Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Take a minute to consider these two questions. I think they are actually interrelated:
First of all, what does it mean to say that "Bob should not murder"? Is it simply a statement of preference equivalent to "I would like it if Bob does not murder"? Is it something more? If it is something more, what more is there?
Second, why the hell should Bob care? Let's assume that it appears Bob would legitimately be better off if he murdered someone (Imagine he kills a random stranger with a remote button press. He never feels guilty about it and all his wildest dreams come true because he did it). Also assume that we cannot catch him (maybe the kill signal was scrambled through a bazillion nested routers or something). Should Bob ever behave morally against his own self interest? Why on earth would he?
Really give these some thought. Come up with a model of morality, make up some hypothetical situations and see how your answers hold up. Even better, try testing them on a real world scenario. My goal here is not to force feed you the tentative answer I've come up with, but to get you genuinely curious about these implicit rules that govern nearly all the decisions we make.
Ok, ready? Here's what I came up with.
The meaning of "morality"
I think that we do mean more than a simple statement of preference when we say that Bob shouldn't murder. Otherwise we'd just say "I don't want Bob to murder" and leave it at that. Of course, there is the problem that sometimes when people want something they try to make it into a moral issue.
This reminds me that I'm getting hungry writing this blog post for you.
Give me a cookie or you are clearly evil.
See what I did there? Of course, if I was starving to death in front of you things might be different. Or maybe this is legitimately just my way of telling you that I really, desperately want a cookie right now.
So the problem we face is that normative statements are a lot like "love." In everyday usage, they are wonderfully and terribly ambiguous at the same time. We need something more accurate if we are ever going to be able to talk about this at the level of precision I feel would be useful. At this point I could try to forcefully redefine or even coin a bunch of new words to talk about things, but it turns out I don't feel that is at all necessary or helpful. Why? Because fortunately I decided to study economics and my predecessors have already made up a bunch of words (and even math!) to talk about preferences and their interactions within different systems.
Why Economics is Useful Here
It seems to me that we generally mean that Bob is somehow making a mistake when he murders someone, and that if he knew better he wouldn't do so. That's why the statement that it is "wrong" for Bob to murder has extra force beyond just expressing a desire on our part. I believe this is because morality is a way of describing an ideal game of life (in the game theoretic sense), and that our moral intuitions are largely ways of approximating this solution.
I assume everyone is familiar with the prisoner's dilemma situation. It generally seems "right" for both people to cooperate, even though we know that using our current decision theory both will defect without enforcement or repetition. Likewise, the situation where all agents are forced to cooperate seems better than the one where all agents are (reasonably!) defecting. If I was in a giant game that was similar to the prisoner's dilemma in this way, I would be willing to pay to force everyone to cooperate all the time. If all agents are identical, they would also be willing to pay to force everyone to cooperate. Thus, a structure where everyone cooperates would be pareto-superior to one where everyone defects. The pareto-optimal structure for society as a whole is thus the moral one.
This is why Bob might want to refrain from murdering even though it seems like it is in his self interest to do so. He might benefit from murdering in this one particular case, but he would probably be worse off in the world where everyone murders someone when it is in their short run self-interest.
This seems to be what Immanuel Kant was getting at with his categorical imperative:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.Or Rawl's veil of ignorance, where we decide social rules behind a veil that ensures
...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.
This also means that if we want to talk about what is moral, we are really talking about pareto-optimal game structures given everyone's existing preferences. Economics is the science and theory of value system interaction, and the optimal game structure under this model is morality. So the best way to tease that out (at least at the meta-level) is going to be using economic reasoning.
But wait! I've made a mistake in the above. I said:
"the optimal game structure under this model is morality"when I should have said:
"the pareto optimal game structure under this model is morality"Do you see why this correction is important?
