"What's the worst that can happen?" goes the optimistic saying.  It's probably a bad question to ask anyone with a creative imagination.  Let's consider the problem on an individual level: it's not really the worst that can happen, but would nonetheless be fairly bad, if you were horribly tortured for a number of years.  This is one of the worse things that can realistically happen to one person in today's world.

What's the least bad, bad thing that can happen?  Well, suppose a dust speck floated into your eye and irritated it just a little, for a fraction of a second, barely enough to make you notice before you blink and wipe away the dust speck.

For our next ingredient, we need a large number.  Let's use 3^^^3, written in Knuth's up-arrow notation:

  • 3^3 = 27.
  • 3^^3 = (3^(3^3)) = 3^27 = 7625597484987.
  • 3^^^3 = (3^^(3^^3)) = 3^^7625597484987 = (3^(3^(3^(... 7625597484987 times ...)))).

3^^^3 is an exponential tower of 3s which is 7,625,597,484,987 layers tall.  You start with 1; raise 3 to the power of 1 to get 3; raise 3 to the power of 3 to get 27; raise 3 to the power of 27 to get 7625597484987; raise 3 to the power of 7625597484987 to get a number much larger than the number of atoms in the universe, but which could still be written down in base 10, on 100 square kilometers of paper; then raise 3 to that power; and continue until you've exponentiated 7625597484987 times.  That's 3^^^3.  It's the smallest simple inconceivably huge number I know.

Now here's the moral dilemma.  If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

I think the answer is obvious.  How about you?

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Does this analysis focus on pure, monotone utility, or does it include the huge ripple effect putting dust specks into so many people's eyes would have? Are these people with normal lives, or created specifically for this one experience?

I think you can be allowed to imagine that any ripple effect caused by someone getting a barely-noticeable dust speck in their eyes (perhaps it makes someone mad enough to beat his dog) would be about the same as that of the torture (perhaps the torturers go home and beat their dogs because they're so desensitized to torturing).
The ripple effect is real, but as in Pascal's Wager, for every possible situation where the timing is critical and something bad will happen if you are distracted for a moment, there's a counterbalancing situation where the timing is critical and something bad will happen unless you are distracted for a moment, so those probably balance out into noise.
I doubt this.

The answer that's obvious to me is that my mental moral machinery -- both the bit that says "specks of dust in the eye can't outweigh torture, no matter how many there are" and the bit that says "however small the badness of a thing, enough repetition of it can make it arbitrarily awful" or "maximize expected sum of utilities" -- wasn't designed for questions with numbers like 3^^^3 in. In view of which, I profoundly mistrust any answer I might happen to find "obvious" to the question itself.

Isn't this just appeal to humility? If not, what makes this different?

It is not humility to note that extrapolating models unimaginably far beyond their normal operating ranges is a fraught business. Just because we can apply a certain utility approximation to our monkeysphere, or even a few orders of magnitude above our monkeysphere, doesn't mean the limiting behavior matches our approximation.
In other words, you're meta-cogitation is 1 - do I trust my very certain intuition? or 2 - do I trust the heuristic from formal/mathematical thinking (that I see as useful partially and specifically to compensate for inaccuracies in our intuition)?

Since there was a post about what seems obvious to the speaker might not be to the listener in this blog a few days ago, I thought I would point out that : It was NOT AT ALL obvious to me what should be preferred, torture 1 man for 50 years or speck of dust in 3^^^3 people. Can you please plase clarify/update what the point of the post was?

The dust speck is described as "barely enough to make you notice", so however many people it would happen to, it seems better than even something a lot less worse than 50 years of horrible torture. There are so many irritating things that a human barely notices in his/her life, what's an extra dust speck?

I think I'd trade the dust specks for even a kick in the groin.

But hey, maybe I'm missing something here...

If 3^^^3 people get dust in their eye, an extraordinary number of people will die. I'm not thinking even 1% of those affected will die, but perhaps 0.000000000000001% might, if that. But when dealing with numbers this huge, I think the death toll would measure greater than 7 billion. Knowing this, I would take the torture.

If 3^^^3 people get dust in their eye, an extraordinary number of people will die.

The premise assumes it's "barely enough to make you notice", which was supposed to rule out any other unpleasant side-effects.

No, I'm pretty sure it makes you notice. It's "enough". "barely enough", but still "enough". However, that doesn't seem to be what's really important. If I consider you to be correct in your interpretation of the dilemma, in that there are no other side effects, then yes, the 3^^^3 people getting dust in their eyes is a much better choice.
The thought experiment is, 3^^^3 bad events, each just so bad that you notice their badness. Considering consequences of the particular bad thing means that in fact there are other things as well that are depending on your choice, and that's a different thought experiment.
That is in no way what was said. Also, the idea of an event that somehow manages to have no effect aside from being bad is... insanely contrived. More contrived than the dilemma itself. However, let's say that instead of 3^^^3 people getting dust in their eye, 3^^^3 people experience a single nano-second of despair, which is immediately erased from their memory to prevent any psychological damage. If I had a choice between that and torturing a person for 50 years, then I would probably choose the former.
The notion of 3^^^3 events of any sort is far more contrived than the elimination of knock-on effects of an event. There isn't enough matter in the universe to make that many dust specks, let alone the eyes to be hit and nervous systems to experience it. Of course it's contrived. It's a thought experiment. I don't assert that the original formulation makes it entirely clear; my point is to keep the focus on the actual relevant bit of the experiment - if you wander, you're answering a less interesting question.
I don't agree. The existence 3^^^3 people, or 3^^^3 dust specks, is impossible because there isn't enough matter, as you said. The existence of an event that has only effects that are tailored to fit a particular person's idea of 'bad' does not fit my model of how causality works. That seems like a worse infraction, to me. However, all of that is irrelevant, because I answered the more "interesting question" in the comment you quoted. To be blunt, why are we still talking about this?
I'm not sure I agree, but "which impossible thing is more impossible" does seem an odd thing to be arguing about, so I'll not go into the reasons unless someone asks for them. I meant a more generalized you, in my last sentence. You in particular did indeed answer the more interesting question.
Can you explain a bit about your moral or decision theory that would lead you to conclude that?
Yes. I believe that because any suffering caused by the 3^^^3 dust specks is spread across 3^^^3 people, it is of lesser evil than torturing a man for 50 years. Assuming there to be no side effects to the dust specks.
That's not general enough to mean very much: it fits a number of deontological moral theories and a few utilitarian ones (what the right answer within virtue ethics is is far too dependent on assumptions to mean much), and seems to fit a number of others if you don't look too closely. Its validity depends greatly on which you've picked. As best I can tell the most common utilitarian objection to TvDS is to deny that Specks are individually of moral significance, which seems to me to miss the point rather badly. Another is to treat various kinds of disutility as incommensurate with each other, which is at least consistent with the spirit of the argument but leads to some rather weird consequences around the edge cases.
No-one asked for a general explanation. The best term I have found, the one that seems to describe the way I evaluate situations the most accurately, is consequentialism. However, that may still be inaccurate. I don't have a fully reliable way to determine what consequentialism entails; all I have is Wikipedia, at the moment. I tend to just use cost-benefit analysis. I also have a mental, and quite arbitrary, scale of what things I do and don't value, and to what degree, to avoid situations where I am presented with multiple, equally beneficial choices. I also have a few heuristics. One of them essentially says that given a choice between a loss that is spread out amongst many, and an equal loss divided amongst the few, the former is the more moral choice. Does that help?
It helps me understand your reasoning, yes. But if you aren't arguing within a fairly consistent utilitarian framework, there's not much point in trying to convince others that the intuitive option is correct in a dilemma designed to illustrate counterintuitive consequences of utilitarianism. So far it sounds like you're telling us that Specks is intuitively more reasonable than Torture, because the losses are so small and so widely distributed. Well, yes, it is. That's the point.
At what point is utilitarianism not completely arbitrary?
I'm not a moral realist. At some point it is completely arbitrary. The meta-ethics here are way outside the scope of this discussion; suffice it to say that I find it attractive as a first approximation of ethical behavior anyway, because it's a simple way of satisfying some basic axioms without going completely off the rails in situations that don't require Knuth up-arrow notation to describe. But that's all a sideline: if the choice of moral theory is arbitrary, then arguing about the consequences of one you don't actually hold makes less sense than it otherwise would, not more.
I believe I suggested earlier that I don't know what moral theory I hold, because I am not sure of the terminology. So I may, in fact, be a utilitarian, and not know it, because I have not the vocabulary to say so. I asked "At what point is utilitarianism not completely arbitrary?" because I wanted to know more about utilitarianism. That's all.
Ah. Well, informally, if you're interested in pissing the fewest people off, which as best I can tell is the main point where moral abstractions intersect with physical reality, then it makes sense to evaluate the moral value of actions you're considering according to the degree to which they piss people off. That loosely corresponds to preference utilitarianism: specifically negative preference utilitarianism, but extending it to the general version isn't too tricky. I'm not a perfect preference utilitarian either (people are rather bad at knowing what they want; I think there are situations where what they actually want trumps their stated preference; but correspondence with stated preference is itself a preference and I'm not sure exactly where the inflection points lie), but that ought to suffice as an outline of motivations.
Thank you.
That's not quite what I meant by "explain" - I had understood that to be your position, and was trying to get insight into your reasoning. Drawing an analogy to mathematics, would you say that this is an axiom, or a theorem? If an axiom, it clearly must be produced by a schema of some sort (as you clearly don't have 3^^^3 incompressible rules in your head). Can you explore somewhat the nature of that schema? If a theorem, what sort of axioms, and how arranged, produce it?
When I participated in this debate, this post convinced me that a utilitarian must believe that dust specks cause more overall suffering (or whatever badness measure you prefer). Since I already wasn't a utilitarian, this didn't bother me.
As a utilitarian (in broad strokes), I agree, and this doesn't bother me because this example is so far out of the range of what is possible that I don't object to saying, "yes, somewhere out there torture might be a better choice." I don't have to worry about that changing what the answer is around these parts.

Anon, I deliberately didn't say what I thought, because I guessed that other people would think a different answer was "obvious". I didn't want to prejudice the responses.

So what do you think?
He gives his answer here.
Thank you!
Exactly, if Elizier had went out and said what he thought, nothing good would come out of it. The point is to make you think.

Even when applying the cold cruel calculus of moral utilitarianism, I think that most people acknowledge that egalitarianism in a society has value in itself, and assign it positive utility. Would you rather be born into a country where 9/10 people are destitute (<$1000/yr), and the last is very wealthy (100,000/yr)? Or, be born into a country where almost all people subsist on a modest (6-8000/yr) amount?

Any system that allocates benefits (say, wealth) more fairly might be preferable to one that allocates more wealth in a more unequal fashion. And, the same goes for negative benefits. The dust specks may result in more total misery, but there is utility in distributing that misery equally.

I don't believe egalitarianism has value in itself. Tell me, would you rather get all your wealth continuously throughout the year, or get a disproportionate amount on Christmas? If wealth is evenly distributed, it will lead to more total happiness, but I don't see any advantage in happiness being evenly distributed. I don't see how your comment relates to this post.
Perhaps it could be framed in terms of the utility of psychological comfort. Suppose that one person is tortured to avoid 3^^^3 people getting dust specks. Won't almost every one of those 3^^^3 people empathize with the tortured person enough to feel a pang of discomfort more uncomfortable than a dust speck?
Only if they find out that the tortured person exists, which would be an event that's not in the problem statement.
Well, there's valuing money at more utility per dollar when you have less money and less utility per dollar when you have more money, which makes perfect sense. But that's not the same as egalitarianism as part of utility.
Third-to-last sentence sets up a false dichotomy between "more fairly" and "more unequal."

The dust specks seem like the "obvious" answer to me, but how large the tiny harm must be to cross the line where the unthinkably huge number of them outweighs a single tremendous one isn't something I could easily say, when clearly I don't think simply calculating the total amount of harm caused is the right measure.

It seems obvious to me to choose the dust specks because that would mean that the human species would have to exist for an awfully long time for the total number of people to equal that number and that minimum amount of annoyance would be something they were used to anyway.

I too see the dust specks as obvious, but for the simpler reason that I reject utilitarian sorts of comparisons like that. Torture is wicked, period. If one must go further, it seems like the suffering from torture is qualitatively worse than the suffering from any number of dust specks.

I think you have misunderstood the point of the thought experiment. Eliezer could have imagined that the intense and prolonged suffering experienced by the victim was not intentionally caused, but was instead the result of natural causes. The "torture is wicked" reply cannot be used to resist the decision to bring about this scenario. (There may, of course, be other reasons for objecting to that decision.)

Anon prime: dollars are not utility. Economic egalitarianism is instrumentally desirable. We don't normally favor all types of equality, as Robin frequently points out.

Kyle: cute

Eliezer: My impulse is to choose the torture, even when I imagine very bad kinds of torture and very small annoyances (I think that one can go smaller than a dust mote, possibly something like a letter on the spine of a book that your eye sweeps over being in a shade less well selected a font). Then, however, I think of how much longer the torture could last and still not outweigh the trivial annoyances if I am to take the utilitarian perspective and my mind breaks. Condoning 50 years of torture, or even a day worth, is pretty much the same as condoning universes of agonium lasting for eons in the face of numbers like these, and I don't think that I can condone that for any amount of a trivial benefit.

7Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
(This was my favorite reply, BTW.)

I admire the restraint involved in waiting nearly five years before selecting a favorite.

Well too bad he didn't wait a year longer then ;). I think preferring torture is the wrong answer for the same reason that I think universal health-care is a good idea. The financial cost of serious illness and injury is distributed over the taxpaying population so no single individual has to deal with a spike in medical costs ruining their life. And I think it's still the correct moral choice regardless of whether universal health-care happens to be more expensive or not. Analogous I think the exact same applies to dust vs torture. I don't think the correct moral choice is about minimizing the total area under the pain-curve at all, it's about avoiding severe pain-spikes for any given individual even at the cost of having a larger area under the curve. I don't think "shut up and multiply" applies here in it's simplistic conception in the way it might apply in the scenario where you have to choose whether 400 people live for sure or 500 people live with .9 probability (and die with .1 probability). ---------------------------------------- Irrespective of the former however, the thought experiment is a bit problematic because it's more complex than apparent at first, if we really take it seriously. Eliezer said the dust-specks are "barely noticed", but being conscious or aware of something isn't an either-or thing, awareness falls on a continuum so whatever "pain" the dust-specks causes has to be multiplied by how aware the person really is. If someone is tortured that person is presumably very aware of the physical and emotional pain. Other possible consequences like lasting damage or social repercussions not counting, I don't really care all that much about any kind of pain that happens to me while I'm not aware of it. I could probably figure out whether or not pain is actually registered in my brain during having my upcoming operation under anesthesia, but the fact that I won't bother tells me very clearly, that awareness of pain is an important weight we have
If you're going to say that, you'll need some threshhold, and pain over the threshhold makes the whole society count as worse than pain under the threshhold. This will mean that any number of people with pain X is better than one person with pain X + epsilon, where epsilon is very small but happens to push it over the threshhold. Alternately, you could say that the disutility of pain gradually changes, but that has other problems. I suggest you read up on the repugnant conclusion ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/ )--depending on exactly what you mean, what you suggest is similar to the proposed solutions, which don't really work.

