Followup toThe Moral Void

Three people, whom we'll call Xannon, Yancy and Zaire, are separately wandering through the forest; by chance, they happen upon a clearing, meeting each other.  Introductions are performed.  And then they discover, in the center of the clearing, a delicious blueberry pie.

Xannon:  "A pie!  What good fortune!  But which of us should get it?"

Yancy:  "Let us divide it fairly."

Zaire:  "I agree; let the pie be distributed fairly.  Who could argue against fairness?"

Xannon:  "So we are agreed, then.  But what is a fair division?"

Yancy:  "Eh?  Three equal parts, of course!"

Zaire:  "Nonsense!  A fair distribution is half for me, and a quarter apiece for the two of you."

Yancy:  "What?  How is that fair?"

Zaire:  "I'm hungry, therefore I should be fed; that is fair."

Xannon:  "Oh, dear.  It seems we have a dispute as to what is fair.  For myself, I want to divide the pie the same way as Yancy.  But let us resolve this dispute over the meaning of fairness, fairly: that is, giving equal weight to each of our desires.  Zaire desires the pie to be divided {1/4, 1/4, 1/2}, and Yancy and I desire the pie to be divided {1/3, 1/3, 1/3}.  So the fair compromise is {11/36, 11/36, 14/36}."

Zaire:  "What?  That's crazy.  There's two different opinions as to how fairness works—why should the opinion that happens to be yours, get twice as much weight as the opinion that happens to be mine?  Do you think your theory is twice as good?  I think my theory is a hundred times as good as yours!  So there!"

Yancy:  "Craziness indeed.  Xannon, I already took Zaire's desires into account in saying that he should get 1/3 of the pie.  You can't count the same factor twice.  Even if we count fairness as an inherent desire, why should Zaire be rewarded for being selfish?  Think about which agents thrive under your system!"

Xannon:  "Alas!  I was hoping that, even if we could not agree on how to distribute the pie, we could agree on a fair resolution procedure for our dispute, such as averaging our desires together.  But even that hope was dashed.  Now what are we to do?"

Yancy:  "Xannon, you are overcomplicating things.  1/3 apiece.  It's not that complicated.  A fair distribution is an even split, not a distribution arrived at by a 'fair resolution procedure' that everyone agrees on.  What if we'd all been raised in a society that believed that men should get twice as much pie as women?  Then we would split the pie unevenly, and even though no one of us disputed the split, it would still be unfair."

Xannon:  "What?  Where is this 'fairness' stored if not in human minds?  Who says that something is unfair if no intelligent agent does so?  Not upon the stars or the mountains is 'fairness' written."

Yancy:  "So what you're saying is that if you've got a whole society where women are chattel and men sell them like farm animals and it hasn't occurred to anyone that things could be other than they are, that this society is fair, and at the exact moment where someone first realizes it shouldn't have to be that way, the whole society suddenly becomes unfair."

Xannon:  "How can a society be unfair without some specific party who claims injury and receives no reparation?  If it hasn't occurred to anyone that things could work differently, and no one's asked for things to work differently, then—"

Yancy:  "Then the women are still being treated like farm animals and that is unfair.  Where's your common sense?  Fairness is not agreement, fairness is symmetry."

Zaire:  "Is this all working out to my getting half the pie?"

Yancy:  "No."

Xannon:  "I don't know... maybe as the limit of an infinite sequence of meta-meta-fairnesses..."

Zaire:  "I fear I must accord with Yancy on one point, Xannon; your desire for perfect accord among us is misguided.  I want half the pie.  Yancy wants me to have a third of the pie.  This is all there is to the world, and all there ever was.  If two monkeys want the same banana, in the end one will have it, and the other will cry morality.  Who gets to form the committee to decide the rules that will be used to determine what is 'fair'?  Whoever it is, got the banana."

Yancy:  "I wanted to give you a third of the pie, and you equate this to seizing the whole thing for myself?  Small wonder that you don't want to acknowledge the existence of morality—you don't want to acknowledge that anyone can be so much less of a jerk."

Xannon:  "You oversimplify the world, Zaire.  Banana-fights occur across thousands and perhaps millions of species, in the animal kingdom.  But if this were all there was, Homo sapiens would never have evolved moral intuitions.  Why would the human animal evolve to cry morality, if the cry had no effect?"

Zaire:  "To make themselves feel better."

Yancy:  "Ha!  You fail at evolutionary biology."

Xannon:  "A murderer accosts a victim, in a dark alley; the murderer desires the victim to die, and the victim desires to live.  Is there nothing more to the universe than their conflict?  No, because if I happen along, I will side with the victim, and not with the murderer.  The victim's plea crosses the gap of persons, to me; it is not locked up inside the victim's own mind.  But the murderer cannot obtain my sympathy, nor incite me to help murder.  Morality crosses the gap between persons; you might not see it in a conflict between two people, but you would see it in a society."

Yancy:  "So you define morality as that which crosses the gap of persons?"

Xannon:  "It seems to me that social arguments over disputed goals are how human moral intuitions arose, beyond the simple clash over bananas.  So that is how I define the term."

Yancy:  "Then I disagree.  If someone wants to murder me, and the two of us are alone, then I am still in the right and they are still in the wrong, even if no one else is present."

Zaire:  "And the murderer says, 'I am in the right, you are in the wrong'.  So what?"

Xannon:  "How does your statement that you are in the right, and the murderer is in the wrong, impinge upon the universe—if there is no one else present to be persuaded?"

