Tag Archives: consequentialism

Utilitarianism and Consequentialism

There is some renewed debate about whether ‘Friendly AI’ can blackmail, also known as the Roko’s Basilisk problem.

More information about it can be found here, here, here, and here.

I’m kinda amazed by how much attention this has gotten, with stories even on Business Insider about the thought experiment.

Roko’s Basilisk addresses an as-yet-nonexistent artificially intelligent system designed to make the world an amazing place, but because of the ambiguities entailed in carrying out such a task, it could also end up torturing and killing people while doing so.

According to this AI’s worldview, the most moral and appropriate thing we could be doing in our present time is that which facilitates the AI’s arrival and accelerates its development, enabling it to get to work sooner. When its goal of stopping at nothing to make the world an amazing place butts up with orthogonality, it stops at nothing to make the world an amazing place. If you didn’t do enough to help bring the AI into existence, you may find yourself in trouble at the hands of a seemingly evil AI who’s only acting in the world’s best interests. Because people respond to fear, and this god-like AI wants to exist as soon as possible, it would be hardwired to hurt people who didn’t help it in the past.

So, the moral of this story: You better help the robots make the world a better place, because if the robots find out you didn’t help make the world a better place, then they’re going to kill you for preventing them from making the world a better place. By preventing them from making the world a better place, you’re preventing the world from becoming a better place!

This is a critique of utilitarianism and consequentialism. At the extreme, Stalin’s purges could have been justified on the grounds of utilitarianism, to promote the ‘greatest good’ for his people, even if millions had to die in the process. The perceived utilitarian tendency to reduce the totality of humanity in to into quantifiable ‘units’ of economic value or economic ‘agents’ whose utility must be maximized at all costs, irrespective of ambiguous concepts like morality, could explain why utilitarianism may be off-putting to some (too much logos and not enough pathos).

But such suppositions and fears may be unwarranted, because utilitarianism and consequentialism underpin society and the economy on a day-to-day basis. Consequentialism, related to utilitarianism, is simply a way of quantifying the risk/reward analysis of decisions by choosing actions that maximize utility and minimize costs, such as a business ordering in-demand ‘units’ and discontinuing less ones that don’t sell. All else being equal, a business that does not maximize utility is at a competitive disadvantage against one that does. Another example is dividing a restaurant bill.

Although utilitarianism and consequentialism are often seen as philosophical domains of the left, some on the ‘right’ also embrace it, for example, in supporting justifiable homicides by police and foreign interventionism. In the former, a ‘greater good’ is attained by preventing greater harm to innocents than the loss of a single life. In the latter, the killings of enemy combatants is justified to promote a ‘greater good’ of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’. Liberals may argue that a bakery that morally objects to making a ‘gay’ cake must be forced to do so on the utilitarian grounds of promoting the ‘greater good’ of equality.

Related: Utilitarianism Is Not Welfare Liberalism

The 2008 bank bailouts are another example of consequentialism as applied to modern policy – the end (financial stability) justifying the means (bailouts) to promote a ‘greater good’ (economic stability, benefiting millions of Americans) at the risk of possible moral hazard.

Should an AI be allowed to punish those who hinder the attainment of a ‘greater good’ or commit an action that may hurt a few for the ‘good’ of man, does this violate the principles of ‘friendly AI’? In some existential circumstances maybe it doesn’t. Hard to know.

Also, utilitarianism is compatible with < href="http://greyenlightenment.com/what-is-better-than-a-republic/">anti-democracy. As Caplan and others have noted, most voters are irrational (the term ‘irrational’ strictly being used in the economics sense [1), and this irrationality results in voter preferences that deviate from the optimal, and I think there is some truth to this, and utilitarians understand that irrationality should not guide policy, only quantifiable evidence that generates the best policy. Utilitarians may be content with some voices (irrational ones) perhaps being marginalized or excluded if it leads to an optimal outcome, and I think that’s an acceptable trade-off.

