Rust on the guillotine blade

This post is a summary of my views regarding metaethics – what I mean when I talk about morality, and whether I think there are moral facts or a sense in which our judgments of right and wrong can be said to be correct. To be clear, I use “morality” and “ethics” pretty much synonymously throughout the text.

What I’m currently vouching for is a type of moral realism, but my views are still a work in progress (to say the least) and what I have now is certainly only a starting point. I promise I’ll get back to you in five decades or so with well-researched, super confident answers with carefully constructed formulations and all, but here’s a rough first draft just to pass the time!


I’ve always had a serious problem with Hume’s guillotine. Having these weird separate metaphysical categories for ought things and is things probably sounds A-OK in a world where people also don’t save people acutely drowning in bogs unless they recite a satisfactory amount of Christian prayers, but I have a feeling that in a physicalist worldview it won’t do: either we have a natural source for morality, or we don’t have morality at all.
Humans frequently speak of and act according to various forms of morality, whatever these forms may be, and since morality is a concept that needs to be defined only in the framework of human existence to be meaningful and functional, people acting as though it exists is sufficient to make it exist (just like human emotions are real even though their only source is human brains doing human brain stuff). All of this happens completely within the realm of what is, with no need for anything external to humanity determining moral truths for us. Like humans – which I here assume to be wholly physical beings – and all of their culture, morality exists in the physical nature and can be inferred from other aspects of physical nature: there is nothing ontologically mystical about it, it’s just very confusing in a million other ways (as is, of course, human consciousness as a whole).

As an aside, I was actually prompted to write this post yesterday by the introductory chapter in Patricia Churchland’s book Braintrust, in which she argues that the meaning behind Hume’s guillotine has been generally misunderstood and that David Hume himself also believed morality can be inferred from nature (it’s just that it’s vastly more complicated than people reasoning from simplified, fallacious naturalist principles assume). I hope she is correct about ol’ Hume, because this stuff is good.

Hume made his comment in the context of ridiculing the conviction that reason — a simplistic notion of reason as detached from emotions, passions, and cares — is the watershed for morality. Hume, recognizing that basic values are part of our nature, was unwavering: “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
By passion, he meant something more general than emotion; he had in mind any practical orientation toward performing an action in the social or physical world. Hume believed that moral behavior, though informed by understanding and reflection, is rooted in a deep, widespread, and enduring social motivation, which he referred to as “the moral sentiment.” This is part of our biological nature.


Okay, so people use the word morality, and it probably refers to something real in the physical world, though very likely only present in the minds of humans and in their evolved cultures. This doesn’t say much about the nature of morality, of course: it could still be fundamentally empty and non-universal like any form of fashion that comes and goes along with arbitrarily changing cultural tastes – with nothing ultimately more correct or incorrect than something else, except maybe in relation to the cultural background each item is presented in. This affects how much we should care and expect other people to care about any kind of moral arguments and convictions. Moral relativism of this kind inevitably leads us back to moral nihilism, where all ethical judgments lose their essence, the power and need to convince, that originally made them matter more than your taste in ice cream.

The human moral compass really does seem fickle and arbitrary. From crusades and genocide to caste systems and slavery, history shows us that pretty much anything goes – and from the inside of an ideology, anything looks just as valuable and right as striving for poverty reduction or world peace does to many of us.
But this isn’t yet absolute evidence for moral relativism, any more than the fact that science has failed in the past is conclusive evidence for the all-encompassing truth relativism endorsed by annoying postmodernists. Many widespread moral views we deem atrocious are, I think, only probable when complemented with factually incorrect beliefs (or aliefs), such as “the enemy is nothing like us”, “it’s not so bad to be a slave if you’re black”, and “deity X will reward those who Y”. The reason why history has seen so many horrible moral frameworks isn’t necessarily that moral judgments are always brutally arbitrary and they just look wrong to us: it can also be in part because we’re looking at people who lack relevant factual information, something their mostly functional human conscience requires as input to be able to produce non-horrible, somewhat stable results. But I’ll return to this point in a while.