Yancy:  "It licenses me to resist being murdered; which I might not do, if I thought that my desire to avoid being murdered was wrong, and the murderer's desire to kill me was right.  I can distinguish between things I merely want, and things that are right—though alas, I do not always live up to my own standards.  The murderer is blind to the morality, perhaps, but that doesn't change the morality.  And if we were both blind, the morality still would not change."

Xannon:  "Blind?  What is being seen, what sees it?"

Yancy:  "You're trying to treat fairness as... I don't know, something like an array-mapped 2-place function that goes out and eats a list of human minds, and returns a list of what each person thinks is 'fair', and then averages it together.  The problem with this isn't just that different people could have different ideas about fairness.  It's not just that they could have different ideas about how to combine the results.  It's that it leads to infinite recursion outright—passing the recursive buck.  You want there to be some level on which everyone agrees, but at least some possible minds will disagree with any statement you make."

Xannon:  "Isn't the whole point of fairness to let people agree on a division, instead of fighting over it?"

Yancy:  "What is fair is one question, and whether someone else accepts that this is fair is another question.  What is fair?  That's easy: an equal division of the pie is fair.  Anything else won't be fair no matter what kind of pretty arguments you put around it.  Even if I gave Zaire a sixth of my pie, that might be a voluntary division but it wouldn't be a fair division.  Let fairness be a simple and object-level procedure, instead of this infinite meta-recursion, and the buck will stop immediately."

Zaire:  "If the word 'fair' simply means 'equal division' then why not just say 'equal division' instead of this strange additional word, 'fair'?  You want the pie divided equally, I want half the pie for myself.  That's the whole fact of the matter; this word 'fair' is merely an attempt to get more of the pie for yourself."

Xannon:  "If that's the whole fact of the matter, why would anyone talk about 'fairness' in the first place, I wonder?"

Zaire:  "Because they all share the same delusion."

Yancy:  "A delusion of what?  What is it that you are saying people think incorrectly the universe is like?"

Zaire:  "I am under no obligation to describe other people's confusions."

Yancy:  "If you can't dissolve their confusion, how can you be sure they're confused?  But it seems clear enough to me that if the word fair is going to have any meaning at all, it has to finally add up to each of us getting one-third of the pie."

Xannon:  "How odd it is to have a procedure of which we are more sure of the result than the procedure itself."

Zaire:  "Speak for yourself."


Part of The Metaethics Sequence

Next post: "Moral Complexities"

Previous post: "Created Already In Motion"


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That is a very interesting dialogue.

It does not seem to come to any definite conclusion, instead simply presenting arguments and leaving the three participants in the dialogue with beliefs that are largely unchanged from their original position.

I am unable to come up with anything of substance to add, other than praise, but I feel compelled to comment anyway.

At first I tend to side with Zaire. The pie should be divided according to everyone's needs. But what if Zaire has a bigger body and generally needs to eat more? Should he always get more? Should the others receive less and be penalized because Zaire happens to be bigger? This is not easy, sigh...

Does the point of the story have anything to do with the object desire switching from a pie to a cake and back again?

The cake is a... well, you know.
He realized that anyway, this cake is great. It's so delicious and moist.

Why are you still talking? There's science to do.

And make a neat gun? I wish I could. I did not have access to enough qualified test subjects. But LW has plenty of people who are still alive so I'm GLaD to be here!

I'm about to make a naked assertion with nothing to back it up, just to put it out there.

The purpose of morality is to prevent such an arguement from even ever occurring. If the morale engine of society is working correctly, then all it's members will have a desire for everyone to get an equally sized portion of the pie (in this example). If there is a Zaire who believes he should get 1/2 of the pie, then there was a malfunction when morality was being programmed into him. This malfunction will lead to conflict.

View it like you would view programming a f... (read more)

