Questions for Moral Realists

by peter_hurford1 min read13th Feb 2013110 comments


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My meta-ethics are basically that of Luke's Pluralistic Moral Reductionism.  (UPDATE: Elaborated in my Meta-ethics FAQ.)

However, I was curious as to whether this "Pluralistic Moral Reductionism" counts as moral realism or anti-realism.  Luke's essay says it depends on what I mean by "moral realism".  I see moral realism as broken down into three separate axes:

There's success theory, the part that I accept, which states that moral statements like "murder is wrong" do successfully refer to something real (in this case, a particular moral standard, like utilitarianism -- "murder is wrong" refers to "murder does not maximize happiness").

There's unitary theory, which I reject, that states there is only one "true" moral standard rather than hundreds of possible ones.

And then there's absolutism theory, which I reject, that states that the one true morality is rationally binding.

I don't know how many moral realists are on LessWrong, but I have a few questions for people who accept moral realism, especially unitary theory or absolutism theory.  These are "generally seeking understanding and opposing points of view" kind of questions, not stumper questions designed to disprove or anything.  While I'm doing some more reading on the topic, if you're into moral realism, you could help me out by sharing your perspective.


Why is there only one particular morality?

This goes right to the core of unitary theory -- that there is only one true theory of morality.  But I must admit I'm dumbfounded at how any one particular theory of morality could be "the one true one", except in so far as someone personally chooses that theory over others based on preferences and desires.

So why is there only one particular morality?  And what is the one true theory of morality?  What makes this theory the one true one rather than others?  How do we know there is only one particular theory?  What's inadequate about all the other candidates?


Where does morality come from?

This gets me a bit more background knowledge, but what is the ontology of morality?  Some concepts of moral realism have an idea of a "moral realm", while others reject this as needlessly queer and spooky.  But essentially, what is grounding morality?  Are moral facts contingent; could morality have been different?  Is it possible to make it different in the future?


Why should we care about (your) morality?

I see rationality as talking about what best satisfies your pre-existing desires.  But it's entirely possible that morality isn't desirable by someone at all.  While I hope that society is prepared to coerce them into moral behavior (either through social or legal force), I don't think that their immoral behavior is necessarily irrational.  And on some accounts, morality is independent of desire but still has rational force.

How does morality get it's ability to be rationally binding?  If the very definition of "rationality" includes being moral, is that mere wordplay?  Why should we accept this definition of rationality and not a different one?

I look forward to engaging in diologue with some moral realists.  Same with moral anti-realists, I guess.  After all, if moral realism is true, I want to know.

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How does morality get it's ability to be rationally binding? If the very definition of "rationality" includes being moral, is that mere wordplay? Why should we accept this definition of rationality and not a different one?

Also see Peter Singer's The Triviality of the Debate Over 'Is-Ought' and the Definition of 'Moral'. In short, a justification of moral prescriptions comes back to an explanation of why you should care about those moral prescriptions. Or on LW: The Moral Void.

A killer quote from Singer's paper:

Disputes over the definition

... (read more)
2danieldewey8yThanks for linking that paper, I hand't encountered it and it seems useful.

Why is there only one particular morality?

I think the standard LW argument for there being only one morality is based on the psychological unity of mankind. Human minds do not occupy an arbitrary or even a particularly large region of mindspace: the region they occupy is quite small for good reasons. Likewise, the moral theories that human minds adopt occupy quite a small region of moralityspace. The arguments around CEV suggest that these moral theories ought to converge if we extrapolate enough. I am not sure if this exact argument is defended in a LW... (read more)

the region they occupy is quite small for good reasons.

The region is exactly as large as it is. The fact that is has size, and is not a single point, tells you that our moralities are different. In some things, the difference will not matter, and in some it will. It seems we don't have any problem finding things to fight over. However small you want to say that the differences are, there's a lot of conflict over them.

The more I look around, the more I see people with fundamentally different ways of thinking and valuing. Now I suppose they have more commonality between them and banana slugs, and likely they would band together should the banana slugs rise up and launch a sneak attack. But these different kinds of people with different values often don't seem to want to live in the same world.

Hitchens writes in Newsweek magazine: “Winston Churchill ... found it intolerable even to breathe the same air, or share the same continent or planet, as the Nazis.”

(By the way, if anyone can find the original source from Churchill, I'd appreciate it.)

I'd also note that even having contextually identical moralities doesn't imply a lack of conflict. We could all be psychopaths. Some percentag... (read more)