Another reason for the weird results seen in history as well as our everyday interactions is that moral egoism is actually correct, in the same way that mutual defection in a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma is correct. That is, it’s, uh, incorrect – in fact, self-refuting, in the sense that even if it might intuitively seem so, egoistic goods can’t be achieved by seeking to maximise them as mere individuals acting on causal decision theory. Even if you only care about yourself, you have a much greater chance of having a good life if you live in, and by acausal reasoning also seek to build, an environment in which people adhere to more or less altruistic principles such as the Golden rule or some variant of utilitarianism, just like everyone involved in a prisoner’s dilemma is better off as long as everyone by acausal reasoning cooperates despite each individual’s incentive to defect. However, there’s always going to be an incentive to defect when you know your co-player will cooperate, and likewise, moral failures stemming from opportunistic egoism are always tempting to humans operating with motivational structures like ours, which is why it’s not surprising that the world in general has been and largely still is a bloody mess. Of blood. And mess.


So, egoism creates some kind of a protomorality – just a seed, the adherence to which is not yet morality, but the reason there should be a morality in the first place. This is important to note, because according to this sort of simple egoism you might as well, for example, accept the torture of a million people as long as you don’t lose any utility from the decision and receive a cone of your favourite ice cream. (Maybe even your least favourite ice cream. Ice cream is always pretty good.)
I currently think this seed can be referred to as aesthetics, though philosophers of actual aesthetics probably disagree here because they have developed vastly more complex exact definitions for the concept and I should come up with a better word before someone catches me using it like this. Anyway, what I’m referring to is the content of egoism: what one personally values and/or likes to have as part of their conscious experience, ranging from not being in pain and feeling one is loved and respected to witty poetry and the knowledge that burrowing rain frogs exist or that other people have good lives, because ethics too is a strange loop.

The next paragraph is sort of the key point, so I’m highlighting with pretty colours:
Morality is what emerges when multiple agents with this kind of aesthetic values interact with each other, and it’s how their cooperation is to be coordinated so that the result is better than if the agents acted on pure egoism. An anti-defection system, in short. (This is not intended as an exact formulation as much as a general idea of what the function of morality is, so please be patient. Five decades, I promise.)
The values here are obviously contingent, defined by whatever brain/mind states each agent personally finds preferrable and how they may be achieved. The most effective means to achieve these goods are also contingent – the solution to morality itself, beyond the scope of this text – as it depends on the nature and group dynamics of the agents in question.

To elaborate on this definition a bit, I have three conditions that most people would hopefully agree are necessary, and double-hopefully maybe even sufficient, to define what morality is:

• To have morality, we obviously need agents with preferences regarding what they consciously experience: no use to build ethical systems for the wind, rocks and trees. Not even grass cells with cutesy smiling faces, though they do come close to fooling us.
• In addition to that, ethics must also on some level seek to fulfill these personal values (though not necessarily the explicit, conscious preferences of the agents – for example, I’m sure that in some religious systems it’s going to be whatever is  “good for one’s soul in the end” or something; but these are still expected to positively influence the subjective experience of the conscious being). No one would use the word about a normative system that’s indifferent or negative to the value it produces to conscious individuals, be it humans or some pantheon of gods we’re obliged to please. The consequences of an action or a rule or any other ethical construct must have a bearing on whether it is morally right, even if these consequences are mediated through concepts such as adhering to virtues or absolutely obeying certain rule sets.
• Ethics also has to arise from the interactions between these beings capable of affecting each other: a solitary agent on a desert island, guaranteed never to meet anyone else (or be under any kind of supernatural supervision), doesn’t need the concept of morality for anything, they can just do whatever.

If these three conditions were fulfilled looking at a behavioural system of an alien species XYZ in outer space, I would pretty confidently be able to say that the species has a morality, whereas if one or more of these aspects were missing, the behaviour would just be weird alien stuff.


