Replaceability as a virtue

by chaosmage 5 min read12th Dec 201241 comments


I propose it is altruistic to be replaceable and therefore, those who strive to be altruistic should strive to be replaceable.

As far as I can Google, this does not seem to have been proposed before. LW should be a good place to discuss it. A community interested in rational and ethical behavior, and in how superintelligent machines may decide to replace mankind, should at least bother to refute the following argument.


Replaceability is "the state of being replaceable". It isn't binary. The price of the replacement matters: so a cookie is more replaceable than a big wedding cake. Adequacy of the replacement also makes a difference: a piston for an ancient Rolls Royce is less replaceable than one in a modern car, because it has to be hand-crafted and will be distinguishable. So something is more or less replaceable depending on the price and quality of its replacement.

Replaceability could be thought of as the inverse of the cost of having to replace something. Something that's very replaceable has a low cost of replacement, while something that lacks replaceability has a high (up to unfeasible) cost of replacement. The cost of replacement plays into Total Cost of Ownership, and everything economists know about that applies. It seems pretty obvious that replaceability of possessions is good, much like cheap availability is good.

Some things (historical artifacts, art pieces) are valued highly precisely because of their irreplacability. Although a few things could be said about the resale value of such objects, I'll simplify and contend these valuations are not rational.

The practical example

Anne manages the central database of Beth's company. She's the only one who has access to that database, the skillset required for managing it, and an understanding of how it all works; she has a monopoly to that combination.

This monopoly gives Anne control over her own replacement cost. If she works according to the state of the art, writes extensive and up-to-date documentation, makes proper backups etc she can be very replaceable, because her monopoly will be easily broken. If she refuses to explain what she's doing, creates weird and fragile workarounds and documents the database badly she can reduce her replaceability and defend her monopoly. (A well-obfuscated database can take months for a replacement database manager to handle confidently.)

So Beth may still choose to replace Anne, but Anne can influence how expensive that'll be for Beth. She can at least make sure her replacement needs to be shown the ropes, so she can't be fired on a whim. But she might go further and practically hold the database hostage, which would certainly help her in salary negotiations if she does it right.

This makes it pretty clear how Anne can act altruistically in this situation, and how she can act selfishly. Doesn't it?

The moral argument

To Anne, her replacement cost is an externality and an influence on the length and terms of her employment. To maximize the length of her employment and her salary, her replacement cost would have to be high.

To Beth, Anne's replacement cost is part of the cost of employing her and of course she wants it to be low. This is true for any pair of employer and employee: Anne is unusual only in that she has a great degree of influence on her replacement cost.

Therefore, if Anne documents her database properly etc, this increases her replaceability and constitutes altruistic behavior. Unless she values the positive feeling of doing her employer a favor more highly than she values the money she might make by avoiding replacement, this might even be true altruism.

Unless I suck at Google, replaceability doesn't seem to have been discussed as an aspect of altruism. The two reasons for that I can see are:

  • replacing people is painful to think about
  • and it seems futile as long as people aren't replaceable in more than very specific functions anyway.

But we don't want or get the choice to kill one person to save the life of five, either, and such practical improbabilities shouldn't stop us from considering our moral decisions. This is especially true in a world where copies, and hence replacements, of people are starting to look possible at least in principle.

  1. In some reasonably-near future, software is getting better at modeling people. We still don't know what makes a process intelligent, but we can feed a couple of videos and a bunch of psychological data points into a people modeler, extrapolate everything else using a standard population and the resulting model can have a conversation that could fool a four-year-old. The technology is already good enough for models of pets. While convincing models of complex personalities are at least another decade away, the tech is starting to become good enough for senile grandmothers.

    Obviously no-one wants granny to die. But the kids would like to keep a model of granny, and they'd like to make the model before the Alzheimer's gets any worse, while granny is terrified she'll get no more visits to her retirement home.

    What's the ethical thing to do here? Surely the relatives should keep visiting granny. Could granny maybe have a model made, but keep it to herself, for release only through her Last Will and Testament? And wouldn't it be truly awful of her to refuse to do that?
  2. Only slightly further into the future, we're still mortal, but cryonics does appear to be working. Unfrozen people need regular medical aid, but the technology is only getting better and anyway, the point is: something we can believe to be them can indeed come back.

    Some refuse to wait out these Dark Ages; they get themselves frozen for nonmedical reasons, to fastforward across decades or centuries into a time when the really awesome stuff will be happening, and to get the immortality technologies they hope will be developed by then.

    In this scenario, wouldn't fastforwarders be considered selfish, because they impose on their friends the pain of their absence? And wouldn't their friends mind it less if the fastforwarders went to the trouble of having a good model (see above) made first?
  3. On some distant future Earth, minds can be uploaded completely. Brains can be modeled and recreated so effectively that people can make living, breathing copies of themselves and experience the inability to tell which instance is the copy and which is the original.

    Of course many adherents of soul theories reject this as blasphemous. A couple more sophisticated thinkers worry if this doesn't devalue individuals to the point where superhuman AIs might conclude that as long as copies of everyone are stored on some hard drive orbiting Pluto, nothing of value is lost if every meatbody gets devoured into more hardware. Bottom line is: Effective immortality is available, but some refuse it out of principle.

    In this world, wouldn't those who make themselves fully and infinitely replaceable want the same for everyone they love? Wouldn't they consider it a dreadful imposition if a friend or relative refused immortality? After all, wasn't not having to say goodbye anymore kind of the point?

These questions haven't come up in the real world because people have never been replaceable in more than very specific functions. But I hope you'll agree that if and when people become more replaceable, that will be regarded as a good thing, and it will be regarded as virtuous to use these technologies as they become available, because it spares one's friends and family some or all of the cost of replacing oneself.

Replaceability as an altruist virtue

And if replaceability is altruistic in this hypothetical future, as well as in the limited sense of Anne and Beth, that implies replaceability is altruistic now. And even now, there are things we can do to increase our replaceability, i.e. to reduce the cost our bereaved will incur when they have to replace us. We can teach all our (valuable) skills, so others can replace us as providers of these skills. We can not have (relevant) secrets, so others can learn what we know and replace us as sources of that knowledge. We can endeavour to live as long as possible, to postpone the cost. We can sign up for cryonics. There are surely other things each of us could do to increase our replaceability, but I can't think of any an altruist wouldn't consider virtuous.

As an altruist, I conclude that replaceability is a prosocial, unselfish trait, something we'd want our friends to have, in other words: a virtue. I'd go as far as to say that even bothering to set up a good Last Will and Testament is virtuous precisely because it reduces the cost my bereaved will incur when they have to replace me. And although none of us can be truly easily replaceable as of yet, I suggest we honor those who make themselves replaceable, and are proud of whatever replaceability we ourselves attain.

So, how replaceable are you?