Soulless morality

by PhilGoetz3 min read14th Mar 200938 comments


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Follow-up to: So you say you're an altruist

The responses to So you say you're an altruist indicate that people have split their values into two categories:

  1. values they use to decide what they want
  2. values that are admissible for moral reasoning

(where 2 is probably a subset of 1 for atheists, and probably nearly disjoint from 1 for Presbyterians).

You're reading Less Wrong.  You're a rationalist.  You've put a lot of effort into education, and learning the truth about the world.  You value knowledge and rationality and truth a lot.

Someone says you should send all your money to Africa, because this will result in more human lives.

What happened to the value you placed on knowledge and rationality?

There is little chance that any of the people you save in Africa will get a good post-graduate education and then follow that up by rejecting religion, embracing rationality, and writing Less Wrong posts.

Here you are, spending a part of your precious life reading Less Wrong.  If you spend 10% of your life on the Web, you are saying that that activity is worth at least 1/10th of a life, and that lives with no access to the Web are worth less than lives with access.  If you value rationality, then lives lived rationally are more valuable than lives lived irrationally.  If you think something has a value, you have to give it the same value in every equation.  Not doing so is immoral.  You can't use different value scales for everyday and moral reasoning.

Society tells you to work to make yourself more valuable.  Then it tells you that when you reason morally, you must assume that all lives are equally valuable.  You can't have it both ways.  If all lives have equal value, we shouldn't criticize someone who decides to become a drug addict on welfare.  Value is value, regardless of which equation it's in at the moment.

How do you weigh rationality, and your other qualities and activities, relative to life itself?  I would say that life itself has zero value; the value of a life is the sum of the values of things done and experienced during that life.  But society teaches the opposite: that mere life has a tremendous value, and anything you do with your life has negligible additional value.  That's why it's controversial to execute criminals, but not controversial to lock them up in a bare room for 20 years.  We have a death-penalty debate in the US, which has consequences for less than 100 people per year.  We have a few hundred thousand people serving sentences of 20 years and up, but no debate about it.  That shows that most Americans place a huge value on life itself, and almost no value on what happens to that life.

I think this comes from believing in the soul, and binary thought in general.  People want a simple moral system that classifies things as good or bad, allowable or not allowable, valuable or not valuable.  We use real values in deciding what to do on Saturday, but we discretize them on Sunday.  Killing people is not allowable; locking them up forever is.  Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; killing enemy civilians is not.  Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; torturing them is not.  Losing a pilot is not acceptable; losing a $360,000,000 plane is.  The results of this binarized thought include millions of lives wasted in prison; and hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined, and economies wrecked, because we fight wars in a way intended to avoid violating boundary constraints of a binarized value system rather than in a way intended to maximize our values.

The idea of the soul is the ultimate discretizer.  Saving souls is good.  Losing souls is bad.  That is the sum total of Christian pragmatic morality.

The religious conception is that personal values that you use for deciding what to do on Saturday are selfish, whereas moral values are unselfish.  It teaches that people need religion to be moral, because their natural inclination is to be selfish.  Rather than having a single set of values that you can plug into your equations, you have two completely different systems of logic which counterbalance each other.  No wonder people act schizophrenic on moral questions.

What that worldview is really saying is that people are the wrong level of rationality.  Rationality is a win for the rational agent.  But in many prisoners-dilemma and tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios, having rational agents is not a win for society.  Religion teaches people to replace rational morality with an irrational dual-system morality under the (hidden) theory that rational morality leads to worse outcomes.

That teaching isn't obviously wrong.  It isn't obviously irrational.  But it is opposed to rationalism, the dogma that rationality always wins.  I use the term "rationalism" to mean not just the reasonable assertion that rationality is the best policy for an agent, but also the dogmatic belief that rational agents are the best thing for society.  And I think this blog is about giving fanatical rationalism a chance.

So, if you really want to be rational, you should throw away your specialized moral logic, and use just one logic and one set of values for all decisions.  If you decide to be a fanatic, you should tell other people to do so, too.

EDIT: This is not an argument for or against aid to Africa.  It's an observation on an error that I think people made in reasoning about aid to Africa.

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