0TheAncientGeek7yNo amount of difference or disagreement makes the slightest impact on realism. Realists accept that some many or all people are wrong.
0buybuydandavis7yOf course. No amount of reality need have the slightest impact on moral realists. Is there any experiment that could be run that would refute moral realism? Maybe Clippy is right, we should all be clippists, and we're just all "wrong" to think otherwise. Clippism - the true objective morality. Clippy seems to think so. I don't, and I don't care what Clippy thinks in this regard.
0TheAncientGeek7y1. Realism does not equate to empiricism 2. It also doesn't equate to non-empiricism. Eg "Fish do not feel pain, so angling is not cruel"> 3.If you are like a clippy-- an entity that only uses rationality to fulfil arbitrary aims -- you won't be convinced/.Guess what? That has no impact on realism whatsoever. A compelling argument is an argument capable of compelling an agent capable of understanding it, and with a commitment to rationality as an end.
1buybuydandavis7yAre your aims arbitrary? If not, why are Clippy's aims arbitrary, and your's not arbitrary?
-1TheAncientGeek7yClippy doesn't care aboiut having a coherent set of aims, or about revising and improving its aims. []
0buybuydandavis7yThat doesn't answer my question.
-1TheAncientGeek7yYou asked two questions. My reply was meant to indicate that arbitrariness depends on coherence and extrapolation (revision, reflection), both of which Clippy has rather less of whichthan I do.
4Kaj_Sotala8yI would very much doubt such an argument: most humans also share the same mechanisms for language learning, but still end up speaking quite different languages. (Yes, you can translate between them and learn new languages, but that doesn't mean that all languages are the same: there are things that just don't translate well from one language to another.) Global structure, local content.
2Qiaochu_Yuan8yI don't think the analogy to languages holds water. Substituting a word for a different word doesn't have the kind of impact on what people do that substituting a moral rule for a different moral rule does. Put another way, there are selection pressures constraining what human moralities look like that don't constrain what human languages look like.
1twanvl8yThis sounds like a strawman argument to me. It doesn't refute the argument that part of morality is cultural but based on a shared morality-learning mechanism. There are also selection pressures constraining what human languages look like, that don't constrain what human moralities look like. Or to give another example: there are selection pressures that constrain what dogs look like that don't constrain what catfish look like, and vice-versa. That doesn't mean that they also have similarities.
3MrMind8yHaving read the Meta-Ethics sequence, this is my belief too. Indeed, Elizier cares to index human-evaluation and pebblesorters-evaluation algorithms, by calling the first "morality" and the second "pebblesorting", but he is careful to avoid talking about Elizier-morality and MrMind-morality, or even Elizier-yesterday-morality and Elizier-today-morality. Of course his aims were different, and compared to differently evolved aliens (or AI's) our morality is truly one of a kind. But if we magnify our view on morality-space, I think it's impossible not to recognize that there are differences! I think that this state of affair can be explained in this way: while there's a psychological unity of mankind, it concerns only very primitive aspects of our lives: the existence of joy, sadness, the importance of sex, etc. But our innermost and basic evaluation algorithm doesn't cover every aspects of our lives, mainly because our culture poses problems too new for a genetic solution to have been spread to the whole population. Thus ad-hoc solutions, derived from culture and circumstances, step in: justice, fairness, laws, and so on. Those solutions may very well vary in time and space, and our brains being what they are, sometimes they overwrite what should have been the most primitive output. When we talk about morality, we are usually already assuming the most primitive basic facts about human evaluation algorithm, and we try to argue about the finer point not covered by the genetic wiring of our brains, as for example if murder is always wrong. In comparison with pebble-sorters or clipping AI, humanity exhibits a very narrow way of evaluating reality, to the point that you can talk about a single human-algorithm and call it "morality". But if you zoom in, it is clear that the bedrock of morality doesn't cover every problems that cultures naturally throw at pepole, and that's why you need to invent "patches" or "add-ons" to the original algorithm, in form of morality conce
1Jack8yThis sounds like ethical subjectivism (that ethical sentences are propositions about the attitudes of people). I'm quite amenable to ethical subjectivism but it's an anti-realist position.
2Qiaochu_Yuan8ySee this comment [] . If Omega changed the attitudes of all people, that would change what those people mean when they say morality-in-our-world, but it would not change what I mean (here, in the real world rather than the counterfactual world) when I say morality-in-the-counterfactual-world, in the same way that if Omega changed the brains of all people so that the meanings of "red" and "yellow" were switched, that would change what those people mean when they say red, but it would not change what I mean when I say red-in-the-counterfactual-world.
1Jack8yI deal with exactly this issue in a post I made a while back [] (admittedly it is too long). It's an issue of levels of recursion in our process of modelling reality (or a counterfactual reality). Your moral judgments aren't dependent on the attitudes of people (including yourself) that you are modeling (in this world or in a counterfactual world): they're dependent on the cognitive algorithms in your actual brain. In other words, the subjectivist account of morality doesn't say that people look at the attitudes of people in the world and then conclude from that what morality says. We don't map attitudes and then conclude from those attitudes what is and is moral. Rather, we map the world and then out brains react emotionally to facts about that world and project our attitudes onto them. So morality doesn't change in a world where people's attitudes change because you're using the same brain to make moral judgments about the counterfactual world as you use to make moral judgments about this world. The post I linked to has some diagrams that make this clearer. As for the linked comment, I am unsure there is a single, distinct, and unchanging logical object to define-- but if there is one I agree with the comment and think that defining the algorithm that produces human attitudes is a crucial project. But clearly an anti-realist one. Edit: rewrote for clarity.
