Kaspar Brandner

95 karmaJoined Oct 2022


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We can treat being indifferent between outcomes and as implying utility (degree of desire) zero: . This is also a provable consequence of Jeffrey's utility theory where we assume that tautologies have utility zero. Then, insofar preferences can be observed (reports, choice behavior), we can compare the "sign" of desires. If you prefer outcome to outcome , and , then . That is, you desire to a positive degree. Then we can compare desires between different people based on sign (positive, neutral, negative). This rules out utility functions being equivalent under addition of arbitrary constants. It is not the case that for arbitrary constants , .

Moreover, humans are neurophysiologically similar to each other. Which makes it plausible that similar behavior indicates similar desires for different people. E.g. similar reactions to equal pain stimuli indicating similar aversion to pain, desire for drinking water after 24 hours without water being similar, etc. If we accept that some desires are likely similar for certain situations, we can use them for interpersonal comparisons. E.g. Alice desires as much as Bob, Alice desires two times as much as , Bob desires four times much as , so Bob desires two times as much as Alice. This rules out equivalence under multiplication with arbitrary positive constants , i.e. it isn't the case that .

The interpersonal comparison problem is similar to the problem of other minds: The fact that other people a structurally similar to us suggests, by inference to the best explanation, that they also have inner lives. The same line of reasoning makes it unlikely for there to be large differences (utility monsters) in desires with similar observable physiological correlates (behavior, brain activity).

The separation between value and fact, between "will" and "representation" is one of the most essential epistemological facts. Reality is what it is, and our assessment of it does not alter it. Statements of fact have truth value, not moral value. No descriptive belief can ever be "good" or "bad." The black-white IQ gap is precisely the canonical example of this principle: its existence and its causes (whatever they may be) are objective facts, and no one can be morally judged for their sincere opinions about this part of reality. Or rather, of course one must morally judge and roundly condemn anyone who alters their descriptive beliefs about reality for political convenience. This is exactly what is called “motivated thought”.

This is exceptionally well-put.

The fact that this post was so heavily down-voted without any substantial counterarguments is a bad sign for the Forum. The post wasn't even long or hard to read. Apparently many people here like to engage more in "mob voting", the virtual equivalent to shouting down, than in making arguments about the things they disagree with.

And with good reason, out of the billions of possible correlations to talk about this is one of the very few that will help racists.

Strong disagree here. See the quote of the paper I posted below.

Writing on such topics does the opposite of favoring your academic career. It is rather a form of career suicide, since you will likely get cancelled and ostracized. The topic is extremely taboo, as we can see with the reaction to Bostrom's old email. He didn't even support hereditarianism about IQ gaps, he just said they exist, which even environmentalists accept!

I don't fault you for not reading it all, but it is a good resource for looking up specific topics. (I have summarized a few of the points here.) And I don't think IQ is a flawed measure, since it is an important predictor for many measures of life success. Average national IQ is also fairly strongly correlated with measures of national welfare such as per Capita GDP.

To be clear, I'm not saying studying this question is more important than anything else, just that research on it should not be suppressed, whatever the truth may be. This point was perhaps best put in the conclusion of this great paper on the topic:

The strategy – advocated by some influential scholars – of stigmatizing, suppressing, or downplaying evidence in favor of hereditarianism about group differences has been tried and has not worked. Research on this topic has been done and the results are widely available. Major psychology journals continue to publish work that deals openly with group differences (though researchers still debate about the relative contribution of genes and environment, and the question has not been settled definitively). Any measures that would be effective in preventing further work, such as those advocated by Kourany (2016), would have to be so severe that they would only attract even more attention to the findings they aimed to suppress. Science will carry on, and these questions will be answered. We should prepare in advance for the possibility that the genes underlying intelligence differences will not be distributed identically among ethnic groups. Failure to do this will only create a vacuum for “cranks rather than scientists” to opine on the nature and consequences of group differences (Anomaly, 2017, p. 293). Reich (2018) warns that if scientists “willfully abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing human differences, [they] will leave a vacuum that will be filled by pseudoscience” (p. 258).

