Dialogue on Appeals to Consequences

by jessicata 1mo18th Jul 201934 comments

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[note: the following is essentially an expanded version of this LessWrong comment on whether appeals to consequences are normative in discourse. I am exasperated that this is even up for debate, but I figure that making the argumentation here explicit is helpful]

Carter and Quinn are discussing charitable matters in the town square, with a few onlookers.

Carter: "So, this local charity, People Against Drowning Puppies (PADP), is nominally opposed to drowning puppies."

Quinn: "Of course."

Carter: "And they said they'd saved 2170 puppies last year, whereas their total spending was $1.2 million, so they estimate they save one puppy per $553."

Quinn: "Sounds about right."

Carter: "So, I actually checked with some of their former employees, and if what they say and my corresponding calculations are right, they actually only saved 138 puppies."

Quinn: "Hold it right there. Regardless of whether that's true, it's bad to say that."

Carter: "That's an appeal to consequences, well-known to be a logical fallacy."

Quinn: "Is that really a fallacy, though? If saying something has bad consequences, isn't it normative not to say it?"

Carter: "Well, for my own personal decisionmaking, I'm broadly a consequentialist, so, yes."

Quinn: "Well, it follows that appeals to consequences are valid."

Carter: "It isn't logically valid. If saying something has bad consequences, that doesn't make it false."

Quinn: "But it is decision-theoretically compelling, right?"

Carter: "In theory, if it could be proven, yes. But, you haven't offered any proof, just a statement that it's bad."

Quinn: "Okay, let's discuss that. My argument is: PADP is a good charity. Therefore, they should be getting more donations. Saying that they didn't save as many puppies as they claimed they did, in public (as you just did), is going to result in them getting fewer donations. Therefore, your saying that they didn't save as many puppies as they claimed to is bad, and is causing more puppies to drown."

Carter: "While I could spend more effort to refute that argument, I'll initially note that you only took into account a single effect (people donating less to PADP) and neglected other effects (such as people having more accurate beliefs about how charities work)."

Quinn: "Still, you have to admit that my case is plausible, and that some onlookers are convinced."

Carter: "Yes, it's plausible, in that I don't have a full refutation, and my models have a lot of uncertainty. This gets into some complicated decision theory and sociological modeling. I'm afraid we've gotten sidetracked from the relatively clear conversation, about how many puppies PADP saved, to a relatively unclear one, about the decision theory of making actual charity effectiveness clear to the public."

Quinn: "Well, sure, we're into the weeds now, but this is important! If it's actually bad to say what you said, it's important that this is widely recognized, so that we can have fewer... mistakes like that."

Carter: "That's correct, but I feel like I might be getting trolled. Anyway, I think you're shooting the messenger: when I started criticizing PADP, you turned around and made the criticism about me saying that, directing attention against PADP's possible fraudulent activity."

Quinn: "You still haven't refuted my argument. If you don't do so, I win by default."

Carter: "I'd really rather that we just outlaw appeals to consequences, but, fine, as long as we're here, I'm going to do this, and it'll be a learning experience for everyone involved. First, you said that PADP is a good charity. Why do you think this?"

Quinn: "Well, I know the people there and they seem nice and hardworking."

Carter: "But, they said they saved over 2000 puppies last year, when they actually only saved 138, indicating some important dishonesty and ineffectiveness going on."

Quinn: "Allegedly, according to your calculations. Anyway, saying that is bad, as I've already argued."

Carter: "Hold up! We're in the middle of evaluating your argument that saying that is bad! You can't use the conclusion of this argument in the course of proving it! That's circular reasoning!"

Quinn: "Fine. Let's try something else. You said they're being dishonest. But, I know them, and they wouldn't tell a lie, consciously, although it's possible that they might have some motivated reasoning, which is totally different. It's really uncivil to call them dishonest like that. If everyone did that with the willingness you had to do so, that would lead to an all-out rhetorical war..."

Carter: "God damn it. You're making another appeal to consequences."

Quinn: "Yes, because I think appeals to consequences are normative."

