software developer | abolitionist transhumanist | My life goal is make an effective contribution to abolishing extreme and unnecessary suffering.


What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?
Answer by nilNov 18, 20204

In the real world, maybe we're alone. The skies look empty. Cynics might point to the mess on Earth and echo C.S. Lewis: "Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere." Yet our ethical responsibility is to discover whether other suffering sentients exist within our cosmological horizon; establish the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency; and assume responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume. Cosmic responsibility entails full-spectrum superintelligence: to be blissful but not "blissed out" - high-tech Jainism on a cosmological scale. We don't yet know whether the story of life has a happy ending.

-- David Pearce, "High-Tech Jainism"

What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?
Answer by nilNov 18, 20204

There’s ongoing sickening cruelty: violent child pornography, chickens are boiled alive, and so on. We should help these victims and prevent such suffering, rather than focus on ensuring that many individuals come into existence in the future. When spending resources on increasing the number of beings instead of preventing extreme suffering, one is essentially saying to the victims: “I could have helped you, but I didn’t, because I think it’s more important that individuals are brought into existence. Sorry.”

-- Simon Knutsson, "The One-Paragraph Case for Suffering-Focused Ethics"

What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?
Answer by nilNov 18, 20203

If humanity is to minimize suffering in the future, it must engage with the world, not opt out of it.

-- Magnus Vinding (2015), Anti-Natalism and the Future of Suffering: Why Negative Utilitarians Should Not Aim For Extinction

What quotes do you find most inspire you to use your resources (effectively) to help others?
Answer by nilNov 18, 20203

[T]rue hedonic engineering, as distinct from mindless hedonism or reckless personal experimentation, can be profoundly good for our character. Character-building technologies can benefit utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike. Potentially, we can use a convergence of biotech, nanorobotics and information technology to gain control over our emotions and become better (post-)human beings, to cultivate the virtues, strength of character, decency, to become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate: to become the type of (post)human beings that we might aspire to be, but aren't, and biologically couldn't be, with the neural machinery of unenriched minds. Given our Darwinian biology, too many forms of admirable behaviour simply aren't rewarding enough for us to practise them consistently: our second-order desires to live better lives as better people are often feeble echoes of our baser passions. Too many forms of cerebral activity are less immediately rewarding, and require a greater capacity for delayed gratification, than their lowbrow counterparts. Likewise, many forms of altruistic behaviour ... are less rewarding than personal consumption.

-- David Pearce, Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?, "Utopian Neuroscience"

some concerns with classical utilitarianism

Thanks for the specific examples. I hope some of 80,000 Hours' staff members and persons who took 80,000 Hours' passage on the asymmetry for granted will consider your criticism too.

some concerns with classical utilitarianism

As I say in the text, I understand the appeal of CU. But I'd be puzzled if we accept CU without modifications (I give some in the text, like Mendola's "ordinal modification" and Wolf’s “Impure Consequentialist Theory of Obligation” as well as implying a CU based on an arguably more sophisticated model of suffering and happiness than the one-dimensional linear model).

Worse than being counterintuitive, IMO, is giving a false representation of the reality: e.g. talking about "great" aggregate happiness or suffering where no one experiences anything of significance or holding the notion of "canceling out" suffering with happiness elsewhere. (I concur with arguably many EAs in the respect that a kind of sentiocentric consequentialism could be the most plausible ethics.)

BTW some prominent defenders of suffering-focused ethics - such as Mayerfeld and Wolf mentioned in the text - hold a pluralistic account of ethics (Vinding, 2020, 8.1), where things besides suffering and happiness have an intrinsic value. (I personally still fail to understand in what sense such intrinsic values that are not reducible to suffering or happiness can obtain.)

some concerns with classical utilitarianism

I'd also add the Very Repugnant Conclusion as a case for which I haven't heard a satisfying CU defense.

