Am I NLU or NU?

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Brian Tomasik
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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Mon Mar 10, 2014 11:11 am

I wrote a comment on "Torture vs. Dust Specks" that helps make some sense of some of my intuitions here:
Maybe I'm not imagining the dust specks as being painful, whereas Eliezer had in mind more of a splinter that is slightly painful. Or we can imagine other annoying experiences like spilling your coffee or sitting on a cold toilet seat. Here again, I'm not sure if these experiences are even bad. They build character, and maybe they have a place even in paradise.
In a similar way as I feel like pleasures can't add up to outweigh a second in hell, so it similarly feels plausible that small pains can't either, not because I reject aggregation, but because small pains aren't even bad. Of course, if you imagine yourself signing up for 3^^^3 dust specks, that might fill you with despair, but in that case, your negative experience is more than a dust speck -- you're also imagining the drudgery of sitting through 3^^^3 of them. Just the dust specks by themselves may not be bad.

There are mundane pains that actually are bad, so this isn't a full threshold-NU stance.

I'm still toying with this position, and I'm not sure I accept it. It seems more akin to an aesthetic stance of the type that adults have when assessing a situation in the abstract. Maybe when you actually spill your coffee you feel differently.

I think many people share this intuition that small pains and pleasures just don't count -- if not in practice then at least in theory. Many people feel like life is about meaning and purpose and truth and love, and the amount of raw pleasure it contains doesn't really matter. Even Mill has something like this going on with his "higher pleasures," and the Greek eudaimons felt similarly.

Most people are not NUs not because they care about pleasure but because they're not fully hedonistic.

I personally don't care a lot about meaning and truth and stuff, but I do care that other people care.

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Ubuntu » Mon Mar 10, 2014 4:13 pm

Of course, the arbitrariness objection is more of a problem for moral realists like David Pearce, who argues from a non-arbitrary God's Eye View, and intuits a negative bias nevertheless. If you reject moral realism, you can just be arbitrary.
It's still a problem for moral anti-realists who care about having a coherent ( internally consistent ) world view.

small pains aren't even bad.
If pain is bad (or at least if you regard it as bad) how can you not regard a small amount of pain as mildly bad? At what point officially does pain become bad? I don't think that there is a negligible amount of pain or happiness. The tiniest amount counts just not by a lot. And I think that if it seems counter-intuitive that the largest conceivable amount of suffering could be compensated for by a greater amount of happiness or by reducing a high number of almost negligible amounts of pain felt at different moments or by different people it's because we don't have a vivid understanding of how much happiness or suffering would be felt or relieved so, not being able to imagine it, we can't have the same emotional response to it that we can to an amount of suffering that we can more easily imagine. A stronger, limitless imagination would kill scope insensitivity and all of our intuitions justifying negative utilitarianism. Imagination is more important to (hedonistic) utilitarianism than anything because we'll never have direct access to another person's private mental experience.
these are free parameters because "amount of happiness" and "amount of suffering" are not objective things.
I think that you can, in theory, objectively measure the total amount of happiness and suffering that exists in the universe at any specific moment. Two people in the same circumstances aren't necessarily affected to the same extent and if you could feel what they felt you could make an objective comparison. It's a fact that what most people feel when a loved one dies is greater than what most people feel when they get a speck of dust in the eye.
In my personal opinion, the option of really reliable painless suicide would solve the problem of involuntary suffering (modulo speculations about hell and the early childhood stage where voluntary suicide isn't realistic).
I agree. With some restrictions (like a mandatory 'waiting period' to really think the decision through, at least for those people who aren't terminally ill and in excruciating constant pain), I think the option of a painless, convenient suicide for adults would be hugely beneficial. It would give people a sense of control that might end up lowering the number of people who want to commit suicide to begin with.
I don't see it as important to bring heaven into existence from nothingness.
I consider being unconscious to be of neutral value but I still think it would be hugely desirable to create an eternal heaven that all sentient beings would experience constant, never ending and shockingly intense happiness in (something like what I imagine being high on MDMA to feel like mixed in with being in love or being an 8 year old on Christmas morning but 10 times that, something so beyond what any living human could possibly imagine).

