Unspeakable Morality

by Eliezer Yudkowsky9 min read4th Aug 2009119 comments


Ethics & Morality
Personal Blog

It is a general and primary principle of rationality, that we should not believe that which there is insufficient reason to believe; likewise, a principle of social morality that we should not enforce upon our fellows a law which there is insufficient justification to enforce.

Nonetheless, I've always felt a bit nervous about demanding that people be able to explain things in words, because, while I happen to be pretty good at that, most people aren't.

"I remember this paper I wrote on existentialism. My teacher gave it back with an F. She’d underlined true and truth wherever it appeared in the essay, probably about twenty times, with a question mark beside each. She wanted to know what I meant by truth." —Danielle Egan (journalist)

This experience permanently traumatized Ms. Egan, by the way.  Because years later, at a WTA conference, one of the speakers said that something was true, and Ms. Egan said "What do you mean, 'true'?", and the speaker gave some incorrect answer or other; and afterward I quickly walked over to Ms. Egan and explained the correspondence theory of truth:  "The sentence 'snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white"; if you're using a bucket of pebbles to count sheep then an empty bucket is true if and only if the pastures are empty.  I don't know if this cured her; I suspect that it didn't.  But up until that point, at any rate, it seems Ms. Egan had been so traumatized by this childhood experience that she believed there was no such thing as truth - that because her teacher had demanded a definition in words, and she hadn't been able to give a good definition in words, that no good definition existed.

Of which I usually say:  "There was a time when no one could define gravity in exquisitely rigorous detail, but if you walked off a cliff, you would fall."

On the other hand - it is a general and primary principle of rationality that when you have no justification, it is very important that there be some way of saying "Oops", losing hope, and just giving up already.  (I really should post, at some point, on how the ability to just give up already is one of the primary distinguishing abilities of a rationalist.)  So, really, if you find yourself totally unable to justify something in words, one possibility is that there is no justification.  To ignore this and just casually stroll along, would not be a good thing.

And with moral questions, this problem is doubled and squared.  For any given person, the meaning of "right" is a huge complicated function, not explicitly believed so much as implicitly embodied.  And if we keep asking "Why?", at some point we end up replying "Because that is just what the term 'right', means; there is no pure essence of rightness that you can abstract away from the specific content of your values."

But if you were allowed to answer this in response to any demand for justification, and have the other bow and walk away - well, you would no longer be computing what we know as morality, where 'right' does mean some things and not others.

Not to mention that in questions of public policy, it ought to require some overlap in values to make a law.  I do think that human values often overlap enough that different people can legitimately use the same word 'right' to refer to that-which-they-compute.  But if someone wants a legal ban on pepperoni pizza because it's inherently wrong, then I may feel impelled to ask, "Why do you think this is part of the overlap in our values?"

Demands for moral justification have their Charybdis and their Scylla:

The traditionally given Charybdis is letting someone say that interracial marriage should be legally banned because it "feels icky" to them.  We could call this "the unwisdom of repugnance" - if you can just say "That feels repugnant" and win a case for public intervention, then you lose all the cases of what we now regard as tremendous moral progress, which made someone feel vaguely icky at the time; women's suffrage, divorces, atheists not being burned at the stake.  Moral progress - which I currently see as an iterative process of learning new facts, processing new arguments, and becoming more the sort of person you wished you were - demands that people go on thinking about morality, for which purpose it is very useful to have people go on arguing about morality.  If saying the word "intuition" is a moral trump card, then people, who, by their natures, are lazy, will just say "intuition!" all the time, believing that no one is allowed to question that or argue with it; and that will be the end of their moral thinking.

And the Scylla, I think, was excellently presented by Silas Barta when... actually this whole comment is just worth quoting directly:

Let's say we're in an alternate world with strong, codified rules about social status and authority, but weak, vague, unspoken norms against harm that nevertheless keep harm at a low level.

Then let's say you present the people of this world with this "dilemma" to make Greene's point:

Say your country is at war with another country that is particularly aggressive and willing to totally demolish your social order and enslave your countrymen. In planning how to best fight off this threat, your President is under a lot of stress. To help him relieve his stress, he orders a citizen, Bob, to be brought before him and tortured and murdered, while the President laughs his head off at the violence.

He feels much more relieved and so is able to craft and motivate a war plan that leads to the unconditional surrender of the enemy. The President promises that this was just a one-time thing he had to do to handle the tremendous pressure he was under to win the war and protect his people. Bob's family, in turn, says that they are honored by the sacrifice Bob has made for his country. Everyone agrees that the President is the legitimate ruler of the country and the Constitution and tradition give him authority to do what he did to Bob.

Was it okay for the President to torture and kill Bob for his personal enjoyment?

Then, because of the deficiency in the vocabulary of "harms", you would get responses like:

"Look, I can't explain why, but obviously, it's wrong to torture and kill someone for enjoyment. No disrespect to the President, of course."

"What? I don't get it. Why would the President order a citizen killed? There would be outrage. He'd feel so much guilt that it wouldn't even relieve the stress you claim it does."

"Yeah, I agree the President has authority to do that, but God, it just burns me up to think about someone getting tortured like that for someone else's enjoyment, even if it is our great President."

Would you draw the same conclusion Greene does about these responses?

Unfortunately, it does happen to be a fact that most people are not good at explaining themselves in words, unless they've already heard the explanation from someone else.  Even if you challenge a professional philosopher who holds a position, to justify it, and they can't... well, frankly, you can't conclude much even from that, in terms of inferring that no good explanation exists.  Philosophers, I've observed, are not much good at this sort of job either.  It's Bayesian evidence, by the law of conservation of evidence; if a good explanation would be a sign that justification exists, then the absence of such explanation must be evidence that justification does not exist.  It's just not very strong evidence, because we don't strongly anticipate that even professional philosophers will be able to put a justification into words, correctly and convincingly, when justification does in fact exist.

Even conditioning on the proposition that there is overlap in what you and others mean by 'right' - the huge function that is what-we-try-to-do - and that the judgment in question is stable when taken to the limits of knowledge, thought, and reflective coherence - well, it's still not sure that you'd be able to put it into words.  You might be able to.  But you might not.