I think it's more complex than that. Zaire's argument is that some people actually need more of "the pie" than others. Equal portions aren't necessarily fair, in that situation. For example: would it be fair if every person on the globe got an equal portion of diabetic insulin? No, obviously not. We disproportionately give insulin to diabetics. Because that is more fair than to distribute it equally amongst all people (regardless of their health situation). The disagreement here is between two perfectly understandable concepts of fairness. Both of them make sense in different ways. I see no easy solution to this myself.
Diabetics pay for their insulin. If someone needs more resources than others do, they need to earn those extra resources in some way.
I'd lay a high likelihood that you have quite a few more advantages than the kind of person I'm thinking of. You probably have your fair number of disadvantages too, but you've (through being lucky enough to have good health, intelligence, time and/or money for education and maybe good friends/family for support) been able to overcome those "on your own" (except for the aforementioned support)... which means you are categorically not the kind of person I'm thinking of when I am talking about people that need more support than others. Some people need extra, and those people do try to pay for their extra.. but even so... some of them will still not be able to, due to circumstances that isn't their fault. Do you condemn to death?
At least in some cases, yes. I don't agree with the "every sentient mind has value" view that's so common around here; sentient minds are remarkably easy to create, using the reproduction method. Dividing a share of resources to every human according to their needs rewards producing as many children of possible, and not caring if they're a net drain on resources. I would prefer to reward a K-selection strategy, rather than an r-selection strategy. The various advantages you list aren't simply a matter of chance; they're things I have because my parents earned the right to have children who live.
"sentient minds are remarkably easy to create" I'm not sure I agree with this. It takes quite a lot of resources (time, energy etc) to create sentient minds at present... certainly to bring them to any reasonable state of maturity. After which, the people that put that time and effort in quite often get very attached to that new sentient mind - even if that mind is not a net-productive citizen. The strategy that you choose to follow in how to divide up resources to sentient minds may be based on what you perceive to be their net-productivity... and maybe you feel a strong need to push your ideas on others as "oughts" that you think they should follow (eg that people ought to earn every resource themselves)... but it's pretty clear that other people are following other strategies than your preferred one. as a counter-example, a very large number of people (not including myself here) follow that old adage of "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs" which is just about the exact opposite of your own.
It's a lot of resources from the perspective of a single person, but I was thinking at a slightly larger scale. By "easy", I mean that manageable groups of people can do it repeatedly and be confident of success. Really, the fact that sentient minds can be valued in terms of resources at all is sufficient for my argument. (That value can then be ignored when assessing productivity, as it's a sunk cost.) You seem to be looking in the wrong place with your "that people ought to earn every resource themselves" example - my opinion is that the people who have resources should not give those resources to people who won't make good use of them. That the people who lack resources will then have to earn them if they're to survive is an unavoidable consequence of that (and is my real goal here), but those aren't the people that I think ought to be changing things. As for what strategies people actually follow, I think most people do what I'm saying they should do, on an individual level. Most people protect their resources, and share them only with those who they expect to be able to return the favor. On the group level, though, people lose track of how much things actually cost, and support things like welfare that help people regardless of whether they're worth the cost of keeping alive.
"whether they're worth the cost of keeping alive." and this highlights the differences in our views. our point of difference is in this whole basis of using practical "worth" as The way of deciding whether or not a person should live/die. I can get trying to minimise the birth of new people that are net-negative contributors to the world... but from my perspective, once they are born - it's worth putting some effort into supporting them. Why? because it's not their fault they were born the way they are, and they should not be punished because of that. They need help to get along. Sometimes - the situation that put them in their needy state occurred after they were born - and again is still not their fault. Another example to point out why I feel your view is unfair to people: Imagine somebody who has worked all their lives in an industry that has given amazing amounts of benefit to the world.. but has only just now become obsolete. That person is now unemployed and, due to being near retirement age, unemployable. It's an industry in which they were never really paid very well, and their savings don't add up to enough to cover their ongoing living costs for very long. Eventually, there will come a time when the savings run out and this person dies of starvation without our help. I consider this not to be a fair situation, and I'd rather my tax-dollars went to helping this person live a bit longer, than go to the next unnecessary-war (drummed up to keep the current pollies in power).
I think this shows the underlying problem. You would also rather have all your tax money go to give a cute little puppy more food than it will ever need, simply because war is a terrible alternative. But that doesn't mean it's the best thing you can do with your money, or even anywhere near that standard. And neither is, one could argue, giving money to an obsolete person in a country where the cost of living is very high comparative to other countries in the world.
If I were magically put in charge of distributing the next year's federal budget - I would still allocate resources to domestic welfare (supporting others that, through no fault of their own, have fallen on times of hardship), even though a larger portion went to foreign aid.
I've just made the unpleasant discovery that being downvoted to -4 makes it impossible to reply to those who replied to me (or to edit my comment). I'll state for the record that I disagree with that policy... and proceed to shut up.
It's quite possible, only requiring payment in your own karma points. If you're karma-broke, well....
Seeing as how what I was saying was basically "let the poor starve", this ending seems strangely appropriate.
It's not impossible, you'd just need to pay 5 karma per reply.'d need to have 5 karma to pay, first. You should be able to pick that up by making positive, helpful contributions to discussion on this site.
When widely applied, this principle tends to lead to trouble. It's a very small intuitive step from this to "people who aren't making good use of their own resources should have them taken away and given to someone who will make better use of them" and that is, in turn, a very small step away from "resources shouldn't be wasted on anyone too elderly to be employed". Now, I'm not saying that's where you're going with this. It's just that that's close enough to what you said that it's probably something you'd want to specifically avoid.
That step doesn't look small to me, specifically because it leaps over the rather large concept of property.
We pretty much do this already (outside of a few nations like New Zealand), and it doesn't lead to trouble at all, although some people complain about it (although if they recognized exactly what was going on, the number of people complaining about it would probably rise dramatically). Property taxes rise with land values, which are proportional to the value of resources. If you're not making good use of your resources, you can't cover property taxes, and you have to sell the property. The only people who will buy it are those who think they can make sufficient use of the resources to cover the sale price, in addition to property taxes going forward.
Not quite. Imposing some cost to own certain things is not the same as "should have them taken away". Yes, I understand that you can construct a continuous spectrum from a small fee to "it's cheaper for you to give it away rather than pay the tax", but I feel that in practice the distance is great.
[I've written two different responses to your comment. This one is more true to my state of mind when I wrote the comment you replied to.] Consider this: a man gets a woman pregnant, the man leaves. The woman carries the child to birth, hands it over to an adoption agency. Raising the child to maturity is now someone else's problem, but it has those parents' genes. I do not want this to be a viable strategy. If some people choose this strategy, that only makes it more important to stop letting them cheat.

What's the point?

You realize, incidentally, that there's a huge literature in political philosophy about what procedural fairness means. Right? Right?

Eneasz: You say that Zaire is broken. What broke him, though, was the fact that he hasn't eaten a dew drop in a week. Hunger does weird things to people, cut him some slack.

It licenses me to resist being murdered; which I might not do, if I thought that my desire to avoid being murdered was wrong, and the murderer's desire to kill me was right.
Licenses relative to what authority? Himself, I presume. Of course the murderer would say the same.