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Tue Mar 11, 2014 5:32 am

Hi Ubuntu :)
Ubuntu wrote: It's still a problem for moral anti-realists who care about having a coherent ( internally consistent ) world view.
I doubt there is a non-arbitrary stance on this issue (or on many, many other ethical issues). It's not an issue of coherence. My view is coherent, just not non-arbitrary.
Ubuntu wrote: If pain is bad (or at least if you regard it as bad) how can you not regard a small amount of pain as mildly bad?
Maybe not all pain is bad. Some small pains might not be bad. This is more of a holistic, abstracted viewpoint, as opposed to, say, viewing each molecule of pain signal as inherently bad.
Ubuntu wrote: At what point officially does pain become bad?
I may pick some cutoff point between a dust speck and, say, depression.
Ubuntu wrote: It's a fact that what most people feel when a loved one dies is greater than what most people feel when they get a speck of dust in the eye.
The neural processes that fire in the former case are clearly distinguishable from and more intense than in the latter case. How we compare them is always an ethical judgment call. (I agree the loved one dying matters vastly more, but this is an opinion.)

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Ubuntu » Tue Mar 11, 2014 4:28 pm

Hi Ubuntu :)
Hello
I doubt there is a non-arbitrary stance on this issue (or on many, many other ethical issues). It's not an issue of coherence. My view is coherent, just not non-arbitrary.
Even if a preference for happiness over suffering, or non-existence over suffering, is arbitrary (I don't think that it is) I still think that your position is self-contradicting if you make a fundamental distinction between small pains and larger pains, different degrees of the same thing, or view happiness and suffering as asymmetrical in value.


Maybe not all pain is bad. Some small pains might not be bad. This is more of a holistic, abstracted viewpoint, as opposed to, say, viewing each molecule of pain signal as inherently bad.
The difference between a large amount of suffering and a small amount of suffering is a difference in quantity, not quality. If suffering is intrinsically bad then the property of badness doesn't emerge at some arbitrary point between mild pain and extreme pain, it's intrinsic to the smallest amount of pain. An increase in the amount of suffering a person feels doesn't change the nature of their experience, it changes the intensity of it. Again, even if you reject the idea that suffering has objective intrinsic dis-value, if you regard suffering as bad then I think it is incoherent to not regard mild pain as mildly bad. Mild pain has the same nature as extreme pain which is why we still call it 'pain'. I don't understand how your position is holistic or abstracted. I don't know what that's supposed to mean.

As for happiness and suffering being asymmetrical in value ; happiness and suffering are antithetical. Happiness is negative pain and pain is negative happiness. Good and bad are antithetical just like up and down or dry and wet. If you regard suffering as bad then I think it's consistent to regard happiness as good because they are opposite in nature. Strictly speaking the absence of pain isn't good, it's just not bad. Negative utilitarianism denies that there is a such thing as 'good' but how can you have a concept of 'bad' without one of 'good'? The idea that suffering is more bad than happiness is good seems as unintelligible to me as the idea that X degree of cold is colder then the equivalent degree of heat is hot. I think that a hypothetical person who has experienced very little pain in their life, who has an unusually strong disposition toward positive emotions and a weak disposition to negative ones, might intuitively feel that happiness is more good than suffering is bad because they don't have a vivid understanding of how intense suffering can be. I think it's a lot easier to cause someone a devastating, shocking amount of pain than it is to make them extremely happy, there might be evolutionary reasons for animals to feel pain more intensely than happiness which could explain why maximizing the happiness of well-off people seems supererogatory and trivial compared to alleviating pain.

Also, I think you mentioned somewhere that different painful emotions aren't commensurable? What all negative emotions have in common is being inherently averse and dislikeable and I think you can compare the intensity of boredom or humiliation with depression or frustration in the same way that you can make trade-offs between pain and happiness depending on how much of either is felt.
I may pick some cutoff point between a dust speck and, say, depression.
I would also make an arbitrary cutoff between some pain and a greater amount of pain when it comes to what I think of as mild pain versus extreme pain but the very nature of the thing (and my attitude toward it) doesn't change when you change the amount of it.
How we compare them is always an ethical judgment call. (I agree the loved one dying matters vastly more, but this is an opinion.)
It's not an opinion that the grief most people feel when they lose someone they love is more intense than the mild pain caused by a speck of dust in the eye. If you regard pain as bad then you would have to regard it as worse (not necessarily the event but the pain caused, maybe there are some hypothetical people who could be really devastated by specks of dust in their eyes).