Personally, I choose C: torture 3^^^3 people for 3^^^3 years. Why? Because I can.

Ahem. My morality is based on maximizing average welfare, while also avoiding extreme individual suffering, rather than cumulative welfare.

So torturing one man for fifty years is not preferable to annoying any number of people.

This is different when the many are also suffering extremely, though - then it may be worthwhile to torture one even more to save the rest.

Trivial annoyances and torture cannot be compared in this quantifiable manner. Torture is not only suffering, but lost opportunity due to imprisonment, permanent mental hardship, activation of pain and suffering processes in the mind, and a myriad of other unconsidered things.

And even if the torture was 'to have flecks of dust dropped in your eyes', you still can't compare a 'torturous amount' applied to one person, to substantial number dropped in the eyes of many people: We aren't talking about cpu cycles here - we are trying to quantify qualifiables.

If ... (read more)

Can you compare apples and oranges? You certainly don't seem to have much trouble when you decide how to spend your money at the grocery store. It was rather clear from the context that the "dust in the eye" was a very, very minor torture. People are not going blind. They are perfectly capable of dealing with it. It's just not 3^^^3 times as minor as the torture. If you were to torture two people in exactly the same way, they'd suffer about equally. Why do you imply that's some sort of unanswerable question? If you weren't talking about the ethical side, what were you talking about? He wasn't trying to compare everything about the two choices, just which was more ethical. It would be impossible if he didn't limit it like that.
I'm pretty sure the question itself revolves around ethics, as far as I can tell the question is: given these 2 choices, which would you consider, ethically speaking, the ideal option?

I think this all revolves around one question: Is "disutility of dust speck for N people" = N*"disutility of dust speck for one person"?

This, of course, depends on the properties of one's utility function.

How about this... Consider one person getting, say, ten dust specks per second for an hour vs 106060 = 36,000 people getting a single dust speck each.

This is probably a better way to probe the issue at its core. Which of those situations is preferable? I would probably consider the second. However, I suspect one person getting a billion dust specks in their eye per second for an hour would be preferable to 1000 people getting a million per second for an hour.

Suffering isn't linear in dust specks. Well, actually, I'm not sure subjective states in general can be viewed in a linear way. At least, if there is a potentially valid "linear qualia theory", I'd be surprised.

But as far as the dust specks vs torture thing in the original question? I think I'd go with dust specks for all.

But that's one person vs buncha people with dustspecks.

Oh, just had a thought. A less extreme yet quite related real world situation/question would be this: What is appropriate punishment for spammers?

Yes, I understand there're a few additional issues here, that would make it more analogous to, say, if the potential torturee was planning on deliberately causing all those people a DSE (Dust Speck Event)

But still, the spammer issue gives us a more concrete version, involving quantities that don't make our brains explode, so considering that may help work out the principles by which these sorts of questions can be dealt with.

The problem with spammers isn't the cause of a singular dust spec event: it's the cause of multiple dust speck events repeatedly to individuals in the population in question. It's also a 'tragedy of the commons' question, since there is more than one spammer.

To respond to your question: What is appropriate punishment for spammers? I am sad to conclude that until Aubrey DeGray manages to conquer human mortality, or the singularity occurs, there is no suitable punishment for spammers.

After either of those, however, I would propose unblocking everyone's toilets and/or triple shifts as a Fry's Electronics floor lackey until the universal heat death, unless you have even >less< interesting suggestions.

If you could take all the pain and discomfort you will ever feel in your life, and compress it into a 12-hour interval, so you really feel ALL of it right then, and then after the 12 hours are up you have no ill effects - would you do it? I certainly would. In fact, I would probably make the trade even if it were 2 or 3 times longer-lasting and of the same intensity. But something doesn't make sense now... am I saying I would gladly double or triple the pain I feel over my whole life?

The upshot is that there are some very nonlinear phenomena involved with calculating amounts of suffering, as Psy-Kosh and others have pointed out. You may indeed move along one coordinate in "suffering-space" by 3^^^3 units, but it isn't just absolute magnitude that's relevant. That is, you cannot recapitulate the "effect" of fifty years of torturing with isolated dust specks. As the responses here make clear, we do not simply map magnitudes in suffering space to moral relevance, but instead we consider the actual locations and contours. (Compare: you decide to go for a 10-mile hike. But your enjoyment of the hike depends more on where you go, than the distance traveled.)

"If you could take all the pain and discomfort you will ever feel in your life, and compress it into a 12-hour interval, so you really feel ALL of it right then, and then after the 12 hours are up you have no ill effects - would you do it? I certainly would."" Hubris. You don't know, can't know, how that pain would/could be instrumental in processing external stimuli in ways that enable you to make better decisions. "The sort of pain that builds character, as they say". The concept of processing 'pain' in all its forms is rooted very deep in humanity -- get rid of it entirely (as opposed to modulating it as we currently do), and you run a strong risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially if you then have an assurance that your life will have no pain going forward. There's a strong argument to be made for deference to traditional human experience in the face of the unknown.

Yes the answer is obvious. The answer is that this question obviously does not yet have meaning. It's like an ink blot. Any meaning a person might think it has is completely inside his own mind. Is the inkblot a bunny? Is the inkblot a Grateful Dead concert? The right answer is not merely unknown, because there is no possible right answer.

A serious person-- one who take moral dilemmas seriously, anyway-- must learn more before proceeding.

The question is an inkblot because too many crucial variables have been left unspecified. For instance, in order for thi... (read more)

The non-linear nature of 'qualia' and the difficulty of assigning a utility function to such things as 'minor annoyance' has been noted before. It seems to some insolvable. One solution presented by Dennett in 'Consciousness Explained' is to suggest that there is no such thing as qualia or subjective experience. There are only objective facts. As Searle calls it 'consciousness denied'. With this approach it would (at least theoretically) be possible to objectively determine the answer to this question based on something like the number of ergs needed to... (read more)

Uh... If there's no such thing as qualia, there's no such thing as actual suffering, unless I misunderstand your description of Dennett's views.

But if my understanding is correct, and those views were correct, then wouldn't the answer be "nobody actually exists to care one way or another?" (Or am I sorely mistaken in interpreting that view?)

Regarding your example of income disparity: I might rather be born into a system with very unequal incomes, if, as in America (in my personal and biased opinion), there is a reasonable chance of upping my income through persistence and pluck. I mean hey, that guy with all that money has to spend it somewhere-- perhaps he'll shop at my superstore!

But wait, what does wealth mean? In the case where everyone has the same income, where are they spending their money? Are they all buying the same things? Is this a totalitarian state? An economy without disparity ... (read more)

If even one in a hundred billion of the people is driving and has an accident because of the dust speck and gets killed, that's a tremendous number of deaths. If one in a hundred quadrillion of them survives the accident but is mangled and spends the next 50 years in pain, that's also a tremendous amount of torture.

If one in a hundred decillion of them is working in a nuclear power plant and the dust speck makes him have a nuclear accident....

We just aren't designed to think in terms of 3^^^3. It's too big. We don't habitually think much about one-in-a-million chances, much less one in a hundred decillion. But a hundred decillion is a very small number compared to 3^^^3.

I would say that it is pretty easy to think in terms of 3^^^3. Just assume that everything that could happen due to a dust speck in your eye, will happen.
That is an interesting argument (I've considered it before) though I think it misses the point of the thought experiment. As I understand it, it's not about any of the possible consequences of the dust specks, but about specks as (very minor) intrinsically bad things themselves. It's about whether you're willing to measure the unpleasantness of getting a dust speck in your eye on the same scale as the unpleasantness of being tortured, as (vastly) different in degree rather than fundamentally different in kind.
How do you know that more accidents are caused than avoided by dust specks? (Of course I realize I'm saying "you" to a 5-year-old comment but you get the picture.)

Douglas and Psy-Kosh: Dennett explicitly says that in denying that there are such things as qualia he is not denying the existence of conscious experience. Of course, Douglas may think that Dennett is lying or doesn't understand his own position as well as Douglas does.

James Bach and J Thomas: I think Eliezer is asking us to assume that there are no knock-on effects in either the torture or the dust-speck scenario, and the usual assumption in these "which economy would you rather have?" questions is that the numbers provided represent the situati... (read more)

J Thomas: You're neglecting that there might be some positive-side effects for a small fraction of the people affected by the dust specks; in fact, there is some precedent for this. The resulting average effect is hard to estimate, but (considering that dust specks seem to mostly add entropy to the thought processes of the affected persons), would likely still be negative.

Copying g's assumption that higher-order effects should be neglected, I'd take the torture. For each of the 3^^^3 persons, the choice looks as follows:

1.) A 1/(3^^^3) chance of being tort... (read more)

Hmm, tricky one.

Do I get to pick the person who has to be tortured?

As I read this I knew my answer would be the dust specks. Since then I have been mentally evaluating various methods for deciding on the ethics of the situation and have chosen the one that makes me feel better about the answer I instinctively chose.

I can tell you this though. I reckon I personally would choose max five minutes of torture to stop the dust specks event happening. So if the person threatened with 50yrs of torture was me, I'd choose the dust specks.

What if it were a repeatable choice?

Suppose you choose dust specks, say, 1,000,000,000 times. That's a considerable amount of torture inflicted on 3^^^3 people. I suspect that you could find the number of times equivalent to torturing each of thoes 3^^^3 people 50 years, and that number would be smaller than 3^^^3. In other words, choose the dust speck enough times, and more people would be tortured effectually for longer than if you chose the 50-year torture an equivalent number of times.

If that math is correct, I'd have to go with the torture, not the dust specks.

Likewise, if this was iterated 3^^^3+1 times(ie 3^^^3 plus the reader),it could easily be 50*3^^^3 (ie > 3^^^3+1) people tortured. The odds are if it's possible for you to make this choice, unless you have reason to believe otherwise they may too, making this an implicit prisoner's dilemma of sorts. On the other side, 3^^^3 specks could possibly crush you, and/or your local cluster of galaxies into a black hole, so there's that to consider if you consider the life within meaningful distance of of every one of those 3^^^3 people valuable.
I'm not sure I follow your argument. I'm going to assume that for a single person, 3^^3 dust specks = 50 years of torture. (My earlier figure seems wrong, but 3^^3 dust specks over 50 years is a little under 5,000 dust specks per second.) I'm going to ignore the +1 because these are big numbers already. If this were iterated 3^^^3 times, then we have the choice between: TORTURE: 3^^^3 people are each tortured for 50 years, once. DUST SPECKS: 3^^^3 people are tortured for 50 years, repeated (3^^^3)/(3^^3)=3^(3^^3-3^3) times.
The probability I'm the only person person selected out of 3^^^3 for such a decision p(i) is less than any reasonable estimate of how many people could be selected, imho. Let's say well below 700dB against. The chances are much greater that some probability fo those about to be dust specked or tortured also gets this choice (p(k)). p(k)*3^^^3 > p(i) => 3^^^3 > p(i)/p(k) => true for any reasonable p(i)/p(k) So this means that the effective number of dust particles given to each of us is going to be roughly (1-p(i))p(k)3^^^3. I'm going to assume any amount of dust larger in mass than a few orders of magnitude above the Chandrasekhar limit (1e33 kg) is going to result in a black hole. I can even assume a significant error margin in my understanding of how black holes work, and the reuslts do not change. The smallest dust particle is probably a single hydrogen atom(really everything resoles to hydrogen at small enough quantities, right?). 1 mol of hydrogen weighs about 1 gram. So (1-p(i))(p(k)3^^^3 (1 gram/mol)(6e-23 'specks'/mol) (1e-3 kg/g) (1e-33 kg/black hole) = roughly ( 3^^^3 ) (~1e-730) = roughly 3^^^3 black holes. ie 3^(3_1^3_2^3_3^...^3_7e13 -730) = roughly 3^(3_1^3_2^3_3^...^3_7e13) ie 3_1^3_2^3_3^...^3_7e13 - 730 = roughly 3_1^3_2^3_3^...^3_7e13. In conclusion, I think at this level, I would choose 'cancel' / 'default' / 'roll a dice and determine the choice randomly/not choose' BUT would woefully update my concept of the sizee of the universe to contain enough mass to even support a reasonably infentessimal probability of some proportion of 3^^^3 specks of dust, and 3^^^3 people or at least some reasonable proportion thereof. The question I have now is how is our model of the universe to update given this moral dillema? What is the new radius of the universe given this situation? It can't be big enough for 3^^^3 dust specks piled on the edge of our universe outside of our light cone somewhere. Either way I think the new radius ought to be termed the "
I don't really care what happens if you take the dust speck literally; the point is to exemplify an extremely small disutility.
I suppose you could view the utility as a meaninful object in this frame and abstract away the dust, too, but in the end the dust-utility system is going to encompaps both anyway so solving the problem on either level is going to solve it on both.

Kyle wins.

Absent using this to guarantee the nigh-endless survival of the species, my math suggests that 3^^^3 beats anything. The problem is that the speck rounds down to 0 for me.

There is some minimum threshold below which it just does not count, like saying, "What if we exposed 3^^^3 people to radiation equivalent to standing in front of a microwave for 10 seconds? Would that be worse than nuking a few cities?" I suppose there must be someone in 3^^^3 who is marginally close enough to cancer for that to matter, but no, that rounds down to 0... (read more)

Why would that round down to zero? That's a lot more people having cancer than getting nuked! (It would be hilarious if Zubon could actually respond after almost a decade)

Wow. The obvious answer is TORTURE, all else equal, and I'm pretty sure this is obvious to Eliezer too. But even though there are 26 comments here, and many of them probably know in their hearts torture is the right choice, no one but me has said so yet. What does that say about our abilities in moral reasoning?

Given that human brains are known not to be able to intuitively process even moderately large numbers, I'd say the question can't meaningfully be asked - our ethical modules simply can't process it. 3^^^3 is too large - WAY too large.

I'm unconvinced that the number is too large for us to think clearly. Though it takes some machinery, humans reason about infinite quantities all the time and arrive at meaningful conclusions.

My intuitions strongly favor the dust speck scenario. Even if forget 3^^^^3 and just say that an infinite number of people will experience the speck, I'd still favor it over the torture.

Robin is absolutely wrong, because different instances of human suffering cannot be added together in any meaningful way. The cumulative effect when placed on one person is far greater than the sum of many tiny nuisances experienced by many. Whereas small irritants such as a dust mote do not cause "suffering" in any standard sense of the word, the sum total of those motes concentrated at one time and placed into one person's eye could cause serious injury or even blindness. Dispersing the dust (either over time or across many people) mitigates the effect. If the dispersion is sufficient, there is actually no suffering at all. To extend the example, you could divide the dust mote into even smaller particles, until each individual would not even be aware of the impact.

