Ethical heuristics

I would like to think I wouldn’t have been friends with slave owners, anti-semites or wife-beaters, but then again most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about the suffering of animals, so I guess I would have been. – Robert Wiblin

I expect the same friends would have been any of those things too, given the right place and period of history. The same ‘faults’ appear to be responsible for most old fashioned or foreign moral failings: not believing that anything bad is happening if you don’t feel bad about it, and not feeling bad about anything unless there is a social norm of feeling bad about it.

People here and now are no different in these regards, as far as I can tell. We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred years ago did. People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues, but that can’t make much difference to issues where the problem is that people’s hearts don’t automatically register a problem. So even if you aren’t a slave-owner, I claim you are probably using a similar decision procedure to that which would lead you to be one in different circumstances.

Are these really bad ways for most people to behave? Or are they pretty good heuristics for non-ethicists? It would be a huge amount of work for everyone to independently figure out for themselves the answer to every ethical question. What heuristics should people use?

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • http://www.facebook.com/jstorrs.hall J Storrs Hall

    If “People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues”, that means that our society is LESS moral than previous ones.  If something really is a moral issue — such that the behavior of people in that regard bears strongly on the health of society — people mustn’t be allowed to make up their own minds on the subject.  Would you want to live in a place where people were “free to follow their own hearts” as to whether they killed or robbed their neighbors?

    What’s happened is that as mores shift, things that used to be moral issues become less do, and new things fall under the moral purview.  This is not the same as people being free to ignore things that are actual current moral constraints.

    • juliawise

      I think society has gotten rid of a lot of arbitrary social rules, which has led to some more moral behavior and some less.  E.g. now that divorce is much more acceptable than it was a century ago, I consider some of the results more moral (abused spouses don’t have to stay) and some less moral (abandonment is easier) than before.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        What makes you think the rate at which “society has gotten rid of a lot of arbitrary social rules” has been greater than the rate at which society has introduced new arbitrary social rules in the recent past?

      • Martin-2

        Jayson – It probably goes something like this. Think of all the social norms you can, then divide them into 3 lists: “recently abolished”, “recently created”, and “other”. Compare the sizes of the first two lists and you’re done (and possibly incorrect due to bias and incomplete/faulty information).

    • Martin-2

       “Would you want to live in a place where people were ‘free to follow
      their own hearts’ as to whether they killed or robbed their neighbors?”

      As far as I can tell, this is exactly the kind of society we live in. Of course, we do an alright job of stopping those destructive people with law enforcement and sermons about morality.

  • http://truffles.me.uk Tim Ruffles

    I’d contend that given the course of history so far, a good heuristic is applying the golden rule[1] with a definition of ‘others’ as wide as seems plausible. Plausible because it will not at the time seem to you a sensible, rational or popular opinion to believe a new group is covered by the rule – as was historically the case with women, homosexuals, and races not your own.

    I’d content given that trend, animals will eventually be afforded broader rights (I’m vegetarian, so that’s probably a hopeful/self-serving hypothesis).

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule

    • http://profiles.google.com/johnthacker John Thacker

       Tim,

      Perhaps one test of whether it’s a hopeful/self-serving hypothesis is whether you think that rights will be granted to a new group that you don’t necessarily agree with. For example, perhaps fetuses.

      • http://truffles.me.uk Tim Ruffles

        Well that’s an interesting one, but the only reason I’d be worried about foetuses being granted rights is conflict of interests between two individuals (mother v foetus) rather than treatment of one. I think it’s fair to say that any heuristic about the treatment of individuals faces a dilemma there.

        With the multiple individuals angle put to one side, I think it’s a practical or taste problem. It would either inconvenience me that a group now had certain rights, or upset me by being contrary to my taste. So in this case let’s consider foetuses grown in vats. Affording them rights doesn’t bother, nor inconvenience me. Considering the potential ethical downsides and the strength of my wish not to be killed, I’d be both sure of and happy with the heuristic’s conclusion.

        To generalise, if I had a taste problem with group X being given rights, I consider it my own problem. If it inconvenienced me I’d argue against it, but since the explicit aim of the heuristic is to avoid large, unseen ethical downsides, I still think I’d be happy to adopt the heuristic’s conclusions from others.

        In the mother vs child question, I’d say the heuristic is not able to make a decision on its own – which I think you’ll agree only invalidates it in multiple individual situations.

      • V V

         Extending rights to a group pretty much always generates confilct with some other group.

        Enfranchising slaves damages the interests of slave owners, enfranchising animals damages the interests of meat eaters, etc.

    • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

      I don’t think “plausible” is a useful concept here; it either means “conceivable” or “whatever I have already decided”.  If the former, here is the reductio: I can imagine a bizarre future where artificial intelligences are given moral standing as agents, to the point at which any device that can be modeled as pursuing goals (and so can have something like a utility function ascribed to it) is considered a morally protected being.  In this future, it would be wrong to disassemble a calculator because–applying the golden rule–if you were a calculator you would want to keep calculating.