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sun Mar 16, 2014 4:48 am

Ubuntu wrote: Even if a preference for happiness over suffering, or non-existence over suffering, is arbitrary (I don't think that it is) I still think that your position is self-contradicting if you make a fundamental distinction between small pains and larger pains, different degrees of the same thing, or view happiness and suffering as asymmetrical in value.
One can value the whole more than the sum of its parts. The qualitative nature of a intense suffering can be judged different in kind from mild suffering.
Ubuntu wrote: if you regard suffering as bad then I think it is incoherent to not regard mild pain as mildly bad.
I may not regard all suffering as bad. (Toying with the position -- I don't have firm commitments here.)
Ubuntu wrote: Mild pain has the same nature as extreme pain which is why we still call it 'pain'.
There may be something qualitatively different about extreme pain. The brain is complex, and pain is more than just a negative number encoding. Even if that's not true, we could care nonlinearly about the amount of pain an organism feels at once.
Ubuntu wrote: Negative utilitarianism denies that there is a such thing as 'good' but how can you have a concept of 'bad' without one of 'good'?
Values can be negative or zero. That seems to make sense on its own.
Ubuntu wrote: which could explain why maximizing the happiness of well-off people seems supererogatory and trivial compared to alleviating pain.
Also the hedonic treadmill, which doesn't apply for certain forms of suffering (depression, anxiety, extreme deprivation, etc.).
Ubuntu wrote: Also, I think you mentioned somewhere that different painful emotions aren't commensurable? What all negative emotions have in common is being inherently averse and dislikeable and I think you can compare the intensity of boredom or humiliation with depression or frustration in the same way that you can make trade-offs between pain and happiness depending on how much of either is felt.
You're an astute reader. :) From "The Horror of Suffering":
In 2006, I discussed the problem of trading off suffering against other emotions with a friend. He said that in his experience, different emotions can be not just strong or weak but even "incomparable" with one another; certain emotional states can seem incompatible with memories of other emotional states. I replied that we're forced to compare them, and whatever tradeoffs we make in our decisions imply some exchange rates among emotions. While this is true, I still find a certain wisdom in the view that my friend expressed.
Emotions are like colors. How do you compare red against blue against green? Of course, we're forced to do so, and we can make rough tradeoffs, but there's a multifaceted texture to emotions that isn't fully captured when we collapse them to a scalar number.

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Ubuntu » Mon Mar 17, 2014 4:28 pm

One can value the whole more than the sum of its parts. The qualitative nature of a intense suffering can be judged different in kind from mild suffering.
The whole of something is the sum (whole) of it's parts. I don't understand what this has to do with your argument. Extreme pain has the same nature as mild pain (which is what makes both 'pain'). The difference is a difference in quantity, not quality.
I may not regard all suffering as bad. (Toying with the position -- I don't have firm commitments here.)
Do you mean based on something other than it's quantity? If you make an arbitrary distinction between some suffering and the same basic experience in another circumstance, aren't you abandoning hedonism?
There may be something qualitatively different about extreme pain.
'Extreme' and 'mild' are relative differences in quantity. A raindrop isn't something fundamentally different from the Pacific Ocean, the water in the Pacific Ocean isn't more wet there's just more of it. I don't understand how an increase in the amount of something can change it's inherent nature or quality.
we could care nonlinearly about the amount of pain an organism feels at once.
We can care about anything but if we care about the suffering of any one person felt at any moment in time then it's consistent to care about all suffering (because suffering is suffering and we have to refer to some arbitrary thing other than suffering to justify making distinctions between the same basic experience felt by different persons 'or' at different moments or in different circumstances) and only suffering (because happiness-suffering is not commensurable with other values).

Regardless of whether or not water has intrinsic value, it's self-contradicting to regard water as valuable between 10 am and 10 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays and as having neutral or negative value the rest of time, and I don't mean because you changed your mind but because you regard the water that exists on Wednesday afternoons as more valuable than the water that exists on Friday evenings even though it's the same stuff.
Values can be negative or zero.
Yes but the opposite of negative is positive and the opposite of suffering is happiness so how can you not regard happiness as good - the opposite of bad- if you regard it's opposite - suffering- as bad?
Emotions are like colors. How do you compare red against blue against green? Of course, we're forced to do so, and we can make rough tradeoffs, but there's a multifaceted texture to emotions that isn't fully captured when we collapse them to a scalar number.
All negative emotions are commensurable in that they're all intrinsically dis-likable and aversive. They're all experienced as having negative value and being undesirable. The basic aversiveness of any emotional state can be compared to any other. It might be hard or impossible to do in practice but if you accept that all negative emotional states can be quantitatively measured in terms of intensity and duration and that they share the same property of aversiveness then how can you not, in theory, make precise trade-offs from an impartial/objective standpoint? I think our intuitions can be misleading.

I don't know if you've ever heard of Steve Roach but I just finished listening to Reflections In Suspension. I'd recommend it.