0Qiaochu_Yuan8yI'm not sure what you mean by this. Yes, but logical objects aren't. If I said "when we talk about Peano arithmetic, we are referring to a logical object. If counterfactually Peano had proposed a completely different set of axioms, that would change what people in the counterfactual world mean by Peano arithmetic, but it wouldn't change what I mean by Peano-arithmetic-in-the-counterfactual-world," would that imply that I'm not a mathematical Platonist?
0Jack8yI literally just edited my comment for clarity. It might make more sense now. I will edit this comment with a response to your point here. Edit: Any value system is a logical object. For that matter, any model of anything is a logical object. Any false theory of physics is a logical object. Theories of morality and of physics (logical objects both) are interesting because they purport to describe something in the world. The question before us is do normative theories purport to describe an object that is mind-independent or an object that is subjective?
0Qiaochu_Yuan8yOkay. I don't think we actually disagree about anything. I just don't know what you mean by "realist." Yes, that sounds right.
0byrnema8yOK, suppose that this is an anti-realism position. People's attitudes exist, but this isn't what we mean by morality existing. Is that how it follows as an anti-realist position? I was intrigued by a comment you made some time ago that you are not a realist, so you wonder what it is that everyone is arguing about. What is your position on ethical subjectivism?
5Jack8ySo here [] is a generic definition of realism (in general, not for morality in particular E.g. A realist position on ghosts doesn't include the position that "ghost" is a kind of hallucination people have even though there is something that exists there. I think it is less wrong than every variety of moral realism but I am unsure if moral claims are reports of subjective attitudes (subjectivism) or expressions of subjective attitudes (non-cognitivism). But I don't think that distinction matters very much. Luckily, I live in a world populated by entities who mostly concur with my attitudes regarding how the universe should be. This lets us cooperate and formalize procedures for determining outcomes that are convivial to our attitudes. But these attitudes are the result of a cognitive structure determined by natural selection and culture transmission, altered by reason and language. As such, they contain all manner of kludgey artifacts and heuristics that respond oddly to novel circumstances. So I find it weird that anyone thinks they can be described by something like preference utilitarianism of Kantian deontology. Those are the kind of parsimonious, elegant theories that we expect to find governing natural laws, not culturally and biologically evolved structures. In fact, Kant was emulating Newton. Attitudes produced by human brains are going to be contextually inconsistent, subject to framing effects, unable to process most novel inputs, cluttered etc. What's more, since our attitudes aren't produced by a single, universal utility function but a cluster of heuristics, most moral disagreements are going to be the result of certain heuristics being more dominant in some people than others. That makes these grand theories about these attitudes silly to argue about: positions aren't determined by things in the universe or by logic. They're determined by the cognitive styles of individuals and the cultural conditioning t
3byrnema8yI see, thanks for that distinction! I now need to reread parts of the metaethics sequence since I believe I came away with the thesis that morality is real in this sense... That is, that morality is real because we have bits of code (evolutionary, mental, etc) that output positive or negative feelings about different states of the universe and this code is "real" even if the positive and negative doesn't exist external to that code. I agree... and I don't disagree with this. I do hope/half expect that there should be some patterns to our attitudes, not as simplistic as natural laws but perhaps guessable to someone who thought about it the right way. Thanks for describing your positions in more detail.
1Vladimir_Nesov8yIn the practical sense, only something in particular can be done with the world, so if "morality" is taken to refer to the goal given to a world-optimizing AI, it should be something specific by construction. If we take "morality" as given by the data of individual people, we can define personal moralities for each of them that would almost certainly be somewhat different from each other. Given the task of arriving at a single goal for the world, it might prove useful to exploit the similarities between personal moralities, or to sidestep this concept altogether, but eventual "convergence" is more of a design criterion than a prediction. In a world that had both humans and pebblesorters in it, arriving at a single goal would still be an important problem, even though we wouldn't expect these goals to "naturally" converge under reflection.
0Manfred8yI think you're mixing up CEV with morality. CEV is an instance of the strategy "cooperate with humans" in some sort of AI-building prisoner's dilemma. It gives the AI some preferences, and the only guarantee that those preferences will be good is that humans are similar. There is "only one" "morality" (kinda) because when I say "this is right" I am executing a function, and functions are unique-ish. But Me.right can be different from You.right. You just happen to be wrong sometimes, because You.right isn't right, because when I say right I mean Me.right. So that "good" from the first paragraph would be Me.good, not CEV.good.
-1Qiaochu_Yuan8yYou don't think morality should just be CEV?
1Manfred8yIt is a factual statement that when I say something is "right," I don't mean CEV.right, I mean Me.right, and I'm not even particularly trying to approximate CEV.
-2RomeoStevens8yA "winning" CEV should result in people with wildly divergent moralities all being deliriously happy.

