Lukas_Gloor's Comments

Making Sense of Coronavirus Stats

This report was the first report from official sources that made sense to me. Experts are estimating that a large portion of people infected with the virus only show mild symptoms, or are even asymptomatic. Those people are unlikely to get tested in hospitals. If we factor them in, this dilutes the CFR and, according to current estimates, it will likely more than cancel out the delay for confirmed deaths compared to confirmed infections.

Realism and Rationality

I missed this post when it was recent, but I'm glad someone referred me to it! I really liked it and it made me more motivated to finalize some posts related to this topic that I've long been postponing. After reading this post, I upshifted the importance of discussing other types of normative realism besides moral realism.

As an anti-realist, I feel like you haven't quite captured what anti-realism combined with an interest in EA and rationality can be like. I have a few comments about that (here and also below other people's comments).

But I am also very sympathetic to realism and, in practice, tend to reason about normative questions as though I was a full-throated realist. My sympathy for realism and tendency to think as a realist largely stems from my perception that if we reject realism and internalize this rejection then there’s really not much to be said or thought about anything.

That’s interesting! The most intuitively compelling “argument” I have for anti-realism is that it very much feels to me as though there’s nothing worth wanting that anti-realists are missing. I’m pretty sure that you can get to a point where your intuitions also come to reflect that – though I guess one could worry about this being some kind of epistemic drift. That'll be my ambitious aim with my anti-realism sequence: providing people with enough immersion into the anti-realist framework that it'll start to feel as though nothing worth wanting is missing. :)

Furthermore, if anti-realism is true, then it can’t also be true that we should believe that anti-realism is true. Belief in anti-realism seems to undermine itself.

This rings hollow to me because you apply the realist sense of "something being true." Of course anti-realism isn't true in that way. But everything that you believe for reasons other than "I think this is true in the realist sense" will still remain with you under an anti-realist framework. In other words: As an anti-realist I'd recommend to stop caring about "objective reasons." Most likely you'll find that you can't help but still care about what intuitively continues to feel like "reasons." Then, think of those things as subjective reasons. This will feel like giving up on something extremely important, but it's worth questioning whether that's just an intuition rather than an actual loss.

I think that realism warrants more respect than it has historically received in the rationality community, at least relative to the level of respect it gets from philosophers.[17] I suspect that some of this lack of respect might come from a relatively weaker awareness of the cost of rejecting realism or of the way in which belief in anti-realism appears to undermine itself.

I agree that anti-realists (my past and probably still current self included) often don't pass the Ideological Turing Test. That said, my impression is that the anti-realist perspective is at least as strongly missing in some (usually Oxford-originating) EA circles than the realist perspective is missing among rationalists.

If we assume that anti-realism is true, though, then we are assuming that there are no such facts. It seems to me like a committed anti-realist could not be in a state of normative uncertainty.

I agree. The closest anti-realist equivalent to moral uncertainty is what Brian Tomasik has called "valuing moral reflection.” Instead of having in mind a goal that’s fleshed out in direct terms, people might work toward an indirect goal of improved reflection, with the aim to eventually translate that into a direct goal. The important difference compared to the picture with moral realism is that not all the implications of valuing moral reflection are intuitive, and therefore, it’s not a “forced move.” Peer disagreement also works differently (I don't update to the career choices of MMA fighters because I don't think my personality is suitable for that type of leisure activity or profession, but I do update toward the life choices of people who are similar to me in certain relevant sensess.) I think this (improved clarity about ways of being morally uncertain) is probably the major way in which it has action-guiding consequences to get metaethics right. If I'm right about anti-realism, then people who consider themselves morally uncertain might not realize that they would have to cash this state of uncertainty out in some specific sense of "valuing moral reflection," or that they might have underdetermined values. Perhaps underdetermined values are fine/acceptable – but that seems like the type of question that I at least would want to explicitly think about before implicitly deciding. (And for what it's worth, I think there are quite strong reasons to value moral reflection to some degree as an anti-realist. I just think it's complicated and not obvious, and people will likely come down on different sides on this if they realize that there's a very real sense in which they are forced to take a stance on the object level, rather than taking what seems like the safe default of "being uncertain.")

It rejects the idea of "shoulds" and points out that there aren't "any oughtthorities to ordain what is right and what is wrong." But then it seems to draw normative implications out of these attacks: among other implications, you should "just do what you want." At least taken at face value, this line of reasoning wouldn't be valid. It makes no more sense than reasoning that, if there are no facts about what we should do, then we should "just maximize total hedonistic well-being” or "just do the opposite of what we want” or "just open up souvenir shops.” Of course, though, there's a good chance that I'm misunderstanding something here.