Due to the wording of my definition above, it may sound like the approach sort of sneakily presupposes utilitarianism. This is maybe partially true, because utilitarianism seeks to fulfil something like these conditions and defines itself very similarly as a result. However, there’s a subtle distinction – utilitarianism is actually just one possible answer to this request, and it may well be that the coordination can’t be based on the fundamental axioms present in most forms of utilitarianism, such as being able to measure and compare utilities between different agents. These difficulties in quantifying the elusive concept of utility may mean that the best way to coordinate our personal quests for aesthetic goods is actually to give up on the maximising and on trying to evaluate the consequences of an act, and just always act according to rule set X in every situation Y, leading us to deontology. Moral systems converge in this way because they are all attempts at being the best, in this case most human-compatible, anti-defecting coordination system.
Take simple act utilitarianism. A group of agents so hopelessly ineffective that their individual actions don’t reliably produce the right consequences at all should not coordinate their actions by sticking to an act-utilitarian moral framework, because it wouldn’t realise anyone’s personal needs and wants much more than everyone randomly defecting in PD leads to optimal outcomes for its players. Therefore, for them, act utilitarianism is a bad alternative compared to a rule-based system such as virtue ethics, deontology, or genetically hard-wired behavioural responses.
On the other hand, another group of sufficiently rational, far-sighted agents, with vast amounts of computational power and the ability to model each other with near perfection, could understand the consequences of their individual actions so well that a less rigid, situational act utilitarianism might become the way to optimise everyone’s individual welfare. (If you guessed humans are closer to this latter group, by the way, guess again!)

With ethics defined as above, we can see that there indeed can be moral frameworks more or less correct than others. Were I to somehow, impossibly, learn everything about how the alien creatures XYZ above function and feel, I would by applying game theory be able to judge how well their morality works for them, that is, whether their ethical systems are close to being correct or ideal. (Were I a superintelligence with the ability to model each person in a given group of humans so that I knew them impossibly well, understanding the consequences of all world states reasonably possible vastly better than they could predict them for themselves, I could do the same judgment for them.)

Just as an example, let’s assume XYZ to have a very simple inner life: all they value, all that produces them positive qualia or brain states they would seek if on their own, is to gnaw at apples at a pace of one apple per day. There are enough apples for everyone, guaranteed to last far into the future too – it’s just that one half of XYZs are unable to climb the apple trees on odd days, and the other half on even days. It’s no big deal for an XYZ to drop down two apples at a time, as the only resources needed for that are the miniscule cognitive effort of remembering to do so and spending three extra seconds in the tree poking at a second apple until it falls down.
I would define morality so that there’s an obvious, correct ethical solution to this extremely simple coordination problem: everyone able to climb will just drop down an extra apple each morning. A moral relativist or nihilist, on the other hand, uses a definition of morality which says that this solution, just like any other, is essentially nothing but a matter of taste, and a society of ZYXs who burn the apple garden to ashes and proceed to wail in hunger and misery until the end of time while poking each other with sharp sticks and lying to their grandmothers is not employing a worse moral strategy here at all –  because there’s no value to moral strategies. I’ll emphasise that this is a matter of defining a concept, so I’m obviously not saying their view is incorrect. I just think that the concept of morality humans generally speak of and the purpose for which we need the concept in the first place calls for a definition closer to the one I would use, one in which it is indeed possible in principle to reach moral correctness (in non-contradictory situations and situations where dissolving contradictory values is possible).


A functional ethical system for a given group of agents, then, needs to be based at least on their biology, in that our physiological composition defines what all the vague aesthetic goods actually are for us – what we personally value based on how our evolutionary roots and personal history have formed our subjective experience, such as emotional responses to various stimuli – and game theory, which gives us an idea of what we should do to be part of the solution to these coordination problems. Since most of us aren’t XYZ’s, it certainly gets complicated and even inconsistent at times because of how the values often contradict each other even within the mind of a single individual, let alone in groups of agents with differing preferences. But I’m guessing that this inconsistency can be reduced to a surprisingly great extent by adding in a third ingredient – factual knowledge about the world, its inhabitants, and the interactions between them, all of which should help us understand and prioritise our own values better. Moral progress happens alongside scientific progress: our knowledge of the is slowly builds our oughts.