By the definitions above, I'm a unitary but not an absolutism theorist. I would describe rationally binding constraints as those that govern prudence, not morality; one can be perfectly prudent without being moral (indeed, if one does not have morality among one's priorities, perfect prudence could require immorality). A brief sketch of my moral theory can be found here.

Why is there only one particular morality?

What would it mean for there to be several? I think morality drops out of personhood. It's possible that other things drop out of personhoo... (read more)

4Kaj_Sotala8yThat there are many possible moral intuitions or axioms that one could base one's morality on, with no objective criteria for saying which set of intuitions or axioms is the best one? Your basic axioms say that (to simplify a lot) personhood grants rights and morality is about respecting those rights, while a utilitarian could say that suffering is bad and pleasure is good and morality is about how to best minimize suffering and maximize pleasure. Since all morality ultimately reduces to some kinds of axioms that just have to be taken as granted, I am in turn confused about what it would even mean to say that there are is only one correct set of them. (There obviously is some set of axioms that is the only correct one for me, but moral realism seems to imply some set that would be the only correct one for everybody.)
2Alicorn8yWell, yes, I suppose this is literally what that would mean, but I don't see much reason to call any particular thing chosen out of a grab bag "morality" instead of "prudence" or "that thing that Joe does" or "a popular action-tree-pruning algorithm".
0peter_hurford8yYour theory of morality is certainly complex and well-thought out, but I think is based on an assertion "persons have rights, which it is wrong to violate" that isn't established in any sort of traditionally realist way. Indeed, I think you agree with me that since absolutism theory is false, only those who prefer to recognize rights (or, alternatively, are caught in some regulatory scheme that enforces those rights) have a reason to recognize rights. Alternatively, as Kaj mentioned, there are other systems of morality, like utilitarianism, that also capture a lot of what is meant by morality and there aren't any grounds to dismiss them as inferior. In an essay I wrote, "Too Many Moralities" [], I make the place I choose to carve reality around the word "morality" as to whether the “end” holds as its goal acting not with regard to only the self, but rather with regard to the direct or indirect benefit of others. If does, it counts as “morality”, and if it doesn’t, it does not. I don't personally yet see any reason why a particular theory deserves the special treatment of being singled out as the "one, true theory of morality". I'd appreciate your thoughts on the matter because it could help me understand (and perhaps even sympathize with) the unitary perspective a lot more.
1Alicorn8yHmm. I'm not sure I understand your perspective. I'm happy to call all sorts of incorrect moralities "things based on moral intuition", even if I think the extrapolation is wrong, does that help?
0peter_hurford8yWhy do you think their extrapolation is wrong? And what does "wrong" mean in that context?
1Alicorn8yI'm not sure I know what you mean by the first question. Regarding the second, it means that they have not arrived at the (one true unitary) morality, at least as far as I know. If someone looks an optical illusion like, say, the Muller-Lyer, they base their conclusions about the lengths of the lines they're looking at on their vision, but reach incorrect conclusions. I don't think deriving moral theory from moral intuition is that straightforward or that it's fooled in any particularly analogous way, but that's about what I mean by someone extrapolating incorrectly from moral intuitions.
1Kaj_Sotala8yI think that he meant something like: * You seem to be saying that while different people can have different moralities, many (most?) of the moralities that people can have are wrong. * You also seem to be implying that you consider your morality to be more correct than that of many others. * Since you believe that there are moralities which are wrong, and that you have a morality which is, if not completely correct then at least more correct than the moralities of many others, that means that you need to have some sort of a rule for deciding what kind of a morality is right and what kind of morality is wrong. * So what is the rule that makes you consider your morality more correct than e.g. consequentialism? What are some of the specific mistakes that e.g. consequentialism makes, and how do you know that they are mistakes?
0peter_hurford8ySorry for so long between this response and the previous one, but I'm still interested. With the Muller-Lyer Illusion, you can demonstrate it's an illusion by using a ruler. Following your analogy, how would you demonstrate that a incorrect moral extrapolation was similarly in error? Is there a moral "ruler"?
0Alicorn8yNot one that you can buy at an office supply store, at any rate, but you can triangulate a little using other people and of course checking for consistency is important.
0peter_hurford8ySo what is moral is what is the most popular among all internally consistent possibilities?
0Alicorn8yNo, morality is not contingent on popularity.
1peter_hurford8yI'm confused. Can you explain how you triangulate morality using other people?
0Alicorn8yMostly, they're helpful for locating hypotheses.
0peter_hurford8yI'm still confused, sorry. How do you arrive at a moral principle and how do you know it's not a moral illusion?
0Alicorn8yYou can't be certain it's not a moral illusion, I hope I never implied that.
0peter_hurford8yYou're right; you haven't. Do you put any probability estimate on whether a certain moral principle is not an illusion? If so, how?
-1Alicorn8yI don't naturally think in numbers and decline to forcibly attach any. I could probably order a list of statements from more to less confident.
0peter_hurford8yBy what basis do you make that ordering?
-1Alicorn8yI'm not sure what you mean by this question.
0peter_hurford8yYou say you can order a list of statements from more to less confident. Say, Moral Principle A is more confident than Moral Principle B. But how do you know that? Why isn't Moral Principle B more confident than Moral Principle A? I imagine you have some criteria for determining the confidence of moral principles to determine their order, but I don't know what that criteria is.
0Alicorn8ySomeone has taken a dislike to this thread, so I'm going to tap out now.
0peter_hurford8yThanks for the conversation.
1ygert8yNote: What I think Alicorn is saying (And I think it makes a of of sense), is that those "axioms" can be derived from the notion of "personhood" or "humanity". That is, given that humans are the way there are, from that we can derive some rules about how to behave. These rules are not truly universal, as aliens would not have them, or be in any way obliged to come up with them. (Of course, they would have there own separate system, but calling that system a form of morality would be distorting the meaning of the word.)
0Alicorn8yNo. Personhood ≠ humanity. If we find persony aliens I will apply the same moral system to them. Your interpretation seems to cross the cosmetic features of what I'm saying with some of the deeper principles of what Eliezer tends to say.
0ygert8yAh. OK, sorry for misinterpreting you. This is just what I got from what you wrote, but of course, the illusion of transparency comes into play.
0christina8yInteresting thoughts. Definitely agree that morality comes from people, and specifically their interactions with each other. Although I would additionally clarify that in my case I consider morality (as opposed to a simple action decided by personal gain or benefit) comes from the interaction between sentients where one or more can act on another based on knowledge not only of their own state but the state of that other. This is because I consider any sentient to have some nonzero moral value to me, but am not sure if I would consider all of them persons. I am comfortable thinking of an ape or a dolphin as a person, but I think I do not give a mouse the same status. Nevertheless, I would feel some amount of moral wrongness involved in causing unnecessary pain to the mouse, since I believe such creatures to be sentient and therefore capable of suffering. I'm not sure how the rest of my morality compares to yours, though. I don't think there is any one morality, or indeed that moral facts exist at all. Now, this does not mean that I subscribe to multiple moralities, especially those whose actions and consequences directly contradict each other. I simply believe that if one of my highest goals is the protection of sapient life, and someone else's highest goal is the destruction of it, I cannot necessarily expect that I can ever show them, with any facts about the world, that their morality is wrong. I could only say that it was a fact about the world that their morality is in direct contradiction with mine. Now I don't believe that anything I've said above about morality (which was mostly metaethics anyway) precludes my existence or anyone else's existence as a moral actor. In fact, all people, by their capability to make decisions based on their knowledge of the present state of others, and their ability to extrapolate that state into the future based on their actions, are automatically moral actors in my view of things. I just don't necessarily think they always ac

I will answer by explaining my view of morally realist ethics.

Conscious experiences and their content are physical occurrences and real. They can vary from the world they represent, but they are still real occurrences. Their reality can be known with the highest possible certainty, above all else, including physics, because they are immediately and directly accessible, while the external world is accessible indirectly.

Unlike the physical world, it seems that physical conscious perceptions can theoretically be anything. The content of conscious perceptions ... (read more)

