Tag Archives: utilitarianism

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.

Scott, Utilitarians, The Rational Middle, Scientism, and Liberals

But he has no enemies to the left, and no friends to the right, which means that all his friends are his enemies, and all his enemies are his friends.

It would seem like there’s a mutual respect and camaraderie between Scott Alexander (and also Scott Adams), who represents the ‘rational middle’ or ‘rational left‘, and those on the ‘rational right’, which includes elements of NRx an the ‘alt right’. The ‘mainstream right’, on the other hand, probably doesn’t know who he is.

Scott does an adequate job entertaining opposing views, or at least more so than most or all ‘mainstream’ leftists. He at least discusses topics that we (HBD-enthusiasts,alt-righters, etc) may find interesting, and even though we may disagree with the conclusions he arrives at, many leftists wont even consider these topics, pretending they don’t exist and completely shutting-out debate.

In Solvent, the rise of centrism and the likes of Scott is about a ‘return’ of the pendulum to the middle after swinging too far to the left in 2012, now with the post-2013 SWJ backlash and gamergate, moving to the middle again, online at least. The ‘rational left’, unlike the welfare left, is generally opposed to Communism, collectivism and other elements of the ‘welfare left‘.

As an example of how the ‘rational middle’ differs from the ‘welfare left’ , consider the recent leftist, pro-Sanders outrage over Hillary not tipping at a visit to Chipotle. To the Sanders’ supporter, what immediately comes to mind (just by the headline, without actually reading the story) is, ‘what a stingy, mean person!’ The rationalist, however, considers the possibility that maybe Hillary paid with a credit card, making it impossible to leave a tip in a jar, or that Hillary didn’t have any spare change, or that she was in a hurry and tipping didn’t come to mind, or that Hillary doesn’t carry pocket change with her, or that someone else paid for it. The point is, there are other, more plausible explanations for why she didn’t tip besides being her being a bad person. As it turns out, Hillary paid $21 for a $20 meal and didn’t dip. So what. It’s not a big deal, but the radical left is looking for any excuse to portray Hillary in a negative light, understandably. Rationalism isn’t about excusing reprobate behavior, but rather considering the most plausible or likely explanation for something.

Also, the post-2013 SJW backlash has to do with a disillusionment among millennial Obama voters over the failure of liberalism. From 2008 to 2012, there was much optimism by the left over Obama, which soon faded. OWS, for example, went nowhere. And student loan debt is still higher than ever, and the job market still sucks for many millennials despite record high profits & earnings. Millennials realize that leftism isn’t working – it hasn’t lived up to its expectations.

As part of the post-2013 wealth and intellectualism synthesis, millennials want to be rich instead of being poor, and that means not attacking the rich, as leftists do, but going with the ‘flow’ and trying understand how wealth is created, learning financial independence and literacy, being rational, and understanding economics, finance, and the link between socioeconomic outcomes and biology. In light of the failure of OWS and the disappointment of Obama, many millennials realize that it’s more productive to emulate the rich and successful than waging class warfare and holding class envy. High-IQ people are also getting rich in web 2.0, while other smart people are making headlines with physics discoveries, and many millennials aspire to be like these tech and science luminaries, not poor, disgruntled, low-IQ losers who pound sand. People get rich and successful by creating value and producing merit, and despite the social and economic problems that still persist, the meritocracy is largely intact. With the left losing the economics war, now millennials realize, as part of the post-2013 centrism ‘boom’, that maybe the system, for it’s flaws, isn’t so bad, and that making money and being self-sufficient is better than fighting a futile war against the tide of civilization and progress.

‘Theory’, whether it’s economics theory or a theory in math or physics, have become the new ‘sacraments’ of post-2008 America. Empiricism is also important, too. The idea is that math and physics (theory) can fill the gaps of knowledge and explain the world. This is like Scientism 2.0, but I don’t mean this pejoratively. Science is preferable to low-information social justice and pandering. People aren’t falling behind because of institutional racism or greed, but rather because some people aren’t smart enough to be competitive in our hyper-competitive ‘results-orientated’ economy.

Pragmatism and utilitarianism need not be the exclusive domain of the left. Right-wing versions of pragmatism and utilitarianism can also exist – programs like eugenics, more funding for gifted education, high-tech funding, lower taxes, the occasional financial bailout, high-IQ basic income, etc. 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.

But I don’t think Scott is your typical SJW-leftist.

Exactly so. Scott will furtively acknowledge differences in IQ, but refuses to even conceive of differences in agency.

That’s better than being oblivious. Scott has a lot at stake. His blog is very popular and he’s trying to branch into fiction. Being too closely associated with the ‘alt right’ may detrimental to the ‘good will’ he has built over the years as a liberal. The ‘rational middle’ seems to be the ‘sweetspot’. It’s a formula that seems to have worked very well for him as well as Scott Adams and other bloggers. The ‘rational middle’ will criticize both sides, whereas mainstream liberals will only criticize the ‘right’. Criticizing both sides and not being beholden to either the red or blue ‘tribe’ helps build your intellectual credibility, even it makes some of people mad, as Scott showed in his ‘hate mail’ post. Detractors tend to be very visible and vocal in their feedback, which belies the popularity of centrism and the ‘rational middle’, or at least as shown by traffic figures. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are other examples of ‘rational’ leftists who have have received more criticism from the left for going against the grain in criticizing feminism and Islam than they have ever received from the right, yet Dawkins’ star keeps rising as his credibility grows by criticizing the the more irrational elements of his ‘tribe’.

Scott takes centrism seriously, to a fault. I remember posting on his blog awhile ago and he got annoyed that I used labels like ‘left’ and liberals’ on one of my comments, and I had rack my mind to find a way to re-word the comment without those terms. As a part of the ‘rational right’, I believe in realism and rationalism should be a guiding principle, but I don’t hesitate to use labels.