This is a bit speculative, but it seems this applies also to knowledge about subjective, first-person facts. For example, if A knows well enough how B feels when harmed, A’s subjective state approaches one that’s indistinguishable from B’s experience, and A is obviously not inclined to harm B. Lack of empathy, arguably even lack of its affective component, is a lack of factual knowledge. People who harm others wouldn’t do so if they simulated their harmees well enough.
This alone would not mean that harming others is wrong, of course, because it’s in no way axiomatic that having this kind of knowledge is morally better than lacking it (and indeed, no one except perhaps some incredible cases of conjoined twins can even have notable levels of this kind of knowledge. (Yet. Mindmeld mindset.)). However, if we assume according to the metaethics I described above that we’re solving actual coordination issues here, it becomes clear that an accurate picture of reality should help, like it always does when figuring stuff out about the real world.

Still, we currently have only vague hunches about what kind of a moral system best works for us: we have much to learn about our own nature, its limits, how reconcilable our values really are with each other and what can be done to the ones that aren’t very. But we have approximates, systems which in most realistic cases seem to produce beautiful outcomes when adhered to, and I think we have a basis for what can be called moral progress.
The fact that ethics as a field isn’t complete because it still shows confusions and unintuitivenesses in various extreme situations doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about (and see as a morally better alternative) the things which almost certainly are good ideas, coordination-wise, any more than the lack of a complete theory of everything in physics means you couldn’t apply basic thermodynamics to heat our apartment. We’re getting there.


Links & misc #2

A summary of why the Human Brain Project, launched by the European Commission a year and a half ago, is currently failing horribly (spoilers: way too ambitious, badly governed, lacks direction). I remember being pretty stoked about this project when I first heard of it all, but I guess it quickly became clear that nobody involved had much of a clue of what they were supposed to be doing, so yeah. Hope they get their shit together.

• In 2010, Filipino officials tried to reduce illegal fishing near a double barrier reef by building an underwater grotto nearby, because apparently even the people who like to blast dynamites and pour sodium cyanide into the ocean are averse to damaging statues of Jesus & Virgin Mary. (I found no info on how effective this was in the end, but props for creative thinking!)

•  This centuries old brass automaton boy stores almost 300 kbs of information, four detailed drawings and three poems. Its creator, the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet, was discovered because the machine signed one of the poems referring to itself as “the Automaton of Maillardet”.

A long but lovely article on forgotten words used to describe nature and landscape in various cultures across the British Isles.

As invaluable as language is in directing our attention and defining our experiences, the “no one saw blue in cultures that didn’t have a word for it” thing that recently made the rounds after some BBC documentary is apparently mostly based on BS.

Once again, Bostrom & others on paperclips & other risks of AI. (TBH I’m mostly linking to this because it’s the first time I’ve seen this fullscreen image layout actually work, but the rest of the article is good too.)

[PDF] Monsters on the Brain: an overview on the physiological, cognitive, and philosophical aspects of horror.

The latest issue of American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience has a huge number of articles on motivation enhancement, featuring a whole lot of differing viewpoints on whether or not it is a good idea and what kind of scenarios may lie ahead when enhancement becomes a widespread convention.

Wikipedia on the Platonia dilemma, Douglas Hofstadter’s thought experiment meant to illustrate the concept of superrationality. (Also describes an unconventional lottery based on it, organised in 1983 by Scientific American. The prize was one million dollars divided by the number of total entries and awarded to the submitter of a randomly chosen entry, and readers were allowed to submit as many entries as they could fit on a postcard. The results were somehow wonderful and disappointing at the same time (and no, no one won a single penny).)

Unexpectedly, I have created the greatest cupcake frosting in the history of frosting cupcakes. Completely vegan too!
I posted an approximate recipe here. My baking adventures tend to be, uh, experimental and somewhat improvised, so I didn’t pay much attention to the measures and I suggest deviating from the recipe if the mix doesn’t taste sweet or creamy or lemony enough. For the muffins I recommend this recipe, though I’m pretty sure I would eat old tires as long as they were topped with this stuff. I mean I don’t want to brag, but. This stuff.