6falenas1088yWhy is fostering good conscious feelings and prevent bad conscious feelings necessarily correct? It is intuitive for humans to say we should maximize conscious experience, and that falls under the success theory that Peter talks about, but why is this necessarily the one true moral system? You say But valuable to who? If there were a person who valued others being in pain, why would this person's views matter less?
-1JonatasMueller8y"Why is fostering good conscious feelings and prevent bad conscious feelings necessarily correct? It is intuitive for humans to say we should maximize conscious experience, and that falls under the success theory that Peter talks about, but why is this necessarily the one true moral system?" If we agree that good and bad feelings are good and bad, that only conscious experiences produce direct ethical value, which lies in its good or bad quality, then theories that contradict this should not be correct, or they would need to justify their points, but it seems that they have trouble in that area. "But valuable to who? If there were a person who valued others being in pain, why would this person's views matter less?" :) That's a beauty of personal identities not existing. It doesn't matter who it is. In the case of valuing others being in pain, would it be generating pleasure from it? In that case, lots of things have to be considered, among which: the net balance of good and bad feelings caused from the actions; the societal effects of legalizing or not certain actions...
2Stuart_Armstrong8yA bit unclear, but I'm assuming you mean something like "we have good or bad (technically, pleasant or unpleasant) conscious experiences, and we know this with great certainty". That seems fine. Why? This is the whole core of the disagreement, and you're zooming over it way too fast. Even for ourselves, our wanting systems and our liking systems are not well aligned - we want things we don't like, and vice-versa. A preference utilitarian would say our wants are the most important; you seem to disagree, focusing on the good/bad aspect instead. But what logical reason would there be to follow one or the other? You seem to get words to do too much of the work. We have innate senses of positivity and negativity for certain experiences; we also have an innate sense that morality exists. But those together do not make positive experiences good "by definition" (nor does calling them "good" rather than "positive"). But those are relatively minor points - if there was a single consciousness in the universe, them maybe your argument could get off the ground. But we have many current and potential consciousnesses, with competing values and conscious experiences. You seem to be saying that we should logically be altruists, because we have conscious experiences. I agree we should be altruists; but that's a personal preference, and there's no logic to it. Following your argument (consciousness before physics) one could perfectly become a solipsist, believing only one's own mind exists, and ignoring others. Or your could be a racist altruist, preferring certain individuals or conscious experiences. Or you could put all experiences together on an infinite numbers of comparative scales (there is no intrinsic measure to compare the quality of two positive experiences in different people). But in a way, that's entirely a moot point. Your claim is that a certain ethics logically follows from our conscious reality. There I must ask you to prove it. State your assumptions, show your
0JonatasMueller8yHi Stuart, Indeed, wanting and liking do not always correspond, also from a neurological perspective. Wanting involves planning and planning often involves error. We often want things mistakenly, be it by evolutionary selected reasons, cultural reasons, or just bad planning. Liking is what matters, because it can be immediately and directly determined to be good, with the highest certainty. This is an empirical confirmation of its value, while wanting is like an empty promise. We have good and bad feelings associated with some evolutionarily or culturally determined things. Theoretically, the result of good and bad feelings could be associated with any inputs. The inputs don't matter, nor does wanting necessarily matter, nor innate intuitions of morality. The only thing that has direct value, which is empirically confirmed, is good and bad feelings. Well noticed. That comment was not well elaborated and is not a complete explanation. It is also necessary for that point you mentioned to consider the philosophy of personal identities, which is a point that I examine in my more complete essay on Less Wrong [], and also in my essay Universal Identity []. I have a small essay written on ethics, but it's a detailed topic, and my article may be too concise, assuming much previous reading on the subject. It is here []. I propose that we instead focus on questions as they come up.
2Stuart_Armstrong8yThat is your opinion. Others believe wanting is fundamental and rational, that can be checked and explained and shared - while liking is a misleading emotional response (that probably shows much less consistency, too). How would you resolve the difference? They say something is more important, you say something else is. Neither of your disagree about the facts of the world, just about what is important and what isn't. What can you point to that makes this into a logical disagreement?
-1JonatasMueller8yOne argument is that from empiricism or verification. Wanting can be and often is wrong. Simple examples can show this, but I assume that they won't be needed because you understand. Liking can be misleading in terms of motivation or in terms of the external object which is liked, but it cannot be misleading or wrong in itself, in that it is a good feeling. For instance, a person could like to use cocaine, and this might be misleading in terms of being a wrong motivation, that in the long-term would prove destructive and dislikeable. However, immediately, in terms of the sensation of liking itself, and all else being equal, then it is certainly good, and this is directly verifiable by consciousness. Taking this into account, some would argue for wanting values X, Y, or Z, but not values A, B, or C. This is another matter. I'm arguing that good and bad feelings are the direct values that have validity and should be wanted. Other valid values are those that are instrumentally reducible to these, which are very many, and most of what we do.
0Stuart_Armstrong8y"Wanting can be misleading in terms of the long term or in terms of the internal emotional state with which it is connected, but it cannot be misleading or wrong in itself, in that it is a clear preference."
1JonatasMueller8yIndeed, but what separates wanting and liking is that preferences can be wrong, they require no empirical basis, while liking in itself cannot be wrong, and it has an empirical basis. When rightfully wanting something, that something gets a justification. Liking, understood as good feelings, is a justification, while another is avoiding bad feelings, and this can be causally extended to include instrumental actions that will cause this in indirect ways.
1Stuart_Armstrong8yThen how can wanting be wrong? They're there, they're conscious preferences (you can introspect and get them, just as liking), and they have as much empirical basis as liking. And wanting can be seen as more fundamental - they are your preferences, and inform your actions (along with your world model), whereas using liking to take action involve having a (potentially flawed) mental model of what will increase your good experiences and diminish bad ones. The game can be continued endlessly - what you're saying is that your moral system revolves around liking, and that the arguments that this should be so are convincing to you. But you can't convince wanters with the same argument - their convictions are different, and neither set of arguments are "logical". It becomes a taste-based debate.
1JonatasMueller8ySorry, I thought you already understood why wanting can be wrong. Example 1: imagine a person named Eliezer walks to an ice cream stand, and picks a new flavor X. Eliezer wants to try the flavor X of ice cream. Eliezer buys it and eats it. The taste is awful and Eliezer vomits it. Eliezer concludes that wanting can be wrong and that it is different from liking in this sense. Example 2: imagine Eliezer watched a movie in which some homophobic gangsters go about killing homosexuals. Eliezer gets inspired and wants to kill homosexuals too, so he picks a knife and finds a nice looking young man and prepares to torture and kill him. Eliezer looks at the muscular body of the young man, and starts to feel homosexual urges and desires, and instead he makes love with the homosexual young man. Eliezer concludes that he wanted something wrong and that he had been a bigot and homosexual all along, liking men, but not wanting to kill them.
