Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition

Shelly Kagan gave a nice summary of some problems involved in working out whether death is bad for one. I agree with Robin’s response, and have posted before about some of the particular issues. Now I’d like to make a more general observation.

First I’ll summarize Kagan’s story. The problems are something like this. It seems like death is pretty bad. Thought experiments suggest that it is bad for the person who dies, not just their friends, and that it is bad even if it is painless. Yet if a person doesn’t exist, how can things be bad for them? Seemingly because they are missing out on good things, rather than because they are suffering anything. But it is hard to say when they bear the cost of missing out, and it seems like things that happen happen at certain times. Or maybe they don’t. But then we’d have to say all the people who don’t exist are missing out, and that would mean a huge tragedy is happening as long as those people go unconceived. We don’t think a huge tragedy is happening, so lets say it isn’t. Also we don’t feel too bad about people not being born earlier, like we do about them dying sooner. How can we distinguish these cases of deprivation from non-existence from the deprivation that happens after death? Not in any satisfactorily non-arbitrary way. So ‘puzzles still remain’.

This follows a pattern common to other philosophical puzzles. Intuitions say X sometimes, and not X other times. But they also claim that one should not care about any of the distinctions that can reasonably be made between the times when they say X is true and the times when they say X is false.

Intuitions say you should save a child dying in front of you. Intuitions say you aren’t obliged to go out of your way to protect a dying child in Africa. Intuitions also say physical proximity, likelihood of being blamed, etc shouldn’t be morally relevant.

Intuitions say you are the same person today as tomorrow. Intuitions say you are not the same person as Napoleon. Intuitions also say that whether you are the same person or not shouldn’t depend on any particular bit of wiring in your head, and that changing a bit of wiring doesn’t make you slightly less you.

Of course not everyone shares all of these intuitions (I don’t). But for those who do, there are problems. These problems can be responded to by trying to think of other distinctions between contexts that do seem intuitively legitimate, reframing an unintuitive conclusion to make it intuitive, or just accepting at least one of the unintuitive conclusions.

The first two solutions – finding more appealing distinctions and framings – seem a lot more popular than the third – biting a bullet. Kagan concludes that ‘puzzles remain’, as if this inconsistency is an apparent mathematical conflict that one can fully expect to eventually see through if we think about it right. And many other people have been working on finding a way to make these intuitions consistent for a while. Yet why expect to find a resolution?

Why not expect this contradiction to be like the one that arises if you claim that you like apples more than pears and also pears more than apples? There is no nuanced way to resolve the issue, except to give up at least one.  You can make up values, but sometimes they are just inconsistent. The same goes for evolved values.

From Kagan’s account of death, it seems likely that our intuitions are just inconsistent. Given natural selection, this is not particularly surprising. It’s no mystery how people could evolve to care about the survival of they and their associates, yet not to care about people who don’t exist. Even if people who don’t exist suffer the same costs from not existing. It’s also not surprising that people would come to believe their care for others is largely about the others’ wellbeing, not their own interests, and so believe that if they don’t care about a tragedy, there isn’t one. There might be some other resolution in the death case, but until we see one, it seems odd to expect one. Especially when we have already looked so hard.

Most likely, if you want a consistent position you will have to bite a bullet. If you are interested in reality, biting a bullet here shouldn’t be a last resort after searching every nook and cranny for a consistent and intuitive position. It is much more likely that humans have inconsistent intuitions about the value of life than that we have so far failed to notice some incredibly important and intuitive distinction in circumstances that drives our different intuitions. Why do people continue to search for intuitive resolutions to such problems? It could be that accepting an unintuitive position is easy, unsophisticated, unappealing to funders and friends, and seems like giving up. Is there something else I’m missing?

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  • http://profiles.google.com/williambswift William Swift

    One thing that can help, though naturally not always, is to go meta and try to figure out why you have those particular intuitions.  Often, for example, intuitions are just things you learned too early to think about at the time, and have never really thought about later.

  • V V

    I think that in this debate the confusion stems from the conflation of two separate philosophical issues: one is a decision-theoretic issue and the other is an ethical issue.

    1) The first issue is: “Should you take a course of actions that increases/decreases your expected lifespan, or it doesn’t matter?”
    This can be considered in the framework of the rational agent model (humans aren’t accurately modeled by that, but it can be considered a crude approximation).

    A rational agent assigns utility values to states of the world, including those where the agent is not alive (because either it has not born or it is dead). For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the agent assigns zero utility to the states where it is not alive *1*. Then if the agent is alive and the expected (discounted) utility of future states where the agent keeps living is positive, the agent will try to stay alive, if it is negative it will try to die.