So the question becomes, would you rather live in a world with little or no suffering (caused by this particular event) or a world where one person suffers badly, and those around him or her sit idly by, even though they reap very little or no benefit from the situation?

The notion of shifting human suffering onto one unlucky individual so that the rest of society can avoid minor inconveniences is morally reprehensible. That (I hope) is why no one has stood up and shouted yeay for torture.

The problem with this claim is that you can construct a series of overlapping comparisons involving experiences that differ but slightly in how painful they are. Then, provided that the series has sufficiently many elements, you'll reach the conclusion that an experience of pain, no matter how intense, is preferable to arbitrarily many instances of the mildest pain imaginable. (Strictly speaking, you could actually avoid this conclusion by assuming that painful experiences of a given intensity have diminishing marginal value and that this value converges to a finite quantity. Then if the limiting value of a very mild pain is less than the value of a single extremely painful experience, the continuity argument wouldn't work. However, I see no independent motivation for embracing a theory of value of this sort. Moreover, such a theory would have incredible implications, e.g., that to determine how bad someone's pain is one needs to consider whether sentient beings have already experienced pains of that intensity in remote regions of spacetime.)
Yeah, this is a common attempt to avoid this particular repugnant conclusion. This approach leads to conclusions like that a 3^^^3 mildly stabbed toes are better than a single moderately stabbed one. (Because if not, we can construct an unbroken chain of comparable pain experiences from specks to torture.) The motivation is there, to make dust specks and torture incomparable. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't work, as it results in infinitely many arbitrarily defined discontinuities.

The obvious answer is TORTURE, all else equal, and I'm pretty sure this is obvious to Eliezer too.

That is the straightforward utilitarian answer, without any question. However, it is not the common intuition, and even if Eliezer agrees with you he is evidently aware that the common intuition disagrees, because otherwise he would not bother blogging it. It's the contradiction between intuition and philosophical conclusion that makes it an interesting topic.

Robin's answer hinges on "all else being equal." That condition can tie up a lot of loose ends, it smooths over plenty of rough patches. But those ends unravel pretty quickly once you start to consider all the ways in which everything else is inherently unequal. I happen to think the dust speck is a 0 on the disutility meter, myself, and 3^^^3*0 disutilities = 0 disutility.

I believe that ideally speaking the best choice is the torture, but pragmatically, I think the dust speck answer can make more sense. Of course it is more intuitive morally, but I would go as far as saying that the utility can be higher for the dust specks situation (and thus our intuition is right). How? the problem is in this sentence: "If neither event is going to happen to you personally," the truth is that in the real world, we can't rely on this statement. Even if it is promised to us or made into a law, this type of statements often won't ... (read more)

Your link is 404ing. Is http://spot.colorado.edu/~norcross/Comparingharms.pdf‎ the same one?
Here's the link (both links above are dead).
Here's the latest working link (all three above are dead) Also, here's an archive in case that one ever breaks!

Robin, could you explain your reasoning. I'm curious.

Humans get barely noticeable "dust speck equivalent" events so often in their lives that the number of people in Eliezer's post is irrelevant; it's simply not going to change their lives, even if it's a gazillion lives, even with a number bigger than Eliezer's (even considering the "butterfly effect", you can't say if the dust speck is going to change them for the better or worse -- but with 50 years of torture, you know it's going to be for the worse).

Subjectively for these people, ... (read more)


"But even though there are 26 comments here, and many of them probably know in their hearts torture is the right choice, no one but me has said so yet."

I thought that Sebastian Hagen and I had said it. Or do you think we gave weasel answers? Mine was only contingent on my math being correct, and I thought his was similarly clear.

Perhaps I was unclear in a different way. By asking if the choice was repeatable, I didn't mean to dodge the question; I meant to make it more vivid. Moral questions are asked in a situation where many people a... (read more)

Hmm, thinking some more about this, I can see another angle (not the suffering angle, but the "being prudent about unintended consequences" angle):

If you had the choice between very very slightly changing the life of a huge number of people or changing a lot the life of only one person, the prudent choice might be to change the life of only one person (as horrible as that change might be).

Still, with the dust speck we can't really know if the net final outcome will be negative or positive. It might distract people who are about to have genius ide... (read more)

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

The square of the number of milliseconds in 50 years is about 10^21.

Would you rather one person tortured for a millisecond (then no ill effects), or that 3^^^3/10^21 people get a dust speck per second for 50 centuries?

OK, so the utility/effect doesn't scale when you change the times. But even if each 1% added dust/torture time made things ten times worse, when you reduce the dust-speckled population to reflect that it's still countless universes worth of people.

I'm with Tomhs. The question has less value as a moral dilemma than as an opportunity to recognize how we think when we "know" the answer. I intentionally did not read the comments last night so I could examine my own thought process, and tried very hard to hold an open mind (my instinct was dust). It's been a useful and interesting experience. Much better than the brain teasers which I can generally get because I'm on hightened alert when reading El's posts. Here being on alert simply allowed me to try to avoid immediately giving in to my bias.

Averaging utility works only when law of large numbers starts to play a role. It's a good general policy, as stuff subject to it happens all the time, enough to give sensible results over the human/civilization lifespan. So, if Eliezer's experiment is a singular event and similar events don't happen frequently enough, answer is 3^^^3 specks. Otherwise, torture (as in this case, similar frequent enough choices would lead to a tempest of specks in anyone's eye which is about 3^^^3 times worse then 50 years of torture, for each and every one of them).

Benquo, your first answer seems equivocal, and so did Sebastian's on a first reading, but now I see that it was not.


Consider three possibilities:

(a) A dusk speck hits you with probability one, (b) You face an additional probability 1/( 3^^^3) of being tortured for 50 years, (c) You must blink your eyes for a fraction of a second, just long enough to prevent a dusk speck from hitting you in the eye.

Most people would pick (c) over (a). Yet, 1/( 3^^^3) is such a small number that by blinking your eyes one more time than you normally would you increase your chances of being captured by a sadist and tortured for 50 years by more than 1/( 3^^^3). Thus, (b) must be better than (c). Consequently, most people should prefer (b) to (a).

You know, that actually persuaded me to override my intuitions and pick torture over dust specks.
You don't even have to go that far. Replace "dust specks" with "the inconvenience of not going outside the house" and "tiny chance of torture" with "tiny chance that being outside the house will lead to you getting killed".
Yeah, I understood the point.

There isn't any right answer. Answers to what is good or bad is a matter of taste, to borrow from Nietzsche.

To me the example has messianic quality. One person suffers immensely to save others from suffering. Does the sense that there is a 'right' answer come from a Judeo-Christian sense of what is appropriate. Is this a sort of bias in line with biases towards expecting facts to conform to a story?

Also, this example suggests to me that the value pluralism of Cowen makes much more sense than some reductive approach that seeks to create one objective me... (read more)

Why is this a serious question? Given the physical unreality of the situation, the putative existence of 3^^^3 humans and the ability to actually create the option in the physical universe - why is this question taken seriously while something like is it better to kill Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny considered silly?

Fascinating, and scary, the extent to which we adhere to established models of moral reasoning despite the obvious inconsistencies. Someone here pointed out that the problem wasn't sufficiently defined, but then proceeded to offer examples of objective factors that would appear necessary to evaluation of a consequentialist solution. Robin seized upon the "obvious" answer that any significant amount of discomfort, over such a vast population, would easily dominate, with any conceivable scaling factor, the utilitarian value of the torture of a si... (read more)

The hardships experienced by a man tortured for 50 years cannot compare to a trivial experience massively shared by a large number of individuals -- even on the scale that Eli describes. There is no accumulation of experiences, and it cannot be conflated into a larger meta dust-in-the-eye experience; it has to be analyzed as a series of discreet experiences.

As for larger social implications, the negative consequence of so many dust specked eyes would be negligible.

Wow. People sure are coming up with interesting ways of avoiding the question.

Eliezer wrote "Wow. People sure are coming up with interesting ways of avoiding the question."

I posted earlier on what I consider the more interesting question of how to frame the problem in order to best approach a solution.

If I were to simply provide my "answer" to the problem, with the assumption that the dust in the eyes is likewise limited to 50 years, then I would argue that the dust is to be preferred to the torture, not on a utilitarian basis of relative weights of the consequences as specified, but on the bigger-picture view th... (read more)

Eliezer, are you suggesting that declining to make up one's mind in the face of a question that (1) we have excellent reason to mistrust our judgement about and (2) we have no actual need to have an answer to is somehow disreputable?

As for your link to the "motivated stopping" article, I don't quite see why declining to decide on this is any more "stopping" than choosing a definite one of the options. Or are you suggesting that it's an instance of motivated continuation? Perhaps it is, but (as you said in that article) the problem with ... (read more)

What happens if there aren't 3^^^3 instanced people to get dust specks? Do those specks carry over such that person #1 gets a 2nd speck and so on? If so, you would elect to have the person tortured for 50 years for surely the alternative is to fill our universe with dust and annihilate all cultures and life.

Robin, of course it's not obvious. It's only an obvious conclusion if the global utility function from the dust specks is an additive function of the individual utilities, and since we know that utility functions must be bounded to avoid Dutch books, we know that the global utility function cannot possibly be additive -- otherwise you could break the bound by choosing a large enough number of people (say, 3^^^3).

From a more metamathematical perspective, you can also question whether 3^^3 is a number at all. It's perfectly straightforward to construct a p... (read more)

I once read the following story about a Russian mathematician. I can't find the source right now. Cast: Russian mathematician RM, other guy OG RM: "Truly large numbers don't really exist in the same sense that small ones do." OG: "That's ridiculous. Consider the powers of two. Does 2ˆ1 exist?"" RM: "Yes." OG: "OK, does 2ˆ2 exist?" RM: ".Yes." OG: "So you'd agree that 2ˆ3 exists?" RM: "...Yes." OG: "How about 2ˆ4?" RM: ".......Yes." OG: "So this is silly. Where would you ever draw the boundary?" RM: ".............................................................................................................................................."

Eliezer, are you suggesting that declining to make up one's mind in the face of a question that (1) we have excellent reason to mistrust our judgement about and (2) we have no actual need to have an answer to is somehow disreputable?

Yes, I am.

Regarding (1), we pretty much always have excellent reason to mistrust our judgments, and then we have to choose anyway; inaction is also a choice. The null plan is a plan. As Russell and Norvig put it, refusing to act is like refusing to allow time to pass.

Regarding (2), whenever a tester finds a user input that cr... (read more)


Fascinating question. No matter how small the negative utility in the dust speck, multiplying it with a number such as 3^^^3 will make it way worse than torture. Yet I find the obvious answer to be the dust speck one, for reasons similar to what others have pointed out - the negative utility rounds down to zero.

But that doesn't really solve the problem, for what if the harm in question was slightly larger? At what point does it cease rounding down? I have no meaningful criteria to give for that one. Obviously there must be a point where it does cease doing... (read more)

"Regarding (1), we pretty much always have excellent reason to mistrust our judgments, and then we have to choose anyway; inaction is also a choice. The null plan is a plan. As Russell and Norvig put it, refusing to act is like refusing to allow time to pass."

This goes to the crux of the matter, why to the extent the future is uncertain, it is better to decide based on principles (representing wisdom encoded via evolutionary processes over time) rather than on the flat basis of expected consequences.

Would you condemn one person to be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, to save every qualia-experiencing being who will ever exist one blink?

Is the question significantly changed by this rephrasing? It makes SPECKS the default choice, and it changes 3^^^3 to "all." Are we better able to process "all" than 3^^^3, or can we really process "all" at all? Does it change your answer if we switch the default?

Would you force every qualia-experiencing being who will ever exist to blink one additional time to save one person from being horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest?

> For those who would pick TORTURE, what about Vassar's universes of agonium? Say a googolplex-persons' worth of agonium for a googolplex years.

If you mean would I condemn all conscious beings to a googolplex of torture to avoid universal annihilation from a big "dust crunch" my answer is still probably yes. The alternative is universal doom. At least the tortured masses might have some small chance of finding a solution to their problem at some point. Or at least a googolplex years might pass leaving some future civilization free to prosper. ... (read more)

> Would you condemn one person to be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, to save every qualia-experiencing being who will ever exist one blink?

That's assuming you're interpreting the question correctly. That you aren't dealing with an evil genie.

You never said we couldn't choose who specifically gets tortured, so I'm assuming we can make that selection. Given that, the once agonizingly difficult choice is made trivially simple. I would choose 50 years of torture for the person who made me make this decision.

Since I chose the specks -- no, I probably wouldn't pay a penny; avoiding the speck is not even worth the effort to decide to pay the penny or not. I would barely notice it; it's too insignificant to be worth paying even a tiny sum to avoid.

I suppose I too am "rounding down to zero"; a more significant harm would result in a different answer.

You're avoiding the question. What if a penny was automatically payed for you each time in the future to avoid dust specks floating in your eye? The question is whether the dust speck is worth at least a negative penny of disutility. For me, I would say yes.

"For those who would pick SPECKS, would you pay a single penny to avoid the dust specks?"

To avoid all the dust specks, yeah, I'd pay a penny and more. Not a penny per speck, though ;)

The reason is to avoid having to deal with the "unintended consequences" of being responsible for that very very small change over such a large number of people. It's bound to have some significant indirect consequences, both positive and negative, on the far edges of the bell curve... the net impact could be negative, and a penny is little to pay to avoid responsibility for that possibility.

The first thing I thought when I read this question was that the dust specks were obviously preferable. Then I remembered that my intuition likes to round 3^^^3 down to something around twenty. Obviously, the dust specks are preferable to the torture for any number at all that I have any sort of intuitive grasp over.

But I found an argument that pretty much convinced me that the torture was the correct answer.

Suppose that instead of making this choice once, you will be faced with the same choice 10^17 times for the next fifty years (This number was chosen... (read more)

The reasoning here seems very broken to me (I have no opinion on the conclusion yet): Look at a version of the reverse dial. Say that you start with 3^^^3 people having 1000000 dust-specks a second rubbed in their eye, and 0 people tortured. Each time you turn the dial up by 1, 1 person is moved over from the "speck in the eye" list over to the "tortured for 50 years" list, and the frequency is reduced by 1 spec/second. Would you turn the dial up to 1000000?
So because there is a continuum between the right answer (lots of torture) and the wrong answer (3^^^3 horribly blinded people), you would rather blind those people?
Nah, he was pretty clearly challenging the use of induction in the above post. The larger problem is assuming linearity in an obviously nonlinear situation - this also explains why the induction appears to work either way. Applying 1 pound of force to someone's kneecap is simply not 1/10th as bad as applying 10 pounds of force to someone's kneecap.
This has nothing to do with the original question. You rephrased it so that it now asks if you'd rather torture one person or 3^^^3. Of course you rather torture one person than 3^^^3. That does not equal torturing one person or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes for a fraction of a second.