Blind? What is being seen, what sees it?
Optimistically, I would say that if the murderer perfectly knew all the relevant facts, including the victim's experience, ve wouldn't do it (at least if ve's human or similar; a paperclip maximizer won't care).

Nanani, I think it has more to do with my having just finished Portal. Fixed.

Tiiba - Sure, I got no problem with that. There's often extenuating circumstances which change how any particular interaction occurs. However that was not the case presented in this hypothetical. :) However as a baseline that everyone should start with (and work forward from), an equally sized portion for all is the ideal as it will lead to the least conflict.

Gowder, I'm talking to the people who say unto me, "Friendly to who?" and "Oh, so you get to say what 'Friendly' means." I find that the existing literature rarely serves my purposes. In this case I'm driving at a distinction between the object level and the meta level, and the notion of bedrock (the Buck Stops Immediately). Does the political philosophy go there? - for I am not wholly naive, but of course I have only read a tiny fraction of what's out there. I fear that much political philosophy is written for humans by humans.

Rola... (read more)

I'm curious why you personally just chose to use the norm-connoting term "fair" in place of the less loaded term "equal division" ... what properties does equal division have that make you want to give it special normative consideration? I could think of some, but I'm particularly interested in what your thoughts are here!

Eliezer, what if they are all poisoned, and the only antidote is a full blueberry pie? is the obvious fair division still 1/3 to each?

What if only one is poisoned? Is it fair for the other two to get some of the (delicious) antidote?

A bit of unfairness is acceptable, if that is needed to get us all back to fairness. Example: Zaire should get a bigger piece of pie if they are on a lifeboat and if he is the only one who can row the boat back ashore, and needs some extra carbs to do that. Xannon and Yancy should agree that this is a useful distribution in this context.

This is not a cultural argument per se.

Say x and y come from, respectively: a tribe of quasaieugenicists that settle distributions based on "fitness" rankings (using something like IQ - probably largely arbitrary - but that doesn't matter), and a tribe of equal-sharers (that subscribe to y's conclusion is in the dialog). Within each culture the relevant version of "fairness" (or the 'core distributive principle') is intuitive, much like y's system is for us. In the x culture people with low rankings intuit that their superiors are 'enti... (read more)

Why not divide the pie equally among cells, which make up the agglomerations we call "persons"? And if there is a distinction between voluntary and fair so that Xannon and Yancy honestly couldn't comfortably eat another bite and gave extra to Zaire, would that be unfair?

We've already got a society in which living things are treated like farm animals, by which of course I speak of farm animals themselves. They are of course privileged over a more defenseless living being that they live as parasites off of, which are plants. Some Swiss officials ar... (read more)

Eliezer, to the extent I understand what you're referencing with those terms, the political philosophy does indeed go there (albeit in very different vocabulary). Certainly, the question about the extent to which ideas of fairness are accessible at what I guess you'd call the object level are constantly treated. Really, it's one of the most major issues out there -- the extent to which reasonable disagreement on object-level issues (disagreement that we think we're obligated to respect) can be resolved on the meta-level (see Waldron, Democracy and Disagr... (read more)

Okay, how does standard political philosophy say you should fairly / rightly construct an ultrapowerful superintelligence (not to be confused with a corruptible government) that can compute moral and metamoral questions only given a well-formed specification of what is to be computed?

After you've carried out these instructions, what's the standard reply to someone who says, "Friendly to who?" or "So you get to decide what's Friendly"?

That's a really fascinating question. I don't know that there'd be a "standard" answer to this -- were the questions taken up, they'd be subject to hot debate.

Are we specifying that this ultrapowerful superintelligence has mind-reading power, or the closest non-magical equivalent in the form of access to every mental state that an arbitrary individual human has, even stuff that now gets lumped under the label "qualia"/ability to perfectly simulate the neurobiology of such an individual?

If so, then two approaches seem defensible to me. ... (read more)

First: let's assume there is an answer out there to moral questions, in a form that is accessible to a superintelligence, and let's just assume the hard problem away

Let's not. See, this is what I mean by saying that political philosophy is written for humans by humans.

Your other answer, "ideal democracy", bears a certain primitive resemblance to this, as you'd know if you were familiar with the Friendliness literature...

Okay, sorry about that, just emphasizing that it's not like I'm making all this up as I go along; and also, that there's a hell of a lot of literature out there on everything, but it isn't always easy to adapt to a sufficiently different purpose.

Why doesn't Zaire just divide himself in half, let each half get 1/4 of the pie, then merge back together and be in possession of half of the pie?

Or, Zaire might say: Hey guys, my wife just called and told me that she made a blueberry pie this morning and put it in this forest for me to find. There's a label on the bottom of the plate if you don't believe me. Do you still think 'fair' = 'equal division'?

Or maybe Zaire came with his dog, and claims that the dog deserves an equal share.

I appreciate the distinction Eliezer is trying to draw between the object level and the meta level. But why the assumption that the object-level procedure will be simple?

I was expecting Xannon and Yancy to get into an exchange, only to find that Zaire had taken half the pie while they were talking. Xannon is motivated by consensus, Yancy is motivated by fairness, and Zaire is motivated by pie. I know who I bet on to end up with more pie.

(The cake was an honest mistake, not a lie.)

And then they discover, in the center of the clearing, a delicious blueberry pie.