0Stuart_Armstrong8yI understand why those examples are wrong. Because I have certain beliefs (broadly, but not universally, shared). But I don't see how any of those beliefs can be logically deduced. Quite a lot follows from "positive conscious experiences are intrinsically valuable", but that axiom won't be accepted unless you already partially agree with it anyway.
2JonatasMueller8yI don't think that someone can disagree with it (good conscious feelings are intrinsically good; bad conscious feelings are intrinsically bad), because it would be akin to disagreeing that, for instance, the color green feels greenish. Do you disagree with it? Can you elaborate? I don't understand... Many valid wants or beliefs can be ultimately reduced as to good and bad feelings, in the present or future, for oneself or for others, as instrumental values, such as peace, learning, curiosity, love, security, longevity, health, science...
1Stuart_Armstrong8yI do disagree with it! :-) Here is what I agree with: * That humans have positive and negative conscious experiences. * That humans have an innate sense that morality exists: that good and bad mean something. * That humans have preferences. I'll also agree that preferences often (but not always) track the positive or negative conscious experiences of that human. That human impressions of good and bad sometimes (but not always) track positive or negative conscious experiences of humans in general, at least approximately. But I don't see any grounds for saying "positive conscious experiences are intrinsically (or logically) good". That seems to be putting in far to many extra connotations, and moving far beyond the facts we know.
0JonatasMueller8yI agree with what you agree with. Did you read my article Arguments against the Orthogonality Thesis []? I think that the argument for the intrinsic value (goodness or badness) of conscious feelings goes like this: 1. Conscious experiences are real, and are the most certain data about the world, because they are directly accessible, and don't depend on inference, unlike the external world as we perceive it. It would not be possible to dismiss conscious experiences as unreal, inferring that they not be part of the external world, since they are more certain than the external world is. The external world could be an illusion, and we could be living inside a simulated virtual world, in an underlying universe that be alien and with different physical laws. 2. Even though conscious experiences are representations (sometimes of external physical states, sometimes of abstract internal states), apart from what they represent they do exist in themselves as real phenomena (likely physical). 3. Conscious experiences can be felt as intrinsically neutral, good, or bad in value, sometimes intensely so. For example, the bad value of having deep surgery without anesthesia is felt as intrinsically and intensely bad, and this badness is a real occurrence in the world. Likewise, an experience of extreme success or pleasure is intrinsically felt as good, and this goodness is a real occurrence in the world. 4. Ethical value is, by definition, what is good and what is bad. We have directly accessible data of occurrences of intrinsic goodness and badness. They are ethical value.
1Stuart_Armstrong8yOf course! -> Likewise, an experience of extreme success or pleasure is often intrinsically felt as good, and this feeling of goodness is a real occurrence in the world. And that renders the 4th point moot - your extra axiom (the one that goes from "is" to "ought") is "feelings of goodness are actually goodness". I slightly disagree with that on a personal moral level, and entirely disagree with the assertion that it's a logical transition.
1JonatasMueller8yThis is a relevant discussion in another thread, by the way: []
-1JonatasMueller8yCould you explain more at length for me? The feeling of badness is something bad (imagine yourself or someone being tortured and tell me it's not bad), and it is a real occurrence, because conscious contents are real occurrences. It is then a bad occurrence. A bad occurrence must be a bad ethical value. All this is data, since conscious perceptions have a directly accessible nature, they are "is", and the "ought" is part of the definition of ethical value, that what is good ought to be promoted, and what is bad ought to be avoided. This does not mean that we should seek direct good and avoid direct bad on the immediate present, such as making parties to no end, but it means that we should seek it in the present and the future, seeking indirect values such as working, learning, promoting peace and equality, so that the future, even in the longest-term, will have direct value. (To the anonymous users who down-voted this, do me the favor of posting a comment saying why you disagree, if you are sure that you are right and I am wrong, otherwise it's just rudeness, the down-vote should be used as a censoring mechanism for inappropriate posts rather than to express disagreement with a reasonable point of view. I'm using my time to freely explain this as a favor to whoever is reading, and it's a bit insulting and bad mannered to down-vote it).
0Stuart_Armstrong8yWhy? That's an assertion - it won't convince anyone who doesn't already agree with you. And you're using two meanings of the word "bad" - an unpleasant subjective experience, and badness according to a moral system. Minds in general need not have moral systems, or conversely may lack hedonistic feelings, making the argument incomprehensible to them. I have a personal moral system that isn't too far removed from the one you're espousing (a bit more emphasise on preference). However, I do not assume that this moral system can be deduced from universal or logical principles, for the reasons stated above. Most humans will have moral systems not too far removed from ours (in the sense of Kolmogorov complexity - there are many human cultural universals, and our moral instincts are generally similar), but this isn't a logical argument for the correctness of something.
0JonatasMueller8yIf it is a bad occurrence, then the definition of ethics, at least as I see it (or this dictionary [], although meaning is not authoritative), is defining what is good and bad (values), as normative ethics, and bringing about good and avoiding bad, as applied ethics. It seems to be a matter of including something in a verbal definition, so it seems to be correct. Moral realism would follow. It is not undesirable, but helpful, since anti-realism implies that our values are not really valuable, but just fiction. I agree, this would be a special case, of incomplete knowledge about conscious animals. This would be possible for instance in some artificial intelligences, but they might learn about it indirectly by observing animals, humans, and getting contact with human culture in various forms. Otherwise, they might become morally anti-realist. Could you explain a bit this emphasis on preference?
0Stuart_Armstrong8yWhich is exactly why I critiqued using the word "bad" for the conscious experiences, using "negative" or "unpleasant", words which describe the conscious experience in a similar way without sneaking in normative claims. Er, nothing complex - in my ethics, there are cases where preferences trump feelings (eg experience machines) and cases where feelings trump preferences (eg drug users who are very unhappy). That's all I'm saying.
1JonatasMueller8yBad, negative, unpleasant, all possess partial semantic correspondence, which justifies their being a value. The normative claims in this case need not be definitive and overruling in that case. Perhaps that is where your resistance to accepting it comes from. In moral realism, a justified preference or instrumental / indirect value that weights more can overpower a direct feeling as well. This justified preference will be ultimately reducible to direct feelings in the present or in the future, for oneself or for others, though. Could you give me examples of any reasonable preferences that could not be reducible to good and bad feelings in that sense? Anyway, there is also the argument from personal identity which calls for equalization of values taking into account all subjects (equally valued, if ceteris paribus), and their reasoning, if contextually equivalent. This could be in itself a partial refutation of the orthogonality thesis, a refutation in theory and for autonomous and free general superintelligent agents, but not necessarily for imprisoned and tampered ones.