"... whenever a tester finds a user input that crashes your program, it is always bad - it reveals a flaw in the code - even if it's not a user input that would plausibly occur; you're still supposed to fix it. "Would you kill Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny?" is an important question if and only if you have trouble deciding. I'd definitely kill the Easter Bunny, by the way, so I don't think it's an important question."

I write code for a living; I do not claim that it crashes the program. Rather the answer is irrelevant as I don't thin... (read more)

By "pay a penny to avoid the dust specks" I meant "avoid all dust specks", not just one dust speck. Obviously for one speck I'd rather have the penny.

So if someone would pay a penny, they should pick torture if it were 3^^^^3 people getting dust specks, which makes it suspect that they understood 3^^^3 in the first place.

what about Vassar's universes of agonium? Say a googolplex-persons' worth of agonium for a googolplex years.

To reduce suffering in general rather than your own (it would be tough to live with), bring on the coddling grinders. (10^10^100)^2 is a joke next to 3^^^3.

Having said that, it depends on the qualia-experiencing population of all existence compared to the numbers affected, and whether you change existing lives or make new ones. If only a few googolplex-squared people-years exist anyway, I vote dust.

I also vote to kill the bunny.

For those who would pick TORTURE, what about Vassar's universes of agonium? Say a googolplex-persons' worth of agonium for a googolplex years.

Torture, again. From the perspective of each affected individual, the choice becomes:

1.) A (10(10100))/(3^^^3) chance of being tortured for (10(10100)) years.
2.) A 1 chance of a dust speck.
(or very slightly different numbers if the (10(10100)) people exist in addition to the 3^^^3 people; the difference is too small to be noticable)

I'd still take the former. (10(10100))/(3^^^3) is still so close to zero that there'... (read more)

Eliezer, it's the combination of (1) totally untrustworthy brain machinery and (2) no immediate need to make a choice that I'm suggesting means that withholding judgement is reasonable. I completely agree that you've found a bug; congratulations, you may file a bug report and add it to the many other bug reports already on file; but how do you get from there to the conclusion that the right thing to do is to make a choice between these two options?

When I read the question, I didn't go into a coma or become psychotic. I didn't even join a crazy religion or ... (read more)

Let's suppose we measure pain in pain points (pp). Any event which can cause pain is given a value in [0, 1], with 0 being no pain and 1 being the maximum amount of pain perceivable. To calculate the pp of an event, assign a value to the pain, say p, and then multiply it by the number of people who will experience the pain, n. So for the torture case, assume p = 1, then:

torture: 1*1 = 1 pp

For the spec in eye case, suppose it causes the least amount of pain greater than no pain possible. Denote this by e. Assume that the dust speck causes e amount of ... (read more)

"Wow. People sure are coming up with interesting ways of avoiding the question."

My response was a real request for information- if this is a pure utility test, I would select the dust specks. If this were done to a complex, functioning society, adding dust specks into everyone's eyes would disrupt a great deal of important stuff- someone would almost certainly get killed in an accident due to the distraction, even on a planet with only 10^15 people and not 3^^^^3.

Eliezer, in your response to g, are you suggesting that we should strive to ensure that our probability distribution over possible beliefs sum to 1? If so, I disagree: I don't think this can be considered a plausible requirement for rationality. When you have no information about the distribution, you ought to assign probabilities uniformly, according to Laplace's principle of indifference. But the principle of indifference only works for distributions over finite sets. So for infinite sets you have to make an arbitrary choice of distribution, which violates indifference.

"For those who would pick SPECKS, would you pay a single penny to avoid the dust specks?"

Yes. Note that, for the obvious next question, I cannot think of an amount of money large enough such that I would rather keep it than use it to save a person from torture. Assuming that this is post-Singularity money which I cannot spend on other life-saving or torture-stopping efforts.

"You probably wouldn't blind everyone on earth to save that one person from being tortured, and yet, there are (3^^^3)/(10^17) >> 7*10^9 people being blinded for ea... (read more)

People are being tortured, and it wouldn't take too much money to prevent some of it. Obviously, there is already a price on torture.

My algorithm goes like this:
there are two variables, X and Y.
Adding a single additional dust speck to a person's eye over their entire lifetime increases X by 1 for every person this happens to.
A person being tortured for a few minutes increases Y by 1.

I would object to most situations where Y is greater than 1. But I have no preferences at all with regard to X.

See? Dust specks and torture are not the same. I do not lump them together as "disutility". To do so seems to me a preposterous oversimplification. In any case, it has to be argued that... (read more)

I am not convinced that this question can be converted into a personal choice where you face the decision of whether to take the speck or a 1/3^^^3 chance of being tortured. I would avoid the speck and take my chances with torture, and I think that is indeed an obvious choice.

I think a more apposite application of that translation might be:
If I knew I was going to live for 3^^^3+50*365 days, and I was faced with that choice every day, I would always choose the speck, because I would never want to endure the inevitable 50 years of torture.

The difference is that framing the question as a one-off individual choice obscures the fact that in the example proffered, the torture is a certainty.

1/3^^^3 chance of being tortured... If I knew I was going to live for 3^^^3+50*365 days, and I was faced with that choice every day, I would always choose the speck, because I would never want to endure the inevitable 50 years of torture.

That wouldn't make it inevitable. You could get away with it, but then you could get multiple tortures. Rolling 6 dice often won't get exactly one "1".

Answer depends on the person's POV on consciousness.

Tom McCabe wrote:
The probability is effectively much greater than that, because of complexity compression. If you have 3^^^^3 people with dust specks, almost all of them will be identical copies of each other, greatly reducing abs(U(specks)). abs(U(torture)) would also get reduced, but by a much smaller factor, because the number is much smaller to begin with.

Is there something wrong with viewing this from the perspective of the affected individuals (unique or not)? For any individual instance of a person, the probability of directly experiencing the tortu... (read more)

because of complexity compression. If you have 3^^^^3 people with dust specks, almost all of them will be identical copies of each other, greatly reducing abs(U(specks)).

If so, I want my anti-wish back. Evil Genie never said anything about compression. No wonder he has so many people to dust. I'm complaining to GOD Over Djinn.

If they're not compressed, surely a copy will still experience qualia? Does it matter that it's identical to another? If the sum experience of many copies is weighted as if there was just one, then I'm officially converting from infinite set agnostic to infinite set atheist.

Bayesianism, Infinite Decisions, and Binding replies to Vann McGee's "An airtight dutch book", defending the permissibility of an unbounded utility function.

An option that dominates in finite cases will always provably be part of the maximal option in finite problems; but in infinite problems, where there is no maximal option, the dominance of the option for the infinite case does not follow from its dominance in all finite cases.

If you allow a discontinuity where the utility of the infinite case is not the same as the limit of the utilities of t... (read more)

It is clearly not so easy to have a non-subjective determination of utility.
After some thought I pick the torture. That is because the concept of 3^^^3 people means that no evolution will occur while that many people live. The one advantage to death is that it allows for evolution. It seems likely that we will have evovled into much more interesting life forms long before 3^^^3 of us have passed.
What's the utility of that?

Recovering Irrationalist:
True: my expected value would be 50 years of torture, but I don't think that changes my argument much.

I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say. (50*365)/3^^^3 (which is basically the same thing as 1/3^^^3) days of torture wouldn't be anything at all, because it wouldn't be noticeable. I don't think you can divide time to that extent from the point of view of human consciousness.

I don't think the math in my personal utility-estimation algorithm works out significantly differently depending on which of the cas... (read more)

I'll go ahead and reveal my answer now: Robin Hanson was correct, I do think that TORTURE is the obvious option, and I think the main instinct behind SPECKS is scope insensitivity.

Some comments:

While some people tried to appeal to non-linear aggregation, you would have to appeal to a non-linear aggregation which was non-linear enough to reduce 3^^^3 to a small constant. In other words it has to be effectively flat. And I doubt they would have said anything different if I'd said 3^^^^3.

If anything is aggregating nonlinearly it should be the 50 years of torture, to which one person has the opportunity to acclimate; there is no individual acclimatization to the dust specks because each dust speck occurs to a different person. The only person who could be "acclimating" to 3^^^3 is you, a bystander who is insensitive to the inconceivably vast scope.

Scope insensitivity - extremely sublinear aggregation by individuals considering bad events happening to many people - can lead to mass defection in a multiplayer prisoner's dilemma even by altruists who would normally cooperate. Suppose I can go skydiving today but this causes the world to get warmer by 0.000001 degree Celsius... (read more)

I will admit, that was a pretty awesome lesson to learn. Marcello's reasoning had it click in my head but the kicker that drove the point home was scaling it to 3^^^^3 instead of 3^^^3.
I think I understand why one should derive the conclusion to torture one person, given these premises. What I don't understand is the premises. In the article about scope insensitivity you linked to, it was very clear that the scope of things made things worse. I don't understand why it should be wrong to round down the dust speck, or similar very small disutilities, to zero - Basically, what Scott Clark said: 3^^^3*0 disutilities = 0 disutility.

Rounding to zero is odd. In the absence of other considerations, you have no preference whether or not people get a dust speck in their eye?

It is also in violation of the structure of the thought experiment - a dust speck was chosen as the least bad bad thing that can happen to someone. If you would round it to zero, then you need to choose slightly worse thing - I can't imagine your intuitions will be any less shocked by preferring torture to that slightly worse thing.

That was a mistake, since so many people round it to zero.
It seems to have been. Since the criteria for the choice was laid out explicitly, though, I would have hoped that more people would notice that the thought experiment they solved so easily was not actually the one they had been given, and perform the necessary adjustment. This is obviously too optimistic - but perhaps can serve itself as some kind of lesson about reasoning.
I conceed that it is reasonable within the constraints of the thought experiment. However, I think it should be noted that this will never be more than a thought experiment and that if real world numbers and real world problems are used, it becomes less clear cut, and the intuition of going against the 50 years torture is a good starting point in some cases.
It's odd. If you think about it, Eliezer's Argument is absolutely correct. But it seems rather unintuitive even though I KNOW it's right. We humans are a bit silly sometimes. On the other hand, we did manage to figure this out, so it's not that bad.
"In the absence of other considerations, you have no preference whether or not people get a dust speck in their eye?" I can regard the moral significance as zero. I don't have to take the view that morality "is" preferences, of any kind or degree. Excessive demandingness is a famous problem with utiltarianism: rounding down helps to curtail it.

While some people tried to appeal to non-linear aggregation, you would have to appeal to a non-linear aggregation which was non-linear enough to reduce 3^^^3 to a small constant.

Sum(1/n^2, 1, 3^^^3) < Sum(1/n^2, 1, inf) = (pi^2)/6

So an algorithm like, "order utilities from least to greatest, then sum with a weight if 1/n^2, where n is their position in the list" could pick dust specks over torture while recommending most people not go sky diving (as their benefit is outweighed by the detriment to those less fortunate).

This would mean that scope insensitivity, beyond a certain point, is a feature of our morality rather than a bias; I am not sure my opinion of this outcome.

That said, while giving an answer to the one problem that some seem more comfortable with, and to the second that everyone agrees on, I expect there are clear failure modes I haven't thought of.

Edited to add:

This of course holds for weights of 1/n^a for any a>1; the most convincing defeat of this proposition would be showing that weights of 1/n (or 1/(n log(n))) drop off quickly enough to lead to bad behavior.