    Note that, mathematically, we can assume the agent exists even when it is not alive, even if it will never be alive: this avoids all the quibbles about potential agents.

    2) The second issue is: “It is moral/immoral/neutral to cause a person not to be alive?”
    In order to answer that question we need a moral theory.

    In the debate it seems that you all implicitely assume total utilitarianism: the moral theory according to which an action is moral if and only if it maximizes the sum of the expected (disconted) future utilities of all agents.
    (Assumption *1* allows us to keep the math consistent in the face of infinitely many potential agents).

    According to total utilitarianism, preventing a person from being born is as immoral as killing a living person. Birth control is murder.
    This is one of the many consequences of total utilitarianism that violate common moral intuitions. You can bite the bullet and still subscribe to it accepting all these conterintuitive results.

    Personally, I see no reason to subscribe to total utilitarism (or to average utilitarism, which also has similarly conterintuitive results).
    Deontological ethics is just fine.

    • Dremora

      “According to total utilitarianism, preventing a person from being born is as immoral as killing a living person. Birth control is murder.”

      Yes, but only if combined with your simplified utility assumption. In actual practice, there are huge social and psychological differences between the two.

      • V V

         Can you elaborate on that?

      • Dremora

        Yes. Your argument would make sense if only the number of humans in existence per time mattered, and not their quality of life. If people decide not to have many children, this will reduce the total number of humans just like killing people would.

        But it would still be a peaceful society where the existing children would receive more attention per childhood year, you could still go to the mall without having to fear sudden murder, the extreme suffering of most inflicted deaths would not be experienced by the unborn, there would be no expensive education years wasted by prematurely cut-off lifespans etc.

        Murder, as in non-consensual killing of a person with expectations and willingness to live, as well as and social ties and alliances that constitute investments and integrity symbols, causes extra forms of harm that a forgone reproduction act doesn’t cause. (I acknowledge we could conversely find examples where the trade-off is inverted, e.g. for demented people who will never be happy or productive again)

      • V V

         

        Your argument would make sense if only the number of humans in existence per time mattered, and not their quality of life.

        As long as the children wouldn’t want to die, preventing them to be born doesn’t maximize total utility, hence, according to total utilitarianism, it is immoral.

        Murder, as in non-consensual killing of a person with expectations and
        willingness to live, as well as and social ties and alliances that
        constitute investments and integrity symbols, causes extra forms of harm
        that a forgone reproduction act doesn’t cause.

        Not all people have social ties and alliances (e.g. infants, homeless people), yet murdering them is still considered intuitively immoral.

      • Dremora

        “As long as the children wouldn’t want to die, preventing them to be born doesn’t maximize total utility, hence, according to total utilitarianism, it is immoral.”

        You assume an unrealistic “all else equal” assumption. Preventing them to be born is immoral iff it doesn’t maximize total utility. But often, creating an additional child is not the utility-maximizing action out of the set of available actions. Not to mention that children go through years of dependency during which they can’t have autonomy, which makes their utility more dubious (like any interaction or state that is fundamentally involuntary). Life years can be net-negative, and bad is stronger than good:

        http://www.wisebrain.org/papers/NegSalienceinMem.pdf

        “Not all people have social ties and alliances (e.g. infants, homeless people), yet murdering them is still considered intuitively immoral.”

        This is simple game theory. What happens to a society in which murder is widely accepted? How much utility is wasted if everyone has to watch their back all the time? On top of that, the assertion that infants and homeless people don’t have social ties is mostly false. Especially infants usually have family members who are heavily emotionally invested in them. But I agree, it is a good rejection against the idea that, say, stem-cell embryos can’t be destroyed, even though it is a human being.

      • V V

         Ok, let’s try to be precise. Consider the following scenarios.

        A) Alice an Bob have sex using birth control. No child is conceived.

        B) Alice and Bob have sex without using birth control. A child is conceived and eventually born. They immediately kill the infant. Nobody else knows about the pregnancy.

        I claim that according to total utilitarianism, in these two scenarios, the actions of Alice and Bob are morally equivalent.

      • Dremora

        So we assume that:

        - There is no risk the legal murder is found out by others.
        - A and B don’t care emotionally about murdering their offspring.
        - There was no unpleasantness over pleasantness surplus in the pregnancy and birth in A, B and/or the child. They exactly cancel.
        - The child’s death is not unpleasant.
        - The resources and time invested in the pregnancy and secret infant body disposal could not have been used better.

