conceptually pure — undistracted by irrelevances such as habitat preservation. It’s solidly consequentialist, and — in its development from of its own basic axiom — practical. There’s no sign of a fetishistic rejection of pesticide use, for instance, or an appeal to any totemic vision of ‘nature’. It’s even realist, in that it recognizes enough about the character of this universe to understand the utilitarian obligation as primarily about the alleviation of suffering (positive pleasures being, in the grand scheme of things, no more than a rounding error). On this basis, there’s an insectoid antinatalist sub-theme, which (briefly) explores the thought that ethical extermination might be a positive moral good: “It is possible that most insects have lives that aren’t worth living … meaning the fewer insects in existence the better.” It focuses tightly upon the problem of relieving insect agonies, by chemically inducing a comparatively painless — rather than agonizing — death. Building its case in uncontroversial steps, it concludes that no effective altruistic cause has higher priority, since “… insect suffering probably dominates all other sources of suffering” and “… humane pesticides saves 25 human equivalents from a more painful death per dollar.”

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September 24, 2015admin 64 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Philosophy

Optimize for Intelligence

Moldbug’s latest contains a lot to think about, and to argue with. It seems a little lost to me (perhaps Spandrell is right).

The guiding thread is utility, in its technical (philosophical and economic) sense, grasped as the general indicator of a civilization in crisis. Utilitarianism, after all, is precisely ‘objective’ hedonism, the promotion of pleasure as the master-key to value. As philosophy, this is pure decadence. As economics it is more defensible, certainly when restricted to its descriptive usage (if economists find their field of investigation populated by hedonically-controlled mammals, it is hardly blameworthy of them to acknowledge the fact). In this respect, accusing the Austrians of ‘pig-philosophy’ is rhetorical over-reach — swinish behavior wasn’t learned from Human Action.

Utilitarianism is often attractive to rational people, because it seems so rational. The imperative to maximize pleasure and minimize pain goes with the grain of what biology and culture already says: pleasure is good, suffering is bad, people seek rewards and avoid punishments, happiness is self-justifying. Calculative consequentialism is vastly superior to deontology. Yet the venerable critique Moldbug taps into, and extends, is truly devastating. The utilitarian road leads inexorably to wire-head auto-orgasmatization, and the consummate implosion of purpose. Pleasure is a trap. Any society obsessed with it is already over.

Utility, backed by pleasure, is toxic waste, but that doesn’t mean there’s any need to junk the machinery of utilitarian calculus — including all traditions of rigorous economics. It suffices to switch the normative variable, or target of optimization, replacing pleasure with intelligence. Is something worth doing? Only if it grows intelligence. If it makes things more stupid, it certainly isn’t.

There are innumerable objections that might flood in at this point [excellent!].
— Even if rigorous economics is in fact the study of intelligenic (or catallactic) distributions, doesn’t the assumption of subjective utility-maximization provide the most reliable basis for any understanding of economic behavior?
— Infinite intelligence already (and eternally) exists, we should focus on praying to that.
— Rather my retarded cousin than an intelligent alien.
— Do we even know what intelligence is?
— Cannot an agent be super-intelligent and evil?
— Just: Why?

More, therefore, to come …

ADDED: A previous excursion into the engrossing topic of hedonic implosion cited Geoffrey Miller (in Seed magazine): “I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games — the Game of Life — says ‘Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.’”

March 15, 2013admin 18 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Uncategorized