What defines ‘good policy’ is harder to quantify, but one criteria is that it ‘advances’ civilization, although what quantifies as ‘advancement’ is obviously not politically agnostic. For the ‘left’ such policy may be to advance social justice causes, as a way of maximizing happiness. For the ‘right’ it may be to maximize economic growth and technological innovation, in the hope prosperity and innovation will trickle down and benefit all. Creating optimal policy benefits everyone, not just a majority. In the case of taxes, if taxes are too high it may disincentivize risk taking and investment, and then markets fail and the economy will also fail or undergo severe recession or stagnation, ultimately hurting everyone. China saw an explosion in living standards after, in the 70’s, abandoning market-communism and embracing globalization, as an example of good policy.

Right-wing versions of pragmatism and utilitarianism can also include programs like eugenics, more funding for gifted education, more funding for high-tech industries, lower taxes, and a high-IQ basic income. Euthanasia and rationed healthcare (by IQ, for example) are ways to maximize resources and reduce entitlement spending, in the spirit of utilitarianism but with a right-wing bias. These are programs or ideas that may yield the most utility even if they are unpopular with many people.

Classical Liberalism, Democracy, Libtertarianism, Nihilism, and NRx

From Peter A. Taylor The Resurrection of Classical Liberalism

Here’s what I think happened. The US began as an expression of classical liberalism. The founders were steeped in John Locke’s ideas about natural rights, as modified and popularized by writers like James Otis, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. What actually made it into the American political canon was a mixture of beliefs about natural rights and democracy. For example, the Declaration of Independence talks of unalienable rights and states “…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” I see two problems here. First, the clause about securing rights sounds good to libertarians and Objectivists, but what does “consent” mean? And second, the basis for the government’s legitimacy is overspecified. Do “just powers” stem from the necessity to secure rights or from consent?

To some extent (with the exception of SJW radicalism and other elements of post-ww2 liberalism) America still is that way.

Thus Progressives and Libertarians both engage in “cocktail party sophistry”, but their styles are different. Progressives feel good about cogency and political cohesion where Libertarians feel good about elegance and internal consistency. Progressives are having fun running in a potato sack race. Libertarians are having fun daydreaming about the perfect destination for a potato sack race. “Perfect” here more or less means “most elegant”. “Elegance” here more or less means “providing false moral clarity”. Elegance is the curse of the libertarian movement. The tendency to value elegance, combined with a tendency to grade your own work, are what give the libertarian movement the feel of being a “head game”. I believe this emphasis on elegance is closely related to the false diagnosis that a slippery slope problem (i.e. lack of moral clarity) was what did in the classical liberal tradition. Which came first, the craving for moral clarity, or the diagnosis that lack of moral clarity killed classical liberalism? I suspect the craving came first, but I’m not sure.

America is a partial libertarian country – free market capitalism, private property, but also a state, which is similar to a mixed economy. Through trial and error, feast and famine, this seems to be the most successful or stable configuration, with notable examples being China and Russia, as well as other modernized countries that have evolved to this state. That’s why it’s kinda pointless when you have libertarians and conservatives arguing about which is better – America has both (conservatives get military, police, and free markets; libertarians get free markets, and personal autonomy due to the 1st amendment, but with some regulation. Less business regulation and lower taxes would be better.)

There was little ‘democratic’ about early American government, and I’m not sure why so many people, even those as smart as Peter A. Taylor, get this wrong. Nor is classical liberalism the same as a ‘liberal democracy’. A ‘natural right’ does not necessarily include the ‘right to vote’.

Here is John Adams on democracy:

“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.”

Thomas Jefferson:

This is relevant to the tyranny of the proletariat, in which the underclass using ‘democracy’ tries to overthrow the smaller productive class.

From Wikipedia:

Classical liberalism is a political ideology that values the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government. It developed in 18th-century Europe and drew on the economic writings of Adam Smith and the growing notion of social progress.

18th century America and Europe would be considered tyrannical -hardly democratic – by today’s left.