        You can now question for yourself how realistic this set of assumptions is for actual people in actual societies, and how well you can use it to justify your initial claim…

        “According to total utilitarianism, preventing a person from being born is as immoral as killing a living person.”

        …for our actual world.

      • V V

        Ok, if you have to nitpick:

        According to total utilitarianism, preventing a person from being born is as immoral as killing a living person, up to externalities.

         Better?

        Now consider the following two scenarios:

        A) Bill Gates has sex using birth control, no child is conceived. Then, he destroys an amount of his wealth corresponding to a subjective utility of X.

        B) Bill Gates murders a random person, then he accurately estimates the utility loss that this causes to other people and provides them with monetary compensation (he internalizes the externalities he caused, in economic parlance). Excluding the person who died, the only one who loses utility is Bill Gates. His loss is exactly X.

        According to total utilitarianism, scenarios A and B are morally equivalent.

      • Dremora

        Re: the Bill Gates hypothetical: It seems the scenarios are becoming more precise, but you still ignored the game-theoretic implications of being killed by random strangers and what it does to society as a whole. It’s also not clear that a set amount of financial compensation can make up for this, since wealth concentration would then mean concentration of power to make credible death threats without legal consequences. But let’s assume we had an algorithm that can reliably calculate that externality as well and Bill Gates has to pay it too. Furthermore, let’s assume that the potentially conceived child and the random murdered person would have experienced exactly the same utility in their futures, and the death is painless. Then yeah, it seems equivalent.

        But look at how contrived this is, and also consider:

        - Neither action is the optimal utility-maximizing action. Gates could do such much better (and probably does).
        - We don’t have perfect externality calculation algorithms, and no perfect ways of compensating people for personal emotional losses.
        - It’s not clear to me that allowing the assumed (and actual) wealth concentration is socially optimal either.

      • V V

         

        but you still ignored the game-theoretic implications of being killed
        by random strangers and what it does to society as a whole.

        I was discussing total utilitarianism, which is usually understood to be a form of act utilitarianism. You seem to be refering to rule utilitarianism, which is different and somewhat closer to deontological ethics.

        wealth concentration would then mean concentration of power to make credible death threats without legal consequences.

        We were discussing morality, not legality. Don’t conflate them.

        But let’s assume we had an algorithm that can reliably calculate
        that externality as well and Bill Gates has to pay it too. Furthermore,
        let’s assume that the potentially conceived child and the random
        murdered person would have experienced exactly the same utility in their
        futures, and the death is painless. Then yeah, it seems equivalent.

        But look at how contrived this is

        If you drop these assumptions you can still get approximate equivalence with high probability.

        You can also modify scenario B increasing the financial compensation to make it more moral than scenario A.

        Neither action is the optimal utility-maximizing action. Gates could do such much better (and probably does).

        Do you think he never used birth control or never destroyed part of his wealth (that is, used it suboptimally)?

        It is reasonable to assume that he probably had. According to total utilitarianism, that was as bad as killing someone and paying compensation.

        (In fact, in total utilitarianism, he doesn’t even have to pay compensation to the people who were actually damaged. In order to obtain moral equivalence, he can increase the utility of completely unrelated people as long as the total utility stays the same).

        We don’t have perfect externality calculation algorithms, and no perfect
        ways of compensating people for personal emotional losses.

        Irrelevant. See above.
        Beware of the No true Scotsman fallacy.

        It’s not clear to me that allowing the assumed (and actual) wealth concentration is socially optimal either.

        Possibly true, but irrelevant.

      • Dremora

        “Do you think he never used birth control or never destroyed part of his wealth (that is, used it suboptimally)?”

        Yes, but the question is how much, and to what degree this would have been available, and how efficiently he could have used the money in altruistic ways. It is entirely possible that a billionaire wastes resources in a way that equals the utility of many happy human lives. And I absolutely agree it’s morally equivalent to murder.

        Btw, Bill and Melinda Gates already have three kids, and Melinda probably can put her time to better use than to be pregnant. But of course, he could pay other people to have more children.

  • Carl Shulman


     It’s no mystery how people could evolve to care about the survival of they and their associates, yet not to care about people who don’t exist”

    “Learn” seems more relevant than “evolve” here. The impact of evolution has to be mediated through simple learning mechanisms that work out to the behavior in question, e.g. having strong emotional reactions tied to seeing human faces, or just a general learning mechanism that notices that helping people in sight tends to lead to reciprocity/praise while helping distant strangers doesn’t. 

    • richatd silliker

       “a general learning mechanism”

      This is called ambivalence and is defined as the experience of concurrent like and dislike.

