Posted by: CJ | April 29, 2009

A Wonderful Post, Anti-utilitarianism edition

Not mine, but Paul Gowder’s. In a previous post on here I asked Paul if he’d written down anywhere his objections to utilitarianism. In addition to a thoughtful comment he told me to go look around Overcoming Bias.

Here’s what I found. Not only is the post good but so are (many of) the comments. The post itself is written in response to a post by Elizer Yudkowsky, who posed a question about whether, morally-speaking and from a perspective of utility, it’s worse to torture one person or minorly inconvenience a great many people. A good quote from Paul’s post (which is fairly short) is this:

That’s the wonderful thing about the kinds of utilitarian intuitions that tell us, deep in our brains, that we can aggregate a lot of pain and pleasure of different kinds among different people and come up with some kind of scalar representing the net sum of “utility” to be compared to some other scalar for some other pattern of events in some possible world; the scalars to be compared to determine which world is morally better, and to which world our efforts should be directed. Those intuitions always generate a rationalizable answer.

If we demand that our moral questions have answers of that type, comments like Eliezer’s start to look very appealing. Eliezer says that it’s irrational to “impose and rationalize comfortable moral absolutes in defiance of expected utility.” But if that’s so, Eliezer owes us an argument for why moral judgments make sense in terms of expected utility. Or why they make sense in terms of any decision theoretic calculation at all. Or why they have to make sense in terms of any overall algorithmic procedure of any kind. To simply assume that decision theory applies to moral questions, that there’s something — utility, goodness, moral worth, whatever — to maximize is to beg the question right from the start. And that’s bias if anything is.

There were several more posts written between Paul and Elizer (Post 3, Post 4, Post 5), but it drags on a bit. Part of that is Elizer does not, at least when writing, get straight to his points. He meanders, and spends a good deal of time doing the intellectual equivalent of trash-talking and chest thumping. It’s rather aggravating because it’s difficult to skim and get the gist of his argument.

Anyways, good posts.



  1. Thanks!

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