Democracy may be a means of constraining a government to tend to its legitimate business, but it cannot be the source of the government’s moral legitimacy. The distinction between a republic and a democracy sounds promising, but this distinction is only meaningful so long as the voters choose to honor it. Scratch the surface of a republic, and underneath you find a democracy.

The solution is to roll back voting rights to how they were hundreds of years ago, in accordance with the founding fathers, who saw voting as a privilege rather than a right.

The system we have, although certain aspects of it suck, is the best of the alternatives, and it’s what we’re stuck with.

But we can reform it, which is what this blog is about. We don’t need a monarchy. Just turning the dial back 100 years would be immense progress.

One of the questions libertarians sometimes argue about is whether there are moral-practical dichotomies. That is, are there ever situations where doing “the right thing” from a moral standpoint conflicts with doing “the right thing” from a practical standpoint? To someone like me, in the “moral sympathy” school of thought, it’s a silly question. The relationships under consideration are “loose, vague, and indeterminate”. It’s complicated. We probably don’t even have the same people’s interests in mind when we ask the question. Who exactly are my tribe? Is “morality” something I personally choose to benefit myself, or is it a set of social norms my peers impose on me as the (possibly exorbitant and possibly evadable) price of associating with them? Jonathan Haidt’s definition (from The Righteous Mind) mostly supports the latter view:

America is also consequentialist, as are many nations. Examples of consequentialist policy being the 2008 bank bailouts, fed policy, war on terrorism, and others – policies that may not be popular with large segments of the population, but are deemed necessary to stave off a worse problem.

Of course, there are gradations: some countries and government are more socially liberal (European Union); others less so (China, Russia). America seems to have struck a balance that for for the past 240 or so years has worked, although the wave of post-ww2 liberalism may threaten this harmony.

America is an amalgamation or patchwork of many ideologies, and maybe this dynamism is why it has succeed for so long when other nations have failed.

From Bruce Charlton, The salvation of Mencius Moldbug:

But (and you were waiting for that ‘but’, weren’t you?) his system is based upon arbitrary axioms and is pragmatic and ‘utilitarian’ – in the sense that MM argues that his plans for government and society would in practice lead to the greatest happiness and/or the minimum misery for the greatest number of people.

But, to some degree, utilitarianism and policy are inseparable. In order to optimize the ROI of ‘Public Goods’, optimization in the mathematical and socioeconomic sense is desirable. Right now, due to liberalism and other scourges, we have a problem of poor optimization – for example, excessive welfare for those who contribute little, if any, to society.


In other words, Mencius Moldbug is an advocate of pure nihilism: a total denial of reality (since bottom line ‘reality’ – i.e. human emotions and what triggers them – is by this analysis wholly reversible, hence wholly relativistic).

So according to Charlton, Moldbug is not a moral realist.

Charlton’s definition of ‘nihilism’ is frustratingly reductive and doesn’t apply to Moldbug. Anyone who believes in the rule of law, which is what Formalism is about, cannot be a nihilist, by definition.

The essay Why Nihilism is Not Anarchy is relevant to NRx thought, and why Christianity may be incompatible with NRx, bold added for emphasis:

Nietzsche saw the above as parallel to Christianity, an assertion of inherent order based on shared humanity. Science and Nietzsche agree that humans vary so widely that to construct a universal “human nature” or “human morality” is a pointless endeavor toward false inherency. No such thing exists; some humans rise above others.

Anarchy, liberalism and other false social notions of equality and the inherent importance of man are entirely anti-nihilistic. In fact, they’re descendants of Christianity: they are falsely inherent orders based on human desires for the universe to be centered around humans. It is not. We are thinking monkeys, and it’s great we have come so far, but it’s not really that far. We’re not that great. And most of us are morons, perverts, lazybones, selfish people, criminals, or people who smoke in bed.

Maybe also fatalistic, in understanding that economic and biological reality means we’re subject to autonomous forces outside of our control, with the result being humans who are more endowed for success will tend to rise above others. The rule of law is still applicable, even if such views may seem fatalistic, amoral, and nihilistic.