  • daedalus2u

    The problem is that most people are unable to think about why they feel certain ways about things.  They feel a certain way and then try to rationalize why they should feel that way and that everyone else in the world should feel (and act) as they do.  Problems arise when those rationalizations are bat-shit crazy or when they try to impose rules based on their bat-shit crazy rationalizations on other people.

    The actual problem with these using these hypothetical existence problems is that there is no path by which they could occur.  They can never happen and will never happen.  If a scenario can’t happen, the details don’t matter.  A fictitious scenario can always be “fixed” by a deus ex machina. 

    We should be concerned about actual reality and not so much about fictional stories which is what these hypothetical scenarios are.  There is no path by which multi-billion-billion-billion potential offspring can occur.  We should not mourn their absence when there is no set of circumstances that could possibly cause them to exist. 

    In other words, there is nothing that anyone can do that will affect the as-yet-unborn multi-billion-billion-billion potential offspring because they will never come into existence.  However contemplating their fate allows people to then conflate that non-problem with the actual problems of the poor who actually do exist right now and who actually are suffering and who actually can be helped to live better lives. 

    The purely fictitious hypothetical past and future potential humans in their potential trillions upon trillions will never exist and could not be helped despite Herculean efforts.  They are being used to distract attention from the actual humans who actually exist right now who could actually be helped with quite modest efforts. 

    This is the basis for religion, self-proclaimed religious people generate a counterfactual scenario (i.e. make stuff up) that they use to compel other humans to do what they want them to do and to also justify what they want to do. 

    People generate the equivalent of a Deus ex machina to justify what they want to do.

    It is the generation of counterfactual scenarios that people use to justify their behavior after the fact.  Slavery apologists rationalize that “slaves had it better than they could have managed on their own”.  Rape apologists rationalize that “she had it coming because she was asking for it by dressing that way”.   Many of the “economic recovery through austerity” apologists are relying on counterfactual scenarios that will never happen to justify austerity for the poor and low taxes for the wealthy.  “The uninsured don’t want health insurance, otherwise they would already have it.”  “Everyone has health care, just go to an emergency room”.

    • V V

       I don’t think that decision-theoretic and moral questions can be meaningfully discussed without considering hypothetical worlds.

      While it is true that if the universe is ultimately deterministic then the future is already written, this doesn’t make the issues irrelevant or uninteresting.

    • officer_fred

       Maybe we do spend too much time thinking about outlandish counterfactuals. I think you’re right that sometimes motives for doing this are not so good, like desire to browbeat people into accepting our argument, or even entertainment.

      However, it is plausible to me that some arguments conventionally made via unrealistic counterfactuals can be reframed in terms of entirely realistic counterfactuals, without losing the essence of the argument. If that is possible, then it seems like the question still deserves consideration.

      For example, the issue of whether deliberately not creating a person is morally the same as murder. Let’s forget “multi-billion-billion-billion” potential offspring, and consider just one. The new counterfactual is, you’re part of a young, fertile couple. You have one child now, and your income, lifestyle, and house size are such that you could feasibly support an additional child and still maintain a nice standard of living, albeit slightly lower than the one you have now (e.g. your home office becomes the kid’s bedroom, vacations get a little shorter, things like that). And the question is, do you have some kind of ethical obligation to have a second child? This scenario cannot, I think, be dismissed as wild-eyed science fiction.

      Your objection to caring about hypothetical people is that we cannot in fact bring into being all people who could exist, so it is useless to mourn them. I could not agree more. But your hypothetical child cannot be dismissed that way — you can, in fact, bring her into existence. So? What do you do?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Scott Aaronson wrote about the general distinction between bullet swallowers (or biters) and dodgers (or avoiders) here. But a more relevant question might be whether our intuition should be given much weight on these issues at all.

    daedalus2u, there are lots of hypotheticals that strike me as pointless to think about, but not the huge number of descendants one. Supposedly a single common ancestor gave rise to all life on earth, and if we create von Neumann probes they could colonize the galaxy. If we restrict things to the marginal case of adding one additional life/entity, we can say that is a hypothetical we could definitely bring about and it makes sense to consider the consequences for it. You are acting as an unusually explicit curiosity-stopper.

    • daedalus2u

      TGGP, in many cases, the counterfactual scenarios are not being generated in an attempt to arrive at knowledge or understanding, they are being generated to manipulate people’s feelings so they can be taken advantage of and exploited.  This is their major use. 