Argh! :D I think you might indeed be misunderstanding the point. I don't think Nate gives "do what you want" as some kind of normative advice. Instead, I'm pretty this is meant in the "trivial" sense that people will by definition always do what they want, so they can continue to listen to their intuitions and subjective reasons without having to worry that they need to reach the exact same conclusions as everyone else. Nate is using the word "should" in the anti-realist sense. You're still trying to interpret his statement with the realist "should" in mind – but anti-realists never use that type of "should." (But maybe you were perfectly aware of that and you still insist on the realist sense of "should" because to you it seems like everything else doesn't really matter? I often feel like the differences between realists and anti-realists comes down to intuitions like that.)

If this apparently anti-realist stance is widely held, then I don't understand why the community engages so heavily with normative decision theory research or why it takes part in discussions about which decision theory is "correct." It strikes me a bit like an atheist enthustiastically following theological debates about which god is the true god. But I'm mostly just confused here.[12][13]

I agree that this looks interesting, and that it's not trivial to explain why exactly one would seem to care as an anti-realist. But ultimately, I think the explanation is perfectly intuitive. People in the rationalist community like to systematize, and decision theory is about systematizing. People have intuitions about what's the best way to carve out useful concepts. To me, it provides me with a rewarding sense of insight if I can disentangle different ways in which things like causality are or aren't relevant to my intuitions about caring about real-world outcomes. There's a lot of progress to be made in philosophy at the level of carving out useful distinctions, without necessarily taking normative stances. People often tend to take normative stances, but many times that's not even the most interesting bit. Anyway, decision theory is like cocaine for a certain type of intellectually curious person, and there's a chance it'll be relevant to real-world outcomes involving happiness and suffering. So thinking about it makes for a better, more existentially satisfying life project than many other things (for the right type of person).

From one of the footnotes:

I think this attitude is in line with the viewpoint that Luke Muehlhauser expresses in his classic LessWrong blog post on what he calls “pluralistic moral reductionism.” PMR seems to me to be the view that: (a) non-naturalist realism is false, (b) all remaining meta-normative disputes are purely semantic, and (c) purely semantic disputes aren't terribly substantive and often reflect a failure to accept that the same phrase can be used in different ways. If we define the view this way, then, conditional on non-naturalist realism being false, I believe that PMR is the correct view. I believe that many non-naturalist realists would agree on this point as well. ↩

I agree. This is a very minor point, but I feel like it's worth pointing out that premise (b) (“all remaining meta-normative disputes are purely semantic”) might be something that people could somewhat legitimately disagree with. I personally think premise (b) is obviously correct, but I'm always more "black and white" on questions like these than a lot of people whose reasoning I hold in high regard. The point I'm trying to make is that if you deny (b), you get a kind of interesting naturalist metaethical position that's different and seemingly more "realist" than PMR. It seems to me that we can imagine a world where people (for some reason or another) just end up agreeing with each other on basically all normative questions. In that world, it would empirically be the case that whenever there are normative disagreement, they tend to eventually get resolved one way or another once certain misunderstandings are pointed out. Of course, if the hypothesis is spelled out this way, it seems relatively clear that this would be a very ambitious claim. Therefore, I think (b) is wrong. But quite a few people seem to think that if only we thought properly about the intrinsically motivating aspects of positive experiences, we'd all come to see that they are what matters, and from that, we could draw further conclusions toward a morality that will seem universally compelling to people who aren't somehow conceptually confused. I think it's worth having a name for that hypothesis. (In my introduction to moral realism, I called it "One Compelling Axiology," but I'm not sure I like the name, and I also am a bit unhappy with how I explained the position in that post.)

Edited to add: I think Wei Dai has also described this position in his post about six metaethical possibilities, but I don't think he gave it a name there.

Realism and Rationality

It sounds as though you're expecting anti-realists about normativity to tell you some arguments that will genuinely make you feel (close to) indifferent about whether to use Bayesianism, or whether to use induction. But that's not how I understand anti-realism. The way I would describe it, the primary claim that anti-realism about normativity entails is of a more trivial kind. More something like this:

If anti-realism about normativity is true, then in a hypothetical world where your mind worked in some strange way such that you found induction or Bayesianism dumb, then it's impossible to point out and justify the exact sense in which you would be mistaken by some "universally approved standard." So the question shouldn't be "Have I ever seen someone give a an argument to start doubting induction?" Rather, I would ask "Have I ever seen someone give a convincing and non-question-begging account of what aliens who don't believe in induction are doing wrong?"

