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What do the baby eaters tell us about ethics?

by spookyuser1 min read6th Oct 201936 comments



I just finished the baby eater sequence ( https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/HawFh7RvDM4RyoJ2d/three-worlds-collide-0-8 ) and aside from it being an incredibly engaging story I feel like there is a deeper message about ethical systems I don't fully understand yet.

In the sequence introduction Eliezer says it makes points about "naturalistic metaethics" but I wonder what points are these specifically, since after reading the SEP page on moral naturalism https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism-moral/ I can't really figure out what the mind-independent moral facts are in the story.

Another thought I've had since I read the story is that it seems like a lot of human-human interactions are really human-babyeater interactions. If you're religious and talking to an atheist about God, both of you will look like baby eaters to the other. Likewise if you watch Fox News everyone on CNN or MSNBC will look like baby eaters but the same is true in reverse, everyone watching CNN will think Fox News are the baby eaters.

I have to say, this feels like some kind of ethical nihilism, but I would be curious to know if there are any canonical meta-ethical or ethical theories that correspond to the _message_ of the baby eater sequence, because if there is one, I think I agree with it.

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I'm tempted to put it like this: ethics is a rule for producing something called a "total order" that tells you what to do in any and every given situation. Basically, you have a list of all the things that could happen, and then ethics puts them in an order so you have the most ethical conceivable thing at the top and the least ethical conceivable thing at the bottom.

From there, you go to the top and then start chopping off things that you can't do. For example, maybe your ethics has "give everyone an immortality pill" really high up on the order. But you can't do that, so you chop it off and keep going down. Eventually you run into something that you can do, so you do it because it's the most ethical thing remaining.

What the humans, Babyeaters, and Super Happy people all find out when they meet in literature-space is that you can define an ethical rule for producing any total order from the unordered list of all things that could happen. Say that list is really small, just A, B, and C. Well, A < B < C is clearly one valid order. But so is C < B < A. And B < A < C. Etc.

The humans are following one rule, the Babyeaters another, and the Super Happy people yet a third. Because of the way algorithms feel from the inside, they all perceive each other as monstrous.

Ethical nihilism is an easy mistake, I think. Label the rule producing the order A < B < C as "moral." Then it is an objective fact to say that the rule producing C < B < A is "not moral." It's also possible that you live in a big universe with lots of stuff in it like chess, genocide, and chocolate, and so your ethics rule is really complicated and so you might not have the order it gives you fully derived. Thus you might find yourself asking questions like "Is it moral to do [insert action here]?" Still, the order that is "moral" is the order that is "moral."

That's my initial guess after skimming the set of links given by riceissa. We'll be discussing orders (albeit usually partial, not total) in my category theory series of posts, so if this interests you, follow along....