      The potential number of counterfactuals is infinite.  Using counterfactuals as thought experiments to learn something only occurs to the extent that the counterfactual intersects with reality.  There is a counterfactual going around that there is widespread voter fraud (there isn’t any evidence that there is).  That counterfactual is being used to purge voter lists of eligible voters and make it more difficult for eligible voters to vote.  We know why, because people who are being purged from the voter registry happen to be more of one party than another.  They belong to parties other than the one doing the purging.  Members of that party say suppression of voters is not the “real reason” for purging the voter registry, but they are lying. 

      When the tea partiers were protesting big government, some carried signs that said “Government hands off my Medicare”.  They were led to believe that somehow the major risk to Medicare was government involvement with it.  People were somehow led to believe that part of the deficit was due to Social Security.  That is simply false.  Social Security is still a few trillion in surplus.  Monies not yet paid in Social Security benefits don’t count against the deficit, just as taxes not yet collected don’t count either. 

      The example of “potential human beings” was about if existing humans cross-mated.  Assume there are 1 billion males and 1 billion females of childbearing age.  The number of actual descendants that would exist if each pairing had 2 children is 2 billion.  The number of potential descendants is much larger; (1 billion factorial)*(1 billion factorial), where each female has a potential descendant with each male. 

      Each female cannot have an actual descendant with each male.  She would be limited to ~10 to 20 over her lifetime, unless IVF and surrogacy was used, which limits her to more, maybe hundreds or thousands?  The number could never approach 1 billion factorial, there isn’t enough matter in the known universe. 

      The potential number is actually much larger because the number of different gametes with a different genetic makeup that each individual can produce is much larger than 2.  Call that number the gamete number, Gn, and the number of potential children each paring can have is (Gn factorial)*(Gn factorial).    It is likely that there isn’t enough matter in the known universe for all potential children of a particular pairing to exist. 

      When a child is born, should the parents mourn the countless trillions of children they could have had but didn’t?   Should they mourn the 9 to 19 other children they could possible have?  As development occurs across the lifespan, there are many potential developmental pathways, each leading to a different life, a different set of experiences and ultimately different individuals living those different lives.  Should each individual mourn the trillions of different lives he/she didn’t get to live? 

      There is a saying “all models are wrong, some are useful”.  Using stories to evaluate ethical and moral problems is only useful to the extent that those stories (aka models of reality) are correct enough to be useful.  One can make up counterfactual hypotheticals about anything.  What if magic was real?  What if energy could be created out of nothing?  What if oil supplies were infinite?  What if intelligence were proportional to wealth?  What if aliens were beaming control signals into people’s brains that could be blocked by aluminum foil with the shiny side out?  What if Saddam Hussein had monkeys with WMD fly out of his ass and kidnap US grandmothers and carry them back to Baghdad?  That would be terrible.  I am willing to give Bush full credit for preventing that scenario from happening.  As it turns out, that is about as much credit as the GOP is giving to Obama for getting Bin Laden.  Credit for preventing monkeys with WMD from flying out of Bin Laden’s ass and kidnapping US grandmothers and carrying them back to his encampment in Pakistan. 

      The common use of counterfactual stories is to generate a “reality” where what you do is good and what everyone else does is bad and so you should be rewarded at the expense of everyone else.  They are attempts to manipulate.  If people putting forth these scenarios are unwilling to acknowledge that they are simple fictions designed to manipulate, there is no point in considering them.  Those putting forth the scenarios will simply modify them until they get the “result” they want, the acceptance of a “reality” where they are good and everyone else is bad. 

      These fictitious scenarios are a form of denialism.  A denialist is living in their own “reality” and are immune to facts and logic from outside it.
       

      • http://omicron-theta.blogspot.fi/ Ari T

        So most of moral philosophy is form of denialism? Most moral philosophical articles play with fictious scenarios. What’s wrong with that? They don’t necessarily have more agenda that the authors wanting to prove others wrong and raise their personal status (just like disproving a bad theorem in physics). And I don’t see this nearly as crazy as some physics papers.

        Our moral intuitions are most likely produced by evolution, obviously criticizing them is going to raise resistance. That doesn’t mean criticism of that is even honest, after all your ability to criticize evolution comes from somewhere (politics isn’t about policy).

        I don’t have a dog in this, and I personally don’t like tea party and whatever political pundits there are out there, but bringing GOP into a debate like this smells a lot like there’s a political agenda here. I see people, including myself, sometimes using political “foes” (lets just abstract here a bit) as an example without acknowledging my agenda for whatever signaling reasons. All this I don’t see very productive for the discussion.Anyway, good post Katja. I was happy to hear Robin is working on a book (awesome!) but skeptical when I heard blog would be handed over. Hopefully this will turn out fine.