This paper has argued that the usual utilitarian reasons given for restricting intelligence research are not convincing and, in fact, there are strong reasons, both utilitarian and non-utilitarian, to favor free inquiry. For philosophers specifically, there is an additional consideration. For decades, the contribution of philosophers to this debate has consisted mostly in providing alternative explanations for evidence seeming to support hereditarianism about race differences (see Sesardic, 2000, 2005), and advocating various kinds of restriction and censorship (see Cofnas, 2016). This may be because hereditarianism is controversial, and philosophers are strongly disincentivized from pursuing lines of argument that lead to truly controversial conclusions. Testifying to how serious this problem is, Jeff McMahan, Francesca Minerva, and Peter Singer recently founded the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will allow scholars to publish pseudonymously. Singer (2017) commented that “it’s unfortunate that such a journal should ever be considered necessary to enable controversial ideas to be published, but perhaps we have got to the point where it is.” It is not clear what kind of controversial ideas Singer had in mind, and the journal has not yet released its first issue, but it is hard to find a more controversial idea than hereditarianism about race differences in intelligence.

There is a danger for the philosophical community in putting our credibility on the line over the claim that race differences are entirely environmental. If work on genetics and neuroscience within the next decade produces convincing evidence that differences in measured intelligence among groups have a significant genetic component, there will be no way to conceal this information. The hereditarian explanation will have to be accepted, and people will know that philosophers were on the wrong side of the issue both scientifically and morally: scientifically, because we are supposed to be careful, disinterested commentators on scientific controversies, not activists supporting only the politically popular side; morally, because we did not help lay the groundwork for responding in a moral way to these facts that we should have known might be coming.

Most of these problems only occur when you are a foundationalist about preferences. If you consider degrees of desire (from negative to positive infinity) as basic, and "utilities" representing those desires, preferences are just an emergent phenomenon of an agent desiring some outcome more than another.

The interpersonal comparison problem is then mostly one of calibrating a "utility scale". Such a scale needs two points: one for and one for some (e.g. 1).

The zero point is already very elegantly handled in Richard Jeffrey's utility theory: If we axiomatically assume an algebra of propositions/events, excluding the contradictory proposition, with an probability and utility function defined over it, and assume that tautologies have utility zero (or indeed all probability one events), as they are "satisfied desires", it is provable that indifference between a proposition and its negation (i.e. ) implies that and also have utility zero. At which point we have defined an interpersonally comparable zero point - if people are measurably indifferent between getting and not getting something, they assign utility zero to it.

We could then go on to define as, e.g., utility "1" something which all humans - with psychological or neurophysiological plausibility - enjoy approximately the same. For example, drinking a glass of water after not drinking anything for 12 hours. If then someone says they desire something three times as much as said glass of water, we know they desire it more than someone else who desires something only two times as much as the glass of water.

As a different perspective to your list, I'd like to reference this thread of 25 threads, which provides extensive research in the opposite direction. Like you, I do not claim that this is all correct (I'm not an expert on this topic), but the evidence is certainly much less clear-cut than one might think from just reading the pieces you provided.

I'm a MA student in formal philosophy, and I have an unpublished paper on the topic, defending interpersonal comparisons of decision theoretic utility against Hausman and others, who see this view defeated by VNM utility theory.

(More precisely, I defend the view that the relation "agent A desires outcome X to degree x, and Y to degree y, and x is is larger than y" is more basic than the relation "A prefers X to Y". Basically, the theory is that utility (more precisely, degree of desire) is more fundamental than preference, not the other way round. This opens up the possibility of absolute intra- and interpersonal utility strength comparisons.)

He links to a large number of research articles. It could be cherry picking, but the same thing could be said e.g. about linking to Vox articles, a source which is known to have a strong leftist bias.

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