If the pie is edible then it was recently made and placed there. Whoever made it is probably close at hand. That person has a much better claim on the pie than these three and is therefore most likely rightly considered the owner. Let the owner of the pie decide. If the owner does not show up, leave the pie alone. Arguably the difficulty the three have in coming to a conclusion is related to the fact that none of the three has anything close to a legitimate claim on the pie.

What if they had starved while they were arguing?

This post reminds me a lot of DialogueOnFriendliness.

There's at least one more trivial mistake in this post:

Is their nothing more to the universe than their conflict?

Constant wrote:

Arguably the difficulty the three have in coming to a conclusion is related to the fact that none of the three has anything close to a legitimate claim on the pie.
If you modify the scenario by postulating that the pie is accompanied by a note reading "I hereby leave this pie as a gift to whomever finds it. Enjoy. -- Flying Pie-Baking Monster", how does that make the problem any easier?

If you modify the scenario by postulating that the pie is accompanied by a note reading "I hereby leave this pie as a gift to whomever finds it. Enjoy. -- Flying Pie-Baking Monster", how does that make the problem any easier?

If, indeed, it requires that we imagine a flying pie-baking monster in order to come up with a situation in which the concept of 'fairness' is actually relevant (e.g. not immediately trumped by an external factor), then it suggests that the concept of 'fairness' is in the real world virtually irrelevant. I notice also that the three have arrived separately and exactly simultaneously, another rarity, but also important to make 'fairness' an issue.

I notice also that the three have arrived separately and exactly simultaneously, another rarity, but also important to make 'fairness' an issue.

Yet most people in a situation of near simultaneity find it easier (or perhaps just safer?) to assume they had arrived simultaneously and come to agreement on dividing the pie 'fairly', rather than argue over who got there first.

It seems that the 1/3 each is what the recursive buck ends with, anyhow. Upon learning that Zaire claims half for him/herself and Xannon insists on averaging fairness algorithms, Xannon and Yancy merely update their claims to equal Zaire's at all times. That way, the average of the three desires will always turn out 1/3 a piece. Perhaps an argument for why an equal share is most fair. If not, Zaire could just wait until the other two had stated their desires and claimed the whole pie for him/herself, thus always skewing the final average in his/her favor.

I don't have an argument here; rather, I just want to see if I understand each position taken in the dialogue. After all, it would be a dreadful waste of time to argue one way or the other against our three musketeers while completely misunderstanding some key point. As far as I can tell, these are the essential arguments being made:

Yancy's position: that fairness is a rational (mathematical) system. There is no moral factor; rather than "to each according to his need," it is "to each according to the equation." This presumes fairness i... (read more)

As for the question "Friendly to who?"/"So you get to decide what's Friendly?", may I suggest Who Gets to Decide? as a reasonable answer? To summarize (while of course skipping a lot of the detail in the original post), no one gets to decide what's Friendly just like no one gets to decide the speed of light. There are simply facts that can be discovered (or that we can be wrong about). Certain desires help the human race, other desires hurt the human race, and these can be discovered in the same way we discover any other facts about the universe.

Does anyone think that this disagreement can be resolved without threat-signalling? I think valuing a particular model of 'fairness' over another (the Xers and Yers from Leif's post) ultimately boils down to the cost/benefit of being accepted/rejected by a particular social group.

So does this disagreement take place in a universe consisting only of the entities Xannon, Yancy, and Zaire, or do they all go back to the same village afterward and reminisce about what happened, or do they each go back to their separate villages?

Yet most people in a situation of near simultaneity find it easier (or perhaps just safer?) to assume they had arrived simultaneously and come to agreement on dividing the pie 'fairly', rather than argue over who got there first.

You are claiming it is a common practice. But common practice is common practice - not necessarily "fairness". We often do things precisely because they are commonly done. One common practice which is not equal is, if two cars arrive at the same intersection at right angles, then the car on the right has the right of way.... (read more)

We do it that way because the delay the car on the left will experience if the car on the right goes first is shorter than the delay the car on the right would experience if the car on the left went first. This rule is reversed in left-hand-of-the-road driving regions, because of the reversal of the asymmetry.
It would surprise (and delight) me if minimizing delay were the reason we did it this way, though it's certainly a consequence. Do you have sources?
The NJ driver's manual mentioned it back in 1996. May still do so.

This dialogue leads me to conclude that "fairness" is a form of social lubricant that ensures our pies don't get cold while we're busy arguing. The meta-rule for fairness rules would then be: (1) fast; (2) easy to apply; and (3) everybody gets a share.

I wish I could vote this up twice. The first time for making an excellent point, and the second time for a (perhaps inadvertent) call-out to Catch-22.
Optimistically, I would say that if the murderer perfectly knew all the relevant facts, including the victim's experience, ve wouldn't do it

The murderer may have all the facts, understand exactly what ve is doing and what the experience of the other will be, and just decide that ve doesn't care. Which fact is ve not aware of? Ve may understand all the pain and suffering it will cause, ve may understand that ve is wiping out a future for the other person and doing something that ve would prefer not to be on the receiving end of, may realize that it is beh... (read more)

I tend to agree with Xannon, that 'fairness' is defined by society. So the question is if the societal moral norms still affect the three opponents. If Xannon decides "we are still members of society where equal shares for everyone are considered fair" he might side with Yancy, share the pie into 1/3's and label Zaire to be a criminal. If he decides "we are out in the desert with no society around to push its moral values unto us" he might side with Zaire, divide the pie in 1/2's and tell Yancy to shove his ideas of equality up his behi... (read more)

Certain desires help the human race, other desires hurt the human race, and these can be discovered in the same way we discover any other facts about the universe.