And we also have to allow a certain probability of convincing-sounding complicated verbal justification, in cases where no justification exists.  But then if you use that as an excuse to flush all disliked arguments down the toilet, you shall be left rotting forever in a pit of convenient skepticism, saying, "All that intellekshual stuff could be wrong, after all."

So here are my proposed rules of conduct for arguing morality in words:

  • "Intuition" is not a trump card.  If you had to spell out what your intuition was, and where it came from (evolution? culture?), and whether it has consequences beyond itself, it's possible that we would find it unconvincing in the stark light of reflection; that we would wish to intuit some other intuition than this.  We can't hold up the intuition for reflective judgment unless we know what it is.  So spelling it out, is important; and if you can win arguments by saying "Intuition!" then no one will bother to spell things out any more.  Please try to say what sort of intuition it is.
  • "I can't put it into words" is believable to some extent, but constitutes weak evidence against the existence of valid justification.  If this is a popular debate and no one on your side, politician or philosopher or interested scientist or eloquent blogger, is able to give a convincing justification in words, then that is stronger evidence that no good justification exists.  The longer the failure continues, the stronger the evidence.
  • Still, at the end of the day, we don't really expect people to be very good at verbalizing moral intuitions, especially since most of them have incoherent explicit metaethics.  So if you can give a justification for your political policy that stutters off into incoherence only at the point of explaining why pain is a bad thing - if you can give reasonable arguments for everything else up until that point - that's probably about as much as we can demand of anyone short of a full-fledged master reductionist.
  • But we also expect that people may pass judgments that they would revoke in the light of better information or new arguments; and, especially before passing to that limit, it may be that sociopaths do not overlap with the values shared by most in a society.  So if A says that event B is inherently wrong and awful, and C disagrees on the grounds that it just doesn't seem all that awful to them, then the burden of argument needs to lie on A before any social, legal, public action is brought into play.  We should bear in mind that people of the past would have a lot of icky feelings about things that we, today, think are not only permitted but virtuous or even mandatory - the challenging of these icky feelings for good and sufficient public justification, was a key element of their relinquishment, which we regard as moral progress.


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Just give up already

I cannot say how many arguments I've had where this would have prevented hurt feelings. Often, after the argument, I discover the other person persisted in arguing for about 10 minutes after they realized they were wrong, all the while getting more angry at me for shooting down ever worse rationalizations.

To be fair, the way this happens isn't that the person persists in arguing for something they know to be false; instead, they drop a subtle hint that maybe they might be wrong and we should stop talking about it now (presumably so they can save face). I invariably miss this hint (well, I'm better now that I know to be looking for it, but not a lot) because it's usually in the form of a ridiculous but hard to disprove objection, to which I (because I'm weird) will come up with a medium-good response. This pisses my interlocutor off, because I missed their social cue, and because I've now forced them to defend a belief (their lousy objection) that they don't actually hold.

This behavior is very understandable; once I noticed others doing it, I noticed a tendency in myself. It's surprisingly hard to say, "Oops, I guess I'm wrong," or, "I can't see a good counter argument to what you're saying; maybe I need to reconsider."

Anyway, I'm saying this because the article linked by the quoted phrase wasn't quite what I was hoping for on the subject. :)

3haig12yYes, a big problem is the human tendency to associate strongly with beliefs so that they become a part of your identity. When I once got into an argument with a particularly stubborn friend regarding religion, I tried to disassociate arguments as much as possible by writing them down and having an impartial 3rd party check for inconsistencies and biases blindly in a type of scoring system. How'd it turn out? He gave up alright, but still retained his beliefs!
0lavalamp12yThis is true. Another thing that make such arguments difficult/pointless is that it seems the majority of people give rationalizations for what they believe instead of giving the reasons for which they actually obtained those beliefs. This is understandable as people often don't know (or won't admit to) the way they obtained their beliefs. If one doesn't know/won't admit/won't say why they really think what they do, there's no possible way to present a counter-argument against it. I think there's a post saying pretty much this around here somewhere.
1CronoDAS12yOften, the real reason one believes something is simply "My parents (or other trusted authority figure) told me it's true."
1John_Maxwell12yPeople seem to rarely admit they are wrong, especially on important issues. I tend to think the root cause of this problem is status preservation, not bias. See this [http://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/289ny/why_its_hard_to_admit_to_being_wrong/c28dxs] . Confirmation bias exacerbates this when people try to flesh out a consistent worldview that incorporates the thing they couldn't lose face by denying.

The Story of Bob does have an adequate answer in the "vocabulary of harms". The implicit claim that it does not echoes claims of Jonathan Haidt in much of his work on morality, especially his "five pillars" theory and subsequent extrapolations which have been eagerly seized upon by conservative proponents as evidence that liberals are narrow-minded.

It therefore irritates me a great deal when I see such claims going unchallenged, despite their (to me, anyway) obvious inaccuracy.

Here, then, is my "harm/care-based moral system" take on The Sacrifice of Bob:

I'm going to presume that the fictional culture in the story is reasonably happy and prosperous, otherwise we would have been talking about how terrible their culture is even before the sacrifice had taken place.