On recently encountering the wikipedia page on Utility Monsters and thence to the Mere Addition Paradox, it occurs to me that this seems to neatly defang both. Edited - rather, completely defangs the Mere Addition Paradox, may or may not completely defang Utility Monsters depending on details but at least reduces their impact.
And why should they consider 3^^^^3 differently, if their function asymptotically approaches a limit? Besides, human utility function would take the whole, and then perhaps consider duplicates, uniqueness (you don't want your prehistoric tribe to lose the last man who knows how to make a stone axe), and so on, rather than evaluate one by one and then sum. The false allure of oversimplified morality is in ease of inventing hypothetical examples where it works great. One could, of course, posit a colder planet. Most of the population would prefer that planet to be warmer, but if the temperature rise exceeds 5 Celsius, the gas hydrates melt, and everyone dies. And they all have to decide at one day. Or one could posit a planet Linearium populated entirely by people that really love skydiving, who would want to skydive everyday but that would raise the global temperature by 100 Celsius, and they'd rather be alive than skydive every day and boil to death. They opt to skydive at their birthdays at the expense of 0.3 degree global temperature rise, which each one of them finds to be an acceptable price to pay for getting to skydive at your birthday.
But still, WHY is torture better? What is even the problem with the speck dusts? Some of the people who get speck dust in their eyes will die in accidents caused by the dust particles? Is this why speck dust is so bad? But then, have we considered the fact that speck dust may save an equal amount of people, who would otherwise die? I really don´t get it and it bothers me alot.
Okeymaker, I think the argument is this: Torturing one person for 50 years is better than torturing 10 persons for 40 years. Torturing 10 persons for 40 years is better than torturing 1000 persons for 10 year. Torturing 1000 persons for 10 years is better than torturing 1000000 persons for 1 year. Torturing 10^6 persons for 1 year is better than torturing 10^9 persons for 1 month. Torturing 10^9 persons for 1 month is better than torturing 10^12 persons for 1 week. Torturing 10^12 persons for 1 week is better than torturing 10^15 persons for 1 day. Torturing 10^15 persons for 1 day is better than torturing 10^18 persons for 1 hour. Torturing 10^18 persons for 1 hour is better than torturing 10^21 persons for 1 minute. Torturing 10^21 persons for 1 minute is better than torturing 10^30 persons for 1 second. Torturing 10^30 persons for 1 second is better than torturing 10^100 persons for 1 millisecond. Torturing for 1 millisecond is exactly what a dust speck does. And if you disagree with the numbers, you can add a few millions. There is still plenty of space between 10^100 and 3^^^3.
Yes, if this is the case (would be nice if Eliezer confirmed it) I can see where the logic halts from my perspective :) Explanatory example if someone care: I disagree. From my moral standpoint AND from my utility function whereas I am a bystander and perceive all humans as a cooperating system and want to minimize the damages to it, I think that it is better for 10^30 persons to put up with 1 second of intense pain compared to a single one who have to survive a whole minute. It is much, much more easy to recover from one second of pain than from being tortured for a minute. And spec dust is virtually harmless. The potential harm it may cause should at least POSSIBLY be outweighted by the benefits, e.g. someone not being run over by a car because he stopped and scratched his eye.
Okay, so let's zoom in here. What is preferable? Torturing 1 person for 60 seconds Torturing 100 person for 59 seconds Torturing 10000 person for 58 seconds etc. Kind of a paradox of the heap. How many seconds of torture are still torture? And 10^30 is really a lot of people. That's what Eliezer meant with "scope insensitivity". And all of them would be really grateful if you spared them their second of pain. Could be worth a minute of pain?
That's fighting the hypothetical. Assume that the speck is such that the harm caused by the spec slightly outweighs the benefits.
Or the benefits could slightly outweigh the harm. You have to treat this option as a net win of 0 then, because you have no more info to go on so the probs. are 50/50. Option A: Torture. Net win is negativ. Option B: Spec dust. Net win is zero. Make you choice.
In the Least Convenient Possible World of this hypothetical, every dust speck causes a constant small amount of harm with no knock-on effects(no avoiding buses, no crashing cars...)
I thought the original point was to focus just on the inconvenience of the dust, rather than simply propositioning that out of 3^^^3 people who were dustspecked, one person would've gotten something worse than 50 years of torture as a consequence of the dust speck. The latter is not even an ethical dilemma, it's merely an (entirely baseless but somewhat plausible) assertion about the consequences of dust specks in the eyes.
exactly! No knock-on effects. Perhaps you meant to comment on the grandparent(great-grandparent? do I measure from this post or your post?) instead?
yeah, clicked wrong button.
Torturing a person for 1 millisecond is not necessarily even a possibility. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever; in 1 millisecond no interesting feedback loops can even close. If we accept that torture is some class of computational processes that we wish to avoid, the badness definitely could be eating up your 3^^^3s in one way or the other. We have absolutely zero reason to expect linearity when some (however unknown) properties of a set of computations are involvd. And the computational processes are not infinitely divisible into smaller lengths of time.
Agree, having lived in chronic pain supposedly worse than untrained childbirth, I'd say that even an hour has a really seriously different possibility in terms of capacity for suffering than a day, and a day different from a week. For me it breaks down somewhere, even when multiplying between the 10^15 for 1 day and 10^21 for one minute. You can't really feel THAT much pain in a minute that is comparable to a day, even orders of magnitude? Its just qualitatively different. Interested to hear pushback on this
We could go from a day to a minute more slowly; for example, by increasing the number of people by a factor of a googolplex every time the torture time decreases by 1 second. I absolutely agree that the length of torture increases how bad it is in nonlinear ways, but this doesn't mean we can't find exponential factors that dominate it at every point at least along the "less than 50 years" range.
That strikes me as a deliberate set up for a continuum fallacy. Also, why are you so sure that the number of people increases suffering in a linear way for even very large numbers? What is a number of people anyway? I'd much prefer to have a [large number of exact copies of me] experience 1 second of headache than for one me to suffer it for a whole day. Because those copies they don't have any mechanism which could compound their suffering. They aren't even different subjectivities. I don't see any reason why a hypothetical mind upload of me running on multiple redundant hardware should be an utility monster, if it can't even tell subjectively how redundant it's hardware is. Some anaesthetics do something similar, preventing any new long term memories, people have no problem with taking those for surgery. Something's still experiencing pain but it's not compounding into anything really bad (unless the drugs fail to work, or unless some form of long term memory still works). A real example of a very strong preference for N independent experiences of 30 seconds of pain over 1 experience of 30*N seconds of pain.
It's not a continuum fallacy because I would accept "There is some pair (N,T) such that (N people tortured for T seconds) is worse than (10^100 N people tortured for T-1 seconds), but I don't know the exact values of N and T" as an answer. If, on the other hand, the comparison goes the other way for any values of N and T, then you have to accept the transitive closure of those comparisons as well. I'm not sure what you mean by this. I don't believe in linearity of suffering: that would be the claim that 2 people tortured for 1 day is the same as 1 person tortured for 2 days, and that's ridiculous. I believe in comparability of suffering, which is the claim that for some value of N, N people tortured for 1 day is worse than 1 person tortured for 2 days. Regarding anaesthetics: I would prefer a memory inhibitor for a painful surgery to the absence of one, but I would still strongly prefer to feel less pain during the surgery even if I know I will not remember it one way or the other. Is this preference unusual?
This is where the argument for choosing torture falls apart for me, really. I don't think there is any number of people getting dust specks in their eyes that would be worse than torturing one person for fifty years. I have to assume my utility function over other people is asymptotic; the amount of disutility of choosing to let even an infinity of people get dust specks in their eyes is still less than the disutility of one person getting tortured for fifty years. I think he's questioning the idea that two people getting dust specks in their eyes is twice the disutility of one person getting dust specks, and that is the linearity he's referring to. Personally, I think the problem stems from dust specks being such a minor inconvenience that it's basically below the noise threshold. I'd almost be indifferent between choosing for nothing to happen or choosing for everyone on Earth to get dust specks (assuming they don't cause crashes or anything).
There's the question of linearity- but if you use big enough numbers you can brute force any nonlinear relationship, as Yudkowsky correctly pointed out some years ago. Take Kindly's statement: "There is some pair (N,T) such that (N people tortured for T seconds) is worse than (10^100 N people tortured for T-1 seconds), but I don't know the exact values of N and T" We can imagine a world where this statement is true (probably for a value of T really close to 1). And we can imagine knowing the correct values of N and T in that world. But even then, if a critical condition is met, it will be true that "For all values of N, and for all T>1, there exists a value of A such that torturing N people for T seconds is better than torturing A*N people for T-1 seconds." Sure, the value of A may be larger than 10^100... But then, 3^^^3 is already vastly larger than 10^100. And if it weren't big enough we could just throw a bigger number at the problem; there is no upper bound on the size of conceivable real numbers. So if we grant the critical condition in question, as Yudkowsky does/did in the original post... Well, you basically have to concede that "torture" wins the argument, because even if you say that [hugenumber] of dust specks does not equate to a half-century of torture, that is NOT you winning the argument. That is just you trying to bid up the price of half a century of torture. The critical condition that must be met here is simple, and is an underlying assumption of Yudkowsky's original post: All forms of suffering and inconvenience are represented by some real number quantity, with commensurate units to all other forms of suffering and inconvenience. In other words, the "torture one person rather than allow 3^^^3 dust specks" wins, quite predictably, if and only if it is true that that the 'pain' component of the utility function is measured in one and only one dimension. So the question is, basically, do you measure your utility function in terms of a sing
It occurred to me to add something to my previous comments about the idea of harm being nonlinear, or something that we compute in multiple dimensions that are not commensurate. One is that any deontological system of ethics automatically has at least two dimensions. One for general-purpose "utilons," and one for... call them "red flags." As soon as you accumulate even one red flag you are doing something capital-w Wrong in that system of ethics, regardless of the number of utilons you've accumulated. The main argument justifying this is, of course, that you may think you have found a clever way to accumulate 3^^^3 utilons in exchange for a trivial amount of harm (torture ONLY one scapegoat!)... but the overall weighted average of all human moral reasoning suggests that people who think they've done this are usually wrong. Therefore, best to red-flag such methods, because they usually only sound clever. Obviously, one may need to take this argument with a grain of salt, or 3^^^3 grains of salt. It depends on how strongly you feel bound to honor conclusions drawn by looking at the weighted average of past human decision-making. ---------------------------------------- The other observation that occurred to me is unrelated. It is about the idea of harm being nonlinear, which as I noted above is just plain not enough to invalidate the torture/specks argument by itself due to the ability to keep thwacking a nonlinear relationship with bigger numbers until it collapses. Take as a thought-experiment an alternate Earth where, in the year 1000, population growth has stabilized at an equilibrium level, and will rise back to that equilibrium level in response to sudden population decrease. The equilibrium level is assumed to be stable in and of itself. Imagine aliens arriving and killing 50% of all humans, chosen apparently at random. Then they wait until the population has returned to equilibrium (say, 150 years) and do it again. Then they repeat the process twice mor
I mentioned duplication. That in 3^^^3 people, most have to be exact duplicates of one another birth to death. In your extinction example, once you have substantially more than the breeding population, extra people duplicate some aspects of your population (ability to breed) which causes you to find it less bad. Not every non-linear relationship can be thwacked with bigger and bigger numbers...
For one thing N=1 T=1 trivially satisfies your condition... I mean, suppose that you got yourself a function that takes in a description of what's going on in a region of spacetime, and it spits out a real number of how bad it is. Now, that function can do all sorts of perfectly reasonable things that could make it asymptotic for large numbers of people, for example it could be counting distinct subjective experiences in there (otherwise a mind upload on very multiple redundant hardware is an utility monster, despite having an identical subjective experience to same upload running one time. That's much sillier than the usual utility monster, which feels much stronger feelings). This would impose a finite limit (for brains of finite complexity). One thing that function can't do, is to have a general property that f(a union b)=f(a)+f(b) , because then we just subdivide our space into individual atoms none of which are feeling anything.
Obviously I only meant to consider values of T and N that actually occur in the argument we were both talking about.
Well I'm not sure what's the point then. What you're trying to induct from it.
Obviously. Just important to remember that extremity of suffering is something we frequently fail to think well about.
Absolutely. We're bad at anything that we can't easily imagine. Probably, for many people, intuition for "torture vs. dust specks" imagines a guy with a broken arm on one side, and a hundred people saying 'ow' on the other. The consequences of our poor imagination for large numbers of people (i.e. scope insensitivity) are well-studied. We have trouble doing charity effectively because our intuition doesn't take the number of people saved by an intervention into account; we just picture the typical effect on a single person. What, I wonder, are the consequence of our poor imagination for extremity of suffering? For me, the prison system comes to mind: I don't know how bad being in prison is, but it probably becomes much worse than I imagine if you're there for 50 years, and we don't think about that at all when arguing (or voting) about prison sentences.
My heuristic for dealing with such situations is somewhat reminiscent of Hofstadter's Law: however bad you imagine it to be, it's worse than that, even when you take the preceding statement into account. In principle, this recursion should go on forever and lead to you regarding any sufficiently unimaginably bad situation as infinitely bad, but in practice, I've yet to have it overflow, probably because your judgment spontaneously regresses back to your original (inaccurate) representation of the situation unless consciously corrected for.
Obligatory xkcd.
That would have been a better comic without the commentary in the last panel.
But the alt text is great X-)
My feeling is that situations like being caught for doing something horrendous might or might not be subject to psychological adjustment - that many situations of suffering are subject to psychological adjustment and so might actually be not as bad as we though. But chronic intense pain, is literally unadjustable to some degree - you can adjust to being in intense suffering but that doesn't make the intense suffering go away. That's why I think its a special class of states of being - one that invokes action. What do people think?
Okay, here's a new argument for you (originally proposed by James Miller, and which I have yet to see adequately addressed): assume that you live on a planet with a population of 3^^^3 distinct people. (The "planet" part is obviously not possible, and the "distinct" part may or may not be possible, but for the purposes of a discussion about morality, it's fine to assume these.) Now let's suppose that you are given a choice: (a) everyone on the planet can get a dust speck in the eye right now, or (b) the entire planet holds a lottery, and the one person who "wins" (or "loses", more accurately) will be tortured for 50 years. Which would you choose? If you are against torture (as you seem to be, from your comment), you will presumably choose (a). But now let's suppose you are allowed to blink just before the dust speck enters your eye. Call this choice (c). Seeing as you probably prefer not having a dust speck in your eye to having one in your eye, you will most likely prefer (c) to (a). However, 3^^^3 just so unimaginably enormous that blinking for even the tiniest fraction of a second increases the probability that you will be captured by a madman during that blink and tortured for 50 years by more than 1/3^^^3. But since the lottery proposed in (b) only offers a 1/3^^^3 probability of being picked for the torture, (b) is preferable to (c). Then, by the transitivity axiom, if you prefer (c) to (a) and (b) to (c), you must prefer (b) to (a). Q.E.D.
This seems pretty unlikely to be true.
I think you underestimate the magnitude of 3^^^3 (and thereby overestimate the magnitude of 1/3^^^3).
Both numbers seem basically arbitrarily small (probability 0). Since the planet has so many distinct people, and they blink more than once a day, you are essentially asserting that on that planet, multiple people are kidnapped and tortured for more than 50 years several times a day.
Well, I mean, obviously a single person can't be kidnapped more than once every 50 years (assuming that's how long each torture session lasts), and certainly not several times a day, since he/she wouldn't have finished being tortured quickly enough to be kidnapped again. But yes, the general sentiment of your comment is correct, I'd say. The prospect of a planet with daily kidnappings and 50-year-long torture sessions may seem strange, but that sort of thing is just what you get when you have a population count of 3^^^3.
I worked it out back of the envelope, and the probability of being kidnapped when you blink is only 1/5^^^5.
Well, now I know you're underestimating how big 3^^^3 is (and 5^^^5, too). But let's say somehow you're right, and the probability really is 1/5^^^5. All I have to do is modify the thought experiment so that the planet has 5^^^5 people instead of 3^^^3. There, problem solved. So, new question: would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 5^^^5 people get dust specks in their eyes?
And the time spent setting up a lottery and carrying out the drawing also increases the probability that someone else gets captured and tortured in the intervening time, far more than blinking would. In fact, the probability goes up anyway in that fraction of a second, whether you blink or not. You can't stop time, so there's no reason to prefer (c) to (b).
Ah, sorry; I wasn't clear. What I meant was that blinking increases your probability of being tortured beyond the normal "baseline" probability of torture. Obviously, even if you don't blink, there's still a probability of you being tortured. My claim is that blinking affects the probability of being tortured so that the probability is higher than it would be if you hadn't blinked (since you can't see for a fraction of a second while blinking, leaving you ever-so-slightly more vulnerable than you would be with your eyes open), and moreover that it would increase by more than 1/3^^^3. So basically what I'm saying is that P(torture|blink) > P(torture|~blink) + 1/3^^^3.
Let me see if I get this straight: The choice comes down to dust specks at time T or dust specks at time T + dT, where the interval dT allows you time to blink. The argument is that in the interval dT, the probability of being captured and tortured increases by an amount greater than your odds in the lottery. It seems to me that the blinking is immaterial. If the question were whether to hold the lottery today or put dust in everyone's eyes tomorrow, the argument should be unchanged. It appears to hinge on the notion that as time increases, so do the odds of something bad happening, and therefore you'd prefer to be in the present instead of the future. The problem I have is that the future is going to happen anyway. Once the interval dT passes, the odds of someone being captured in that time will go up regardless of whether you chose the lottery or not.
If I told you that a dust speck was about to float into your left eye in the next second, would you (a) take it full in the eye, or (b) blink to keep it out? If you say you would blink, you are implicitly acknowledging that you prefer not getting specked to getting specked, and thereby conceding that getting specked is worse than not getting specked. If you would take it full in the eye, well... you're weird.
It's not (necessarily) about dust specks accidentally leading to major accidents. But if you think that having a dust speck in your eye may be even slightly annoying (whether you consciously know that or not), the cost you have from having it fly into your eye is not zero. Now something not zero multiplied by a sufficiently large number will necessarily be larger than the cost of one human being's life in torture.
Now you are getting it copletely wrong. You can´t add up harm on spec dust if it is happening to different people. Every individual has a capability to recover from it. Think about it. With that logic it is worse to rip a hair from every living being in the universe than to nuke New York. If people in charge reasoned that way we might have harmageddon in no time.
That's ridiculous. So mild pains don't count if they're done to many different people? Let's give a more obvious example. It's better to kill one person than to amputate the right hands of 5000 people, because the total pain will be less. Scaling down, we can say that it's better to amputate the right hands of 50,000 people than to torture one person to death, because the total pain will be less. Keep repeating this in your head(see how consistent it feels, how it makes sense). Now just extrapolate to the instance that it's better to have 3^^^3 people have dust specks in their eyes than to torture one person to death because the total pain will be less. The hair-ripping argument isn't good enough because pain.[ (people on earth) (pain from hair rip) ] < pain.[(people in New York) (pain of being nuked) ]. The math doesn't add up in your straw man example, unlike with the actual example given. As a side note, you are also appealing to consequences.
I think Okeymaker was actually referring to all the people in the universe. While the number of "people" in the universe (defining a "person" as a conscious mind) isn't a known number, let's do as blossom does and assume Okeymaker was referring to the Level I multiverse. In that case, the calculation isn't nearly as clear-cut. (That being said, if I were considering a hypothetical like that, I would simply modus ponens Okeymaker's modus tollens and reply that I would prefer to nuke New York.)
If 1. Each human death has only finite cost. We sure act this way in our everyday lives, exchanging human lives for the convenience of driving around with cars etc. 2. By our universe you do not mean only the observable universe, but include the level I multiverse then yes, that is the whole point. A tiny amount of suffering multiplied by a sufficiently large number obviously is eventually larger than the fixed cost of nuking New York. Unless you can tell my why my model for the costs of suffering distributed over multiple people is wrong, I don't see why I should change it. "I don't like the conclusions!!!" is not a valid objection. If they ever justifiable start to reason that way, i.e. if they actually have the power to rip a hair from every living human being, I think we'll have larger problems than the potential nuking of New York.