In practice, the difference between realism and anti-realism only matters in cases where the answer doesn't feel like the straightforward thing to do anyway. If Bayesianism and induction feel like the straightforward thing for you to do, you'll use them whether you endorse realism or not. I'd argue that realists therefore shouldn't use example propositions that provoke universal agreement (at least not as standalone examples) when they want to explain what constitutes an objective reason. Because by using examples that evoke universal agreement, they're only pointing at reasons that we can already tell will feel convincing to people. The interesting question I want to know, as an anti-realist, is what it means for there to be irreducibly normative reasons that go beyond what I personally find convincing. The realists seem to think that just like in cases where we're inclined to call a proposition "right" because it feels self-evident to everyone, there's just as much of a fact of the matter for other propositions about which people will be in seemingly irresolveble disagreements. But I have yet to see how that's a useful concept to introduce. I just don't get it.


then it's impossible to point out and justify the exact sense in which you would be mistaken by some "universally approved standard."

I was strawmanning realism a bit here. Realists readily point out that the sense in which this is a mistake cannot be "explained" (at least not in non-question-begging terminology, i.e., not without the use of normative terminology). So in one sense, realism is simply a declaration that the intuition that some standards apply beyond the personal/subjective level is too important to give up on. But by itself, that declaration doesn't yet make for a specific position, and it depends on further assumptions whether the disagreement will be only semantic, or also substantive.

Realism and Rationality
I'm not sure if my position would be considered "moral anti-realist", but if so, it seems to me a bit like calling Einstein a "space anti-realist", or a "simultaneity anti-realist". Einstein says that there is space, and there is simultaneity. They just don't match our folk concepts.

That's a great way to describe it. I think this is completely normal for anti-realists (at least in EA and rationality). Somehow the realists rarely seem to pass the Ideological Turing Test for anti-realism (of course, similar things can be said for the other direction and I think Ben Garfinkel's post explains really well some of the intuitions that anti-realists might be missing, or ways in which some might simplify their picture).

Quite related: The Wikipedia page on Anti-realism was recently renamed to "Nihilism." While that's ultimately just semantics, I think this terminological move is insane. It's a bit as though the philosophers who believe in Libertarian Free Will had conspired to only use the term "Fatalism" for both Determinism and Compatibilism.

Meta-Preference Utilitarianism
didn't realize that was not a mainstream position in the EA community.

My impression is that moral realism based on irreducible normativity is more common in the broader EA community than on Lesswrong. But it comes in different versions. I also tend to refer to it as (a version of) "moral realism" if someone holds the belief that humans will reach a strong consensus about human values / normative ethical theories (if only they had ample time to reflect on the questions). Such convergence doesn't necessarily require there to be irreducibly normative facts about what's good or bad, but it still sounds like moral realism. The "we strongly expect convergence" position seemed to be somewhat prelevant on Lesswrong initially, though my impression was that this was more of a probable default assumption rather than something anyone confidently endorsed, and over time my impression is also that people have tentatively moved away from it.

I'm usually bad at explaining my thoughts too, but I'm persistent enough to keep trying. :P

Meta-Preference Utilitarianism

This type of procedure may look inelegant for folks who expect population ethics to have an objectively correct solution. However, I think it's confused to expect there to be such an objective solution. In my view at least, this makes the procedure described in the original post here look pretty attractive as a way to move forward.

Because it includes some very similar considerations as are presented in the original post here, I'll try to (for those who are curious enough to bear with me) describe the framework I've using to think about population ethics:

  • Ethical value is subjective in the sense that if someone's life goal is to strive toward state x, it's no one's business to tell them that they should focus on y instead. (There may be exceptions, e.g., in case someone's life goals are the result of brain washing).
  • For decisions that do not involve the creation of new sentient beings, preference utilitarianism or "bare minimum contractualism" seem like satisfying frameworks. Preference utilitarians are ambitiously cooperative/altruistic and scale back any other possible life goals at the expense of getting maximal preference satisfaction for everyone, whereas "bare-minimum contractualists" obey principles like do no harm while still mostly focusing on their own life goals. A benevolent AI should follow preference utilitarianism, whereas individual people are free to decide for anything on the spectrum between full preference utilitarianism and bare-minimum contractualism. (Bernard William's famous objection to utilitarianism is that it undermines a person's "integrity" by alienating them from their own life goals. By focusing all their actions on doing what's best from everyone's point of view, people don't get to do anything that's good for themselves. This seems okay if one consciously chooses altruism as a way of life, but it seems overly demanding as an all-encompassing morality).
  • When it comes to questions that affect the creation of new beings, the principles behind preference utilitarianism or bare-minimum contractualism fail to constrain all of the possibility space. In other words: population ethics is underdetermined.
  • That said, it's not the case that "anything goes." Just because present populations have all the power doesn't mean that it's morally permissible to ignore any other-regarding considerations about the well-being of possible future people. A bare-minimum version of population ethics could be conceptualized as a set of appeals or principles by which newly created beings can hold accountable their creators. This could include principles such as:
    • All else equal, it seems objectionable to create minds that lament their existence.
    • All else equal, it seems objectionable to create minds and place them in situations where their interests are only somewhat fulfilled, if one could have easily provided them with better circumstances.
    • All else equal, it seems objectionable to create minds destined to constant misery, yet with a strict preference for existence over non-existence.

