Extraordinary ethics require extraordinary arguments

Pre­vi­ous post: Fight­ing the al­lure of de­pres­sive realism

My blog en­tries are about a per­sonal bat­tle against de­pres­sion and anx­iety, from the point of view of some­one who has been im­mersed in ra­tio­nal­ist/​LW ideas and cul­ture for a few years now.

I want to illus­trate a par­tic­u­lar, re­cur­ring bat­tle I have with scrupu­los­ity. (I’m not the best at di­alogues, so bear with me for a mo­ment.)

Me: Alright, it’s time to be pro­duc­tive and get to my home­work.
???: Hold on! How can you pos­si­bly jus­tify that if you haven’t solved ethics yet?
Me: What? Who are you?
SD: Allow me to in­tro­duce my­self, I’m your Skep­tic De­mon. I whisper eth­i­cal con­cerns in your ear to make sure you’re always do­ing the right thing.
Me: That sounds more like a dae­mon than a de­mon to me.
SD: De­mon. Trust me.
Me: Solv­ing ethics can’t pos­si­bly be ex­pected of a sin­gle per­son, de­mon.
SD: Right you are! But you’ve looked around the world enough to know that ev­ery­thing you do could have rip­ple effects that might be dis­as­trous. So how can you pos­si­bly feel good about work­ing on your home­work with­out ac­count­ing for that?
Me: What? It’s just home­work.
SD: Oh, no it isn’t. Do­ing well on home­work means send­ing a bet­ter sig­nal to em­ploy­ers means more peo­ple want to hire you down the line, in­clud­ing for un­scrupu­lous ac­tivi­ties. And you’ve done not-great things be­fore, so we can’t be sure you’ll re­sist. In fact the ex­is­tence of first-, sec­ond-, third-, and nth-or­der effects im­plies you might not even re­al­ize when you’re be­ing offered such.
Me: Erm… Well, it’s true that things have un­in­tended con­se­quences, but--
SD: No “buts”! You want to be a good per­son, right? So we gotta rea­son this out.
Me: I guess you have a point...
SD: Alright. So let’s get started.
(hours pass)
SD: Okay. You’re on shaky ice with some of these con­sid­er­a­tions. I’m not to­tally con­vinced you won’t be tempted by the money to go and do some­thing net harm­ful your­self, but I will give you a one-time pass. You may pro­ceed to start your as­sign­ment .
Me: I’m ex­hausted and I just want to go to sleep now.
SD: Then my work is done here. *dis­ap­pears in a puff of shaky logic*

This kind of con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens to me all the time. Why?

On one level, it’s easy to see what the skep­tic de­mon is do­ing. He’s trol­ling. He’s keep­ing me from do­ing the ac­tual pro­duc­tive work I want to do, and very cu­ri­ously never pops up to ask whether my watch­ing TV or even whether my eat­ing meat is ill-ad­vised.

But he’s trol­ling with a le­gi­t­i­mate is­sue—the fact that we can’t ac­tu­ally pre­dict all of the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of our ac­tions. It feels wrong to say that some­one should be held eth­i­cally re­spon­si­ble for the sum to­tal of that but­terfly effect, but it feels equally wrong to deny they have any stake in it what­so­ever. Trolls are worst when they find an is­sue that is near and dear to your heart and poke at it.

What to do? I’d like to at least jus­tify why I think it’s okay to ig­nore this lit­tle guy.

I think we can get a lot of mileage here out of the old Carl Sa­gan heuris­tic, “Ex­traor­di­nary claims re­quire ex­taor­di­nary ev­i­dence.” Here, it changes to ex­traor­di­nary ethics re­quire ex­traor­di­nary ar­gu­ments. And the idea that I should sab­o­tage my own ca­reer out of the fear that I might ac­ci­den­tally harm some­one down the line due to my own weak­ness is one heck of an ex­traor­di­nary ethic.

For one, this ethic im­me­di­ately fails my pop-philos­o­phy un­der­stand­ing of the cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive. If ev­ery­one acted like this, mod­ern so­ciety and all of its woes would crum­ble, but so would its many, many, many benefits.

It also fails my un­der­stand­ing of why we usu­ally give self-in­ter­est a seat at the table in ethics, even if we worry about its ex­cesses: A world in which ev­ery­one spends all of their en­ergy try­ing to make other peo­ple happy but never take time for them­selves is a world where ev­ery­one runs them­selves ragged and is uniformly mis­er­able.

We could make the ar­gu­ment that peo­ple are far less morally re­spon­si­ble for sec­ond-, third-, etc. or­der effects from many differ­ent an­gles, one of my fa­vorites be­ing lo­cal val­idity. And so on.

I’m not sure how far I can take this heuris­tic be­fore it breaks, but I think it’s a very wise start­ing point to be­gin with when it comes to is­sues of scrupu­los­ity.