      • http://www.facebook.com/katja.grace Katja Grace

        Hey, please try to stay under the 500 word mark.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Basically none of the political examples given had ANYTHING to do with counterfactuals. False statements of fact are an entirely separate category from hypotheticals about different facts. Politics is indeed the mind-killer, next time when reaching for an example choose from a field other than politics.

      • daedalus2u

        Let me ask a question.  Is the idea that people will receive the reward of eternity in Paradise for those who follow the orders of the leader a counterfactual, a true statement, or a false statement or something else? 

        When false statements are characterized as hypotheticals by those who are making them, that is precisely the issue I was raising. 

        Many politicians do make false statements which they characterize as hypotheticals. 

        The reason that politics is called “the mind killer”, is because most people don’t have their feelings and intuition aligned with their cognitive thinking, and that shows up in politics, sports and religion where charismatic leaders have the ability to manipulate peoples feelings and get them to believe nonsense with fervor and intensity. 

        Maybe your mind is “killed” by politics, mine is not.  Humans evolved to be susceptible to charismatic leaders distorting their world view.  It takes a lot of hard work to get past that and few people have done it. 

        If your logical thinking comes to different conclusions than your feelings and intuition, which do you default to?  I default to my logical thinking and change my intuition.  I appreciate that most people do the opposite and default to their feelings and reject science and logic. 

        There are no “paradoxes” of intuition.  Intuition is not a reliable method for arriving at answers.  It can be quick, but it is also error prone.  If you always check and then change your intuition when you find it to be faulty, then it gets to be pretty good after many years.  That is sometimes called “wisdom”. 

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        The idea is obviously not a counterfactual. I would call it a false statement of fact, but there are circumstances like Pascal’s wager where we can deem it a hypothetical to which we assign some positive probability and multiply a utility estimate by that. A rule of thumb is that if it iimagines something happening in the future it’s a hypothetical and if it concerns a historical event going differently, it’s a counterfactual.

        Who is characterizing those political issues as hypotheticals rather than statements of fact right now? Again, distinguish statements of the form “This is the case”, “This could be the case”, and “This isn’t the case, but if it were…”

        I think my mind is vulnerable to politics, I engage in some damage control by limiting my intake of politics (I also don’t read fiction) and not maintaining a political label as part of my identity. I think you are kidding yourself if you don’t think your mind is warped by politics.

        I agree that intuition is not a reliable method of arriving at answers. I don’t think one can be confident that the answers one relies at are the result of “logical thinking” rather than intuition even if one BELIEVES that. There’s the old quote that reason is slave of the passions and newer scientific findings that we begin with beliefs and our logical abilities exist to argue on behalf of them. If I’m feeling argumentative, I take that as a warning sign.

      • V V

         I think that daedalus2u doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘counterfactual’
        counterfactual [ˌkauntəˈfæktʃʊəl] Logicadj (Philosophy / Logic) expressing what has not happened but could, would, or might under differing conditions
        n
        (Philosophy / Logic) a conditional statement in which the first clause
        is a past tense subjunctive statement expressing something contrary to
        fact, as in if she had hurried she would have caught the bushttp://www.thefreedictionary.com/counterfactual

      • daedalus2u

        TGGP and VV, I agree somewhat with your definitions, I have trouble distinguishing between counterfactuals and false statements. 

        When someone is trying to use a work of fiction as evidence for a particular chain of thought, that is at best disingenuous and at worst an outright falsehood.  This applies to works such as the Bible, but also to works everyone acknowledges are fiction such as Atlas Shrugged and Twilight.  Such stories are fiction.  The story line played out that way because that is how the author wrote it, not because reality actually works that way.  Some people believe them to be True (the Bible) or the way that the world would or should work (Atlas Shrugged). 

        I remember reading Atlas Shrugged for a class at MIT, and one of my classmates was a metallurgist and he took exception to the idea that someone could simply look at the formula for Rearden Metal and tell how good a metal it would be for what purposes.   It is simply not possible to look at the formula of an alloy and tell its properties.  A number of the other plot devices were the same, they were deus ex machina, supernatual plot devices that cannot happen in reality. 

