Bio

I work as a researcher at the Center for Reducing Suffering. I’m currently working on psychological questions related to minimalist views and on reasons to be careful about the practical implications of abstract formalisms.

I have MA and BA degrees in psychology, with minors in mathematics, cognitive science, statistics, computer science, and analytic philosophy.

Main interests

  • motivation theory, value theory
  • cause prioritization, long-term risks
  • books :)

Sequences
1

Minimalist Axiologies

Comments
55

Topic Contributions
6

Relevant recent posts:

https://www.simonknutsson.com/undisturbedness-as-the-hedonic-ceiling/

https://centerforreducingsuffering.org/phenomenological-argument/

(I think these unpack a view I share, better than I have.)

Edit: For tranquilist and Epicurean takes, I also like Gloor (2017, sec. 2.1) and Sherman (2017, pp. 103–107), respectively.

To modify the monk case, what if we could (costlessly; all else equal) make the solitary monk feel a notional 11 units of pleasure followed by 10 units of suffering?

Or, extreme pleasure of "+1001" followed by extreme suffering of "-1000"?

Cases like these make me doubt the assumption of happiness as an independent good. I know meditators who claim to have learned to generate pleasure at will in jhana states, who don't buy the hedonic arithmetic, and who prefer the states of unexcited contentment over states of intense pleasure.

So I don't want to impose, from the outside, assumptions about the hedonic arithmetic onto mind-moments who may not buy them from the inside.

Additionally, I feel no personal need for the concept of intrinsic positive value anymore, because all my perceptions of positive value seem just fine explicable in terms of their indirect connections to subjective problems. (I used to use the concept, and it took me many years to translate it into relational terms in all the contexts where it pops up, but I seem to have now uprooted it so that it no longer pops to mind, or at least it stopped doing so over the past four years. In programming terms, one could say that uprooting the concept entailed refactoring a lot of dependencies regarding other concepts, but eventually the tab explosion started shrinking back down again, and it appeared perfectly possible to think without the concept. It would be interesting to hear whether this has simply "clicked" for anyone when reading analytical thought experiments, because for me it felt more like how I would imagine a crisis of faith to feel like for a person who loses their faith in a <core concept>, including the possibly arduous cognitive task of learning to fill the void and seeing what roles the concept played.)

I kindly ask third parties to be mindful of the following points concerning the above reply.

(1)

  • It calls a part of my comment extremely misleading based on an incomplete quote whose omitted context provides a better sense of what I am talking about. Specifically, the omitted beginning clarifies that I am discussing “strong pessimism [i.e. the view that there are no independent goods]”, and noting how I personally find it a perfectly valid view to equate my positive value with whether my life has overall positive roles under that view. And the omitted ending clarifies that I am therefore curious about the author’s reasons to “absolutely reject” impartial, minimalist consequentialism “in favor of, presumably, offsetting views” (→ such as “classical utilitarianism as well as ‘weak negative’ or ‘negative-leaning’ views”), all of which are impartial views. (My use of “this view” was ambiguous, but the reading of it felt uncharitable given the above.)
  • At any rate, I have no reason to question the impartiality of the author’s preferred views. I hope it is clear that what my comment is questioning is the relative plausibility of the assumptions and implications of impartial offsetting views (over those of impartial minimalist views).
  • It claims that my use of the phrase of “increasing suffering” is misleading on the grounds that my use differs from the (allegedly common) assumption that to bring about an outcome with “outweighed” suffering does not entail increasing suffering. Yet I would think that the literal use (i.e. counting suffering only) makes more common sense than does the alternative use that is based on the offsetting assumption. After all, such an assumption would imply that (e.g.) the offsetting choice of “Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation” (see the diagram) does not entail increasing suffering, even though it brings about arbitrarily large amounts of torture-level suffering (as do the other two supposedly outweighed hells) in place of an alternative world that would contain only untroubled experiences.

(1) + (2)