You simply passed the recursive buck to "help" and "hurt". I will let you take for granted the superintelligence's knowledge of, or well-calibrated probability distribution over, any empirical truth about consequences; but when it comes to the valuation of those consequences in terms of "helping" or "hurting" you must tell me how to compute it, or run a computation that computes how to compute it.


The resemblance between my second suggestion and your thing didn't go unnoticed -- I had in fact read your coherent extrapolated volition thing before (there's probably an old e-mail from me to you about it, in fact). I think it's basically correct. But the method of justification is importantly different, because the idea is that we're trying to approximate something with epistemic content -- we're not just trying to do what you might call a Xannon thing -- we're not just trying to model what humans would do. Rather, we're trying to model and i... (read more)

Eliezer: as you are aware yourself, we don't know how to compute it, nor how to run a computation that computes how to compute it. If we leave it up to the superintelligence to decide how to interpret "helping" and "hurting," it will be in a position no worse than our own, and possibly better, seeing that we are not superintelligent.

Paul: Responsiveness to which reasons? For every mind in mind design space that sees X as a reason to value Y, there are other possible minds that see X as a reason to value ~Y.

The answer to "Friendly to who?" had damn well better always be "Friendly to the author and by proxy those things the author wants." Otherwise leaving aside what it actually is friendly to, it was constructed by a madman.

Right, but those questions are responsive to reasons too. Here's where I embrace the recursion. Either we believe that ultimately the reasons stop -- that is, that after a sufficiently ideal process, all of the minds in the relevant mind design space agree on the values, or we don't. If we do, then the superintelligence should replicate that process. If we don't, then what basis do we have for asking a superintelligence to answer the question? We might as well flip a coin.

Of course, the content of the ideal process is tricky. I'm hiding the really ha... (read more)

The only reasons that exist for taking any actions at all are desires. In specific - the desires of the being taking the action. Under any given condition the being will always take the action that best fulfills the most/strongest of it's desires (given it's beliefs). The question isn't which action is right/wrong based on some universal bedrock of fairness, but rather what desires we want the being to have. We can shape many desires in humans (and presumably all the desires of an AI) and thus we want to give it the desires that best help and least hurt h... (read more)

Paul: Sounds like you're just describing the "thought faster" part of the CEV process, i.e., "What would you decide if you could search a larger argument space for reasons?" However, it seems to me that you're idealizing this process very highly, and overlooking such questions as "What if different orderings of the arguments would end up convincing us of different things?" which a CEV has to handle somehow, e.g. by weighting the possibilities by e.g. length, combining them into a common superposition, and acting only where s... (read more)


Things like the ordering of arguments are just additional questions about the rationality criteria, and my point above applies to them just as well -- either there's a justifiable answer ("this is how arguments are to be ordered,") or it's going to be fundamentally socially determined and there's nothing to be done about it. The political is really deeply prior to the workings of a superintelligence in such cases: if there's no determinate correct answer to these process questions, then humans will have to collectively muddle through to ... (read more)

Eliezer: Are you looking for a new definition of "fairness" which would reconcile the partisans of existing definitions? Or are you just pointing out that this is a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned if-you-don't problem, and that any rule for establishing fairness will piss somebody or other off? If the latter, from the point of view of your larger project, why not just insert a dummy answer for this question - pick any definition that grabs you - and see how it fits with the rest of what you need to work out. Or work through several different obv... (read more)

I suppose that's just to second Paul Gowder's point that the political problem is insurmountable. But I imagine few things would resolve a political problem faster then the backing of an all-powerful supermind.

@Paul: You seem to suggest that we all take the same things to be reasons, perhaps even the same reasons. Is this warranted?

Things like the ordering of arguments are just additional questions about the rationality criteria

...which problem you can't hand off to the superintelligence until you've specified how it decides 'rationality criteria'. Bootstrapping is allowed, skyhooking isn't. Suppose that 98% of humans, under 98% of the extrapolated spread, would both choose a certain ordering of arguments, and also claim that this is the uniquely correct ordering. Is this sufficient to just go ahead and label that ordering the rational one? If you refuse to answer that question yourself, what is the procedure that answers it?

Poke has it exactly right. Thinking further along the lines suggested by his "social lubricant" idea, I'd suggest that fairness is no more than efficiency. Or, at the very least, if two prevailing doctrines of fairness exist, the more efficient doctrine will—ceteris paribus—in the long run prevail.

This leaves open the question of how closely to efficiency our notions of fairness have actually evolved, but that's an empirical question.

This question, of what is fairness / morality, seems a lot easier (to me) than the posters here appear to feel.

Isn't the answer: You start with purely selfish desires. These sometimes cause conflict with limited resources. Then you take Rawl's Veil of Ignorance, and come up with social rules (like "don't murder") that result in a net positive outcome for society. It's not a zero-sum game. Cooperation can result in greater returns for everybody, than constant conflict.

Individuals breaking agreed morality are shunned, in much the same way as so... (read more)

Certain desires help the human race, other desires hurt the human race, and these can be discovered in the same way we discover any other facts about the universe. You simply passed the recursive buck to "help" and "hurt". I will let you take for granted the superintelligence's knowledge of, or well-calibrated probability distribution over, any empirical truth about consequences; but when it comes to the valuation of those consequences in terms of "helping" or "hurting" you must tell me how to compute it, or run a c
... (read more)

I see no reason to believe there is such a thing as an objective definition of "fair" in this case. The idea that an equal division is "fair" is based on the assumption that none of the three has a good argument as to why he should receive more than either of the others. If one has a reasonable argument as to why he should receive more, the fairness argument breaks down. In fact, none of the three really have a good argument as to why he is entitled to any of it, and I can't see why it would be wrong for any of the first one to grab it ... (read more)

Why not divide the pie according to who will ultimately put the pie to the best use? If X and Y intend to take a nap after eating the pie, but Z is willing to plant a tree, wouldn't the best outcome for the pie favor Z getting more?