The problem is that there exists an optimal game structure for everyone to follow using a certain person's preferences as a criterion. This would be the game that benefits that particular person the most. A friend described the sort of maximizing reasoning that would lead to wanting this configuration very well in an email a few years back:
Human culture and morals as they exist today all just randomly happen to stabilize civilization. If they didn't, civilization wouldn't exist. It's the same argument as "Why isn't the universe lifeless? Because if it was, nobody would be thinking that." The ideal situation for any given individual is to encourage the rest of humanity to follow these restrictive morals while personally rejecting their principles. Breaking the rules is only beneficial if everyone else follows them. Therefore, one must maintain the appearance of respecting sociological laws. The result? Psychopathy. Embrace it people. Or rather, follow your social traditions and let me manipulate you.
This is very different from the moral game structure which is pareto optimal. The pareto optimality ensures that we account for everyone's preferences in a balanced way. It means the best game structure that everyone could agree upon.
Another interesting problem is where you draw the line on who is a moral agent and who isn't. This is a VERY good candidate for Hardest Philosophical Problem Ever. Take a look at Non-Person Predicates to get an idea of how insanely difficult this can be. A more everyday scenario could be whether eating meat is ethical.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Thursday, December 23, 2010
A lot of it has to do with a common goal. The difference between a team and a group is that a team has a common goal. Because of this, the individual members are willing to depend upon and work with each other to achieve it. A group merely has members who are pursing their individual interests.
However, that last sentence should throw up a flag, because the members of a team are pursuing their individual interests as well. They just realize that the best thing for them is for the team as a whole to perform well.
It's a pretty simple distinction really, but the moment I really thought about that, I realized how simple so much of what I've been working towards really is. Nearly all meaningful portions of my life have been about getting the people around me, and ultimately all of humanity to work as a team instead of as a group.
My synthesis paper last year was my first huge attempt to figure out a coherent belief system that covered all aspects of my life. I started out with a very strong individualist foundation. I felt that all belief systems had to have a justification from self-interest, but I had to try and figure out what that meant for me. What really was in my self-interest?
I initially started out trying to determine what my actions and concerns would be to best achieve my existing interests. The more of these I wanted to achieve and the more thoroughly I wanted to achieve them, the more my actions and concerns extended outwards into the world. If I really wanted to get everything I wanted, I was going to have to change the entire world anyway. Even more importantly however, was a nagging thought that came into my head. Why do I want these things I want? I began to realize that many of them were completely arbitrary.
This was heavy, and I had to seriously reconsider. I could either set out for an objective basis for what my goals should be, or try to subjectively harmonize them so that I could at least live a happy life if they were all ultimately just arbitrary.
I figured that the only way there could be an objective end goal is if there is an ultimate point to the universe (because individual lives in a pointless universe necessarily don't have a point outside of themselves). The only conclusion I could come to on this line of thought is that if the universe has no objective point, then the only action that could possibly have a point at all is searching for one. Obviously this puts a big priority on avoiding the destruction of humanity, because it cannot continue the search if annihilated (existential risks). Likewise, it puts an emphasis on the search for new discoveries that might bring us closer to finding a purpose (science), and the constructive tasks needed to support, nourish, and inspire everyone as we pursue the endeavor (industry, culture).
On the front of subjective harmonization, I found that having an overarching purpose for humanity led to a much more satisfying life with much less contradictory goals. It allowed me to consider situations in a detached way, and bring about much more joy and happiness in my life. I know where I am going. I know that I have reasons for everything I do. I never become bored, and enjoy a nearly constant state of productive flow. I've found that many complex dilemmas people find themselves in, particularly social ones, are like Gordian Knots that can be cut through most expediently with an integrated value system.
Now, of course, those values of happiness and harmony are probably ultimately set by evolutionary trends, as there is no particular reason that a mind would come to value and be fulfilled by them better than any others. We know that a "paperclip optimizer" is not an invalid possibility, nor do we have any standard to determine that it would be wrong to optimize the universe for paperclips while optimizing for our values would be right. A perspective of objective value fails on that front.
However, I think it is possible that almost every human on the planet shares the core values that can justify adopting a certain kind of value system. Thus, even if there might be no goal that can integrate the value system of every possible sentient mind allowing them to successfully cooperate on a team, I think there exists a real possibility that all minds which could possibly occupy the humane portion of mindspace may have values for which this is the case.