Carter: "Look, at the start of this conversation, your argument was that saying PADP only saved 138 puppies is bad."

Quinn: "Yes."

Carter: "And now you're in the course of arguing that it's bad."

Quinn: "Yes."

Carter: "Whether it's bad is a matter of fact."

Quinn: "Yes."

Carter: "So we have to be trying to get the right answer, when we're determining whether it's bad."

Quinn: "Yes."

Carter: "And, while appeals to consequences may be decision theoretically compelling, they don't directly bear on the facts."

Quinn: "Yes."

Carter: "So we shouldn't have appeals to consequences in conversations about whether the consequences of saying something is bad."

Quinn: "Why not?"

Carter: "Because we're trying to get to the truth."

Quinn: "But aren't we also trying to avoid all-out rhetorical wars, and puppies drowning?"

Carter: "If we want to do those things, we have to do them by getting to the truth."

Quinn: "The truth, according to your opinion-"

Carter: "God damn it, you just keep trolling me, so we never get to discuss the actual facts. God damn it. Fuck you."

Quinn: "Now you're just spouting insults. That's really irresponsible, given that I just accused you of doing something bad, and causing more puppies to drown."

Carter: "You just keep controlling the conversation by OODA looping faster than me, though. I can't refute your argument, because you appeal to consequences again in the middle of the refutation. And then we go another step down the ladder, and never get to the truth."

Quinn: "So what do you expect me to do? Let you insult well-reputed animal welfare workers by calling them dishonest?"

Carter: "Yes! I'm modeling the PADP situation using decision-theoretic models, which require me to represent the knowledge states and optimization pressures exerted by different agents (both conscious and unconscious), including when these optimization pressures are towards deception, and even when this deception is unconscious!"

Quinn: "Sounds like a bunch of nerd talk. Can you speak more plainly?"

Carter: "I'm modeling the actual facts of how PADP operates and how effective they are, not just how well-liked the people are."

Quinn: "Wow, that's a strawman."

Carter: "Look, how do you think arguments are supposed to work, exactly? Whoever is best at claiming that their opponent's argumentation is evil wins?"

Quinn: "Sure, isn't that the same thing as who's making better arguments?"

Carter: "If we argue by proving our statements are true, we reach the truth, and thereby reach the good. If we argue by proving each other are being evil, we don't reach the truth, nor the good."

Quinn: "In this case, though, we're talking about drowning puppies. Surely, the good in this case is causing fewer puppies to drown, and directing more resources to the people saving them."

Carter: "That's under contention, though! If PADP is lying about how many puppies they're saving, they're making the epistemology of the puppy-saving field worse, leading to fewer puppies being saved. And, they're taking money away from the next-best-looking charity, which is probably more effective if, unlike PADP, they're not lying."

Quinn: "How do you know that, though? How do you know the money wouldn't go to things other than saving drowning puppies if it weren't for PADP?"

Carter: "I don't know that. My guess is that the money might go to other animal welfare charities that claim high cost-effectiveness."

Quinn: "PADP is quite effective, though. Even if your calculations are right, they save about one puppy per $10,000. That's pretty good."

Carter: "That's not even that impressive, but even if their direct work is relatively effective, they're destroying the epistemology of the puppy-saving field by lying. So effectiveness basically caps out there instead of getting better due to better epistemology."

Quinn: "What an exaggeration. There are lots of other charities that have misleading marketing (which is totally not the same thing as lying). PADP isn't singlehandedly destroying anything, except instances of puppies drowning."

Carter: "I'm beginning to think that the difference between us is that I'm anti-lying, whereas you're pro-lying."

Quinn: "Look, I'm only in favor of lying when it has good consequences. That makes me different from pro-lying scoundrels."

Carter: "But you have really sloppy reasoning about whether lying, in fact, has good consequences. Your arguments for doing so, when you lie, are made of Swiss cheese."

Quinn: "Well, I can't deductively prove anything about the real world, so I'm using the most relevant considerations I can."