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Tue Mar 18, 2014 4:41 pm

Ubuntu wrote: Extreme pain has the same nature as mild pain (which is what makes both 'pain').
There are similarities, yes, but they're not necessarily just different in some quantitative dimension. There may be qualitatively different brain processes for different intensities (and even different forms of suffering at the same intensity). Collapsing degree of suffering to a single number is something we impose; the brain itself is doing lots of complicated stuff.
Ubuntu wrote: 'Extreme' and 'mild' are relative differences in quantity. A raindrop isn't something fundamentally different from the Pacific Ocean, the water in the Pacific Ocean isn't more wet there's just more of it. I don't understand how an increase in the amount of something can change it's inherent nature or quality.
Simple example: Extreme pain can trigger PTSD. Mild pain doesn't. That's a qualitative shift in how the brain responds to the experience.

The Pacific Ocean is more salty than a raindrop. The water beneath the surface may have less dissolved oxygen and more pressure on it. It contains phytoplankton and zooplankton. And so on. If you're just talking about the H2O molecule, I agree that's the same. But suffering is vastly more complex and multifarious than H2O.
Ubuntu wrote: Yes but the opposite of negative is positive and the opposite of suffering is happiness so how can you not regard happiness as good - the opposite of bad- if you regard it's opposite - suffering- as bad?
The opposite of suffering is happiness under the classical-utilitarian axiology. Under a different axiology there is no opposite of suffering. Not everything has an opposite.
Ubuntu wrote: if you accept that all negative emotional states can be quantitatively measured in terms of intensity and duration and that they share the same property of aversiveness then how can you not, in theory, make precise trade-offs from an impartial/objective standpoint?
There may be many textures of aversiveness: aversiveness that makes you say "that sucks," aversiveness that makes you cry, aversiveness that makes you clench your chair, aversiveness that keeps you awake at night, aversiveness that haunts you with terrible memories, aversiveness that makes you want to die, etc. There are may dimensions to experience that we may regard as morally relevant.

Our brains appear to have many different reinforcement/motivational systems: reflexes, model-free learning, model-based learning, planning, etc. Even if we just used the value assessments of these systems for our moral calculus, which system would we be using? Or perhaps we'd use the joint output, but this isn't the only choice. Also, the joint output in terms of motivation / action selection needn't coincide with hedonic optimality.
Ubuntu wrote: I don't know if you've ever heard of Steve Roach but I just finished listening to Reflections In Suspension. I'd recommend it.
Nope. Thanks. :)

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Re: Am I NLU or NU?

Post by Ubuntu » Wed Mar 19, 2014 4:52 pm

There are similarities, yes, but they're not necessarily just different in some quantitative dimension. There may be qualitatively different brain processes for different intensities (and even different forms of suffering at the same intensity). Collapsing degree of suffering to a single number is something we impose; the brain itself is doing lots of complicated stuff.

Simple example: Extreme pain can trigger PTSD. Mild pain doesn't. That's a qualitative shift in how the brain responds to the experience.
There aren't just similarities, mild pain is the same experience as extreme pain hence both falling under the category of 'pain'. What's different is the 'extreme' vs. the 'mild'. The subjective experience of pain isn't the neurological activity it corresponds with. PTSD is just extreme, prolonged distress.
If you're just talking about the H2O molecule
I was.
But suffering is vastly more complex and multifarious than H2O.
How so? I don't see how the two are comparable and I would also intuitively think that an extreme, overwhelming amount of suffering felt at a single moment by a single person is worse than a very small amount felt over several different moments or by different people but I don't think my intuitions are reliable.

No offense but I think people often misunderstand their position as being complicated and 'nuanced' when it's fundamentally self-contradicting.
The opposite of suffering is happiness under the classical-utilitarian axiology. Under a different axiology there is no opposite of suffering. Not everything has an opposite.
No, the opposite of suffering is happiness. Everyone understands suffering and pain to be antithetical to happiness and pleasure. That's not a value judgment. Bad does have an opposite and it's good. The absence of suffering can't be intrinsically good because it isn't anything.
There may be many textures of aversiveness: aversiveness that makes you say "that sucks," aversiveness that makes you cry, aversiveness that makes you clench your chair, aversiveness that keeps you awake at night, aversiveness that haunts you with terrible memories, aversiveness that makes you want to die, etc. There are may dimensions to experience that we may regard as morally relevant.
I don't disagree but all aversive states are basically the same in feeling undesirable.
There are may dimensions to experience that we may regard as morally relevant.
From the hedonistic point of view, only the basic felt aversiveness or desirableness of an emotional state has direct moral relevance.

which system would we be using
The one that is concerned with maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering in the long run and generally or most effective at doing so (the model based or a mixed 2 level utilitarian approach?).

the joint output in terms of motivation / action selection needn't coincide with hedonic optimality
What foolproof approach would?

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