  • (1) Given that this fictional culture and its president have a good track record at keeping the peace (in diametric opposition to certain other presidents whose similar but much less moral actions are implicitly being referred to), and that Bob's sacrifice probably saved millions of lives, there is nothing wrong with the President's action -- certainly nothing worse than that of a general send
... (read more)
0AlexanderRM7yMy impression of the thought experiment is that there's suppose to be no implication that their side winning the war would be any better than the other side winning. Their side winning is explicitly about maintaining social status and authority. "Keep harm at a low level" might mean "lower than a Hobbesian war of all against all", not necessarily low by our standards. It seems like maybe the thought experiment could be improved by explicitly rephrasing it to make their nation be a pretty terrible place by our standards and winning the war be bad overall. That would rather complicate things though when the point is Bob being tortured and killed. So maybe it should be the country is at peace and "The president feels much more relaxed and it able to work better at crafting his new anti-homosexuality legislation" or something like that? However, I do on an unrelated note really like your comment about "Imagine a world in which this particular form of morality inexplicably produces positive results. Don't you feel silly trying to defend your morality now?". I've noticed (...although I have trouble thinking of actual examples, but I'm sure I've seen some) that in a fair amount of fiction there's a tendency to have Utilitarian villains with plans that will clearly bring about terrible results, as a result of them having made a very obvious error which the heroes are for some reason able to spot, which when used as an argument against Utilitarianism is pretty much literally "this particular form of morality inexplicably produces negative results". (obviously it's entirely possible for Utilitarians to make mistakes which have horrendous consequences. It's just that as a rule, on average, Utilitarianism will get you better consequences from a Utilitarian standpoint than non-consequential Hollywood Morality. Which is exactly why it's such an appealing argument to use in fiction, because it's a plausible scenario which leads to obviously incorrect conclusions if generalized.)
0Elusu8yI would take Bob's deal if either adequately compensated or convinced that the premise was true. I already have done work for pay that was so unpleasant I'd rather be tortured for a short time than do that sort of work again, and time wasted is partial death anyway. As for our culture in general, this deal is very very common. Many people watch someone from another universe, a 'fictional person' being tortured to death for their entertainment, and there isn't any proof that the characters in, say, Saw, aren't real people somewhere. Now, before we come down hard on horror fans, note that every fan of the Dark Knight movie with Heath Ledger is watching entertainment that killed someone. Every person who relaxes by reading history or war .... everyone who reads the Bible or watches most entertainment based on it. At least Eliezer's example President is honest enough to say that he needs to watch this to refresh his spirit; people (like me!) who go and refresh their spirit by looking at past sufferings of people, animals, etc are at least 'guilty' of encouraging that type of suffering in much the same way that hamburger buyers (in a modern farm economy) are guilty of causing animal suffering. Note that /I do not think suffering is bad/ in and of itself. Sometimes it /is/ necessary. Bob and the President might just be doing something sensible. Considering that IRL we have had a series of leaders who make themselves feel better by /torturing people non-consensually/, I'd rather live in Bob's world where it's Bradley Manning, or some random Afghan goat farmer whose neighbor wanted to graze on their land, who is getting tortured, in some cases to death, so that Great Leader can feel better.
2Jiro8yLikewise, if you watch fiction where people are happy, there isn't any proof that the existence of a happy character in your fiction isn't associated with a real person somewhere who is suffering. Thinking about the possibility that there's a suffering person who corresponds to fiction about a suffering fictional character, but not thinking about the possibility that there's a suffering person who corresponds to a happy fictional character, or for that matter the possibility that there's a suffering person (created by a perverse Omega) who comes into existence whenever you eat a slice of pizza is a form of availability bias. It's easier to imagine the former since your mind is processing the concept of suffering at the time, but there's no actual reason to expect that that pair is any more closely connected than any other arbitrary pair.

since most of them have incoherent explicit metaethics

Is there a coherent metaethical theory specified in a single document somewhere on the Internet? Or does the theory have to be compiled from multiple blog posts? I guess I'm not sure what you're talking about...

I'm curious about the opening line: It is a general and primary principle of rationality, that we should not ... enforce upon our fellows a law which there is insufficient justification to enforce.

On my ordinary understanding of the sentence, it seems to imply that acting justly is necessarily part of what Eliezer means by "acting rationally". Is this right?

More explicitly: the implication is that refraining from "enforcing insufficiently justified laws" is a "general and primary" principle of rationality. Perhaps what is m... (read more)

0Eliezer Yudkowsky12yClarified opening line.

I'm going to comment on the presentation (I have no objection to the ideas):

This piece pleased me immensely in the beginning. The "F" grade anecdote was perfect and actually enraged me upon later reflection. In spite of that, I don't feel the persuasion was manipulative.

The reiteration of the linked ideas was good. I especially liked the story of the irrational gambler who could be used as money pump.

The material up to and including the Greene dilemma was good.

Following that, however, is a painfully verbose recapitulation of the opening "... (read more)

I see a lot of people in the comments to this post talking about divorcing the "damage report" aspect of pain from the "unpleasant experience" aspect. This won't work -- at least, not in naive form. Emotions are what motivate people to do things. If you take away the negative emotional impact of pain without some kind of situational fine-tuning, you might as well remove pain entirely. Those people with pain asymbolia that I mentioned previously are indifferent to the threat of harm.

Demands for moral justification have their Charybdis and their Scylla:

A rather fancy way of saying the horns of a dilemma. If I were a Bayesian I might say that my prior is to believe that this is a sure sign of a false premise hidden in there somewhere leading to the false alternative. If I where a frequentist I might say 999 times out 1000 such dilemmas are a sure sign of the same. Ethics is full of such horns and dilemmas, handed out like poisoned candy to the kiddies on halloween by the very professors who are suppose to find the error and resolv... (read more)

[-][anonymous]12y 0

I have a question for lesswrong readers. Please excuse any awkwardness in phrasing or diction--I am not formally trained in philosophy. What do you consider to be the "self"? Your physical body, your subconscious and conscious processes combined, consciousness, or something else? Also, do you consider your "past selves" and "future selves" to be part of a whole with your "present self," and to what extent? For an example of why the distinction might be important, let's say that one night, you sleepwalk and steal a th... (read more)

6Alicorn12yThis might be placed better in the open thread [http://lesswrong.com/lw/14m/open_thread_august_2009/].

and where it came from (evolution? culture?)

Once you know a source, how do you know whether it makes your morals more or less likely to be true? A lazy thinker would just wind up engaging in Bulverism.

only at the point of explaining why pain is a bad thing

Would you adapt that if speaking into the chronophone to a time before negative-utilitarianism?

All moral codes drill down to a rocky core of "ick," though. Suppose A says, "Well it's clearly wrong." And C says, "No, it's not. Make your case." The case is made when A says, "B inevitably leads to D. Does D make you feel icky?" and C says, "It does."

It's true that people in the past had a lot of icky feelings we don't have today. We also have a lot of icky feelings they didn't have. Given that, I would like to see a follow-up article written about, under this framework, how many more letters of the alphabet have to agree with A before A gets to punish C for making him feel icky, depending on the number of letters in agreement, how severe the ick, that kind of thing.