        It is unfortunate when people acquire their conceptualizations of how people will interact and how the world works from works of fiction.  Their reality testing gets completely screwed up and they can’t deal with actual reality.  A good example is the “happily ever after” of princesses when they find their prince.  Another good example is the body dysmorphic syndrome that some people get from seeing air-brushed skinny models everywhere.  Another good example is how some guys get their ideas of sex morphed into something completely dysfunctional by watching porn. 

        http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2011/02/hes_just_not_that_into_anyone.html

        All works of fiction are counterfactual in that the events did not actually happen the way they are said to have happened.  They become falsehoods when they could not happen the way they are said to have happened.  People who claim they are counterfactuals instead of falsehoods are lying. 
         

      • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

        Let me ask a question.  Is the idea that people will receive the reward
        of eternity in Paradise for those who follow the orders of the leader a
        counterfactual, a true statement, or a false statement or something
        else?

        Usually, it’s a false statement, but it could be part of a counterfactual.

        IIRC, all counterfactuals are of the form “if X were true, then Y would be true.”

        “There are 51 states in the U.S; therefore, there are 51 stars on the U.S. flag.” is two false statements.

        “If there were 51 states in the U.S., there would be 51 stars on the U.S. flag” is a true counterfactual.

        “If you were to follow the orders of the leader, you would be rewarded with eternity in Paradise” is a false counterfactual.

        “If it were actually true that people would be rewarded with eternity in Paradise for following the orders of the leader, then following the orders of the leader would be a good idea” is a true counterfactual.

  • Ansis Māliņš

    This is easy! Assign utiliy to transitions instead of states. Existing and not existing are neutral. Dying is bad. Being born depends on the circumstances.

    • V V

       In other words, subscribe to deontological ethics.

      • officer_fred

        Whoah. Yes. Yes, that is exactly correct.

        Sorry, I’m sure this is obvious to everyone else, but I’m kind of blown away. Utilitarianism vs. deontology is just the assignment of value to states vs. transitions. Amazing. Wow, thank you. Goodbye.

      • http://twitter.com/Rongorg Grognor

         That’s not even a little bit true.

      • V V

         Why not?

      • http://twitter.com/Rongorg Grognor

         Utility functions don’t care about states, they care about changes. Deontological ethics cares neither about states nor changes, it is only a list of things humans are not allowed to do.

      • V V

         

        Utility functions don’t care about states, they care about changes.

        In the rational agent model, the utility function is usually defined on states.

        Deontological ethics cares neither about states nor changes, it is only a list of things humans are not allowed to do.

        Which means that certain changes have a low “moral utility” value.

  • Vaniver

    “Intuitions also say physical proximity, likelihood of being blamed, etc shouldn’t be morally relevant.”

    Physical proximity strikes me as obviously morally relevant, even if you subscribe to a moral position that holds all humans as exactly equal and some variant of aggregate utilitarianism. There are many people in between me and the dying child in Africa- their cost to rescue the dying child is lower than mine, and so they should do it instead of me. (If I’m the closest person to the dying child, then the onus falls on me.)

    • V V

      There are many people in between me and the dying child in Africa- their
      cost to rescue the dying child is lower than mine, and so they should
      do it instead of me.

      But according to aggregate utilitarianism, if they are not doing that, then you shall. Other people immorality is not a justification for one own immorality.

    • Dremora

      “they should do it instead of me”

      This is, in part, what charity does. You pay them so that they do it. Physical proximity would be relevant in a world in which it correlates robustly with ability to manipulate.

      But in this world, I can manipulate other people’s behavior by sending them memes or incentive tokens like money, e.g. over the internet.

  • MPS

    I don’t have time to read your post carefully now and I haven’t followed the entire debate, however I think there is an important consideration that perhaps all of the discussion overlooks.

    It is very much possible that the universe is infinitely large and that all possible people actually exist somewhere in it, and that they exist in all possible environmental contexts (different families, societies, etc.).  People often think of this idea as sort of “science-fictiony” but it’s actually what almost everyone who’s given it serious thought thinks.  Physically speaking, you have to extrapolate from what we know using very contrived models to avoid it — the most simple, natural models of our universe make it infinitely large, with essentially random initial conditions over different subsets as large as the observable universe.

    I stress that while it is speculative to assert the universe is infinite, this appears more plausible than the alternative.  I of course understand why the default assumption of philosophy is to ignore this possibility, but I am trying to stress there is a sense in which this makes your deliberations less realistic.

    Realistically, it is a good assumption that everyone who can exist does exist.  When you ask questions about whether to kill someone or not, and if and how this is morally wrong or not, you are speaking about a very specific realization of that person in a social context etc.  For example, if you decide to painlessly kill anyone who contracts a randomly-contracted debilitating illness, in this context you are not denying these people existence.  They exist in all the worlds where they don’t contract the illness.  You are only denying existence to the one’s who get ill.  If we set aside the social ramifications (friends who suffer the loss of the person), then it much harder to argue the wrong here.