Trying to ‘convert’ Scott, or having him see the error of his ways, is futile, nor should we want to. He will do his thing; we will do ours. Through his anti-reactionary FAQ and other posts, he has brought more attention to NRx than most bloggers, as his blog is immensely popular.

Abortion & Healthcare Policy

From Evolutionist-X” In Defense of Planned Parenthood

On numerous occasions, this blog has argued that Republicans could support abortion as a way of reducing entitlement spending and crime, which I discuss further here.

The usual rebuttal is that this is the policy of Margaret Sanger and other liberals. Maybe fifty years ago, but nowadays if a liberal like Hillary tried to frame abortion in the context of reducing entitlement spending and crime, her campaign would be over because of the left. When William Bennett made a comment about abortion and crime, it was the left who attacked him. Same for Steven Levitt in Freakanomics in which the chapter on how abortion can reduce crime received much criticism from civil rights groups, but also some criticism from the right. The welfare left supports abortion not to potentially make the world a better place, but due to a lack of impulse control, as a form of ‘empowerment’ for women. And just because a liberal supported something a couple generations ago, doesn’t prove it’s necessarily bad today or that Republicans should totally disregard any merit of it, and today’s welfare SJW liberals are much further to the ‘left’ than the classical/pragmatic liberals of generations ago.

From From Jonathan Gruber’s 1998 study:

…for the marginal child not born due to increased abortion access, the odds of living in a single parent family would have been roughly 70 percent higher, the odds of living in poverty nearly 40 percent higher, the odds of welfare receipt 50 percent higher.”… “From these results, we estimate that the legalization of abortion saved the federal government over $14 billion in welfare payments through 1994.”

Abortion is disgusting, but so is cleaning up crime scenes. I think rather than immediately dismissing it is ‘bad’ we need to consider the possible good that can come out of it, at least from a utilitarian/pragmatist perspective.

Some people find the idea of utilitarianism, as well as thought experiments such as the Trolley Car, to be an affront to their moral sensibilities, since sometimes the most optimal allocation of a resource often comes at a cost to something someone else holds dear. Some are unsettled by the idea that the value of a human can be reduced to a number, but if you have insurance (health, auto, home) – that is exactly what it is, an attempt to assign a monetary value to a human life in order to price a policy, yet when the argument is framed differently (trolley car or abortion), these very people become mortified at the premise that human life does indeed have a finite value, or that some lives may be more valuable than others. ‘Pro life’ taken to its extreme would be mean no war and no death penalty – both positions many Republicans, who identify as ‘pro life’, support. So why does this contradiction exist? I suppose because they rationalize from a utilitarian standpoint that the possible loss of some innocent lives (the occasionally wrongly executed individual, soldiers dying, or collateral damage) indirectly serves a greater good (preventing more deaths both directly and indirectly), justifying this utilitarian risk/reward trade-off.

But economics, which studies the allocation of scarce resources among people, is an inescapable part of our everyday lives, at both the individual and national level. The discussion or debate of how a finite amount of a public good (tax payer dollars, for example) will not simply ‘go away’ just because some people get offended; we need to learn to accept economic reality even if we occasionally get offended by the outcome. This is where some pro-lifers fail by holding all life, viable or not, to be sacred, which runs afoul of rules of economics.

My stance on it is, if you need round the clock care to perform everyday tasks, like going to the bathroom and eating, and you have to have someone make all your decisions till the day you die, because you’re physically in capable of doing so, you’re more of a burden than anything.

The Unpopular Puffin may have a point, and considering that it went viral on Reddit, many people apparently agree. In the recesses of our minds, we know that certain individuals are a drain on society, but we fear the consequences (loss of friends, employment) of voicing this unpleasant truth. And from Wikipedia:

In the United States, the average lifetime cost of a person with an intellectual disability amounts to $1,014,000 per person, in 2003 US dollars.[52] This is slightly more than the costs associated with cerebral palsy, and double that associated with serious vision or hearing impairments. About 14% is due to increased medical expenses (not including what is normally incurred by the typical person), 10% is due to direct non-medical expenses, such as the excess cost of special education compared to standard schooling, and 76% is indirect costs accounting for reduced productivity and shortened lifespans. Some expenses, such as costs associated with being a family caregiver or living in a group home, were excluded from this calculation.[52]

Let’s consider the case of an expectant middle-income mother whose ultrasound uncovers that her fetus has Trisomy 13 or 18, a highly lethal genetic anomaly; in the event it’s not a stillborn, it will cost about a million dollars a year to keep it alive. Economically, that is a poor use of a public good (tax payer dollars), especially since the baby, profoundly disabled, will never contribute in any meaningful way to society in its short existence. To the mother, the baby could be priceless, but to society it’s not. Even Trisomy 21, which is less lethal, is still very expensive. Sure, if the mother has millions of dollars she can use her own money to keep it alive – and that should be within her right – but when a public good is involved, the question of rationing inevitably comes up, as to be expected. That million dollars can be better spent helping babies that are much less disabled. The plan of prenatal screening, with required abortions for severe abnormalities, could make the process less painful for parents, since the pregnancy would be ended before it gets to the second trimester or beyond.

Rapid advances in biotechnology means we can use screening and genetic engineering to create a better society by choosing who we want in and which traits we wish to leave behind. Before dismissing this as ‘Nazi science’, there are many practical applications. Consider the Dylan Roof spree killing, as well as other tragedies such as Sandy Hook massacre and the 2012 Aurora shooting. As it turns out, there may be a genetic malfunction to blame, and some people may in fact be programmed to kill.

Related: Steven Levitt is Right, Not All Life is Sacred