1JGWeissman12yMy reason for objecting to being punched in the face is not that it makes me feel icky, it is that it causes actual damage to me.
3Jayson_Virissimo12yI guess he could say that you think damage or harm is icky.
0bgrah44912yI don't think the desire to avoid being punched in the face is a moral code. Maybe you have a strong conviction that you don't deserve to be punched in the face, but I can conceive of a situation where you feel guilty for doing something (such as previously punching a friend in the face in anger) and you actually do want to be punched in the face, to adhere to a moral code, even despite your still-extant avoidance-of-pain code. Similarly, these two guidelines can be in parallel - a part of you just doesn't want to be punched in the face, and another part of you agrees with that part on account of the fact you totally haven't done anything to deserve being punched in the face.
0kess3r12yHey, I very much agree with your explanation. Jonathan Haidt has a very good theory on what makes humans feel this "ick". http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html [http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html]Don't be turned off by his implication that liberals should be more conservative. Strictly as an empirical model, his theory is quite good.

It is a general and primary principle of rationality, that we should not believe that which there is insufficient reason to believe, nor enforce upon our fellows a law which there is insufficient justification to enforce.

Is that a principle, or a tautology?

Nonetheless, I've always felt a bit nervous about demanding that people be able to explain things in words, because, while I happen to be pretty good at that, most people aren't.

I was thinking just yesterday that this is a problem in communications between men and women. Women know a lot of thing... (read more)

1spriteless12yHmm. So if she said "I'm reading her body language, a skill I developed by socializing with women lots" would that make the guy believe her? I shall have to remember that.
[-][anonymous]12y 0

I felt that all of the points made could be said in a post about half the length. The points are something I have noticed, do not need to be persuaded of, and put into better words than I could have before (which illustrates a main point of the post) but I feel that they could persuade a sceptical reader, even if rewritten at half the length.

4Eliezer Yudkowsky12yWould you care to take your shot at rewriting at half the length? That only half of my post is useful or necessary for a reader, is a very common phenomenon; the problem is, it's not always the same half for each reader.

If you don't mind me asking... How does anyone who believes that pain and/or death is bad NOT conclude that pepperoni pizza is bad?