0Stuart_Armstrong8yThen they are no longer purely descriptive, and I can't agree that they are logically or empirically true.
2JonatasMueller8yApart from that, what do you think of the other points? If you wish, we could continue a conversation on another online medium.
0Stuart_Armstrong8yCertainly, but I don't have much time for the next few weeks :-( Send me a message in mid-April if you're still interested!
0JonatasMueller8yI think that this is an important point: the previously argued normative badness of directly accessible bad conscious experiences is not absolute and definitive, or in terms of justifying actions. It should weight on the scale with all other factors involved, even indirect and instrumental ones that could only affect intrinsic goodness or badness in a distant and unclear way.
2twanvl8yNot quite anything, since the size and complexity of conscious thought is bounded by the human brain. But that is not relevant to this discussion of ethics. Should I interpret this as you defining ethics as good and bad feelings? So, do you endorse wireheading []?
0JonatasMueller8y"Not quite anything, since the size and complexity of conscious thought is bounded by the human brain. But that is not relevant to this discussion of ethics." Indeed, conscious experience may be bound by the size and complexity of brains or similar machinery, of humans, other animals, and cyborgs. Theoretically, conscious perceptions may be able to be anything (or nearly), as we could theorize about brains the size of Jupiter or much larger. You get the point. "Should I interpret this as you defining ethics as good and bad feelings?" Almost. Not ethics, but ethical value in a direct, ultimate sense. There is also indirect value, which is things that can lead to direct value, which are myriad, and ethics is much more than defining value, it comprises laws, decision theory, heuristics, empirical research, and many theoretical considerations. I'm aware that Elizer has written a post on Less Wrong saying that ethical value is not on happiness alone. Although happiness alone is not my proposition, I find his post on the topic quite poorly developed, and really not an advisable read. "So, do you endorse wireheading?" This depends very much on the context. All else being equal, wireheading could be good for some people, depending on the implications of it. However, all else seems hardly equal in this case. People seem to have a diverse spectrum of good feelings that may not be covered by the wireheading (such as love, some types of physical pleasure, good smell and taste, and many others), and the wireheading might prevent people from being functional and acting in order to increase ethical value in the long-term, so as to possibly deny its benefits. I see wireheading, in the sense of artificial paradise simulations, as a possibly desirable condition in a rather distant future of ideal development and post-scarcity, though.
1peter_hurford8yRight now I see this as perhaps the most challenging and serious form of moral realism, so I definitely intend to take time and care to study it. I'll have to get back to you, as I think I said I would before.
0JonatasMueller8yI think that it is a worthy use of time, and I applaud your rational attitude of looking to refute one's theories. I also like to do that in order to evolve them and discard wrong parts. Don't hesitate to bring up specific parts for debate.
0Jabberslythe8yI don't directly apprehend anything as the being "good" or the "bad" in the moral realist sense and I don't count other peoples' accounts of directly apprehending such things as evidence (especially since schizophrenics and theists exist).
-1JonatasMueller8yConscious perceptions are quite direct and simple. Do you feel, for example, a bad feeling like intense pain as being a bad occurrence (which, like all occurrences in the universe, is physical), and likewise, for example, a good feeling like a delicious taste as being a good occurrence? I argue that these are perceived with the highest degree of certainty of all things and are the only things that can be ultimately linked to direct good and bad value.
0Jabberslythe8yNo, though I admit it has felt like that for me at some points in my life. Even if I did, there are a bunch of reasons why that I would not trust that intuition I like certain things and dislike certain things, and in a certain sense I would be mistaken if I were doing things that reliably caused me pain. That certain sense is that if I were better informed I would not take that action. If, however, I liked pain, I would still take that action, and so I would not be mistaken. I could go through the same process to explain why an sadist is not mistaken. I do not know what else to say except that this is just an appeal to intuition, and that specific intuitions are worthless unless they are proven to reliably point towards the truth.
0JonatasMueller8yLiking pain seems impossible, as it is an aversive feeling. However, for some people, some types of pain or self-harm cause a distraction from underlying emotional pain, which is felt as good or relieving, or it may give them some thrill, but in these cases it seems that it is always pain + some associated good feeling, or some relief of an underlying bad feeling, and it is for the good feeling or relief that they want pain, rather than pain for itself. Conscious perceptions in themselves seem to be what is most certain in terms of truth. The things they represent, such as the physical world, may be illusions, but one cannot doubt feeling the illusions themselves.
0Qiaochu_Yuan8yLet's play the Monday-Tuesday game []. On Monday I like pain. On Tuesday I like some associated good feeling that pain provides. What's the difference between Monday and Tuesday?
-3JonatasMueller8yThe idea that one can like pain in itself is not substantiated by evidence. Masochists or self-harmers seek some pleasure or relief they get from pain or humiliation, not pain for itself. They won't stick their hands in a pot with boiling water. [] [] To follow that line of reasoning, please provide evidence that there exists anyone that enjoys pain in itself. I find that unbelievable, as pain is aversive by nature.
1Qiaochu_Yuan8yThis is not how you play the Monday-Tuesday game! Also, a request to play the Monday-Tuesday game isn't an argument, it's a request for clarification. Specifically, I'm asking you to clarify what the difference between two statements is. Maybe we should try a simpler example: On Monday I like ice cream. On Tuesday I like some associated good feeling that ice cream provides. What's the difference between Monday and Tuesday?
-3JonatasMueller8yWho cares about that silly game. Accepting to play it or not is my choice. You can only validly like ice cream by way of feelings, because all that you have direct access to in this universe is consciousness. The difference between Monday and Tuesday in your example is only in the nature of the feelings involved. In the pain example, it is liked by virtue of the association with other good feelings, not pain in itself. If a person somehow loses the associated good feelings, certain painful stimuli cease to be desirable.
3skepsci8yIf a person somehow loses the associated good feelings, ice cream also ceases to be desirable. I still don't see the difference between Monday and Tuesday. I think I might have some idea what you mean about masochists not liking pain. Let me tell a different story, and you can tell me whether you agree... Masochists like pain, but only in very specific environments, such as roleplaying fantasies. Within that environment, masochists like pain because of how it affects the overall experience of the fantasy. Outside that environment, masochists are just as pain-averse as the rest of the world. Does that story jibe with your understanding?
1JonatasMueller8yYes, that is correct. I'm glad a Less Wronger finally understood.
1Qiaochu_Yuan8yYes, in the same way that explaining your ideas well or poorly is your choice, but I don't see what this has to do with explaining the difference between liking X and liking associated good feelings that X provides.