On the intrinsic value of species diversity

Photo by Kaura/Anni LeskeläLike I briefly mentioned in a previous post, I’ll probably soon start doing occasional gigs as a tour guide at a local zoo. Since it’s a reputable establishment, EAZA member and so on, it’s very concerned with environmental issues and conservation programs, and the justification for the existence of zoos as necessary reserves for endangered species is naturally part of the curriculum for us would-be guides.

Nobody denies that public enclosures are a stressful habitat for animals to say the least, and most often too small to meet the space requirements for healthy behaviour. However, it is also clear that the diminished populations of many of the species commonly kept in captivity are not going to recover without ex situ breeding programs, most of which need to be organised in zoos to secure funds and ensure collaboration. Donations are also needed to protect species in their natural habitat, and people are obviously more willing to contribute when they can go see the animals in real life instead of just watching YouTube clips.
In this post I’ll sort of outline my intuitions about whether harm caused to individuals is justified if it’s done in order to save a species, i.e. how much intrinsic value we should place on species diversity compared to other moral concerns.


In environmental ecology as well as outside of it, we see the endangerment of species as one of the greatest global tragedies humans have caused, and we’re accustomed to judge an ecosystem’s state by how its populations are doing in numbers, never giving much thought to individuals and their experienced lives. This is understandable, of course: from our point of view, a single rabbit in our backyard might as well be any other rabbit (or not exist at all) and no one would care, but the entire species of rabbits couldn’t be a species of kangaroos (or disappear without warning), or we’d hopefully notice something is wrong. It would be unreasonable to expect people to automatically care as much about individuals they can’t even tell apart, whereas assigning value to a species is a pretty intuitive way to think about animals.

In addition, we’re simply not used to seeing most animals, even those that most likely have phenomenal consciousness, as individuals whose quality of life should matter. From that perspective the world looks unbearably horrible: denying the validity of this view and asserting instead the naturalistic, teleological alternative that everything in nature just works as it should is an effective and sometimes necessary coping strategy, but a weird and poorly supported conclusion for those who care about suffering. (This is a very interesting discussion, but also extremely complicated and way beyond the scope of this post, so go read some David Pearce instead.)

When ascribing moral value to species over individuals, we are making a mistake, I think. A species isn’t a sentient being that cares about its own fate or can be harmed like a creature with qualia and/or preferences: instead, anything that is done in order to protect a species is, on the object level, experienced by its members, which we in many cases indeed have reason to assume are conscious – and protecting a species from extinction does not necessarily protect its members from harm, as is well demonstrated by stress markers in captive animals. Moral judgments should primarily be concerned with conscious beings capable of subjective feeling (to simplify things a bit, I guess judgments made for other reasons are sort of in the realm of aesthetics).


When environmentalists talk about biodiversity, often with an implicit focus on the diversity of species, they usually employ the following strategy: whenever possible, they will describe the importance of diversity in terms of the actual or possible instrumental value species have to humans and their wellbeing – the biosphere is more resilient when it’s more complex, and ecosystems can get messed up in totally unpredictable ways if a seemingly useless species goes extinct, and as a result we might lose important services like as yet unknown plants that could be used in medicine or even psychologically important biotopes and landscapes – and when this type of argument fails, such as when some species is with very high confidence judged replaceable in its ecosystem, they resort to arguing for the intrinsic value of diversity.

To be clear, I wholeheartedly agree with most of the above, and certainly with don’t destroy species if it isn’t necessary as a heuristic. With our currently lacking ecological knowledge and ability to model chaotic biological systems, our predictions are nowhere near good enough to allow us to ignore the extinction of species without probably causing something extremely regrettable along the way. For the instrumental reasons described above as well as a simple aesthetic preference for a myriad of interesting critters hopping around, I too think preserving biodiversity is important.

What I’m not completely buying is the claim that it should always be treated as intrinsically valuable, or that to such an extent that species are saved even at a great cost to individuals just for the sake of it, regardless of what our estimates are for their instrumental value and function as part of the system at large. I think this is one point where conservationalism as a movement gets a bit handwavey and poorly examined, ethics-wise.

