Soulless morality

Fol­low-up to: So you say you’re an altruist

The re­sponses to So you say you’re an al­tru­ist in­di­cate that peo­ple have split their val­ues into two cat­e­gories:

  1. val­ues they use to de­cide what they want

  2. val­ues that are ad­mis­si­ble for moral reasoning

(where 2 is prob­a­bly a sub­set of 1 for athe­ists, and prob­a­bly nearly dis­joint from 1 for Pres­by­te­ri­ans).

You’re read­ing Less Wrong. You’re a ra­tio­nal­ist. You’ve put a lot of effort into ed­u­ca­tion, and learn­ing the truth about the world. You value knowl­edge and ra­tio­nal­ity and truth a lot.

Some­one says you should send all your money to Africa, be­cause this will re­sult in more hu­man lives.

What hap­pened to the value you placed on knowl­edge and ra­tio­nal­ity?

There is lit­tle chance that any of the peo­ple you save in Africa will get a good post-grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion and then fol­low that up by re­ject­ing re­li­gion, em­brac­ing ra­tio­nal­ity, and writ­ing Less Wrong posts.

Here you are, spend­ing a part of your pre­cious life read­ing Less Wrong. If you spend 10% of your life on the Web, you are say­ing that that ac­tivity is worth at least 1/​10th of a life, and that lives with no ac­cess to the Web are worth less than lives with ac­cess. If you value ra­tio­nal­ity, then lives lived ra­tio­nally are more valuable than lives lived ir­ra­tionally. If you think some­thing has a value, you have to give it the same value in ev­ery equa­tion. Not do­ing so is im­moral. You can’t use differ­ent value scales for ev­ery­day and moral rea­son­ing.

So­ciety tells you to work to make your­self more valuable. Then it tells you that when you rea­son morally, you must as­sume that all lives are equally valuable. You can’t have it both ways. If all lives have equal value, we shouldn’t crit­i­cize some­one who de­cides to be­come a drug ad­dict on welfare. Value is value, re­gard­less of which equa­tion it’s in at the mo­ment.

How do you weigh ra­tio­nal­ity, and your other qual­ities and ac­tivi­ties, rel­a­tive to life it­self? I would say that life it­self has zero value; the value of a life is the sum of the val­ues of things done and ex­pe­rienced dur­ing that life. But so­ciety teaches the op­po­site: that mere life has a tremen­dous value, and any­thing you do with your life has neg­ligible ad­di­tional value. That’s why it’s con­tro­ver­sial to ex­e­cute crim­i­nals, but not con­tro­ver­sial to lock them up in a bare room for 20 years. We have a death-penalty de­bate in the US, which has con­se­quences for less than 100 peo­ple per year. We have a few hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple serv­ing sen­tences of 20 years and up, but no de­bate about it. That shows that most Amer­i­cans place a huge value on life it­self, and al­most no value on what hap­pens to that life.

I think this comes from be­liev­ing in the soul, and bi­nary thought in gen­eral. Peo­ple want a sim­ple moral sys­tem that clas­sifies things as good or bad, al­low­able or not al­low­able, valuable or not valuable. We use real val­ues in de­cid­ing what to do on Satur­day, but we dis­cretize them on Sun­day. Killing peo­ple is not al­low­able; lock­ing them up for­ever is. Killing en­emy sol­diers is al­low­able; kil­ling en­emy civili­ans is not. Killing en­emy sol­diers is al­low­able; tor­tur­ing them is not. Los­ing a pi­lot is not ac­cept­able; los­ing a $360,000,000 plane is. The re­sults of this bi­na­rized thought in­clude mil­lions of lives wasted in prison; and hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives lost or ru­ined, and economies wrecked, be­cause we fight wars in a way in­tended to avoid vi­o­lat­ing bound­ary con­straints of a bi­na­rized value sys­tem rather than in a way in­tended to max­i­mize our val­ues.

The idea of the soul is the ul­ti­mate dis­cretizer. Sav­ing souls is good. Los­ing souls is bad. That is the sum to­tal of Chris­tian prag­matic moral­ity.

The re­li­gious con­cep­tion is that per­sonal val­ues that you use for de­cid­ing what to do on Satur­day are self­ish, whereas moral val­ues are un­selfish. It teaches that peo­ple need re­li­gion to be moral, be­cause their nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion is to be self­ish. Rather than hav­ing a sin­gle set of val­ues that you can plug into your equa­tions, you have two com­pletely differ­ent sys­tems of logic which coun­ter­bal­ance each other. No won­der peo­ple act schizophrenic on moral ques­tions.

What that wor­ld­view is re­ally say­ing is that peo­ple are the wrong level of ra­tio­nal­ity. Ra­tion­al­ity is a win for the ra­tio­nal agent. But in many pris­on­ers-dilemma and tragedy-of-the-com­mons sce­nar­ios, hav­ing ra­tio­nal agents is not a win for so­ciety. Reli­gion teaches peo­ple to re­place ra­tio­nal moral­ity with an ir­ra­tional dual-sys­tem moral­ity un­der the (hid­den) the­ory that ra­tio­nal moral­ity leads to worse out­comes.

That teach­ing isn’t ob­vi­ously wrong. It isn’t ob­vi­ously ir­ra­tional. But it is op­posed to ra­tio­nal­ism, the dogma that ra­tio­nal­ity always wins. I use the term “ra­tio­nal­ism” to mean not just the rea­son­able as­ser­tion that ra­tio­nal­ity is the best policy for an agent, but also the dog­matic be­lief that ra­tio­nal agents are the best thing for so­ciety. And I think this blog is about giv­ing fa­nat­i­cal ra­tio­nal­ism a chance.

So, if you re­ally want to be ra­tio­nal, you should throw away your spe­cial­ized moral logic, and use just one logic and one set of val­ues for all de­ci­sions. If you de­cide to be a fa­natic, you should tell other peo­ple to do so, too.

EDIT: This is not an ar­gu­ment for or against aid to Africa. It’s an ob­ser­va­tion on an er­ror that I think peo­ple made in rea­son­ing about aid to Africa.