  • It argues (from authority) that minimalist views lack basic justification, without engaging with any of the direct arguments in their favor (cf. here). In particular, it does not address the intuition that “torture-level suffering cannot be counterbalanced”. Rather, it seems to imply that the outweighability of torture follows from the supposedly obvious outweighability of mild suffering (such as a stubbed toe).
  • Indeed, proponents of offsetting views do not seem to find, by direct introspection, that a moment of happiness would seem to be outweighing a certain fraction of a torture-moment; instead, they appear to infer this from other assumptions (such as from the additive aggregation of experiences that are represented with positive and negative real numbers). To quote another commenter:
    • “A lot of disagreements about axiology and population ethics have this same dynamic. You infer from your intuition that [mild suffering] to please the blissful is acceptable that we can scale this up to torture to (more intensely) please many more blissful people. I infer from the intuitive absurdity of the latter that maybe we shouldn't think it's so obvious that [mild suffering] to please the blissful is good.”
  • It also claims that the theoretical implications of minimalist consequentialism are absolutely rejected by “pretty much every expert in moral philosophy”. Yet it does not account for the extent to which these rejections may be highly confounded by 1) our practical intuitions, by 2) the status quo bias and/or omission bias, and 3) by the fact that we ourselves are currently living in this world whose hypothetically instant and painless cessation (i.e. non-creation, cf. the diagram) we are supposed to be impartially evaluating in this thought experiment.
    • It also hints that the torture-for-greater-joy implications of offsetting views fare much better in terms of acceptance, yet does not provide support for whether this is the case.
  • To be clear, it does present a thought experiment about the creation of a causally isolated world, which is a step in the right direction to account for these confounders. Yet even there, the discussion is eventually framed in terms of whether we would “allow such a blissful world to exist”, which potentially brings in the confounders by making it sound like the option of non-creation entails interfering with a status quo where some blissful beings already exist, whereas the minimalist intuition is precisely that the non-creation of (causally isolated) beings with even perfectly fulfilled needs is, other things being equal, morally unproblematic (“no need, no problem”).
  • The latter view (i.e. “the Asymmetry”) has many defenders (some of whom are cited here). And if we acknowledge the consequentialist equivalence of cessation and non-creation, then this view also implies a theoretical endorsement of the (un-confounded) hypothetical cessation implication in the case of purely experientialist and consequentialist minimalism.
    • (To the extent that one feels like denying the equivalence, perhaps one’s intuitions are not captured by purely experientialist consequentialism.)

(2)

  • By italicizing “destroying the world”, the reply again forcefully brings in the aforementioned confounders, and omits to mention the theoretical equivalence with non-creation. Theoretically, offsetting versions of utilitarianism likewise imply that an ideal outcome is to unleash a utilitronium shockwave (“converting all matter and energy into pure utilitronium”), which is presumably no less “destructive” according to most people’s practical intuitions.
    • Some minimalist/”strong pessimist” views would also not consider cessation an ideal option, though these were beyond the scope of my post on the topic (cf. footnote 1).
  • It shares a worry (which I also have) that a naive reading of these views might lead someone to act in horrific ways. Yet it provides little justification for why this would make the rejection of minimalist views more “practically warranted” relative to the rejection of offsetting views. After all, the latter could also lead to violence based on naive ideas about how happiness may be increased, such as by targeting those who are perceived to have bad values (e.g. people with certain political or religious views). (Relatedly, Karl Popper argued that offsetting views were likely to lead to atrocities if they were accepted at an institutional level.) In any case, it seems to me that all consequentialist views imply a large gap between theory and practice, and my response to potentially naive minimalists (and other consequentialists) would be to always mind the gap.
Would an agent who accepted strong pessimism [i.e. the view that there are no independent goods]—which I absolutely believe we should reject—have most reason to end their own life? Not necessarily. An altruistic agent with this evaluative outlook would have strong instrumental reason to remain alive, in order to alleviate the suffering of others.

I agree that life can be worth living for our positive roles in terms of reducing overall suffering or dukkha. More than that, such a view seems (to me at least) like a perfectly valid view on what constitutes evaluative meaning and positive value.

Indeed, if I knew for a fact that my life were overall (hopelessly) increasing suffering or dukkha, then this would seem to me like a strong reason not to live it, regardless of what I get to experience. So I'm curious how the author has come to believe that we should absolutely reject this view in favor of, presumably, offsetting views.

However, such an agent would be forced to accept the infamous null-bomb implication, which says that the best thing to do would be to permanently destroy all sentient life in the universe. I join almost every other philosopher in taking the fact that an ethical theory accepts the null-bomb implication as a decisive reason to reject the theory (as not merely misguided, but horrifically so).

To properly consider such a theoretical reductio, I trust that most philosophers would agree (on reflection) that we need to account for potential confounders such as status quo bias, omission bias, self-serving bias, and whether alternative views have any less horrific theoretical implications.

In particular, offsetting views theoretically imply things like the “Very Repugnant Conclusion”, “Creating Hell to Please the Blissful”, and “Intense Bliss with Hellish Cessation”, none of which seems to me any less horrific than does the non-creation of an imperfect world (cf. the consequentialist equivalence of cessation and non-creation).

Are these decisive reasons to reject offsetting views? A proponent of such views could still argue that such implications are only theoretical, that we shouldn't let them (mis)guide us in practice, and that the practical implications of impartial consequentialism are a separate question.

Yet the quoted passage neglects to mention that the very same response applies to minimalist consequentialism (whose proponents take pains to practically highlight the importance of cooperation, the avoidance of accidental harm, and the promotion of nonviolence).

I would just generally caution against performing such theoretical reductios so hastily. After all, a more bridge-building and illuminating approach is to consider the confounding factors and intuitions behind our differing perceptions on such questions, which I hope we can all do to better understand each other's views.

Thanks for compiling this! The structure feels very approachable. The bar for engagement is also greatly lowered by your inclusion of the recap, the comparison of theories, and the pointers for discussion and feedback.