A defense of accepting or rejecting the Very Repugnant Conclusion (VRC) [for those who don't know, here's a full text (PDF) which defines both Conclusions in the introduction]? Accepting VRC would be required by CU, in this hypothetical. So, assuming CU, rejecting VRC would need justification.

it's quite hard to reject the idea that between (a) 1 million people experiencing a form of pain just slightly weaker than the threshold of "extreme" suffering, and (b) 1 person experiencing pain just slightly stronger than that threshold, (b) is the lesser evil.

Perhaps so. On the other hand, as Vinding also writes (ibid, 5.6; 8.10), the qualitative difference between extreme suffering and suffering that could be extreme if we push a bit further may be still be huge. So, "slightly weaker" would not apply to the severity of suffering.

Also, irrespective of whether the above point is true, one (as Taurek did as I mention in the text) argue that (a) is still less bad than (b), for no one in (a) suffers a much as the one in (b).

... in general I think aggregation in axiology is much more defensible than classical utilitarianism wholesale.

Here we might at least agree that some forms of aggregating are more plausible than others, at least in practice: e.g. intrapersonal vs interpersonal aggregating.

The utility monster as well seems asymmetric in how repugnant it is when you formulate it in terms of happiness versus suffering.

Vinding too brings up such a disutility monster in Suffering-Focused Ethics: Defense and Implications, 3.1, BTW:

... the converse scenario in which we have a _dis_utility monster whose suffering increases as more pleasure is experienced by beings who are already well-off, it seems quite plausible to say that the disutility monster, and others, are justified in preventing these well-off beings from having such non-essential, suffering-producing pleasures. In other words, while it does not seem permissible to impose suffering on others (against their will) to create happiness, it does seem justified to prevent beings who are well-off from experiencing pleasure (even against their will) if their pleasure causes suffering.

some concerns with classical utilitarianism

Thanks for the example!

I worry that even when our philosophical assumptions are stated (which is already a good place to be in), it is easy to miss their important implications and to not question whether these implications make sense (as opposed to jumping directly to cause selection). (This kind of rigor would arguably be over-demanding in most cases but could still be a health measure for EA materials.)

Physical theories of consciousness reduce to panpsychism

Thanks for the reply.

... my guess is that basically classical/non-quantum phenomena can be sufficient for consciousness, since the quantum stuff going on in our heads doesn't seem that critical and could be individually replaced with "classical" interactions while preserving everything else in the brain as well as our behaviour.

I'm not sure how to understand your "sufficient", since to our best knowledge the world is quantum, and the classical physics is only an approximation. (Quoting Pearce: "Why expect a false theory of the world, i.e. classical physics, to yield a true account of consciousness?".)

One reason Pearce needs quantum phenomena is the so-called binding problem of consciousness. For on Pearce's account, "phenomenal binding is classically impossible." IIRC the phenomenal binding is also what drives David Chalmers to dualism.

I would say substrate doesn't matter ...

It doesn't matter indeed on a physicalistic idealist account. But currently, as far as we know, only brains support phenomenal binding (as opposed to being mere "psychotic noise"), for the reason of a huge evolutionary advantage (to the replicating genes).

... non-materialist physicalism is also compatible with what many would recognize as panpsychism ...

Good point. Thanks :)

Physical theories of consciousness reduce to panpsychism

Thanks for writing the post!

Since you write:

... I’m not claiming panpsychism is true, although this significantly increases my credence in it ...

I'm curious what is your relative credence in non-materialist, "idealistic" physicalism if you're familiar with it? One contemporary account I'm most familiar with is David Pearce's "physicalistic idealism" ("an experimentally testable conjecture" that "that reality is fundamentally experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions") (see also Pearce's popular explanation of his views in a Quora post). David Hoffman's "Consciousness Realism" would be another example (I haven't looked deeply into his work).

One can argue that idealistic physicalism is more parsimonious (by being a monistic physicalism) and thus more likely to be true(r) than panpsychism (which assumes property dualism). Panpsychism, on the other hand, may be more intuitive and more familiar to researchers these days, which may explain why it's discussed more(?) these days compared to non-materialist physicalism.

Load More