(While the first principle is about which minds to create, the second two principles apply to how to create new minds.)

  • Is it ever objectionable to fail to create minds – for instance, in cases where they’d have a strong interest in their existence?
    • This type of principle would go beyond bare-minimum population ethics. It would be demanding to follow in the sense that it doesn't just tell us what not to do, but also gives us something to optimize (the creation of new happy people) that would take up all our caring capacity.
    • Just because we care about fulfilling actual people's life goals doesn't mean that we care about creating new people with satisfied life goals. These two things are different. Total utilitarianism is a plausible or defensible version of a "full-scope" population ethical theory, but it's not a theory that everyone will agree with. Alternatives like average utilitarianism or negative utilitarianism are on equal footing. (As are non-utillitarian approaches to population ethics that say that the moral value of future civilization is some complex function that doesn't scale linearly with increased population size.)
  • So what should we make of moral theories such as total utilitarianism, average utilitarianism or negative utilitarianism? They way I think of them, they are possible morally-inspired personal preferences, rather than personal preferences inspired by the correct all-encompassing morality. In other words, a total/average/negative utilitarian is someone who holds strong moral views related to the creation of new people, views that go beyond the bare-minimum principles discussed above. Those views are defensible in the sense that we can see where such people's inspiration comes from, but they are not objectively true in the sense that those intuitions will appeal in the same way to everyone.
  • How should people with different population-ethical preferences approach disagreement?
    • One pretty natural and straightforward approach would the proposal in the original post here.
    • Ironically, this would amount to "solving" population ethics in a way that's very similar to how common sense would address it. Here's how I'd imagine non-philosophers to think approach population ethics:
      • Parents are obligated to provide a very high standard of care for their children (bare-minimum principle).
      • People are free to decide against becoming parents (principle inspired by personal morality).
      • Parents are free to want to have as many children as possible (principle inspired by personal morality), as long as the children are happy in expectation (bare-minimum principle).
      • People are free to try to influence other people’s stances and parenting choices (principle inspired by personal morality), as long as they remain within the boundaries of what is acceptable in a civil society (bare-minimum principle).
      • For decisions that are made collectively, we'll probably want some type of democratic compromise.
  • I get the impression that a lot of effective altruists have negative associations with moral theories that leave things underspecified. But think about what it would imply if nothing was underspecfied: As Bernard Williams has noted, if the true morality left nothing underspecified, then morally-inclined people would have no freedom to choose what to live for. I no longer think it's possible or even desirable to find such an all-encompassing morality.
  • One may object that the picture I'm painting cheapens the motivation behind some people's strongly held population-ethical convictions. The objection could be summarized this way: "Total utilitarians aren't just people who self-orientedly like there to be a lot of happiness in the future! Instead, they want there to be a lot of happiness in the future because that's what they think makes up the most good."
    • I think this objection has two components. The first component is inspired by a belief in moral realism, and to that, I'd reply that moral realism is false. The second component of the objection is an important intuition that I sympathize with. I think this intuition can still be accommodated in my framework. This works as follows: What I labelled "principle inspired by personal morality" wasn't a euphemism for "some random thing people do to feel good about themselves." People's personal moral principles can be super serious and inspired by the utmost desire to do what's good for others. It's just important to internalize that there isn't just one single way to do good for others. There are multiple flavors of doing good.
Meta-Preference Utilitarianism
But should we maximise total satisfaction with the utility-aggregating method being maximised, or average satisfaction with that aggregating method?

I think those are the same if the people whose votes are counted are only the people who already exist or will exist regardless of one's choices. Total utilitarianism and average utilitarianism come apart on the question of how to count votes by people who are newly brought into existence.

And is it preferable to have a small population who are very satisfied with the utility aggregation method, or a much larger population who think the utility aggregation method is only getting it right slightly more often than chance?