4lavalamp12yA google search I did yesterday for a recipe turned up the book "Eat what you want and die like a man"; I haven't read it except for the two pages that the search showed me, but I'd be willing to bet that the author holds exactly that position...
1Tiiba12yApparently, the idea that killing animals for food is evil is so alien to modern people that everyone thought I'm talking about HUMAN pain and death. When the motivations of others are so different from yours that they can't even understand your questions, you must consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the reason is something more interesting than a genetic accident.
3UnholySmoke12yTo be frank, I'm a vegetarian and I didn't pick up on that one.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12yAh. Actually, I think a reason I didn't get this was that when I hear "X is bad" I tend to look to its consequences before looking to its antecedents. For example, if you said "soap is bad", I would first think "being clean is bad?" before "maybe there's something wrong with the process that manufactured the soap". Utilities flow backward in time, not forward. Unless all this is just a post-facto rationalization, rather than my actually being unusually good at verbalizing the cognitive algorithms behind a thought...
1Tiiba12yMy mom taught me to look both ways. When you buy meat, you pay for the next round of butchery. So it does flow forward. So if you have to eat meat, steal it.
1kess3r12yHey, could someone explain the logic of vegetarianism to me? I get the part where vegeterianism is supposedly healthier. But I don't get the part about not wanting to eat animals because they get killed. I mean, it's not like cows would live happily ever after if nobody ate them. If all humans suddenly stopped eating cows, there would be no reason to raise cows anymore apart from zoos, and cows are not very good at taking care of themselves in the wild. It seems like vegeterianism would lead to cow extinction or very close to it.
7Alicorn12yI value a lack of cow suffering. I do not value the existence of the cow species, except inasmuch as cows are useful towards ends I care about, and since I don't eat them and don't think they're cute or interesting, they are useful to me only for milk and, in limited quantities, skin. (I'll assume you meant to assume that widespread veganism and leather boycott would lead to the extinction of cows.)
4UnholySmoke12ySounds very pessimistic to value a lack of cow suffering, but completely discount cow enjoyment. I mean, if we're quantizing stuff, might as well quantize everything, right?
1pwno12yDo you think there is morally wrong to eat meat? I have the same preferences as you when it comes to meat, but I still eat it. Maybe if it was proven that a lot of animal suffering goes into the meat I eat, I might stop. Otherwise, a cow's non-suffering, short-lived existence is more favorable than not existing at all.
5Alicorn12yI've rehashed this several times, but I'll repeat it for your benefit: I think it is wrong for many people to eat meat. Some people, through circumstances beyond their control, would find their quality of life unacceptably diminished by a lack of meat consumption. I do not think it is morally wrong for those people to eat meat: their quality of life is more important than the lives of the animals they eat. I, and many other people, can be happy vegetarians. People who can be happy vegetarians (or who won't be significantly less happy as vegetarians than as omnivores) should be vegetarians. For those people, it is wrong to eat meat because it is unnecessarily destructive of animal lives, which have non-negligible value even if they aren't more important than human quality of life. There is an overwhelming amount of gory detail about the suffering undergone by the majority of domesticated meat animals in developed countries. If you are curious about how much suffering your food underwent to arrive at your plate, PETA et. al. will be happy to supply that information and you can find it without my help. I disagree. I think many animals (and people, for that matter) ought not to have been born.
0ChrisHibbert12yI'm not particularly curious. I have no doubt that I could find plenty of testimony from partisans. Why should I expect that testimony to present the issue in a fair light? Are there any non-partisans trying to find a middle position and present a balanced view of the issue?
4Alicorn12yThat paragraph responded to pwno's statement: If you're not curious, that's okay. As for fair presentation, I don't doubt that PETA and its less insane friends heavily skew every piece of evidence that passes through their hands. However, the amount of skewing I can believe went into a mountain of video documentation is necessarily limited by the fact that I don't think PETA et. al. are staging elaborate scenes of animal torture for the greater good of our noble friends the chickens. Take from that as much or as little as you will; it's certainly at least weak evidence that bad things happen to food animals between entering the world and leaving it. If you find any, let me know. Everybody eats, so everybody has a stake in the issue: there is no way to be sure that an omnivore isn't being defensive or a vegetarian isn't being self-righteous if they come up with the conclusions you'd expect. I would be surprised to find an omnivore who concluded that food animal conditions were bad enough to warrant not eating meat; most people aren't equipped to make that kind of admission. Some vegetarians are, or claim to be, vegetarians for reasons unrelated to animal welfare - but they probably would not be inclined to invest time and care into crafting a nonpartisan analysis of the meat industry.
3Bongo12yI'm one. But admitting you knowingly do wrong is creepy. Faux pas. The normal way out is to rationalize, but sometimes I forget...
1SoullessAutomaton12yI'm fairly sure conditions are easily that bad; what I'm undecided on is the moral weight that I place on the suffering of animals. I also acknowledge that being an omnivore with a high desire for variety in food discourages me from trying too hard to make up my mind, because I estimate a non-trivial chance that my final decision would be to eliminate at minimum most mammal meat.
4Alicorn12yFor what it's worth, my dietary variety has increased since I became a vegetarian. This could, however, be because the switch coincided with ending my dependence on school cafeteria food and with my literal overnight development of a taste for vegetables. (It was the weirdest thing. I woke up one morning and wanted cauliflower.)
0pwno12yOk, so there is a cost to eating meat (beyond the price tag) and some people love meat so much, it's worth the cost. You don't think there is a chance that the hidden cost is actually much worse than meat eaters think? That, given the true cost, not even the most meat-loving person would eat meat? I dont' think the true cost is high enough to warrant all meat-eating bad, but substantially worse than most meat eaters think. That's because you're adding other details. Assuming a person or animal contributed to society an equal amount to its cost to society, would living a non-suffering, short-lived existence still be worse than no existence at all?
3Alicorn12yWhile this may be the case, I think it's a less ambiguous situation when someone has allergies that interfere with eating a healthy vegetarian diet. I have a former professor who used to be a happy vegetarian and then developed allergies to soy, many kinds of legumes, and eggs, plus lactose intolerance. He cannot be a healthy vegetarian, so he should not be a vegetarian (and in fact no longer is). I wouldn't put it quite this strongly. I do think a great many people who should not eat meat do it anyway, and that most of them don't think of it as harshly as they should (failing to think of it at all or casually discounting the cost). I don't understand the question.
0SilasBarta12yWhoa whoa whoa, call me a cynic, but here's what I got out of that: A professor, whom you had to agree with or feign agreement with to get course credit, and still have some contact with, told you, a vocal, happy vegetarian, that he was also a vegetarian, then got over six food allergies after telling you this, and today eats meat. This led you to conclude that "Wow, this noble gentleman tried to reduce animal suffering by being a vegetarian until -- darnedest thing! -- he simultaneously developed over six food allergies, which makes him now a non-bad-guy omnivore." Now, I don't mean to offend, but what made you reject the shorter hypothesis of "He lied to you, then covered it up [http://lesswrong.com/lw/uw/entangled_truths_contagious_lies/]"?