Before you dismiss the analogy, consider this - what if the pie was $1800.00 that none of the three had earned? What if the $1800.00 had been BORROWED with a certain expectation of its utility? Should X, Y, and Z each get $600.00, even though there is no stipulation as to what each of them must DO with that money? If X intends t... (read more)

Suppose that 98% of humans, under 98% of the extrapolated spread, would both choose a certain ordering of arguments, and also claim that this is the uniquely correct ordering. Is this sufficient to just go ahead and label that ordering the rational one? If you refuse to answer that question yourself, what is the procedure that answers it?

Again, this is why it's irreducibly social. If there isn't a procedure that yields a justified determinate answer to the rationality of that order, then the best we can do is take what is socially accepted at the time and in the society in which such a superintelligence is created. There's nowhere else to look.

Eliezer (to Roland): "I confess that I'd intended the original reading of the dialogue as simple greed on Zaire's part [...]"

For the book's sake (if this series is for the book), I want to say that this was much clearer (and more entertaining) with Dennis.

Early in the story, Z is hungry, and X and Y are not. Z says that he thinks that because he is hungry, 'fair' is defined with him getting more pie, while X and Y disagree. This seems like a slightly strange story to me, but here's a much stranger one:

Z is hungry, and X and Y are not. X thinks that it would be fair to give Z 1/2 the pie, but Z and Y both think it would be fair to split the pie 1/3;1/3;1/3. In other words, the person who is arguing the fairness of the unequal distribution is not the person who would benefit from it. This feels much less... (read more)

Joe Mathes: I thought it was fairly obvious that a fair distribution is in this case synonymous with a moral distribution (was I wrong?). In this context, the word fair doesn't have any meaning if one tries to remove the concept of morality.

However I don't think that argueing for fairness when one is not the beneficiary is that unusual. The civil rights movement was supported by a lot of white people, and the women's liberation movement was supported by a lot of males. In both cases these people are losing an advantage they previously held in order to ... (read more)

They are motivated by a love of fairness and a desire to promote fairness, which has been inculcated into them by their programmers.
Unlikely. The basic principles of fairness are constant between human cultures and societies, and seem to be intuitively understood by humans. What changes is the status of categories of people - but humans agree on what behavior is fair towards an equal.

To deal with the question "what is moral", we need first to establish the purpose of "morality". How can you evaluate the effectiveness of a design unless you first understand what it is intended to do and not do?

Eneasz: you're ignoring "moral benefits". Let's say Joe is crossing a desert with enough food and water to live comfortably until he reaches his destination. Midway through, he comes across Bob, who is dying of thirst. If Joe gives Bob sufficient food and water to save his life, Joe can still make it across the desert, but not as comfortably. Giving Bob food and water represents a loss of benefits for Joe; withholding food and water represents a more significant loss, though. Most people would be wracked by guilt at leaving someone to die when th... (read more)

For every possible division of pie into three pieces (including pieces of 0 size), take each person and ask how fair they would think the division if they received each of the three slices. Average those together to get each person's overall fairness rating for a given pie distribution.

Average those per-person results into an "overall fairness" rating for each pie distribution.

This includes:
- You can have people involved who don't like pie and don't want any. It seems pointless to say that division into thirds is the only fair division, if one ... (read more)

A possible mathematical rule for fairness in this situation.
1. Select who gets to cut the pie into three pieces by a random process.
2. That individual can cut it into any size sections he chooses along as there are three sections.
3. The order of choice selection again is determined by a random process.
Result: on average everyone receives 1/3 share.

Fairness=underlying intuitive mathematical rules. QED

A variant on demiurge: A standard way of dividing something into two parts is to have one person divide and the other choose. Alice cuts the slice of cake in half, and Bob takes whichever piece he likes. If Alice is unhappy with her piece, she should have cut the two more evenly. You can apply the same rule to three people by adding an extra step: glide the knife along the edge to create an increasingly large piece, and any of the three can call a stop and take that piece (then divide the rest as for two people). (For a pie, you might make an initial c... (read more)

Yancy: "If someone wants to murder me, and the two of us are alone, then I am still in the right and they are still in the wrong, even if no one else is present."

So the trick here is to realize that fairness is defined with respect to an expected or typical observer -- when you try to murder me, and I scream "Foul play!", the propositional content of my cry is that I expect any human who happens to pass by to agree with me and to help stop the murder. If nobody passes by this time, well, that's just my bad luck, and I can go to my g... (read more)

My favorite answer to this problem comes from "How to Cut a Cake: And Other Mathematical Conundrums." The solution in the book was that "fair" means "no one has cause to complain." It doesn't work in the case here, since one party wants to divide the pie unevenly, but if you were trying to make even cuts, it works. The algorithm was:

  1. Make a cut from the center to the edge.
  2. Have one person hold the knife over that cut,
  3. Slowly rotate the knife (or the pie) at, say, a few degrees per second.
  4. At any time, any person (including the one holding the knife) can say "cut." A cut is made there, and the speaker gets the thus-cut piece.