Okey, I was trying to learn from this post but now I see that I have to try to explain stuff myself in order for this communication to become useful. When It comes to pain it is hard to explain why one person´s great suffering is worse than many suffering very very little if you don´t understand it by yourself. So let us change the currency from pain to money. Let´s say that you and me need to fund a large plantage of algae in order to let the Earth´s population escape starvation due to lack of food. This project is of great importence for the whole world so we can force anyone to become a sponsor and this is good because we need the money FAST. We work for the whole world (read: Earth) and we want to minimze the damages from our actions. This project is really expensive however... Should we: a) Take one dollar from every person around the world with a minimum wage that can still afford house, food etc. even if we take that one dollar? or should we b) Take all the money (instantly) from Denmark and watch it break down in bakruptcy? Asking me it is obvious that we don´t want Denmark to go bankrupt just because it may annoy some people that they have to sacriface 1 dollar.
In this case I do not disagree with you. The number of people on earth is simply not large enough. But if you asked me whether to take money from 3^^^3 people compared to throwing Denmark into bankruptcy, I would choose the latter. Math should override intuition. So unless you give me a model that you can convince me of that is more reasonable than adding up costs/utilities, I don't think you will change my mind.
Now I see what is fundamentally wrong with the article and you´re reasoning from MY perspective. You don´t seem to understand the difference between a permanent sacriface and a temporary. If we subsitute the spec dust with index fingers for example, I agree that it is reasonable to think that killing one person is far better than to have 3 billion (we don´t need 3^^^3 for this one) persons lose their index fingers. Because that is a permanent sacriface. At least for now we can´t have fingers grow out just like that. To get dust in your eye at the other hand, is only temporary. You will get over it real quick and forget all about it. But 50 years of torture is something that you will never fully heal from and it will ruin a persons life and cause permanent damage.
The trouble is that there is a continuous sequence from Take $1 from everyone Take $1.01 from almost everyone Take $1.02 from almost almost everyone ... Take a lot of money from very few people (Denmark) If you think that taking $1 from everyone is okay, but taking a lot of money from Denmark is bad, then there is some point in the middle of this sequence where your opinion changes even though the numbers only change slightly. You will have to say, for instance, taking $20 each from 1/20 the population of the world is good, but taking $20.01 each from slightly less than 1/10 the population of the world is bad. Can you say that?
If you think that 100C water is hot and 0C water is cold, then there is some point in the middle of this sequence where your opinion changes even though the numbers only change slightly.
No, because temperature is (very close to) a continuum, whereas good/bad is a binary. To see this more clearly, you can replace the question, "Is this action good or bad?" to "Would an omniscient, moral person choose to take this action?", and you can instantly see the answer can only be "yes" (good) or "no" (bad). (Of course, it's not always clear which choice the answer is--hence why so many argue over it--but the answer has to be, in principle, either "yes" or "no".)
First, I'm not talking about temperature, but about categories "hot" and "cold". Second, why in the world would good/bad be binary? I have no idea -- I don't know what an omniscient person (aka God) will do, and in any case the answer is likely to be "depends on which morality we are talking about". Oh, and would an omniscient being call that water hot or cold?
You'll need to define your terms for that, then. (And for the record, I don't use the words "hot" and "cold" exclusively; I also use terms like "warm" or "cool" or "this might be a great temperature for a swimming pool, but it's horrible for tea".) Also, if you weren't talking about temperature, why bother mentioning degrees Celsius when talking about "hotness" and "coldness"? Clearly temperature has something to do with it, or else you wouldn't have mentioned it, right? Because you can always replace a question of goodness with the question "Would an omniscient, moral person choose to take this action?". Just because you have no idea what the answer could be doesn't mean the true answer can fall outside the possible space of answers. For instance, you can't answer the question of "Would an omniscient moral reasoner choose to take this action?" with something like "fish", because that falls outside of the answer space. In fact, there are only two possible answers: "yes" or "no". It might be one; it might be the other, but my original point was that the answer to the question is guaranteed to be either "yes or "no", and that holds true even if you don't know what the answer is. There is only one "morality" as far as this discussion is concerned. There might be other "moralities" held by aliens or whatever, but the human CEV is just that: the human CEV. I don't care about what the Babyeaters think is "moral", or the Pebblesorters, or any other alien species you care to substitute--I am human, and so are the other participants in this discussion. The answer to the question "which morality are we talking about?" is presupposed by the context of the discussion. If this thread included, say, Clippy, then your answer would be a valid one (although even then, I'd rather talk game theory with Clippy than morality--it's far more likely to get me somewhere with him/her/it), but as it is, it just seems like a rather unsubtle attempt to dodge the question.
I don't think so. You're making a circular argument -- good/bad is binary because there are only two possible states. I do not agree that there are only two possible states. Really? Either I'm not a participant in this discussion or you're wrong. See: a binary outcome :-D I have no idea what the human CEV is and even whether such a thing is possible. I am familiar with the concept, but I have doubts about it's reality.
Name a third alternative that is actually an answer, as opposed to some sort of evasion ("it depends"), and I'll concede the point. Also, I'm aware that this isn't your main point, but... how is the argument circular? I'm not saying something like, "It's binary, therefore there are two possible states, therefore it's binary"; I'm just saying "There are two possible states, therefore it's binary." Are you human? (y/n) Which part do you object to? The "coherent" part, the "extrapolated" part, or the "volition" part?
"Doesn't matter". First of all you're ignoring the existence of morally neutral questions. Should I scratch my butt? Lessee, would an omniscient perfectly moral being scratch his/her/its butt? Oh dear, I think we're in trouble now... X-D Second, you're assuming atomicity of actions and that's a bad assumption. In your world actions are very limited -- they can be done or not done, but they cannot be done partially, they cannot be slightly modified or just done in a few different ways. Third, you're assuming away the uncertainty of the future and that also is a bad assumption. Proper actions for an omniscient being can very well be different from proper actions for someone who has to face uncertainty with respect to consequences. Fourth, for the great majority of dilemmas in life (e.g. "Should I take this job?", "Should I marry him/her?", "Should I buy a new phone?") the answer "what an omniscient moral being would choose" is perfectly useless. The concept of CEV seems to me to be the direct equivalent of "God's will" -- handwaveable in any direction you wish while retaining enough vagueness to make specific discussions difficult or pretty much impossible. I think my biggest objection is to the "coherent" part while also having great doubts about the "extrapolated" part as well.
(Side note: this conversation is taking a rather strange turn, but whatever.) If its butt feels itchy, and it would prefer for its butt to not feel itchy, and the best way to make its butt not feel itchy is to scratch it, and there are no external moral consequences to its decision (like, say, someone threatening to kill 3^^^3 people iff it scratches its butt)... well, it's increasing its own utility by scratching its butt, isn't it? If it increases its own utility by doing so and doesn't decrease net utility elsewhere, then that's a net increase in utility. Scratch away, I say. Sure. I agree I did just handwave a lot of stuff with respect to what an "action" is... but would you agree that, conditional on having a good definition of "action", we can evaluate "actions" morally? (Moral by human standards, of course, not Pebblesorter standards.) Agreed, but if you come up with a way to make good/moral decisions in the idealized situation of omniscience, you can generalize to uncertain situations simply by applying probability theory. Again, I agree... but then, knowledge of the Banach-Tarski paradox isn't of much use to most people. Fair enough. I don't have enough domain expertise to really analyze your position in depth, but at a glance, it seems reasonable.
The assumption that morality boils down to utility is a rather huge assumption :-) Conditional on having a good definition of "action" and on having a good definition of "morally". I don't think so, at least not "simply". An omniscient being has no risk and no risk aversion, for example. Morality is supposed to be useful for practical purposes. Heated discussions over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin got a pretty bad rap over the last few centuries... :-)
It's not an assumption; it's a normative statement I choose to endorse. If you have some other system, feel free to endorse that... but then we'll be discussing morality, and not meta-morality or whatever system originally produced your objection to Jiro's distinction between good and bad. Agree. Well, it could have risk aversion. It's just that risk aversion never comes into play during its decision-making process due to its omniscience. Strip away that omniscience, and risk aversion very well might rear its head. I disagree. Take the following two statements: 1. Morality, properly formalized, would be useful for practical purposes. 2. Morality is not currently properly formalized. There is no contradiction in these two statements.
But they have a consequence: Morality currently is not useful for practical purposes. That's... an interesting position. Are you willing to live with it? X-) You can, of course define morality in this particular way, but why would you do that?
By that definition, almost all actions are bad. Also, why the heck do you think there exist words for "better" and "worse"?
True. I'm not sure why that matters, though. It seems trivially obvious to me that a random action selected out of the set of all possible actions would have an overwhelming probability of being bad. But most agents don't select actions randomly, so that doesn't seem to be a problem. After all, the key aspect of intelligence is that it allows you to it extremely tiny targets in configuration space; the fact that most configurations of particles don't give you a car doesn't prevent human engineers from making cars. Why would the fact that most actions are bad prevent you from choosing a good one? Those are relative terms, meant to compare one action to another. That doesn't mean you can't classify an action as "good" or "bad"; for instance, if I decided to randomly select and kill 10 people today, that would be a unilaterally bad action, even if it would theoretically be "worse" if I decided to kill 11 people instead of 10. The difference between the two is like the difference between asking "Is this number bigger than that number?" and "Is this number positive or negative?".
My opinion would change gradually between 100 degrees and 0 degrees. Either I would use qualifiers so that there is no abrupt transition, or else I would consider something to be hot in a set of situations and the size of that set would decrease gradually.
Typo here?
YES because that is how economics work! You can´t take alot of money from ONE person without him getting poor but you CAN take money from alot of people without ruining them! Money is a circulating resource and just like pain you can recover form small losses after a time.
I think my last response starting with YES got lost somehow, so I will clarify here. I don´t follow the sequence because I don´t know where the critical limit is. Why? Because the critical limit is depending on other factors which i can´t foresee. Read up on basic global economy. But YES, in theory I can take little money from everyone without ruining a single one of them since it balances out, but if I take alot of money form one person I make him poor. That is how economics work, you can recover from small losses easily while some are too big to ever recover form, hence why some banks go bankrupt sometimes. And pain is similar since I can recover from a dust speck in my eye, but not from being tortured for 50 years. The dust specks are not permanent sacrifaces. If they were, I agree that they could stack up.
You may not know exactly where the limit is, but the point isn't that the limit is at some exact number, the point is that there is a limit. There's some point where your reasoning makes you go from good to bad even though the change is very small. Do you accept that such a limit exists, even though you may not know exactly where it is?
Yes I do.
So you recognize that your original statement about $1 versus bankruptcy also forces you to make the same conclusion about $20.00 versus $20.01 (or whatever the actual number is, since you don't know it). But making the conclusion about $20.00 versus $20.01 is much harder to justify. Can you justify it? You have to be able to, since it is implied by your original statement.
No I don´t have to make the same conclusion about 20.00 dollar versus 20.01. I left a safety margin when I said 1 dollar since I don´t want to follow the sequence but am very, very sure that 1 dollar is a safe number. I don´t know exactly how much I can risk taking from a random individual before I risk ruining him, but if I take only one dollar from a person who can afford a house and food, I am pretty safe.
Yes, you do. You just admitted it, although the number might not be 20. And whether you admit it or not it logically follows from what you said up above.
Maybe I didn´t understand you the first time.
Your belief about $1 versus bankruptcy logically implies a similar belief about $20.00 versus $20.01 (or whatever the actual numbers are). You can't just answer that that "might" be the case--if your original belief is as described, that is the case. You have to be willing to defend the logical consequence of what you said, not just defend the exact words that you said.
What do you mean with "whatever the actual numbers are". Numbers for what? For the amount that takes to ruin someone? As long as the individual donations doesn´t ruin the donators I accept a higher donation from a smaller population. Is that what you mean?
I just wrote 20 because I have to write something, but there is a number. This number has a value, even if you don't know it. Pretend I put the real number there instead of 20.
Yes, but still, what number? IF it is as I already suggested, the number for the amount of money that can be taken without ruining anyone, then I agree that we could take that amount of money instead of 1 dollar.
So you're saying there exists such a number, such that taking that amount of money from someone wouldn't ruin them, but taking that amount plus a tiny bit more (say, 1 cent) would?
I don't think you understand. Yout original statement about $1 versus bankruptcy logically implies that there is a number such that that it is okay to take exactly that amount of money from a certain number of people, but wrong to take a very tiny amount more. Even though you don't know exactly what this number is, you know that it exists. Because this number is a logical consequence of what you said, you must be able to justify having such a number.
Yes, in my last comment I agreed to it. There is such a number. I don't think you understand my reasons why, which I already explained. It is wrong to take a tiny amoint more, since that will ruin them. I can'tknow ecactly what that is since global and local economy isn`t that stable. Tapping out.
Now, do you have any actual argument as to why the 'badness' function computed over a box containing two persons with a dust speck, is exactly twice the badness of a box containing one person with a dust speck, all the way up to very large numbers (when you may even have exhausted the number of possible distinct people) ? I don't think you do. This is why this stuff strikes me as pseudomath. You don't even state your premises let alone justify them.
You're right, I don't. And I do not really need it in this case. What I need is a cost function C(e,n) - e is some event and n is the number of people being subjected to said event, i.e. everyone gets their own - where for ε > 0: C(e,n+m) > C(e,n) + ε for some m. I guess we can limit e to "torture for 50 years" and "dust specks" so this generally makes sense at all. The reason why I would want to have such a cost function is because I believe that it should be more than infinitesimally worse for 3^^^^3 people to suffer than for 3^^^3 people to suffer. I don't think there should ever be a point where you can go "Meh, not much of a big deal, no matter how many more people suffer." If however the number of possible distinct people should be finite - even after taking into account level II and level III multiverses - due to discreteness of space and discreteness of permitted physical constants, then yes, this is all null and void. But I currently have no particular reason to believe that there should be such a bound, while I do have reason to believe that permitted physical constants should be from a non-discrete set.
Well, within the 3^^^3 people you have every single possible brain replicated a gazillion times already (there's only that many ways you can arrange the atoms in the volume of human head, sufficiently distinct as to be computing something subjectively different, after all, and the number of such arrangements is unimaginably smaller than 3^^^3 ). I don't think that e.g. I must massively prioritize the happiness of a brain upload of me running on multiple redundant hardware (which subjectively feels the same as if it was running in one instance; it doesn't feel any stronger because there's more 'copies' of it running in perfect unison, it can't even tell the difference. It won't affect the subjective experience if the CPUs running the same computation are slightly physically different). edit: also again, pseudomath, because you could have C(dustspeck, n) = 1-1/(n+1) , your property holds but it is bounded, so if the c(torture, 1)=2 then you'll never exceed it with dust specks. Seriously, you people (LW crowd in general) need to take more calculus or something before your mathematical intuitions become in any way relevant to anything whatsoever. It does feel intuitively that with your epsilon it's going to keep growing without a limit, but that's simply not true.
I consider entities in computationally distinct universes to also be distinct entities, even if the arrangements of their neurons are the same. If I have an infinite (or sufficiently large) set of physical constants such that in those universes human beings could emerge, I will also have enough human beings. No. I will always find a larger number which is at least ε greater. I fixed ε before I talked about n,m. So I find numbers m_1,m_2,... such that C(dustspeck,m_j) > jε. Besides which, even if I had somehow messed up, you're not here (I hope) to score easy points because my mathematical formalization is flawed when it is perfectly obvious where I want to go.
Well, in my view, some details of implementation of a computation are totally indiscernible 'from the inside' and thus make no difference to the subjective experiences, qualia, and the like. I definitely don't care if there's 1 me, 3^^^3 copies of me, or 3^^^^3, or 3^^^^^^3 , or the actual infinity (as the physics of our universe would suggest), where the copies are what thinks and perceives everything exactly the same over the lifetime. I'm not sure how counting copies as distinct would cope with an infinity of copies anyway. You have a torture of inf persons vs dust specks in inf*3^^^3 persons, then what? Albeit it would be quite hilarious to see if someone here picks up the idea and starts arguing that because they're 'important', there must be a lot of copies of them in the future, and thus they are rightfully an utility monster.
Consider the flip side of the argument: would you rather get a dust speck in your eye or have a 1 in 3^^^3 chance of being tortured for 50 years? We take much greater risks without a moment's thought every time we cross the street. The chance that a car comes out of nowhere and hits you in just the right way to both paralyze you and cause incredible pain to you for the rest of your life may be very small; but it's probably not smaller than 1 in 10^100, let alone than 1 in 3^^^3.
I agree with this analysis provided there is some reason for linear aggregation. Why should the utility of the world be the sum of the utilities of its inhabitants? Why not, for instance, the min of the utilities of its inhabitants? I think that's what my intuition wants to do anyway: care about how badly off the worst-off person is, and try to improve that. U1(world) = min_people(u(person)) instead of U2(world) = sum_people(u(person)) so U1(torture) = -big, U1(dust) = -tiny U2(torture) = -big, U2(dust) = -outrageously massive Thus, if you use U1, you choose dust because -tiny > -big, but if you use U2, you choose torture because -big > -outrage. But I see no real reason to prefer one intuition over the other, so my question is this: Why linear aggregation of utilities?
I find it hard to believe that you believe that. Under that metric, for example, "pick a thousand happy people and kill their dogs" is a completely neutral act, along with lots of other extremely strange results.
Or, for a maybe more dramatic instance: "Find the world's unhappiest person and kill them". Of course total utilitarianism might also endorse doing that (as might quite a lot of people, horrible though it sounds, on considering just how wretched the lives of the world's unhappiest people probably are) -- but min-utilitarianism continues to endorse doing this even if everyone in the world -- including the soon-to-be-ex-unhappiest-person -- is extremely happy and very much wishes to go on living.
The specific problem which causes that is that most versions of utilitarianism don't allow the fact that someone desires not to be killed to affect the utility calculation, since after they have been killed, they no longer have utility.
Yes, this is a failure mode of (some forms of?) utilitarianism, but not the specific weirdness I was trying to get at, which was that if you aggregate by min(), then it's completely morally OK to do very bad things to huge numbers of people - in fact, it's no worse than radically improving huge numbers of lives - as long as you avoid affecting the one person who is worst-off. This is a very silly property for a moral system to have. You can attempt to mitigate this property with too-clever objections, like "aha, but if you kill a happy person, then in the moment of their death they are temporarily the most unhappy person, so you have affected the metric after all". I don't think that actually works, but didn't want it to obscure the point, so I picked "kill their dog" as an example, because it's a clearly bad thing which definitely doesn't bump anyone to the bottom.
Oh, good point, maybe a kind of alphabetical ordering could break ties. So then, we disregard everyone who isn't affected by the possible action and maximize over the utilities of those who are. But still, this prefers a million people being punched once to any one person being punched twice, which seems silly --- I'm just trying to parse out my intuition for choosing dust specks. I get other possible methods being flawed is a mark for linear aggregation, but what positive reasons are there for it?
Min is a really bad metric - it means that, for example, my decision of whether to torture someone or not doesn't matter as long as someone out there is also getting tortured. So it doesn't actually lead to an answer of the dust speck problem. And if you limit it to the min of people involved, it leads to things like... "then it's better to break 1 billion people's non-dominant arms than one person's dominant arm" which in my opinion is absurd.