    There is much more that can be said but I am busy at the moment…

  • Charles Zheng

    Knowledge of impending death causes suffering.  Would it be better to cure death, or to cure the fear of death? Perhaps we only seek the former because we don’t know how to achieve the latter (without side effects.)

    • Dremora

      Well, one partial remedy for the fear of death would be the broad availability of cheap, painless, reliable suicide methods, e.g. barbiturates, which are now restricted by coercive government intervention.

      If “fall asleep like normal, but don’t wake up” were an easy option for everyone, that would alleviate fear of most forms of death and give a sense of control back to the person. After all, we each owe (at least) one death to the universe, and we’re almost certainly never going to “cure” it forever.

      • V V

         There is a clinic in Switzerland that legally offer that service, even to foreigners. It’s not exactly cheap, but also not prohibitively expensive for any middle-class person.

        I’d post a link, but last time I did somebody accused me of “bullying” and “daring people to commit suicide”.

      • Dremora

        Dignitas only takes terminally ill customers, and Exit only takes Swiss citizens.

        And yeah, the expenses are an insult, given that the deadly drug would cost only a couple of bucks, if only the human cattle were allowed to simply buy it.

      • V V

         Dignitas also takes healthy customers, AFAIK

      • Dremora

        ” Dignitas also takes healthy customers, AFAIK”

        Not according to their web page.

      • V V

        According to Wikipedia:

        “Additionally, they provide assisted suicide for people provided that
        they are of sound judgment and submit to an in-depth medical report
        prepared by a psychiatrist that establishes the patient’s condition, as
        required by Swiss courts.”

  • Daniel Carrier

    Utilitarianism is a simple resolution of the paradox. It’s bad for people to die because they are missing out. Being dead does not keep you from bearing an opportunity cost, for the simple reason that it’s not a cost. It’s the lack of a benefit. All the people not alive are not a tragedy, because the lack of a utopia is not a tragedy. There’s nothing sad about being born later because it also means you’ll die later.

    • V V

       According to utilitarianism, preventing somebody from being born is equivalent to killing somebody, ceteris paribus.

  • Pingback: Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition | Meteuphoric

  • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

    There’s an easy answer to Shelly Kagan’s argument about “when” death is bad: your future death is bad for you now, because your present self cares about the future.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

    Most likely, if you want a consistent position you will have to bite a bullet. If you are interested in reality, biting a bullet here shouldn’t be a last resort after searching every nook and cranny for a consistent and intuitive position. It is much more likely that humans have inconsistent intuitions about the value of life than that we have so far failed to notice some incredibly important and intuitive distinction in circumstances that drives our different intuitions.

    Absolutely and importantly correct. But since the whole project of philosophical ethics is to harmonize our moral intuitions, the recognition that no harmony is possible should lead you to moral antirealism. 

    Where you do get the epistemic right to bite the hand of intuition feeding you?: intuition being all that you can draw on. You have no criteria (that I can imagine) to choose which consistent position you adopt or any arguments to convince anyone else to adopt it.

  • richatd silliker

    ‘it seems likely that our intuitions are just inconsistent”

    How about loosely bound rather than inconsistent?  How is that possible?
    It is possible because we cultivate an indifference towards having experiences that would enhance our intuition.

  • DonaldWCameron

    Intuitions?
    If I may, what you are missing is the “organic machine”.
    When the doctor hits your knee with the rubber head of that little mallet, he is testing your “patellar reflex”.Reflex? it is a behavior tied to the organic machine.Object Oriented Software was created to move design father away from the machinery of the computer.In that context a given software language is either “close to the machine” or “far from the machine”. If you wanted to, then you could appropriate its use for the “near – far” problem domain.Institutions, then, would be “Far” reflexes – abstractions that arise from given practices. Locomotion itself is rather “near” to the machine while dance or sport is farther from the machine than locomotion.. Vocalizing is rather near to the machine while language is father from the machine than Vocalizing.Theories cut into and chop up the continuum from simplicity to complexity within the organic machine. They create surrealisms in the brains of our children.One ubiquitous theory that damages the brains of our children is mathematics. We have forgotten that the numeral “2″ is just an agreement.Like circles and lines, “2″ does not actually exist.The are only points, “states” of “on”, and states of “off” (0 and 1)Another theory that is becoming ubiquitous, is the theory of evolution by natural selection. It is wrong, and it too is damaging our children’s intuition.