      Also: what John Thacker said.

      • http://truffles.me.uk Tim Ruffles

        True, I suppose ‘plausible’ is a weasel word, but given what we know about people in the past I think it would have worked quite well. People have always questioned whether keeping slaves was ethical, so it was clearly an open question. In those cases it would have prevented an ethical problem – your reductio is just an argument that the heuristic is over cautious.

        In the above case, yes I suppose you might avoid dissembling calculators. But calling the conclusion absurd doesn’t really matter ethically. It’s a trade off: avoiding a big potential ethical downside for some practical cost/looking absurd. It is a heuristic that promotes plausibly more ethical paths over those that seem reasonable at the time.

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

      I’d contend that given the course of history so far, a good heuristic is applying the golden rule[1] with a definition of ‘others’ as wide as seems plausible.

      The problem with this heuristic is that there isn’t just a single description under which to evaluate your similarity to others. Slaveowners “honestly” believed slavery was good for blacks. They might say—if they could tolerate the hypothesis—that if they themselves were Black, they would or should want to be enslaved. Many if not most slaveowners thought that way.

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

    “We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has
    little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred
    years ago did.”

    Although many moral philosophers are obsessed with the question, they’ve never overcome powerful arguments that morality neither is nor can be anything more than “heuristics.” There’s no moral reality underneath. (See my “Why do what you ought?–A habit theory of explicit morality.” – http://tinyurl.com/7dcbt7y)

  • adrianratnapala

    As a child I wan ethicist. I picked though a fair few ethical questions, consciously.  This (but not this alone) led me to being a vegetarian, which some of my extended family were, but not my parents.

    A few years ago I started eating meat, but without actually changing my moral opinion.  I just decided to sin.  It’s not so hard to do when nobody minds.

    • Doug S.

       I can’t justify my meat-eating on an ethical basis, but I do it anyway because it’s convenient. Becoming vegetarian would be a big pain in the ass, and I can’t be bothered.

      • asdf

         No offence, but fuck you both.

  • blink

    To the extent that we are richer now than 500 years ago, I think we also have better ethics.  Wealth allows us the freedom to indulge — no longer must we expose infants we cannot feed or concoct witch hunts to eliminate unproductive old people.  I have no predictions about the locus of change, but I expect ethics to be better in the future because our descendants will have greater wealth.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      What proxy are you measuring that gives you reason to conclude that current-ethics is better than past-ethics?

      • john

        Current ethics, obviously. “Your brain is the most important organ in your body, according to your brain.”

  • Pole

    Is it ethical to use Internet to ponder on such questions and not to help Africans copulate in western prosperity?

    • officer_fred

      Yes it is ethical, if only because I don’t think they would want our help copulating…

  • Grognor

     If I were to propose The One Great Principle That Is All You Need To Be Moral (As A Human, Anyway), I would say “Reduce suffering as best as you can.”

    But if you want the Archimedes’s Chronophone (http://lesswrong.com/lw/h5/archimedess_chronophone/) version, that would probably come out as “Be as virtuous as possible,” revealing the underlying message as actually, “Do what you think is moral at this moment.”

    The question of how to get both Archimedes and Grognor to arrive at the correct morality is much harder than the question you directly pose. For today’s humans I really do actually think the whole “reduce suffering” thing should work as an ethical heuristic.

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

      “Do what you think is moral at this moment.”

      If I’m not mistaken, that’s Eliezer Yudkowsky’s contribution to ethics. It’s really not as much a nonstarter as it might seem at first blush. The problem with it is that it our sense of morality changes with the moral habits we form, which in turn depend on what we do. Often, it’s important to deliberately alter our moral sensibilities, and ethical change requires acting contrary to our moral sense. Thus, the project of cultivating one’s moral character requires a different functional analysis of morality, which I sketch in “What’s morality for?: Integrity versus conformity.” — http://tinyurl.com/6mq74zp

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    I think a pretty good ethical heuristic
    would be for your actions to always be Pareto efficient, that is you
    never make anyone else worse off by your actions.

     

    • V V

       Pareto efficiency doesn’t define a total order on actions. Consider the prisoner dilemma.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

         It is a heuristic, not a perfect decision making method. 

        If everyone followed it, there would be no prisoners’ dilemma to have to deal with. 

      • KnowPD

        So, in a world with women and men, one of each sex who is the most handsome/beautiful, the smartest, strongest, and has all the best genes, who would marry him/her?  Whoever makes that choice by definition makes the others worse off since it will deprive them of the opportunity. 

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        No. 

        First there is no one “best” genome or phenotype, so your fundamental premise is wrong. 

        Second, even if there was a single “best” genotype, the idea that that single “best” genotype would produce a phenotype that was compatible with any other random genotype/phenotype is also wrong.