If anything is aggregating nonlinearly it should be the 50 years of torture, to which one person has the opportunity to acclimate; there is no individual acclimatization to the dust specks because each dust speck occurs to a different person

I find this reasoning problematic, because in the dust specks there is effectively nothing to acclimate to... the amount of inconvenience to the individual will always be smaller in the speck scenario (excluding secondary effects, such as the individual being distracted and ending up in a car crash, of course).

Which exa... (read more)

Well as long as we've gone to all the trouble to collect 85 comments on this topic, this seems like an great chance for a disagreement case study. It would be interesting to collect stats on who takes what side, and to relate that to their various kinds of relevant expertize. For the moment I disturbed by the fact that Eliezer and I seem to be in a minority here, but comforted a bit by the fact that we seem to know decision theory better than most. But I'm open to new data on the balance of opinion and the balance of relevant expertize.

The diagnosis of scope insensitivity presupposes that people are trying to perform a utilitarian calculation and failing. But there is an ordinary sense in which a sufficiently small harm is no wrong. A harm must reach a certain threshold before the victim is willing to bear the cost of seeking redress. Harms that fall below the threshold are shrugged off. And an unenforced law is no law. This holds even as the victims multiply. A class action lawsuit is possible, summing the minuscule harms, but our moral intuitions are probably not based on those.

Now, this is considerably better reasoning - however, there was no clue to this being a decision that would be selected over and over by countless of people. Had it been worded "you among many have to make the following choice...", I could agree with you. But the current wording implied that it was once-a-universe sort of choice.

The choice doesn't have to be repeated to present you with the dilemma. Since all elements of the problem are finite - not countless, finite - if you refuse all actions in the chain, you should also refuse the start of t... (read more)

"Swoops in, takes one child, and leaves"... wow. I'd like to say I can't imagine being so insensitive as to think this would be a good thing to do (even if not worth the money), but I actually can. And why would you use that horrible example, when the arguement would work just fine if you substituted "A permanent presence devoted to giving one person three square meals a day."

Actually, that was a poor example because taxing one penny has side effects. I would rather save one life and everyone in the world poked with a stick with no other side effects, because I put a substantial probability on lifespans being longer than many might anticipate. So even repeating this six billion times to save everyone's life at the price of 120 years of being repeatedly poked with a stick, would still be a good bargain.

Where there are no special inflection points, a bad repeated action should be a bad individual action, a good repeated action ... (read more)

Robin: dare I suggest that one area of relevant expertise is normative philosophy for-@#%(^^$-sake?!

It's just painful -- really, really, painful -- to see dozens of comments filled with blinkered nonsense like "the contradiction between intuition and philosophical conclusion" when the alleged "philosophical conclusion" hinges on some ridiculous simplistic Benthamite utilitarianism that nobody outside of certain economics departments and insular technocratic computer-geek blog communities actually accepts! My model for the torture cas... (read more)

As someone who has studied moral philosophy for many years, I would like to point out that I agree with Robin and Eliezer, and that I know many professional moral philosophers who would agree with them, too, if presented with this moral dilemma. It is also worth noting that, many comments above, Gaverick Matheny provided a link to a paper by a professional moral philosopher, published in one of the two most prestigious moral philosophy journals in the English-speaking world, which defends essentially the same conclusion. And as the argument presented in that paper makes clear, the conclusion that one should torture need not be motivated by a theoretical commitment to some substantive thesis about the nature of pain or aggregation (as Gowder claims), but follows instead by transitivity from a series of comparisons that everyone--including those who deny that conclusion--finds intuitively plausible.
If anyone still has a hard time believing that this is not an unorthodox position among Philosophers, I'd like to recommend Shelly Kagan's excellent The Limits of Morality, which discusses 'radical consequentialism' and defends a similar conclusion.

dozens of comments filled with blinkered nonsense like "the contradiction between intuition and philosophical conclusion" when the alleged "philosophical conclusion" hinges on some ridiculous simplistic Benthamite utilitarianism that nobody outside of certain economics departments and insular technocratic computer-geek blog communities actually accepts!

You've quoted one of the few comments which your criticism does not apply to. I carry no water for utilitarian philosophy and was here highlighting its failure to capture moral intuition.

all types of pleasures and pains are commensurable such that for all i, j, given a quantity of pleasure/pain experience i, you can find a quantity of pleasure/pain experience j that is equal to (or greater or less than) it. (i.e. that pleasures and pains exist on one dimension)

Is a consistent and complete preference ordering without this property possible?

"An option that dominates in finite cases will always provably be part of the maximal option in finite problems; but in infinite problems, where there is no maximal option, the dominance of the option for the infinite case does not follow from its dominance in all finite cases."

From Peter's proof, it seems like you should be able to prove that an arbitrarily large (but finite) utility function will be dominated by events with arbitrarily large (but finite) improbabilities.

"Robin Hanson was correct, I do think that TORTURE is the obvious opti... (read more)

Elizer: "It's wrong when repeated because it's also wrong in the individual case. You just have to come to terms with scope sensitivity."

But determining whether or not a decision is right or wrong in the individual case requires that you be able to place a value on each outcome. We determine this value in part by using our knowledge of how frequently the outcomes occur and how much time/effort/money it takes to prevent or assuage them. Thus knowing the frequency that we can expect an event to occur is integral to assigning it a value in the fi... (read more)

Where there are no special inflection points, a bad repeated action should be a bad individual action, a good repeated action should be a good individual action. Talking about the repeated case changes your intuitions and gets around your scope insensitivity, it doesn't change the normative shape of the problem (IMHO).

Hmm, I see your point. I can't help like feeling that there are cases where repetition does matter, though. For instance, assuming for a moment that radical life-extension and the Singularity and all that won't happen, and assuming that we co... (read more)

Constant, my reference to your quote wasn't aimed at you or your opinions, but rather at the sort of view which declares that the silly calculation is some kind of accepted or coherent moral theory. Sorry if it came off the other way.

Nick, good question. Who says that we have consistent and complete preference orderings? Certainly we don't have them across people (consider social choice theory). Even to say that we have them within individual people is contestable. There's a really interesting literature in philosophy, for example, on the incommensura... (read more)

Who says that we have consistent and complete preference orderings?

Who says you need them? The question wasn't to quantify an exact balance. You just need to be sure enough to make the decision that one side outweighs the other for the numbers involved.

By my values, all else equal, for all x between 1 millisecond and fifty years, 10^1000 people being tortured for time x is worse than one person being tortured for time x*2. Would you disagree?

So, 10^1000 people tortured for (fifty years)/2 is worse than one person tortured for fifty years.
Then, 10^2000 peo... (read more)

Since Robin is interested in data... I chose SPECKS, and was shocked by the people who chose TORTURE on grounds of aggregated utility. I had not considered the possibility that a speck in the eye might cause a car crash (etc) for some of those 3^^^3 people, and it is the only reason I see for revising my original choice. I have no accredited expertise in anything relevant, but I know what decision theory is.

I see a widespread assumption that everything has a finite utility, and so no matter how much worse X is than Y, there must be a situation in which it... (read more)

Eliezer, a problem seems to be that the speck does not serve the function you want it to in this example, at least not for all readers. In this case, many people see a special penny because there is some threshold value below which the least bad bad thing is not really bad. The speck is intended to be an example of the least bad bad thing, but we give it a badness rating of one minus .9-repeating.

(This seems to happen to a lot of arguments. "Take x, which is y." Well, no, x is not quite y, so the argument breaks down and the discussion follow... (read more)

Okay, here's the data: I choose SPECKS, and here is my background and reasons.

I am a cell biologist. That is perhaps not relevant.

My reasoning is that I do not think that there is much meaning in adding up individual instances of dust specks. Those of you who choose TORTURE seem to think that there is a net disutility that you obtain by multiplying epsilon by 3^^^3. This is obviously greater than the disutility of torturing one person.
I reject the premise that there is a meaningful sense in which these dust specks can "add up".

You can think in... (read more)

Mitchell, I acknowledge the defensibility of the position that there are tiers of incommensurable utilities. But to me it seems that the dust speck is a very, very small amount of badness, yet badness nonetheless. And that by the time it's multiplied to ~3^^^3 lifetimes of blinking, the badness should become incomprehensibly huge just like 3^^^3 is an incomprehensibly huge number.