Assume there is a subspecies of tigers that are, due to some psychobiophysical accident, in constant distress to the point of howling and writhing in pain (I hate these thought experiments too, but that’s ethics for you). This is the only obvious phenotypic feature that distinguishes them from, say, Bengal tigers, but it’s certainly an uncontroversial example of diversity. The population is already very small due to long-time human activity in their area, the species doesn’t serve any relevant ecological purpose that other felines in the area couldn’t take care of equally well, and without coordinated effort to save the species, it is likely to perish very soon.
Should we save this subspecies in the name of biodiversity even if the individuals suffer immensely because of this? My moral intuitions strongly suggest we shouldn’t. What if these were the last of the tigers left on Earth? No, not even then, although it would slightly hurt humans to whom the extinction of tigers is a sad and dreadful thought. What if it was some relatively uninteresting grayish-brown grass-eating whateverdeer¹, or some other creature people don’t find particularly impressing and culturally irreplaceable? Certainly not. Live, sentient creatures and their welfare should be respected above abstract categories.

So, it seems that even if species diversity might be valuable in itself at least as an aesthetic preference, it should easily be trumped by other values, such as not causing significant harm to individuals. The mosquitoes that spread malaria are an important part of many equatorial ecosystems, yet not many would protest erasing them if it could be easily achieved. At the very least, we would gladly wipe out the disease-inflicting Plasmodium parasites themselves, even if these protozoans also undoubtedly add to the species diversity of the area and certainly have an impact on the ecosystem. We destroyed smallpox and rinderpest because they harmed us and our cattle; this is arguably different from letting macroscopic organisms die, but it indicates that biodiversity isn’t a priority when the harm is obvious enough.


Photo by Kaura/Anni LeskeläThe suffering-tiger-subspecies example actually has a milder analogue in real life conservation programs. The feline that has the hardest time thriving in our zoo is the Amur leopard, a subspecies of which there are only about sixty individuals left in the wild. It has been successfully bred in captivity, but often the specimens simply don’t adjust to a zoo environment and end up too stressed out to breed, usually exhibiting even more stereotypies than other big cats because even their minimum requirements for roaming space are pretty much impossible to satisfy in a zoo setting. Our guide guide explicitly states that these animals wouldn’t be kept in zoos at all if it weren’t for their rarity, so distressed do they tend to become in traditional enclosures even when they’re of a reasonable size for most other big cats.
What is the reason we strive to conserve this subspecies, then? Its natural habitat is almost completely destroyed, its prey animals too few to even support a large population – especially since it’s in indirect competition with the Siberian tiger, another endangered species that shares its niche. At what point does the amount of suffering endured by captive individuals cross the treshold where it’s better to just accept its extinction?

Bringing species back from extinction is probably going to be possible in the future, but also very expensive and impractical. Like any other human, I would be afraid of screwing up when there’s no realistic way in sight to undo the damage. Striving to conserve the species in order to not cause anything so irrevocable, then, is a reasonable approach and part of me would certainly also be hesitant to accept the extinction of this or any other animal.

But the distress of each captive leopard is also something irrevocable. Even if the individuals currently kept and bred in zoos around the world would eventually bring the population to a healthy level, and all the raised awareness and funds would help to save all that’s left of their natural habitat too, a tragedy would not have been averted.

Of course, it is the kind of tragedy humans are very bad at caring about. I feel silly writing about zoos when we have things like factory farming, a source of unfathomably greater amounts of animal suffering. Worse yet, this post glosses over the fundamental issue of how everything in nature pretty much sucks – living free doesn’t mean an animal is happy or content, just that it struggles in a different way, merely avoiding the one type of stress that’s caused by not being able to execute behaviour it’s adapted to execute. However, even if it’s plausible that for some animals living in captivity is actually less horrible than out in the wild, the alternative of individuals existing in zoos isn’t existing in the nature, it’s not existing at all (or in some cases, existing in a better setting, which is hopefully what many zoos seek to become in the future), so directly comparing these two options is fallacious, and the suffering of zoo animals should be seen as it is.