        Third, the idea that if the most perfect person in the world doesn’t marry you, results in a loss in Pareto efficiency is not correct unless you happen to also be the person that the most perfect person in the world most wants to marry, in which case there would be a loss in Pareto efficiency if the two of you (who most want to marry each other) did not marry each other. 

        It would be unethical to prevent the marriage of two people who most want to marry each other because that does leave some people worse off.  This is the whole issue with the anti-gay marriage people.  Two gay people getting married has no negative effect on any heterosexual marriage.  

      • V V

         

        the idea that that single “best” genotype would produce a phenotype
        that was compatible with any other random genotype/phenotype is also
        wrong

        Within a sexual species, each genotype is compatible with any other genotype, as long as they are of two different mating types (genders).

        Third, the idea that if the most perfect person in the world doesn’t
        marry you, results in a loss in Pareto efficiency is not correct unless
        you happen to also be the person that the most perfect person in the
        world most wants to marry

        Not necessarily.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

         
        The loss of a hypothetical opportunity
        to marry someone because they choose to marry someone else is not a
        good, the loss of which affects Pareto efficiency.

        Preventing two people who do want to
        marry each other, for example preventing two gay people from marrying
        simply because they are gay, does cause cause a reduction in Pareto
        efficiency.

      • V V

         Jack, James, Kate and Juliet are stranded on an island with no other people.

        Kate likes Jack and James equally, and so does Juliet, while Jack and James both prefer Kate over Juliet.

        All of them want a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

        If Kate marries Jack they make James worse off, conversely, if she marries James, then Jack is made worse off.

      • daedalus2u

         VV, I think they would be forced to use the technique discussed in this:

        http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2657#comic

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

      Daedalus,

       I’ve been straining to understand how you could possibly believe this. For instance, you favor higher taxes on the rich, which would seem to make them worse off. (Why would you *not* want to make some people worse off in the face of rampant inequality?) I’ve concluded that you must have some idiosyncratic definition of “worse” and “better” that performs all the real work in your claim.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

         In a perfect market of all goods, with no externalities, with perfect information, no coercion and in equilibrium, in the limit such a society is Pareto efficient.  

        What we have now is not Pareto efficient.  Existing markets do not cover all goods, ignore many externalities, have imperfect information, use coercion and are not in equilibrium.  

        Yes, taxing wealthy person X does make person X worse off, but not taxing person X at the appropriate rate also makes person X worse off by causing inefficiencies because more productive activities must be taxed to make up the difference and this causes a drag on growth and the whole economy doesn’t grow as fast.  With the economy not growing as fast, wealthy person X, then must be taxed by an increasing amount to maintain government services.  

        If there were perfect information, wealthy person X would appreciate this and would have no issues with paying tax at the appropriate rate.  The appropriate rate being the rate that maximizes growth while making everyone better off.  

        I appreciate that wealthy person X might not want to have perfect information, and may want to ignore the plight of starving children, ignore his/her unpaid externalities and use coercion to exploit his/her employees.  I don’t consider it to be ethical to assist wealthy person X in maintaining his/her ignorance.

      • V V

         

        In a perfect market of all goods, with no externalities, with perfect
        information, no coercion and in equilibrium, in the limit such a society
        is Pareto efficient. 

        Under pretty strong assumptions. Anyway, I don’t see how Pareto efficiency corresponds to a notion of good.

        An allocation where all the wealth of the world is owned by a single person, and everybody else is his employee, earning a subsistence wage, may well be Pareto efficient.

        With the economy not growing as fast, wealthy person X, then must be
        taxed by an increasing amount to maintain government services. 

        If you assume equilibrium, then the economy doesn’t grow.

    • Michael Wengler

      There’s a guy who keeps stealiing stuff from his neighbors, so I toss him in jail for 2 years.  It is impossible, without bending reason past its breaking point, to frame this in a way  where I have not made this guy worse off.  Even just taking the stuff back that he stole makes him worse off.  

      How would I deal with this thief in a Pareto efficient manner?

  • nominull

    I think this is a confused question which assumes an actual answer to ethical questions.  We can’t find good metaethical heuristics for figuring out the “right thing to do” because in a metaethical sense there is no right thing to do. All right things to do come from object-level ethics.  

    We can try to figure out a metaethics that would reconstruct our object-level ethics even in adverse situations, but it’s not clear that that’s possible or helpful.  Rather than try to figure out an ethical framework that would have concluded blacks were people even though society was telling us they weren’t, let’s just be glad we live in a society that tells us they are.

  • V V

    If you are going to endorse a moral realist position, you’d better provide an argument for it.

  • Mitchell Porter

    Katja asks “What heuristics should people use?”

    Every time they are faced with a major life decision, they should ask me about it first.

  • Pingback: Ethical heuristics | Meteuphoric