Morality is Awesome

(This is a semi-se­ri­ous in­tro­duc­tion to the metaethics se­quence. You may find it use­ful, but don’t take it too se­ri­ously.)

Med­i­tate on this: A wiz­ard has turned you into a whale. Is this awe­some?

Is it?

“Maybe? I guess it would be pretty cool to be a whale for a day. But only if I can turn back, and if I stay hu­man in­side and so on. Also, that’s not a whale.

“Ac­tu­ally, a whale seems kind of spe­cific, and I’d be suprised if that was the best thing the wiz­ard can do. Can I have some­thing else? Eter­nal hap­piness maybe?”

Med­i­tate on this: A wiz­ard has turned you into or­gas­mium, doomed to spend the rest of eter­nity ex­pe­rienc­ing pure hap­piness. Is this awe­some?


“Kindof… That’s pretty lame ac­tu­ally. On sec­ond thought I’d rather be the whale; at least that way I could ex­plore the ocean for a while.

“Let’s try again. Wizard: max­i­mize awe­some­ness.”

Med­i­tate on this: A wiz­ard has turned him­self into a su­per­in­tel­li­gent god, and is squeez­ing as much awe­some­ness out of the uni­verse as it could pos­si­bly sup­port. This may in­clude whales and star­ships and par­ties and jupiter brains and friend­ship, but only if they are awe­some enough. Is this awe­some?


“Well, yes, that is awe­some.”

What we just did there is called Ap­plied Ethics. Ap­plied ethics is about what is awe­some and what is not. Par­ties with all your friends in­side su­per­in­tel­li­gent star­ship-whales are awe­some. ~666 chil­dren dy­ing of hunger ev­ery hour is not.

(There is also nor­ma­tive ethics, which is about how to de­cide if some­thing is awe­some, and metaethics, which is about some­thing or other that I can’t quite figure out. I’ll tell you right now that those terms are not on the exam.)

“Wait a minute!” you cry, “What is this awe­some­ness stuff? I thought ethics was about what is good and right.”

I’m glad you asked. I think “awe­some­ness” is what we should be talk­ing about when we talk about moral­ity. Why do I think this?

  1. “Awe­some” is not a philo­soph­i­cal land­mine. If some­one en­coun­ters the word “right”, all sorts of bad philos­o­phy and con­no­ta­tions send them spin­ning off into the void. “Awe­some”, on the other hand, has no philo­soph­i­cal re­spectabil­ity, hence no philo­soph­i­cal bag­gage.

  2. “Awe­some” is vague enough to cap­ture all your moral in­tu­ition by the well-known mechanisms be­hind fake util­ity func­tions, and mean­ingless enough that this is no prob­lem. If you think “hap­piness” is the stuff, you might get con­fused and try to max­i­mize ac­tual hap­piness. If you think awe­some­ness is the stuff, it is much harder to screw it up.

  3. If you do man­age to ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment “awe­some­ness” as a max­i­miza­tion crite­ria, the re­sults will be ac­tu­ally good. That is, “awe­some” already refers to the same things “good” is sup­posed to re­fer to.

  4. “Awe­some” does not re­fer to any­thing else. You think you can just re­define words, but you can’t, and this causes all sorts of trou­ble for peo­ple who over­load “hap­piness”, “util­ity”, etc.

  5. You already know that you know how to com­pute “Awe­some­ness”, and it doesn’t feel like it has a mys­te­ri­ous essence that you need to study to dis­cover. In­stead it brings to mind con­crete things like star­ship-whale math-par­ties and not-starv­ing chil­dren, which is what we want any­ways. You are already en­abled to take joy in the merely awe­some.

  6. “Awe­some” is im­plic­itly con­se­quen­tial­ist. “Is this awe­some?” en­gages you to think of the value of a pos­si­ble world, as op­posed to “Is this right?” which en­gages to to think of virtues and rules. (Those things can be awe­some some­times, though.)

I find that the above is true about me, and is nearly all I need to know about moral­ity. It hand­ily in­oc­u­lates against the usual con­fu­sions, and sets me in the right di­rec­tion to make my life and the world more awe­some. It may work for you too.

I would ap­pend the ad­di­tional facts that if you wrote it out, the dy­namic pro­ce­dure to com­pute awe­some­ness would be hellishly com­plex, and that right now, it is only im­plic­itly en­coded in hu­man brains, and no where else. Also, if the great pro­ce­dure to com­pute awe­some­ness is not pre­served, the fu­ture will not be awe­some. Pe­riod.

Also, it’s im­por­tant to note that what you think of as awe­some can be changed by con­sid­er­ing things from differ­ent an­gles and be­ing ex­posed to differ­ent ar­gu­ments. That is, the pro­ce­dure to com­pute awe­some­ness is dy­namic and cre­ated already in mo­tion.

If we still in­sist on be­ing con­fused, or if we’re just cu­ri­ous, or if we need to ac­tu­ally build a wiz­ard to turn the uni­verse into an awe­some place (though we can leave that to the ex­perts), then we can see the metaethics se­quence for the full ar­gu­ment, de­tails, and finer points. I think the best post (and the one to read if only one) is joy in the merely good.