High energy ethics and general moral relativity

Utili­tar­i­anism some­times sup­ports weird things: kil­ling lone back­pack­ers for their or­gans, sac­ri­fic­ing all world’s hap­piness to one util­ity mon­ster, cre­at­ing zillions of hu­mans liv­ing on near-sub­sis­tence level to max­i­mize to­tal util­ity, or kil­ling all but a bunch of them to max­i­mize av­er­age util­ity. Also, it sup­ports gay rights, and has been sup­port­ing them since 1785, when say­ing that there’s noth­ing wrong in hav­ing gay sex was pretty much in the same cat­e­gory as say­ing that there’s noth­ing wrong in kil­ling back­pack­ers. This makes one won­der: if de­spite all the dis­gust to­wards them few cen­turies ago, gay rights have been in­side the hu­man­ity’s co­her­ent ex­trap­o­lated vo­li­tion all along, then per­haps our de­scen­dants will even­tu­ally come to the con­clu­sion that kil­ling the back­packer has been the right choice all along, and only those bul­let-bit­ing ex­trem­ists of our time were get­ting it right. As a mat­ter of fact, as a friend of mine pointed out, you don’t even need to fast for­ward few cen­turies—there are or were already eth­i­cal sys­tems ac­tu­ally in use in some cul­tures (e.g. bushido in pre-Meiji restora­tion Ja­pan) that are ob­sessed with honor and sur­vivor’s guilt. They would ap­prove of kil­ling the back­packer or let­ting them kill them­selves—this be­ing an hon­or­able death, and liv­ing while let­ting five other peo­ple to die be­ing dishon­or­able—on non-util­i­tar­ian grounds, and ac­tu­ally alieve that this is the right choice. Per­haps they were right all along, and the Western civ­i­liza­tion bul­l­dozed through them effec­tively de­stroy­ing such cul­ture not be­cause of su­pe­rior (non-util­i­tar­ian) ethics but for any other rea­son things hap­pened in his­tory. In this case there’s no need in try­ing to fix util­i­tar­i­anism, lest it sug­gest kil­ling back­pack­ers, be­cause it’s not bro­ken—we are—and out de­scen­dants will figure that out. In physics we’ve seen this, when an el­e­gant low-Kol­mogorov-com­plex­ity model pre­dicted that weird things hap­pens on a sub­atomic level, and we’ve built huge par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors just to con­firm—yep, that’s ex­actly what hap­pens, in spite of all your in­tu­itions. Per­haps smash­ing util­i­tar­i­anism with high en­ergy prob­lems only breaks our in­tu­itions, while util­i­tar­i­anism is just fine.

But let’s talk about rel­a­tivity. In 1916 Karl Sch­warzschild solved the newly dis­cov­ered Ein­stein field equa­tions and thus pre­dicted the black holes. It was thought as a mere cu­ri­os­ity and per­haps GIGO at the time, un­til in 1960s peo­ple re­al­ized that yes, con­tra all in­tu­itions, this is in fact a thing. But here’s the thing: they were ac­tu­ally first pre­dicted by John Michell in 1783. You can eas­ily check it: if you sub­sti­tute the speed of light to the clas­si­cal for­mula for es­cape ve­loc­ity, you’ll get the Sch­warzschild ra­dius. Michell ac­tu­ally knew the ra­dius and mass of the Sun, as well as the grav­i­ta­tional con­stant pre­cisely enough to get the or­der of mag­ni­tude and the first digit right when pro­vid­ing an ex­am­ple of such ob­ject. If we some­how never dis­cov­ered gen­eral rel­a­tivity, but man­aged to build good enough telescopes to ob­serve the stars or­bit­ing the empti­ness that we now call Sag­it­tar­ius A*, if would be very tempt­ing to say: “See? We pre­dicted this cen­turies ago, and how­ever crazy it seemed, we now know it’s true. That’s what hap­pens when you stick to the ro­bust the­o­ries, shut up, and calcu­late—you stay cen­turies ahead of the curve.”

We now know that New­to­nian me­chan­ics aren’t true, al­though they’re close to truth when you plug in non-as­tro­nom­i­cal num­bers (and even some as­tro­nom­i­cal). A star 500 times size and the same den­sity as the Sun, how­ever, is very much as­tro­nom­i­cal. It is only sheer co­in­ci­dence that in this ex­act for­mula rel­a­tivis­tic terms work ex­actly in the way to give the same solu­tion for the es­cape ve­loc­ity as the clas­si­cal me­chan­ics do. It would be enough for Michell to imag­ine that his dark star ro­tates—a thing that New­to­nian me­chan­ics say doesn’t mat­ter, al­though it does—to change the cat­e­gory of this pre­dic­tion from “mirac­u­lously cor­rect” to “ex­pect­edly in­cor­rect”. It doesn’t mean that New­to­nian me­chan­ics weren’t a break­through, bet­ter than any sin­gle the­ory ex­ist­ing at the time. But it does mean that it would be pre­ma­ture to peo­ple in pre-rel­a­tivity era to in­vest into build­ing a star­ship de­signed to go ten times the speed of light even if they could—al­though that’s where “shut up and calcu­late” could lead them.

And that’s where I think we are with util­i­tar­i­anism. It’s very good. It’s more or less re­li­ably bet­ter than any­thing else. And it man­aged to make eth­i­cal pre­dic­tions so far fetched (funny enough, about as far fetched as the pre­dic­tion of dark stars) that it’s tempt­ing to con­clude that the only rea­son why it keeps mak­ing crazy pre­dic­tions is that we haven’t yet re­al­ized they’re not crazy. But we live in the world where Sag­it­tar­ius A* was dis­cov­ered, and gen­eral rel­a­tivity wasn’t. The ac­tual 42-ish eth­i­cal sys­tem will prob­a­bly con­verge to util­i­tar­i­anism when you plug in non-ex­treme num­bers (small num­bers of peo­ple, non-per­ma­nent risks and gains, non-taboo top­ics). But just be­cause it con­verged to util­i­tar­i­anism on one taboo (at the time) topic, and made util­i­tar­i­anism stay cen­turies ahead of the moral curve, doesn’t mean it will do the same for oth­ers.