This goes right to the core of unitary theory -- that there is only one true theory of morality. But I must admit I'm dumbfounded at how any one particular theory of morality could be "the one true one", except in so far as someone personally chooses that theory over others based on preferences and desires.

Think of morality, not as solipsistically fulfilling personal desires, but as a means of resolving conflicts between desires (within groups). Why would it then be impossible for it there to be an optimal way (amongst groups) of doing so?


... (read more)
0peter_hurford7yThanks for this reply. I lack the time to consider it at the moment, but look forward to circling back and engaging with it in the near future.

I lean strongly toward unitary theory, with two caveats. First, not all specific moral statements need be true or false; some can have the middle truth-value (or no truth-value if you prefer to say that). Second, unitary-ness is not a logical truth - if true, it's a consequence of the attitudes people actually have and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Why is there only one particular morality? Because people keep insisting on talking about it. We keep finding that, like Churchill, we prefer "jaw, jaw" to "war, war". We ... (read more)

2peter_hurford8yThis seems to me to be an ad populum fallacy. Just because everyone acts as if there is one, true morality doesn't make it so. Or am I missing something? The great commonalities between humans might make many of our moralities very similar, but I think there are some differences. For one example, I think eating (factory farmed) meat is a great moral wrong, but I don't think there's anything, even in principle, I could say to convince some other people to share my view.
0torekp8yGood points to raise, thanks. There are two steps to my reasoning. First, if everyone acts as if agreement is possible, that tends to make it much more likely that agreement is, in fact, possible. The second step is a meta-ethical analysis which says that, if everyone freely and rationally agrees on a set of norms, virtues, etc., that is morality. (Or at least, an important part of it.) Of course, the second step is open to debate too, and popular opinion is irrelevant there. But a near-universal and deeply ingrained drive to reason-together-what-to-do is relevant to the first step. If there are behavior codes you live by but you don't think you could convince others to live by, you could call that "morality" if you insist. In that case, the rules that we all can rationally agree to cooperate under aren't all of morality, but just a part of it - "justice", maybe.
0peter_hurford8yI agree. But I think that people act as if agreement is possible not because they are thinking of morality in the consensus sense but rather that they are thinking of morality as an actual law external to people. For many of them, perhaps, even the law of God. I wonder if there's any experimental philosophy on lay people's thoughts on meta-ethics. It would be interesting to see, for sure. You're right that perhaps we're debating definitions and not substance. But I think you'd be hardpressed to come up with what behaviors are actually in the "consensus morality". And it's going to end up a lot like cultural relativism. What I'd advocate is more of an ends relativism -- actually making things clearer by specifically stating which normative/moral ends we're dealing with. For example, we could contrast the claim "One ought to be a vegetarian (relative to the end of utilitarianism)" versus the claim "One is ethically permitted to eat meat (relative to the common moral beliefs of our culture)".
0torekp8yI doubt that much hangs what people's meta-ethical intuitions are. Compare, for example, the issue of what people's theory of the nature of "gold" is. If people generally think that gold is what it is because the gods have mixed their aura into it, still, what gold actually is depends only on what explains the features whereby we recognize it. That explanans still comes down to its having atomic number 79 - gods be damned. And, to boot, the religious theorists of Aurum might claim to high heaven that without its divine connection, gold would be worthless. But I doubt you'd find much jewelry in the trash can after they switch theories. Similarly, I don't think a switch from divine-command to rational-agreement metaethics will result in trashing morality.

I'm dumbfounded at how any one particular theory of morality could be "the one true one", except in so far as someone personally chooses that theory over others based on preferences and desires.

Great, we agree, let's choose based on preferences and desires :P

Are moral facts contingent; could morality have been different?

What people say and do could have been different, so when using "morality" descriptively, like "people could have different moralities," then sure. But "morality the referent," the algorithm ... (read more)

0peter_hurford8yI don't disagree with that. But I think it's a mistake for someone to leap from talking about "my morality" to "morality (in general)". Perhaps this is what projectivists get at? ~ I don't quite understand your use of the analogy.
0Manfred8yI have no clue if it's what projectivists get at, so you may want to elaborate :P I'm implying that people first noticed what influenced them, and then decided to call parts of it "morality." Thus making it no great mystery that morality influences people. The puddle was shaped to fit the hole, so it has no right to be surprised when it finds itself in a hole that fits it.
0peter_hurford8yProjectivism [] is, I suppose, a part psychological and part meta-ethical theory that suggests people talk about their own desires about how the world should be as if they are objective, mind-independent moral truths. Hence "my morality" -> "morality". That makes sense. But that implies a desires-based theory of moral motivation, which isn't usually considered moral realism.
0Manfred8yYeah, agreed - it's only moral realism in the sense that "I'm right, you're wrong" can be a true thing to say.
0peter_hurford8yI call that "success theory" and I agree with it.