In conclusion, even if meat production and wild animal suffering are undoubtedly bigger problems, the latter especially is difficult to do much about right now so smaller issues such as our attitudes towards species conservation are probably at least worth identifying. Like I said, this post isn’t meant to be a particularly rigorous investigation or anything, but currently my intuitions seem to point against valuing species conservation as much as we currently do: no animals clearly unfit for captivity should be bred in zoos without extremely good reasons to do so, and zoos that keep animals they can’t provide enough space for are causing harm without sufficient justification – not exempt merely on the grounds of preserving biodiversity.


¹ Not representative of author’s actual opinions on deer. Deer are the best.

Sad drunk psychopaths probably not utilitarian heroes

In a variant of the classic ethical dilemma known as the trolley problem, a heavy runaway trolley is heading towards five people stuck on its tracks. You have to decide whether you let it continue down the tracks and kill the people or instead push one person in front of the trolley, stopping it and saving the group but killing the person you pushed. The choice consistent with simple utilitarian ethics is of course the latter, since it results in fewer people being harmed than the alternative, even if you actively cause the death of the person you pushed.

When someone’s utilitarian tendencies are measured using this question, they seem to correlate with some pretty surprising traits. For example, Bartels & Pizarro found that the utilitarian response can be predicted by psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits as well as feeling that life is meaningless; more recently, another group wanted to test whether blood alcohol content changes people’s decisions in this context, and indeed, tipsiness is also correlated with the utilitarian solution.

These results seem counterintuitive at first, but less so once you think about how this kind of judgments actually are made. In morally difficult and emotionally distressing situations, people make decisions based on a variety of contradicting feelings and intuitions which certainly don’t form anything like a coherent set of ethical principles. This means that a lot of different factors ranging from subtle moods to inebriation levels are going to influence the responses to extreme dilemmas, often in very complicated ways.
In the trolley situation, then, there might be two opposing drives at play: 1) the obvious emotional reluctance to push a non-consenting fellow human being to their death, an action universally considered highly immoral, and 2) the realisation that four more lives will be lost unless the trolley is stopped, which leaves the world in a worse state and can therefore also be seen as the morally worse option. Someone familiar with consequential reasoning might stop the trolley because their understanding of 2 is stronger than average, and they have a genuine utilitarian desire to minimise bad stuff; someone else might stop the trolley simply because they don’t really feel 1, even if they don’t much care about 2 either. This in turn could be because they feel that life is empty and meaningless anyway so whatever, they have diminished empathy and don’t feel bad harming people so whatever, or they happen to be drunk so whatever.

This also means that these studies have very little to do with whether utilitarianism is a generally reasonable ethical position and the result of healthy intuitions or perhaps secretly a club for callous misanthropes who think pushing people in front of trolleys is a fun pastime. A recent paper in Cognition by Kahane et al elaborates on this:

Indeed, the sacrificial dilemmas typically used in current research represent only one, rather special, context in which utilitarian considerations happen to directly conflict with non-utilitarian rules or intuitions. To be willing to sacrifice one person to save a greater number is merely to reject (or overrule) one such non-utilitarian rule. Such rejection, however, is compatible with accepting extreme non-utilitarian rules in many other contexts—rules about lying, retribution, fairness or property, to name just a few examples, not to mention non-impartial moral norms permitting us give priority to ourselves, and to our family or compatriots, over others. Indeed, to reject a specific non-utilitarian moral rule (or even many such rules) is not yet to endorse the core of utilitarianism: the positive aim of impartially maximizing the greater good of all.

The group set out to measure a bunch of other indicators of utilitarian morality and investigate their relation to the responses to the trolley dilemma. They found that the decision to push doesn’t actually predict other utilitarian preferences at all, and is in fact negatively correlated with many of them. The people who stopped the trolley were, on average, less eager than others to give money to charity, not bothered by non-utilitarian behaviour in other less personal contexts, and not particularly sympathetic to the suffering of people far away even when it was explained in terms emphasising utilitarianism. In line with previous research, they also scored higher on anti-social traits and were less willing to jump on the tracks themselves instead of sacrificing a stranger when given the option in a modified version of the dilemma.