One reason I have problems with assigning a hyperreal infinitesimal badness to the speck, is that it (a) doesn't seem like a good description of psychology (b) leads to total lo... (read more)

I'm not sure why surreal/hyperreal numbers result in, essentially, monofocus. Consider this scale on the surreals: * Omega^2: Utility of universal immortality; dis-utility of an existential risk. Omega utility for potentially omega people. * Omega: Utility of a human life. * 1: One traditional utilon. * Epsilon: Dust speck in your eye. Let's say you're a perfectly rational human (*cough cough*). You naturally start on the Omega^2 scale, with a certain finite amount of resources. Clearly, the worth of an omega of human lives is worth more than your own, so you do not repeat do not promptly donate them all to MIRI. At least, not until you first calculate the approximate probability that your independent existence will make it more likely that someone somewhere will finally defeat death. Even if you have not the intelligence to do it yourself, or the social skills to keep someone else stable while they attack it, there's still the fact that you can give more to MIRI, over the long run, if you live on just enough to keep yourself psychologically and physiologically sound and then donate the rest to MIRI. This is, essentially, the "sanity" term. Most of the calculation is done at this step, but because your life, across your lifespan, has some chance of solving death, you are not morally obligated to have yourself processed into Soylent Green. This step interrupts for one of three reasons. One, you have reached a point where spending further resources, either on yourself or some existential-risk organization, does not predictably affect an existential risk. Two, all existential risks are dealt with, and death itself has died. (Yay!) Three, part of ensuring your own psychological soundness requires it - really, this just represents the fact that sometimes, a dollar (approx. one utilon) or a speck (epsilon utilons) can result in your death or significant misery, but nevertheless such concerns should still be resolved in order of decreasing utility. At this point

Eliezer: Why does anything have a utility at all? Let us suppose there are some things to which we attribute an intrinsic utility, negative or positive - those are our moral absolutes - and that there are others which only have a derivative utility, deriving from the intrinsic utility of some of their consequences. This is certainly one way to get incommensurables. If pain has intrinsic disutility and inconvenience does not, then no finite quantity of inconvenience can by itself trump the imperative of minimizing pain. But if the inconvenience might give rise to consequences with intrinsic disutility, that's different.

"The notion of sacred values seems to lead to irrationality in a lot of cases, some of it gross irrationality like scope neglect over human lives and "Can't Say No" spending."

Could you post a scenario where most people would choose the option which unambiguously causes greater harm, without getting into these kinds of debates about what "harm" means? Eg., where option A ends with shooting one person, and option B ends with shooting ten people, but option B sounds better initially? We have a hard enough time getting rid of irrationality, even in cases where we know what is rational.

Dare I say that people may be overvaluing 50 years of a single human life? We know for a fact that some effect will be multiplied by 3^^^3 by our choice. We have no idea what strange an unexpected existential side effects this may have. It's worth avoiding the risk. If the question were posed with more detail, or specific limitations on the nature of the effects, we might be able to answer more confidently. But to risk not only human civilization, but ALL POSSIBLE CIVILIZATIONS, you must be DAMN SURE you are right. 3^^^3 makes even incredibly small doubts significant.

I wonder if my answers make me fail some kind of test of AI friendliness. What would the friendly AI do in this situation? Probably write poetry.

For Robin's statistics:
Given no other data but the choice, I would have to choose torture. If we don't know anything about the consequences of the blinking or how many times the choice is being made, we can't know that we are not causing huge amounts of harm. If the question deliberately eliminated these unknowns- ie the badness was limited to an eyeblink that does not immediately result in some disaster for someone or blindness for another, and you really are the one and only person making the choice ever, then I'd go with the dust-- But these qualific... (read more)

@Paul, I was trying to find a solution that didn't assume "b) all types of pleasures and pains are commensurable such that for all i, j, given a quantity of pleasure/pain experience i, you can find a quantity of pleasure/pain experience j that is equal to (or greater or less than) it. (i.e. that pleasures and pains exist on one dimension).", but rather established it for the case at hand. Unless it's specifically stated in the hypothetical that this is a true 1-shot choice (which we know it isn't in the real world, as we make analogous choices a... (read more)

Eliezer -- I think the issues we're getting into now require discussion that's too involved to handle in the comments. Thus, I've composed my own post on this question. Would you please be so kind as to approve it?

Recovering irrationalist: I think the hopefully-forthcoming-post-of-my-own will constitute one kind of answer to your comment. One other might be that one can, in fact, prefer huge dust harassment to a little torture. Yet a third might be that we can't aggregate the pain of dust harassment across people, so that there's some amount of single-person dust harassment that will be worse than some amount of torture, but if we spread that out, it's not.

For Robin's statistics:
Torture on the first problem, and torture again on the followup dilemma.

relevant expertise: I study probability theory, rationality and cognitive biases as a hobby. I don't claim any real expertise in any of these areas.

I think one of the reasons I finally chose specks is because the unlike implied, the suffering does not simply "add up": 3^^^3 people getting one dust speck in their eye is most certainly not equal to one person getting 3^^^3 dust specks in his eyes. It's not "3^^^3 units of disutility, total", it's one unit of disutility per person.

That still doesn't really answer the "one person for 50 years or two people for 49 years" question, though - by my reasoning, the second option would be preferrable, while obviously the first optio... (read more)

It is my impression that human beings almost universally desire something like "justice" or "fairness." If everybody had the dust speck problem, it would hardly be percieved as a problem. If one person is beign tortured, both the tortured person and others percieve unfairness, and society has a problem with this.

Actually, we all DO get dust motes in our eyes from time to time, and this is not a public policy issue.
In fact relatively small numbers of people ARE being tortured today, and this is a big problem both for the victims and for people who care about justice.

Beyond the distracting arithmetic lesson, this question reeks of Christianity, positing a situation in which one person's suffering can take away the suffering of others.

This comment reeks of fuzzy reasoning.

For the moment I disturbed by the fact that Eliezer and I seem to be in a minority here, but comforted a bit by the fact that we seem to know decision theory better than most. But I'm open to new data on the balance of opinion and the balance of relevant expertize.

It seems like selection bias might make this data much less useful. (It applied it my case, at least.) The people who chose TORTURE were likely among those with the most familiarity with Eliezer's writings, and so were able to predict that he would agree with them, and so felt less inclined to respond. Also, voicing their opinion would be publicly taking an unpopular position, which people instinctively shy away from.

Paul: Yet a third might be that we can't aggregate the pain of dust harassment across people, so that there's some amount of single-person dust harassment that will be worse than some amount of torture, but if we spread that out, it's not.

My induction argument covers that. As long as, all else equal, you believe:

  • A googolplex people tortured for time x is worse than one person tortured for time x+0.00001%.
  • A googolplex people dust specked x times during their lifetime without further ill effect is worse than one person dust specked for x*2 times during their
  • ... (read more)

    A googolplex people being dust speckled every second of their life without further ill effect

    I don't think this is directly comparable, because the disutility of additional dust specking to one person in a short period of time probably grows faster than linearly - if I have to blink every second for an hour, I'll probably get extremely frustrated on top of the slight discomfort of the specks themselves. I would say that one person getting specked every second of their life is significantly worse than a couple billion people getting specked once.

    the disutility of additional dust specking to one person in a short period of time probably grows faster than linearly

    That's why I used a googolplex people to balance the growth. All else equal, do you disagree with: "A googolplex people dust specked x times during their lifetime without further ill effect is worse than one person dust specked for x*2 times during their lifetime without further ill effect" for the range concerned?

    one person getting specked every second of their life is significantly worse than a couple billion people getting specked once.

    I agree. I never said it wasn't.

    Have to run - will elaborate later.

    All else equal, do you disagree with: "A googolplex people dust specked x times during their lifetime without further ill effect is worse than one person dust specked for x*2 times during their lifetime without further ill effect" for the range concerned?

    I agree with that. My point is that agreeing that "A googolplex people being dust speckled every second of their life without further ill effect is worse than one person being horribly tortured for the shortest period experiencable" doesn't oblige me to agree that "A few billion* g... (read more)

    Just thought I'd comment that the more I think about the question, the more confusing it becomes. I'm inclined to think that if we consider the max utility state of every person having maximal fulfilment, and a "dust speck" as the minimal amount of "unfulfilment" from the top a person can experience, then two people experiencing a single "dust speck" is not quite as bad as a sigle person two "dust specks" below optimal. I think the reason I'm thinking that is that the second speck takes away more proportionally than ... (read more)

    I agree with that. My point is that agreeing that "A googolplex people being dust speckled every second of their life without further ill effect is worse than one person being horribly tortured for the shortest period experiencable" doesn't oblige me to agree that "A few billion* googolplexes of people being dust specked once without further ill effect is worse than one person being horribly tortured for the shortest period experiencable".

    Neither would I, you don't need to. :-)

    The only reason I can pull this off is because 3^^^3 is such... (read more)

    ok, without reading the above comments... (i did read a few of them, including robin hanson's first comment - don't know if he weighed in again).

    dust specks over torture.

    the apparatus of the eye handles dust specks all day long. i just blinked. it's quite possible there was a dust speck in there somewhere. i just don't see how that adds up to anything, even if a very large number is invoked. in fact with a very large number like the one described it is likely that human beings would evolve more efficient tear ducts, or faster blinking, or something like t... (read more)

    Recovering irrationalist: in your induction argument, my first stab would be to deny the last premise (transitivity of moral judgments). I'm not sure why moral judgments have to be transitive.

    Next, I'd deny the second-to-last premise (for one thing, I don't know what it means to be horribly tortured for the shortest period possible -- part of the tortureness of torture is that it lasts a while).

    Eliezer, both you and Robin are assuming the additivity of utility. This is not justifiable, because it is false for any computationally feasible rational agent.

    If you have a bounded amount of computation to make a decision, we can see that the number of distinctions a utility function can make is in turn bounded. Concretely, if you have N bits of memory, a utility function using that much memory can distinguish at most 2^N states. Obviously, this is not compatible with additivity of disutility, because by picking enough people you can identify more disti... (read more)

    It's truly amazing the contortions many people have gone through rather than appear to endorse torture. I see many attempts to redefine the question, categorical answers that basically ignore the scalar, and what Eliezer called "motivated continuation".

    One type of dodge in particular caught my attention. Paul Gowder phrased it most clearly, so I'll use his text for reference:

    ...depends on the following three claims:

    a) you can unproblematically aggregate pleasure and pain across time, space, and individuality,

    "Unproblematically&quo... (read more)

    The "Rand-style selfishness" mars an otherwise sound comment.

    Recovering irrationalist: in your induction argument, my first stab would be to deny the last premise (transitivity of moral judgments). I'm not sure why moral judgments have to be transitive.

    I acknowledged it won't hold for every moral. There are some pretty barking ones out there. I say it holds for choosing the option that creates less suffering. For finite values, transitivity should work fine.

    Next, I'd deny the second-to-last premise (for one thing, I don't know what it means to be horribly tortured for the shortest period possible -- part of the tort... (read more)

    Recovering irrationalist, I hadn't thought of things in precisely that way - just "3^^4 is really damn big, never mind 3^^7625597484987" - but now that you point it out, the argument by googolplex gradations seems to me like a much stronger version of the arguments I would have put forth.

    It only requires 3^^5 = 3^(3^7625597484987) to get more googolplex factors than you can shake a stick at. But why not use a googol instead of a googolplex, so we can stick with 3^^4? If anything, the case is more persuasive with a googol because a googol is mor... (read more)

    Tom, your claim is false. Consider the disutility function

    D(Torture, Specks) = [10 * (Torture/(Torture + 1))] + (Specks/(Specks + 1))

    Now, with this function, disutility increases monotonically with the number of people with specks in their eyes, satisfying your "slight aggregation" requirement. However, it's also easy to see that going from 0 to 1 person tortured is worse than going from 0 to any number of people getting dust specks in their eyes, including 3^^^3.

    The basic objection to this kind of functional form is that it's not additive. Howe... (read more)

    Again, not everyone agrees with the argument that unbounded utility functions give rise to Dutch books. Unbounded utilities only admit Dutch books if you do allow a discontinuity between infinite rewards and the limit of increasing finite awards, but you don't allow a discontinuity between infinite planning and the limit of increasing finite plans.

    Oh geez. Originally I had considered this question uninteresting so I ignored it, but considering the increasing devotion to it in later posts, I guess I should give my answer.

    My justification, but not my answer, depends upon what how the change is made.

    -If the offer is made to all of humanity before being implemented ("Do you want to be the 'lots of people get specks race' or the 'one guy gets severe torture' race?") I believe people could all agree to the specks by "buying out" whoever eventually gets the torture. For an immeasurabl... (read more)

    the argument by googolplex gradations seems to me like a much stronger version of the arguments I would have put forth.

    You just warmed my heart for the day :-)

    But why not use a googol instead of a googolplex

    Shock and awe tactics. I wanted a featureless big number of featureless big numbers, to avoid wiggle-outs, and scream "your intuition ain't from these parts". In my head, FBNs always carry more weight than regular ones. Now you mention it, their gravity could get lightened by incomprehensibility, but we we're already counting to 3^^^3.

    Googol is better. Less readers will have to google it.


    Then I only need to make the condition slightly stronger: "Any slight tendency to aggregation that doesn't beg the question." Ie, that doesn't place a mathematical upper limit on disutility(Specks) that is lower than disutility(Torture=1). I trust you can see how that would be simply begging the question. Your formulation:

    D(Torture, Specks) = [10 * (Torture/(Torture + 1))] + (Specks/(Specks + 1))

    ...doesn't meet this test.

    Contrary to what you think, it doesn't require unbounded utility. Limiting the lower bound of the range to (say) 2 * ... (read more)

    With so many so deep in reductionist thinking, I'm compelled to stir the pot by asking how one justifies the assumption that the SPECK is a net negative at all, aggregate or not, extended consequences or not? Wouldn't such a mild irritant, over such a vast and diverse population, act as an excellent stimulus for positive adaptations (non-genetic, of course) and likely positive extended consequences?

    A brilliant idea, Jef! I volunteer you to test it out. Start blowing dust around your house today.

    Hrm... Recovering's induction argument is starting to sway me toward TORTURE.

    More to the point, that and some other comments are starting to sway me away from the thought that disutility of single dust speck events per person becomes sublinear as people experiencing it increases (but total population is held constant)

    I think if I made some errors, they were partly was caused by "I really don't want to say TORTURE", and partly caused by my mistaking the exact nature of the nonlinearity. I maintain "one person experiencing two dust specks"... (read more)

    "A brilliant idea, Jef! I volunteer you to test it out. Start blowing dust around your house today."

    Although only one person, I've already begun, and have entered in my inventor's notebook some apparently novel thinking on not only dust, but mites, dog hair, smart eyedrops, and nanobot swarms!

    Tom, if having an upper limit on disutility(Specks) that's lower than disutility(Torture1) is begging the question in favour of SPECKS then why isn't not* having such an upper limit begging the question in favour of TORTURE?

    I find it rather surprising that so many people agree that utility functions may be drastically nonlinear but are apparently completely certain that they know quite a bit about how they behave in cases as exotic as this one.

    Tom, if having an upper limit on disutility(Specks) that's lower than disutility(Torture1) is begging the question in favour of SPECKS then why isn't not* having such an upper limit begging the question in favour of TORTURE?

    It should be obvious why. The constraint in the first one is neither argued for nor agreed on and by itself entails the conclusion being argued for. There's no such element in the second.