The task that lies before us then, is that of finding a way to harmonize all humane value systems so that they can achieve the fullness of their potential. There are two main elements of this endeavor. The first is understanding how the cognitive evaluation systems of minds work, and particularly how they work in humane minds. The second is understanding how the interpersonal relations between minds can be structured so that their values can be achieved. In short, the tasks of the cognitive-behavorial and the socio-economic sciences.
This is not a new goal, it's been around for a long time. Plato's Republic is the most notable attempt that comes to mind. He was trying to figure out the complex and often contradictory nature of human value systems so that he could create an optimal society. While many of his methodologies may be flawed, his science dismal, and the results unworkable, this is cause for hope rather than despair. We can use the findings of cognitive science and economics, both of which didn’t even exist in the time of Plato. Likewise, we can postulate the achievement of goals using technological means that Plato could never even dream of.
Certainly there is an element of hubris here. Utopia means "no place" for good reason. However, we have learned from past attempts to not take rigid structures of society as the ideal. We have learned that we do not know everything, and cannot ever know everything. However, while better understanding our limitations, we can simultaneously identify with much more precision and scope the basic laws and principles that underlie cognition and social interaction. We know the powers of deontological rules that allow for the development, evolution, and emergence of complex systems. We also have new ways of communicating, entirely new sciences, and breakthroughs across the board.
There have certainly been people since Plato who gave their best shot at the project, but I have yet to see anyone who looked at it in quite this perspective. I believe it not only holds the potential for outstandingly fruitful results, but also deep edification for those who pursue it.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Thursday, November 18, 2010
In many ways the very reality of an economic system depends upon how ownership is structured. It is the existence of property rights and the way they function in a society that determine who gets to make decisions and how those decisions are made, and since economics is fundamentally about decisions, this of course affects how the entire economy will work.
I think everyone in this room is acutely aware of the fact that there are some huge differences in how we all think economies should be structured, and I think that most of these differences ultimately boil down to questions about how ownership should work. There are an incredible amount of viewpoints on the matter. There are people who think that everything should be owned by the state because it's efficient, like in socialism or fascism. Communists think that property should be abolished completely in its current form, and everyone should be able to use everything. Some people think that workers should own the capital they use to produce goods, which is called syndicalism. Noam Chomsky is a famous modern advocate of this view.
Many people think that individuals should privately own property and that's basically your conventional capitalist viewpoint, but even within that viewpoint there are many shades of gray as to how firm individual property rights should be, as well as a multitude of ways that that private ownership of property can be done. You can have it as a trust from the state to individuals because that's the most productive way to generate resources for the state, which is effectively the mercantilist viewpoint. Or, you could make it so that one king effectively owns everything but leases it out for the same reason a mercantilist state would... because it increases his wealth and power. Sometimes people hold that individuals are the fundamental owners of their property, but that there can be exceptions to that if the situation requires them. In other words, many of us believe that ownership isn't absolute. And even if we do hold that individual property rights are absolute, which system do we use to justify that and determine who owns what?
Does each person own their property by mixing their labor with it, like Locke argued? Is property ultimately just about who has the biggest guns? Or like my uncle says, are we kidding ourselves because possession is 9/10 of the law? Is all property just theft? How far back do property rights go? Should we be concerned with say, giving the property we stole from the Native Americans back to them, or is there a certain point where we just accept the current distribution of property because it’s expedient to do so? Are property rights ultimately subject to a sort of practical truncation after restoring them becomes costly and difficult? I mean, these are only a few ways to think about and justify individual property rights, but I think you get the idea… it’s complicated. What even qualifies as property has changed over time. For example, people used to be able to own other people. You can’t do that anymore. And whether people should be able to own ideas is still an extremely contentious issue today.
So what I want you to really think about is.... how historically has property been structured, and why did past societies structure it that way? How is property structured in today’s world, and why is it structured this way? And most importantly, how should property be structured, and why should we structure it that way?