Regarding the linked sections, the strongest consensus about the definition of flourishing indeed seems to involve an emphasis on relationships, purpose, and meaning. To me, this emphasis seems to be in tension with the tendency of standard (welfarist) population ethics to only count welfare as a kind of isolated "score" that applies to each life under the (radical) assumption of "all else being equal".

Specifically, perhaps none of the popular notions of flourishing is even possible to actualize in an "all else equal" life. After all, those notions seem to depend (at least partly, if not fully) on our life making a positive difference for others. For me, the centrality of such a causal link back to others casts doubt on the concept of 'flourishing lives' as something that could be mass-produced to independently improve the overall value of the world (contra arguments such as astronomical waste / Bostrom, 2003).

In other words, I think a perfectly valid rejection of the experience machine is to say that entering the machine would sever the essential causal connections of what positive roles we play for how others feel, which seems central to many if not all definitions of flourishing (i.e. the kind of life that we want ours to become).

So I'm curious what you, or the reviewed theorists, might say about:

1. Is flourishing even possible "all else being equal", such as in an experience machine?

2. Relatedly: To what degree does flourishing refer to positive intrinsic vs. extrinsic value?

(For my own take, there's e.g. the brief section on "self-contained versus relational flourishing". Worth noting is also that a relational i.e. extrinsic notion of flourishing is perfectly compatible with minimalist theories of welfare, such as the Buddhism-inspired views of antifrustrationism by Fehige, 1998 and tranquilism by Gloor, 2017, which work without needing the assumption of intrinsic positive value at all.

They essentially say that, "all else equal", we are just as well off by satisfying a desire or an unmet need as we would be by letting go of it. Yet a minimalist notion of flourishing would highlight the importance of seeking to satisfy [rather than letting go of] our desires whenever doing so is aligned with making an overall positive difference for others. This we cannot do in an experience machine — nor in population ethics — where such flourishing is impossible, but can do all the time in daily life where other things are never completely unaffected by our actions.)

(Continued)

Your comment above makes all sense regarding the literal questions (even if not the implicit worries that I intended to respond to); thanks for elaborating. :)

Still, I would not reduce my (theoretical) response to the implicit worries all the way down to "yes, but actually that's fine and you shouldn't be worried about it". The "yes" is buried in the middle in 2.3 because it's not the end of the theoretical response. After that, the following sections 2.4–2.6 still address a lot of points that may be relevant for our potential intuitions (such as worries) about endorsing cessation even in theory.

For example, I certainly feel worried myself about endorsing cessation of the 'near-perfect paradise' (even in theory), but I don't tell myself that I "shouldn't be worried about it". Instead, I note (as I do in 2.4) that it seems perfectly fine to both endorse experientialist minimalist consequentialism in theory and to simultaneously deeply account for all the practical reasons that we have to side less with the relatively unpopular ideal of emptiness and more with the equal* and more popular ideal of untroubled lives.

(* equal for minimalists.)

Regarding worried intuitions, I of course also encourage people to compare whether they feel more worried about the (theoretical) minimalist cessation implications than about the (likewise theoretical) implications of offsetting views presented in 2.5. The latter strike me and many others as far more worrisome, so I'd prefer to also highlight that contrast as far as the worries (and not only the literal questions) are concerned.

In any case, I really appreciate that you read my post even if we might have different intuitions about these thought experiments. :)

Hi Rohin; I apologize for being vague and implicit; I agree that the first question is not complex, and I should've clarified that I'm primarily responding to the related (but in the post, almost completely implicit) worries which I think are much more complex than the literal questions are. You helped me realize just now that the post may look like it's primarily answering the written-down questions, even though the main reason for all my elaboration (on the assumptions, possible biases, comparison with offsetting views, etc.) was to respond to the implicit worries.

Regarding whether the answers to the first two questions are straightforwardly "yes", I would still note that such a one-word answer would lack the nuance that is present in what Magnus wrote above (and which I noted already in the overview because I think it's relevant for the worries).

(I'll continue a bit under your other comment.)

In relation to purely suffering-focused views, I also argue here that people may sometimes jump to hasty conclusions about human extinction due to certain forms of misconceived (i.e. non-impartial) consequentialism, and argue (drawing on the linked resources) that an impartial approach would imply strong heuristics of cooperation and nonviolence.

Only semi-interested or want to rest your eyes? The Nonlinear Library’s auto-narration reads this post quite well, though I recommend checking the diagrams in 2.3 and 2.5.

(SpotifyAppleGoogle | Duration of main text: 45 minutes.)

Thanks for summarizing it.

The worries I respond to are complex and the essay has many main points. Like any author, I hope that people would consider the points in their proper context (and not take them out of context). One main point is the contextualization of the worries itself, which is highlighted by the overviews (1.1–1.2) focusing a lot on the relevant assumptions and on minding the gap between theory and practice.

To complex questions, I don't think it's useful to reduce answers to either "yes" or "no", especially when the answers rest on unrealistic assumptions and look very different in theory versus practice. Between theory and practice, I also tend to consider the practical implications more important.

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