I agree that this needs an answer. Personally, I think the proposal in question makes a lot of sense in combination with an approach that's focused on the preferences of already existing people.

Appeal to Consequence, Value Tensions, And Robust Organizations
It seems to me that rationality is extremely fragile and vulnerable, such that even though rationality might serves other goals, you have to be very uncompromising with regards to rationality, especially core things like hiding information from yourself (I was lightly opposed to the negative karma hiding myself) even if it that has appararant costs.

I agree with that. But people can have very different psychologies. Most people are prone to overconfidence, but some people are underconfident and beat themselves up too much over negative feedback. If the site offers an optional feature that is very useful for people of the latter type, it's at least worth considering whether that's an overall improvement. I wasn't even annoyed that people didn't like the feature; it was more about the way in which the person argued. Generally, more display of awareness of people having different psychologies would please me. :)

Appeal to Consequence, Value Tensions, And Robust Organizations
There are a bunch of conversations going on about the topic right (some in semi-private which might be public soonish).

Cool! And I appreciate the difficulty of the task at hand. :)

When I model these conversations, one failure mode I'm worried about is that the "more civility" position gets lumped together with other things that Lesswrong is probably right to be scared of.

So, the following is to delineate my own views from things I'm not saying:

I could imagine being fine with Bridgewater culture in many (but not all) contexts. I hate that in "today's climate" it is difficult to talk about certain topics. I think it's often the case that people complaining about tone or about not feeling welcome shouldn't expect to have their needs accommodated.

And yet I still find some features of what I perceive to be "rationalist culture" very off-putting.

I don't think I phrased it as well in my first comment, but I can fully get behind what Raemon said elsewhere in this thread:

Some of the language about "holding truth sacred" [...] has came across to me with a tone of single-minded focus that feels like not being willing to put an upper bound on a heart transplant, rather than earnestly asking the question "how do we get the most valuable truthseeking the most effective way?"

So it's not that I'm saying that I'd prefer a culture where truth-seeking is occasionally completely abandoned because of some other consideration. Just that the side that superficially looks more virtuous when it comes to truth-seeking (for instance because they boldly proclaim the importance of not being bothered by tone/tact, downvote notifications, etc.) isn't automatically what's best in the long run.

Edited to add: I admit it's a delicate balance to walk. But sometimes, people are inconsiderate in a way that definitely harms discussions. The principle of charity isn't just a thing in philosophy to make people feel good; there's also some methodological use to it. Likewise with trying to understand that other people have different minds from one's own. There has to be a way to point out inconsiderateness that doesn't get met with a response a la "tact doesn't matter because truth is the only virtue."

Appeal to Consequence, Value Tensions, And Robust Organizations
Can you clarify which bit was off-putting? The fact that any norms were being promoted or the specific norms being promoted?

Only the latter. And also the vehemence with which these viewpoints seemed to be held and defended. I got the impression that statements of the sort "yay truth as the only sacred value" received strong support; personally I find that off-putting in many contexts.

Edit: The reason I find it off-putting isn't that I disagree with the position as site policy. More that sometimes the appropriate thing in a situation isn't just to respond with some tirade about why it's good to have an unempathetic site policy.

To give some more context: Only the first instance of this had to do with explicit calls for forum policy. This was probably the same example that inspired the dialogue between Jill and John above.

The second example was a comment on the question of making downvotes less salient. While I agree that the idea has drawbacks, I was a bit perplexed that a comment arguing against it got strongly upvoted despite including claims that felt to me like problematic "rationality for rationality's sake": Instead of allowing people to only look at demotivating information at specific times, we declare it antithetical to the "core of rationality" to hide information whether or not it overall makes people accomplish their goals better.

The third instance was an exchange you had about conversational tone and (lack of) charity. Toward the end you said that you didn't like the way you phrased your initial criticism, but my quick impression (and I probably only skimmed the lengthy exchange and also don't remember details) was that I generally thought your points seemed pretty defensible, and the way your conversation partner commented would have also thrown me off. "Tone and degree of charity are very important too" is a perspective I'd like to see represented more among LW users. (But if I'm in the minority, that's fine and I don't object to communities keeping their defining features if the majority feels that they are benefitting.)

That doesn't feel true to me.

Maybe I expressed it poorly, but what I meant was just that rationality is not an end in itself. If I complain that some piece of advice is not working for me because it makes me (all-things-considered, long-term) less productive (towards the things that are most important to me) and less happy, and my conversation partner makes some unqualified statement to the degree of "but it's rational to follow this type of advice", I will start to suspect that they are misunderstanding what rationality is for.

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