It seems that a lot of previous research, in which questions similar to the trolley problem are frequently used, is on the wrong tracks. (Oh, ha ha.) The entire dilemma is generally presented as a counterargument to utilitarianism – I can see why this could mean that the folks who bite the bullet are the true 100% Heavy Metal Ütilitarians so this is the best way to tell them apart from all the others who shouldn’t be counted, but that was a good guess only until we started getting data that these people don’t seem like the type to care about maximising wellbeing at all (and now, finally, pretty straightforward evidence that they reject more utilitarian intuitions than the average person). Sacrificial dilemmas like this are a bad, noisy way to assess whether or not someone will make utilitarian-ish decisions in realistic situations, and what kind of traits lead to endorsing a more consistent utilitarian approach. This is not to say that these dilemmas aren’t important questions in utilitarianism, just that they don’t really seem to measure the things they’re supposed to measure.

Links & misc #1

Right, first post! I won’t write an actual introduction post or anything because I guess that’s what the About page is for, but hi and welcome to my blog et cetera.


Interesting things I’ve found on the internet recently:

The elements that weren’t: 17 of the countless false discoveries of new elements seen throughout the history of the periodic table. Apparently OUP has published an entire book on the subject.

• In Event of Moon Disaster: the eulogy that was supposed to be read should the Apollo 11 crew end up stuck on the Moon. Although the text was obviously never needed, it remains noteworthy as possibly the only time in history when using the word “epic” was actually justified.

• From the Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty at Princeton University, a book discussing agnotology or the study of ignorance. “– the conscious, unconscious, and structural production of ignorance, its diverse causes and conformations, whether brought about by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression. The point is to question the naturalness of ignorance, its causes and its distribution.”

• Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture suggests that consciousness can be and has been a lot more diverse than we realise: a human brain can produce a subjective structure without e.g. a sense of time or concept of self like ours, obviously resulting in a very different experience than the one we are generally used to. Different traditions and cultural environments have facilitated what could plausibly be a huge diversity of consciousness in prehistoric and historic human populations, but “our type”, being selectively very advantageous, has since swept over and eradicated most of the variation.

• Related: a piece at n+1 on Julian Jaynes, a psychologist who speculated that even reflective consciousness is something that prehistoric humans lacked. I haven’t read his book, but it sounds like one of those works that very rapidly alternate between kind of fascinating and unbearably annoying, so I’m going to be consistent with that and just go back and forth between wanting and not wanting to read it for a while, until I either forget about it or decide to  find a copy.

• [PDF] Counterexamples to Modus Ponens.  no . why this are  :(((

• I found this discussion on ethics in the latest open thread at Slate Star Codex pretty neat (mostly because I like deontology converging with consequentialism!).

• Susan Schneider’s talk to NASA about superintelligent alien minds. It’s pretty short, so for those who have read Bostrom’s book, it contains little new information per se – however, Schneider does introduce the concept of biologically inspired superintelligent agents, or BISAs, which is a pretty useful term to describe those AIs that still carry some important features of whoever their biological creators were. (Maybe even the core aspects of their nature, since obviously no AI is entirely uninfluenced by their makers: even a paperclip maximiser can be said to be inspired by the ghost of a human desire to keep bunches of paper organised.)

• Antinatalists rejoice: David Benatar is going to publish a new book in July. His previous book was a solid introduction to the philosophy, but it was short and relied on pretty simple (although very powerful) arguments, so I really hope he has developed his ideas further.

Interesting things I’ve found outside the internet recently:

• There’s an old observatory an hour away that was previously used for research, has been pretty much obsolete for a couple of decades, and was recently fixed by a few astronomy students at my university to practice in. I tagged along a while ago and the stargazing was so fun! I wish it wasn’t so cloudy all the time.

• It looks like I’ll soon be freelancing as a tour guide at Finland’s oldest zoo. I have recently been looking for a part-time job where I get to improve my social skills and confidence as a speaker and now I get to hang around some old-ass tortoises too, so I’m pretty happy about it.