3Alicorn12yHe was a vegetarian first. I became a vegetarian partly out of respect for his reasoning. I also didn't mention to him that I had become a vegetarian until I'd been one for, IIRC, almost a year and a half. It wasn't simultaneous. I think he was lactose intolerant all along, and developed the soy and legume allergies through overusing those foods; I'm not sure when the eggs came in. Eventually a doctor advised him to reintroduce meat to his diet. I've been to his house and had a meal there and there was no sign of meat in the house. I've been to restaurants with him and he flipped straight to the vegetarian section. I've met his wife, who is Indian and (I believe to this day) also a vegetarian. I've found him generally trustworthy. He had no reason to falsely claim to be a vegetarian the first time I heard him say it, and made no effort to conceal the fact that he ordered a dish with pork in it when we went to lunch after his return to omnivorism.
3SilasBarta12yOh, okay. That's enough evidence! Sorry for doubting you, but it sounded fishy.
0pwno12yI made that question based on an assumption I thought you made. So instead, how about you tell me why you think: "many animals (and people, for that matter) ought not to have been born."
1Alicorn12yI think that any given creature should not have been born when there is something about its circumstances of coming to exist that my ethics find objectionable. For instance, I think this about any offspring of rape; about anyone born into slavery; about any animal the creation of which was engineered by people planning to kill it for food (unnecessarily; not for people who cannot be happy vegetarians); and about many people with genetic diseases. This has the interesting consequence that, because of the way human history has tended to work, it is probably the case that every living human has at least one ancestor who should not have been born. Note that while this means that no living human would be likely to exist if everyone had always been perfectly moral about bringing children into the world, this is probably the case with all kinds of inconsistently followed moral precepts: I expect we'd have a completely different world population if no one ever stole, too.
0pwno12yRandom question: Can simply liking meat a lot disqualify yourself from being a "happy vegetarian"?
0Alicorn12yI think you mean "vegetarian". There are probably lots of happy veterinarians who love meat. But anyway, although I never liked meat nearly that much, it doesn't seem impossible in principle to get so much pleasure out of a bite of steak that removing steak would be an unacceptable infringement on quality of life.
0pwno12yDamn, I should pay more attention to my spell checker. So you accept that there is a certain level of happiness derived from meat-eating that warrants meat-eating itself (given that you can be a happy vegetarian). But where do you draw the line? The line between a sufficient and insufficient level of happiness. I would expect your line to be drawn at a much higher level than mine. If that's true, what determines who is right? I would think it's up to personal preference.
0Alicorn12yI accept that there may be, in theory, such a level of happiness. I have no way of knowing if anyone actually experiences that much pleasure from the consumption of meat. It probably also depends on the other happiness-inducing factors in the person's life. If the availability of bacon is the difference between someone being merely okay and being great, then I'll probably err on the side of letting the person have bacon... if it's the difference between being great and being ecstatic, I'm less inclined to do so, even if in some mathematical sense the improvement in each case is the same. So, I don't think that "given that you can be a happy vegetarian" (for conservative definitions of "happy") merely liking meat a lot will tend to be enough to warrant eating it. I don't think it's up to personal preference - I'm a moral realist, these are moral questions. However, there is a fair amount of epistemic uncertainty about where the line is located, and so within limits, for practical purposes, I don't see a better option than allowing it to be guided by individual preferences.
0pwno12yDo you agree that where the line is drawn is determined by a person's individual utility function? In other words, there exists a unique line for every person, depending on their terminal value for saving animals and what not.
0Alicorn12yI'm not sure I believe in the existence of coherent utility functions per se. Whatever passes for a utility function affects my ethical system only indirectly, anyway. I don't think that a given person's care for animal salvation typically affects whether they can be a happy vegetarian (although it might affect whether they would be independently motivated to become one), so I doubt it need come into play.
0lavalamp12yElsewhere (http://lesswrong.com/lw/14r/unspeakable_morality/10jc [http://lesswrong.com/lw/14r/unspeakable_morality/10jc]) you said: I've been reading your vegetarian comments with interest. Can you please explain how you don't think stuff should be destroyed unnecessarily, yet would not care if an entire species vanished? Is it that it's somehow ok if something is destroyed as long as it's not intentional? I.e., if a famous painting was about to fall into a fire or something accidentally, it seems to me (if I follow your logic) you would catch it if you could do so without undue danger to your person, even if you didn't particularly like the painting. So how can you be ok with cows (or, let's say pigs, since as far as I know they are not used for leather or milk) going extinct?
2Alicorn12yI distinguish between taking action to destroy something, and ceasing to take measures to preserve it. The domestic cow species, as well as the domestic pig species, requires continual human support to keep it in existence. I would not have any problem with cows or pigs ceasing to exist if the following conditions were met: * No person anywhere just plain likes cows (pigs) and wants them around. * Cows (pigs) serve no purpose of any person, directly or indirectly, and are not reasonably expected to do so in the future. * The continued existence of the cow (pig) species takes up resources that could be diverted elsewhere, to more useful ends. * The extinction of the cow (pig) species does not require active destructive participation on the part of any person. I would have problems of greater or lesser degree with the extinction of cows (pigs) if any of the above conditions were not fully met, as in fact they are not at this time. I'm usually careful to specify that I think an action can be unethical only if it was intentional or negligent.
0lavalamp12y...Which is why I didn't use the world "ethical" :) More to the point, So I gather that it is the act of destruction you find bad, and not the loss of the thing destroyed? (And my follow-up question if you answer in the affirmative: Why, then, is it bad to destroy things?) (And don't construe this line of questioning as disagreeing or agreeing with you; I'm just trying to understand your point of view)
0Alicorn12yIn using words like "bad" or "okay", instead of "unethical" or "right" or whatever, you might be latching onto useful concepts, but they're not concepts I have clear definitions for or use when I think about this sort of problem. I'm not a consequentialist and theory of value isn't a component of ethics that I find especially interesting; I'm concerned with right and wrong over good and bad. Since apparently you think I've changed something important by recasting your question in terms relevant to what I thought we were talking about, can you recast it yourself without making it about what's "good"? I usually reserve that word for extremely casual use.
0lavalamp12yI see, I think. I guess I ascribe positive/negative value to states of the world. I.e., art exists, I think that is good (even the pieces I don't get), cows exist, that is good, chinchillas exist, that is good (even though I don't have a use for them, don't find them cute, don't use their leather or milk, etc), HIV exists, that is probably not good. Actions that make the world into a better state are good, those that make it worse are bad. An action that makes the world into a worse state before it makes it into a better one is generally not good. If there is a name for this position I'd love to hear it. :) And yes, I realize that what I've termed "good" is probably somewhat arbitrary. I am thinking out loud here-- maybe this will explain the disconnect.
1Alicorn12yI have to take serious issue with not finding chinchillas cute. What is wrong with you? What is the qualitative difference in goodness between hypothetical useless, unloved, resource-draining, methane-farting future cows, and a species I assume it was fine and dandy to destroy: smallpox?