Carter: "But you're using reasoning processes that systematically protect certain cached facts from updates, and use these cached facts to justify not updating. This was very clear when you used outright circular reasoning, to use the cached fact that denigrating PADP is bad, to justify terminating my argument that it wasn't bad to denigrate them. Also, you said the PADP people were nice and hardworking as a reason I shouldn't accuse them of dishonesty... but, the fact that PADP saved far fewer puppies than they claimed actually casts doubt on those facts, and the relevance of them to PADP's effectiveness. You didn't update when I first told you that fact, you instead started committing rhetorical violence against me."

Quinn: "Hmm. Let me see if I'm getting this right. So, you think I have false cached facts in my mind, such as PADP being a good charity."

Carter: "Correct."

Quinn: "And you think those cached facts tend to protect themselves from being updated."

Carter: "Correct."

Quinn: "And you think they protect themselves from updates by generating bad consequences of making the update, such as fewer people donating to PADP."

Carter: "Correct."

Quinn: "So you want to outlaw appeals to consequences, so facts have to get acknowledged, and these self-reinforcing loops go away."

Carter: "Correct."

Quinn: "That makes sense from your perspective. But, why should I think my beliefs are wrong, and that I have lots of bad self-protecting cached facts?"

Carter: "If everyone were as willing as you to lie, the history books would be full of convenient stories, the newspapers would be parts of the matrix, the schools would be teaching propaganda, and so on. You'd have no reason to trust your own arguments that speaking the truth is bad."

Quinn: "Well, I guess that makes sense. Even though I lie in the name of good values, not everyone agrees on values or beliefs, so they'll lie to promote their own values according to their own beliefs."

Carter: "Exactly. So you should expect that, as a reflection to your lying to the world, the world lies back to you. So your head is full of lies, like the 'PADP is effective and run by good people' one."

Quinn: "Even if that's true, what could I possibly do about it?"

Carter: "You could start by not making appeals to consequences. When someone is arguing that a belief of yours is wrong, listen to the argument at the object level, instead of jumping to the question of whether saying the relevant arguments out loud is a good idea, which is a much harder question."

Quinn: "But how do I prevent actually bad consequences from happening?"

Carter: "If your head is full of lies, you can't really trust ad-hoc object-level arguments against speech, like 'saying PADP didn't save very many puppies is bad because PADP is a good charity'. You can instead think about what discourse norms lead to the truth being revealed, and which lead to it being obscured. We've seen, during this conversation, that appeals to consequences tend to obscure the truth. And so, if we share the goal of reaching the truth together, we can agree not to do those."

Quinn: "That still doesn't answer my question. What about things that are actually bad, like privacy violations?"

Carter: "It does seem plausible that there should be some discourse norms that protect privacy, so that some facts aren't revealed, if such norms have good consequences overall. Perhaps some topics, such as individual people's sex lives, are considered to be banned topics (in at least some spaces), unless the person consents."

Quinn: "Isn't that an appeal to consequences, though?"

Carter: "Not really. Deciding what privacy norms are best requires thinking about consequences. But, once those norms have been decided on, it is no longer necessary to prove that privacy violations are bad during discussions. There's a simple norm to appeal to, which says some things are out of bounds for discussion. And, these exceptions can be made without allowing appeals to consequences in full generality."

Quinn: "Okay, so we still have something like appeals to consequences at the level of norms, but not at the level of individual arguments."

Carter: "Exactly."

Quinn: "Does this mean I have to say a relevant true fact, even if I think it's bad to say it?"

Carter: "No. Those situations happen frequently, and while some radical honesty practitioners try not to suppress any impulse to say something true, this practice is probably a bad idea for a lot of people. So, of course you can evaluate consequences in your head before deciding to say something."

Quinn: "So, in summary: if we're going to have suppression of some facts being said out loud, we should have that through either clear norms designed with consequences (including consequences for epistemology) in mind, or individuals deciding not to say things, but otherwise our norms should be protecting true speech, and outlawing appeals to consequences."

Carter: "Yes, that's exactly right! I'm glad we came to agreement on this."

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