At the end, anyone who thinks they got too little (meaning, someone else got too much) could have said "cut" before that other person's cut got too big.

That's actually a really good idea. Like the 'cut the deck and the other person gets to pick half' idea but this one actually generalizes to multiple people. Elegant.
That's the simplest form. AnthonyC adapts it to work for multiple people, provided that everyone agrees that the utility should be divided up evenly. I think it's possible to adapt the principle further, so that it also applies to situations posed by others on this thread. (Insulin should be given preferentially to diabetics, and antidote should be distributed so as to maximize the number of lives saved.) If no one knows whether they are one of the parties that will benefit from unfair distribution, then even selfish Bayesian agents will agree on a distribution. This might be accomplished if a group can decide in advance what to do in certain circumstances. For example, say a group of N people thinks that some of them might be poisoned, but no one is exhibiting symptoms yet. The group might decide to administer 1 unit of antidote to the first person to show visible symptoms. If they continue to treat each person who shows symptoms, in order, they may well run out of n units of antidote. Before anyone shows symptoms, even in a worst-case scenario where they all are poisoned, self-interested parties will find it fairly easy to agree to n/N chances of survival. When they are down to their L^th and last unit of antidote, however, all parties but the one showing symptoms have a strong incentive to withhold the antidote. If they are all poisoned, then they have a 0% chance of survival. This assumes that all parties get equal value out of the same utility, however. It's much more difficult when one party gets an amount of utility that can only be judged qualitatively. For example, if Xannon and Yancy don't really like pie all that much and aren't all that hungry, but Zaire hasn't eaten anything in the last day or two. Alternatively, if we want to compare how much a pig values its own life with the utility of a much more intelligent human's pleasure out of eating bacon. If you can determine a conversion factor though, or agree on the relative benefits of each, then it b
Nice! Thanks a lot.

Xannon decides how much Zaire gets. Zaire decides how much Yancy gets. Yancy decides how much Xannon gets.

If any is left over they go through the process again for the remainder ad infinitum until an approximation of all of the pie has been eaten.

Xannon and Yancy offer Zaire 1/3 of the pie, if he'll accept that.

If he won't, they split the pie 50-50 between them, and leave Zaire with nothing.

Does that sound fair?

To me? Sure. Not optimal, but fair enough. To Zaire? No, not at all. I infer from your question that you would prefer to ignore Zaire's preferences in the matter. As would I. I further infer that you're content to rely on your intuitions about whose preferences to ignore. I prefer not to do that, given a choice.
This was a pun by the way. I was playing on "fair" in the sense of retributive justice (Xannon and Yancy punishing Zaire for being antisocial) as opposed to distributive justice. Sorry if that wasn't clear. On reflection, it is important that these senses are closely linked... societies probably can't get the distributive part of justice at all unless they are first firm on the retributive part. Close-knit, egalitarian communities do seem to get very nasty about members taking more than their fair share, and don't truck a lot of long-winded, self-serving debate on what constitutes a fair share. (On a wider scale, it is also interesting how much noisier and greedier the super-Zaires of this world have become in recent years, ever since the threat of socialist revolution went the way of the dodo. A few decades back, the rich really did fear reds under the beds lynching them any time soon, with compromises like Keynes and Social Democracy among the results. Not so much these days.) Lastly, I don't think I (or you) need to ignore Zaire's preferences, any more than those of Xannon or Yancy's. Each of them, presumably, has a individual utility function which increases with the proportion of pie that they personally get. The real difference is that Xannon and Yancy are at least attempting to construct a symmetric joint utility function (one which is invariant under permutations of the variables X, Y and Z.) Whereas Zaire is just trying it on.

When people get this embroiled in philosophy, I usually start eating pie.

However as I don't like blueberries, we will split the pie into thirds fairly as Yancy wants, then I will give 1/6th of my pie to Zaire so he has the half he wants, and I'll leave the other 1/6th where I found it since A PIE WE FOUND IN THE FOREST AND KNOW NOTHING ABOUT ISN'T NECESSARILY MINE TO STEAL FROM.

A great post. It captured a lot of intriguing questions I currently have about ethics. One question I have, which I am curious to see addressed in further posts in this sequence, is: Once we dissolve the question of "fairness" (or "morality" or any other such term) and taboo the term, is there a common referent that all parties are really discussing, or do the parties have fundamentally different and irreconcilable ideas of what fairness (or morality, etc.) is? Is Xannon's "fairness" merely a homonym for Yancy's "fairness... (read more)

Interesting. As far as I can tell, the moral is that most definitions in an argument are supplied such that the arguer gets their way, instead of being a solid fact that can be followed in a logical sequence in order to deduce the correct course of action.

But I think it would using the rationalists' Taboo would benefit the three, as the word "fair" is defined differently by each of them: Xannon defines fairness as a compromise between the involved parties. Yancy defines fairness as an objective equality wherein everyone receives the same treatmen... (read more)

There's another compromise position. Namely, two can form a coalition against the third and treat the problem as dividing a pie between two individuals with different claims. For example, Xannon and Yancy have a combined claim of 2/3 to Zaire's 1/2. Proportional division according to those terms would give Zaire 3/7 to the duo's 4/7, which they can then split in half to get the distribution {2/7, 2/7, 3/7}. As it turns out, you get this same division no matter how the coalitions form. This sort of principle dates back to the Talmud.

Of course, this only wor... (read more)

Wow. This creates a real moral conflict for me much better than a clash of three worlds (where the problem is that I really agree more with the super happy than with people, and even more so with those who killed themselves)

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