0lavalamp12yOK, I take back the bit about chinchillas. Google says they're cuter than I remember them being. Substitute, uhhh, boa constrictors. Smallpox was known to actively cause severe harm to those it infected, and there wasn't really anything those people could have done to prevent infection. I think that outweighs any potential beneficial uses we might find for it in the future.
1Alicorn12ySmallpox harmed the people it infected; hypothetical useless unloved resource-draining methane-farting future cows (HUURDMFFC) harm the people who could benefit from the resources they divert and who want to live in a world with less methane. This seems like a quantitative difference to me, not a qualitative one. I don't know about you, but I like snakes and I would be sad if boa constrictors went extinct.
3AllanCrossman12yIt would, but that's an entirely separate issue from animal cruelty.
0kess3r12ySo does that mean vegetarians are ok with eating animals that were treated very humanly or that died of natural causes? Could a vegetarian here explain? In case there are no vegetarians on this site, how are we driving away or failing to attract vegetarians?
1Alicorn12yI'm a pescetarian, but let's assume I count. I wouldn't eat those animals because non-fish meat no longer resembles food to me; because if I resumed eating meat of any kind, it would be more difficult to resist meat of inappropriate provenance; and because humanely-treated meat is hard to come by (and still has to be slaughtered) and naturally-dead meat is of suspect quality. For an idea of how many vegetarians we have, check out this poll [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ei/essayquestion_poll_dietary_choices/].
0kess3r12yDo you think it is unethical for humans to eat other animals? If so, what do you suggest?
1Alicorn12yI think it is unethical for humans who can enjoy an excellent quality of life as vegetarians to eat other animals. I have a friend who becomes seriously ill if she tries to do without eating a mammal or a bird for more than, at best, one meal. She should not be a vegetarian. People with serious allergies to many vegetarian protein sources, people who are living in economically marginal situations and have to take whatever they can get, and maybe even the people who seem to worship bacon as nigh unto a god should not be vegetarians. I think more people should be vegetarians than are. I think all people should consider the possibility with some serious thought, because there are more ways to be a vegetarian all the time. I suggest legumes, soy products, seitan, mycoprotein, dairy, eggs, the least formerly-intelligent meat you can find if any, and lots and lots of plant-based dietary variety.
0kess3r12yBut if people ate less bacon it would diminish the population of cows. It would hurt cows.
2Alicorn12yBacon is not made from cows. Even if bacon were made from cows, it is not clear that a reduced cow population would hurt any existing cows.
0kess3r12yOk, you got me on the topic of where bacon comes from. For the sake of argument, substitute bacon with beef jerky. As for your second point, are you saying it's ok to drive a species to extinction or near extinction as long as the individuals of the present generation get to live a bit longer? What do you think of the following idea? Would you go to a wild life park and erect electric fences to keep lions away from antelopes and instead feed fish to the lions? This would stop the unethical violence lions commit against antelopes.
0Alicorn12yNo. I'm saying that except for the part where I really like dairy and make some use of leather, I don't care if cows continue to exist. The individual, living cows that already exist, I would prefer not to unnecessarily harm. There are some species that I like and want to keep around. For instance, pandas are cute. I'd miss them. Honeybees are important to all kinds of things very important to me. I would miss them too. Lions are not persons, and are therefore not morally responsible for anything they do, so there is nothing unethical about lion-on-antelope violence. I think there are things I could do with the fence construction money and the fish (or the grocery budget) that would be better uses of resources than keeping lions on a pescetarian diet.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky12y??? Wait, so you're a vegetarian from virtue ethics - you think it's virtuous not to harm animals - and not because the event of animal suffering is disutilous apart from its particular causes? Or do you mean that the event is bad and to be prevented, but cannot be termed "unethical"?
1Alicorn12yI have no idea where you got those suggestions. Neither one is accurate about my beliefs: I don't go around using the concept of virtue when I talk about ethics, and I only think bad things can be also unethical when they are the result of deliberate or negligent actions/inactions by a person. I think ethics is about the behavior of persons, not the behavior of lions or the edibility of antelopes. I get my opinions about who should be a vegetarian by the following logic: I would not up and kill a cow/chicken/guinea pig/cat/whatever for no reason. It seems to me that it would be wrong to go around killing animals (or, for that matter, smashing vases or setting books on fire or committing any act of destruction) for no reason. It seems that there are some reasons where it would be quite okay to kill an animal (or smash a vase or set a book on fire). If I were starving (if I needed a shard of ceramic to cut some wrongly convicted-of-witchcraft person free from a stake/if I were otherwise going to freeze to death) then I would kill and eat a cow (smash a vase/set a book on fire). So somewhere in the space of reason-having, between "no reason" and "otherwise a person will die", there must be a threshold of adequacy sufficient to kill an animal (or do any other destructive thing). For the death-for-food of non-personhood-having animals, I draw that line at the excellent quality of life of whoever might eat them. I can have an excellent quality of life and eat only occasional fish. My friend who gets sick when she doesn't eat enough meat can't. So she needn't be a vegetarian, but I should.
2PhilGoetz12yYou make a binary distinction that animals are not "people", and therefore not subject to ethical judgements. But you don't make what seems like to me the closely-related binary distinction that animals are not "people" and therefore should not be factored into ethical judgements. Usually, people make both or neither of these assumptions.
1Alicorn12yVases and books are also not people, and I use indistinguishable logic to argue against their needless destruction. I guess I'm just unconventional like that.
0Douglas_Knight12yWere you aware of your unconventionality before this exchange? (I worry that I'm missing some of your tone in print.) Is there some standard poll of philosophers' views on ethics? Could you poll your department on vases and books? (I, unlike PG, think the conjunction of caring about antelope suffering with not subjecting lions to ethical judgement is common. But I think that your position on vases and books is rare, at least away from virtue ethics.)
4Alicorn12yI am quite aware of my unconventionality. As far as I know, I'm independent and very, very lonely in buying the above reasoning. Many ethicists try to make some vague nod in favor of preserving works of great art, but then pass off which works of art are great to the aestheticists and don't care about lesser works. I follow that intuition all the way down and think that stuff in general shouldn't be destroyed unnecessarily.
2thomblake12yWhile it's apt to note that virtue ethicists care a great deal for things, there are others. There's a (small) movement towards some sort of 'information ethics', at the forefront of which are folks such as Terry Bynum and Luciano Floridi. Floridi, when pressed, once admitted to being concerned for the integrity of a chair.
0Douglas_Knight12yI didn't mean to imply that virtue ethicists care for things. Quite the opposite! I haven't found anything interesting about Bynum or Floridi, but I imagine their information-flavor is orthogonal to the usual distinction between consequentialists, deontologists, and virtue ethicists.
0thomblake12yAh. Well that's strange - in my experience, virtue ethicists care for things quite a bit. I know one fellow who (it might be said) values his stringed instruments nearly as much as his children. It's hard to say... we're dealing with a new ontology here, so the ethics looks strange. Nominally, Bynum is some sort of eudaimonist consequentialist, but it would be doing his "flourishing ethics" a disservice to leave it at that. And Floridi's "information ethics" is at times consequentialist in tone and at times deontic, but it's hard to say exactly what he's getting at. At the moment, I don't even have anything to recommend, but hopefully there will be some worthwhile material in the next few years.
0Douglas_Knight12yWhat I should have meant was that the value of the objects is irrelevant to whether a person displays virtue in handling them. Also, the revealed values of particular virtue ethicists is not so relevant--that fellow is probably just not virtuous. After all, ethicists are the least ethical of philosphers.
0Tiiba12yThe real reason why you don't punish deer for jaywalking is that it doesn't alleviate the problem. That has nothing to do with whether they feel pain.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky12yI think that's what I meant by:
0Alicorn12yThey don't mean the same thing. It is not the case that all bad things must be "to be prevented".
0Eliezer Yudkowsky12yWhat sort of event is bad, but not to be prevented?
1Alicorn12yAn event with no superior alternative that can be ethically brought about.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky12yHm. Okay, so it's an event that locally has negative utility relative to our set points, but locally maximizes relative to anything we can do about it. Fair enough.
0kess3r12ySo if I understand you correctly, you say that the reward 'quality of life of whoever might eat cows' does not justify the cost of taking the life of said cows. Well, why not? Not only are cows delicious, cows need humans to survive. Many humans enjoy the deliciousness of cows. It is a symbiotic relationship, cows evolved deliciousness and passivity to be easily handled while humans use their technology to protect and provide for cows in return. Interrupting this relationship will result in the extinction or near extinction of cows. If said cow is not eaten by a human, it does not go on living happily ever after. Said cow would find it very difficult if not impossible to survive on it's own in the wild. Over thousands of years cows lost their ability to fight of predators and instead became good at growing meat, milk and being passive so that farmers could handle it easily. Removing they cow from it's ecosystem(the farm) is not like freeing it. Do you see what I'm getting at? The vegetarian agenda is would hurt the cow species.
0thomblake12yI'm not sure a 'species' is the sort of thing that is could be hurt.
0Alicorn12yYou don't. This is the opposite of what I said. Yes. I have already said I don't care if cows go extinct, except inasmuch as they are useful. If they stop being useful (if people stop eating them and using their byproducts) then they can go extinct and this will not bother me.
0kess3r12yIt doesn't bother you if cows go extinct but it bothers you if humans kill cows for food? I don't understand. Going extinct is worse than individuals periodically dying. Going extinct means the ALL die.
5Alicorn12yThe cows that already exist are the only cows I wish to spare suffering. They will die anyway; no one is planning to make any cows immortal. If they simply don't have calves, the cow species will go extinct without doing any harm to any cows that already exist.
1Tiiba12yThou know’st ’tis common; all that live must die, passing through nature to eternity. This way, though, they don't leave descendents to toil in cages. As I said before, the worst part of a factory farm cow's existence isn't death, but life.
0kess3r12y[quote]the worst part of a factory farm cow's existence isn't death, but life[/quote] I disagree on multiple levels. -Dying is worse than living no matter how bad of a place you live in -cows don't think like humans. the biggest factor in their happiness is food. cows might be quite happy in farms, or at the very least I think their life is not a permanent state of torture.
0Tiiba12y"Dying is worse than living no matter how bad of a place you live in" Would you rather die and disappear, or die and burn in hell? Or burn in hell while alive? Never say never. "cows don't think like humans" Yes. They don't anticipate death. They don't stay up all night fearing it. It comes as one sharp blow, and then oblivion.
0anonym12yI'm a vegetarian, and if I weren't a bit repulsed by meat, I would have no ethical qualms about eating the flesh of a wild animal (or person) that died of natural causes, assuming my eating it didn't have other negative consequences.
0Tiiba12yI was, actually, fine with eating free range meat at first. After all, even their deaths might be less horrible than my own. But then I thought that if everyone did that, having so many animals living like people might be more than the Earth can take. It's having trouble with people living like people. Basically, free-range meat is a move in the right direction, but suboptimal.
0MichaelBishop12yThere are many different logics. See this thread http://lesswrong.com/lw/ei/essayquestion_poll_dietary_choices/ [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ei/essayquestion_poll_dietary_choices/] for some of them, including my own.
-2pwno12yIf you heard "sweatshops are bad" or "styrophone cups are bad" you would first look for its antecedents. So maybe the cognitive algorithm goes something like this: If X in "X is bad" is not associated with unfavorable antecedents, then examin X's consquences by default.
1lavalamp12yAh, that makes your comment make sense. Obviously I know that peperoni is an animal product, but the pizza part threw me off, possibly because peperoni pizza is like the poster-child for foods that are supposedly bad for you. I have no problem with the idea that modern factory-style living conditions for chickens, etc, are inhumane (and I personally buy cage-free, etc., both for that reason and because they apparently have more nutrients). But you seem to be suggesting that any killing of any animal for food purposes is immoral. So now I have to ask if you think it's evil for a lion to kill and eat an antelope?
3Tiiba12yIf lions didn't eat antelopes, they would starve, and so would the antelopes when their burgeoning populations run out of food. Bad end. Pain, suffering, death. Now, if lions could be made vegetarian, and antelopes could be made to use condoms... That'd be the perfect solution.
1thomblake12yPepperoni pizza was an odd example to use if you're talking about the evils of killing animals for food. There isn't even much meat on there. That's just poor communication. How about you reword like this: That seems much clearer, if that's what you intended to communicate.
0anonym12yI got your point, and my response was that people generally don't think pain and death are bad in all cases and without exceptions. Many people think that the pain and death of their enemies is good, and that the pain and death of creatures sufficiently different from them (according to various criteria such as degree of sentience or sapience or ability to feel pain) is neutral.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yPepperoni pizza isn't bad. Human metabolisms are bad.
0thomblake12yBoth pepperoni pizza and human metabolisms are good, and gluttony is bad. Well, good enough for government work.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yPepperoni pizza, human metabolisms, and gluttony are good, and being fat is bad. Thus we have a philosophical paradox!
0thomblake12yI think considering 'gluttony' good is just abusing the language. As for your philosophical paradox... drugs to the rescue?
0anonym12yDoes anybody think pain and/or death are unconditionally bad, in all cases, with no exceptions? I've never heard of such a person. But perhaps I misunderstood what you were asking.
1MBlume12yIn all cases, with no exceptions. [http://yudkowsky.net/singularity/simplified]
1anonym12yExceptions [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congenital_insensitivity_to_pain]
0Bongo12yYou don't? When is pain or death not bad?
1anonym12yPain: when it wakes you up to alert you that you are in mortal danger.
0Kaj_Sotala12yAt the risk of getting into semantics: in that case, pain serves a useful purpose, but that doesn't make pain itself non-bad. Creating an alternative ("upgraded") alert system that served the wake-up function but wasn't painful would be better. If pain in that context wouldn't be bad, then "does the alert system cause pain" would be an irrelevant question and the upgraded alert system wouldn't be considered any better.
0anonym12yRight, which was exactly my point: not every instance of pain should be classified as bad, and so it doesn't make sense to say the general phenomenon is "unconditionally bad, in all cases, with no exceptions", which is exactly what Bongo implicitly asserted.
0RobinZ12yTo be perfectly fair, the absolute is difficult to assert due to the fuzziness of the concept. I mean, is tearing a piece of paper in half bad, because you killed the paper? What about tearing a virus in half? What about a bacterium? Where does the transition come in from merely irreversible to murderous.
0[anonymous]12yI'm asking about... Vegetarianism! (Ah, so that's why you eat meat - BDSM!)