In­sep­ar­ably Right; or, Joy in the Merely Good

Fol­lowup to: The Mean­ing of Right

I fear that in my drive for full ex­plan­a­tion, I may have ob­scured the punch­line from my the­ory of metaethics. Here then is an at­temp­ted re­ph­rase:

There is no pure ghostly es­sence of good­ness apart from things like truth, hap­pi­ness and sen­tient life.

What do you value? At a guess, you value the life of your friends and your fam­ily and your Sig­ni­fic­ant Other and your­self, all in dif­fer­ent ways. You would prob­ably say that you value hu­man life in gen­eral, and I would take your word for it, though Robin Han­son might ask how you’ve ac­ted on this sup­posed pref­er­ence. If you’re read­ing this blog you prob­ably at­tach some value to truth for the sake of truth. If you’ve ever learned to play a mu­sical in­stru­ment, or paint a pic­ture, or if you’ve ever solved a math prob­lem for the fun of it, then you prob­ably at­tach real value to good art. You value your free­dom, the con­trol that you pos­sess over your own life; and if you’ve ever really helped someone you prob­ably en­joyed it. You might not think of play­ing a video game as a great sac­ri­fice of du­ti­ful mor­al­ity, but I for one would not wish to see the joy of com­plex chal­lenge per­ish from the uni­verse. You may not think of telling jokes as a mat­ter of in­ter­per­sonal mor­al­ity, but I would con­sider the hu­man sense of hu­mor as part of the gift we give to to­mor­row.

And you value many more things than these.

Your brain as­sesses these things I have said, or oth­ers, or more, de­pend­ing on the spe­cific event, and fi­nally af­fixes a little in­ternal rep­res­ent­a­tional la­bel that we re­cog­nize and call “good”.

There’s no way you can de­tach the little la­bel from what it stands for, and still make on­to­lo­gical or moral sense.

Why might the little ‘good’ la­bel seem de­tach­able? A num­ber of reas­ons.

Mainly, that’s just how your mind is struc­tured—the la­bels it at­taches in­tern­ally seem like ex­tra, float­ing, on­to­lo­gical prop­er­ties.

And there’s no one value that de­term­ines whether a com­plic­ated event is good or not—and no five val­ues, either. No mat­ter what rule you try to de­scribe, there’s al­ways some­thing left over, some counter­example. Since no single value defines good­ness, this can make it seem like all of them to­gether couldn’t define good­ness. But when you add them up all to­gether, there is noth­ing else left.

If there’s no de­tach­able prop­erty of good­ness, what does this mean?

It means that the ques­tion, “Okay, but what makes hap­pi­ness or self-de­term­in­a­tion, good?” is either very quickly answered, or else mal­formed.

The concept of a “util­ity func­tion” or “op­tim­iz­a­tion cri­terion” is de­tach­able when talk­ing about op­tim­iz­a­tion pro­cesses. Nat­ural se­lec­tion, for ex­ample, op­tim­izes for in­clus­ive ge­netic fit­ness. But there are pos­sible minds that im­ple­ment any util­ity func­tion, so you don’t get any ad­vice there about what you should do. You can’t ask about util­ity apart from any util­ity func­tion.

When you ask “But which util­ity func­tion should I use?” the word should is some­thing in­sep­ar­able from the dy­namic that la­bels a choice “should”—in­sep­ar­able from the reas­ons like “Be­cause I can save more lives that way.”

Every time you say should, it in­cludes an im­pli­cit cri­terion of choice; there is no should-ness that can be ab­strac­ted away from any cri­terion.

There is no sep­ar­able right-ness that you could ab­stract from pulling a child off the train tracks, and at­tach to some other act.

Your val­ues can change in re­sponse to ar­gu­ments; you have metamor­als as well as mor­als. So it prob­ably does make sense to think of an ideal­ized good, or ideal­ized right, that you would as­sign if you could think of all pos­sible ar­gu­ments. Ar­gu­ments may even con­vince you to change your cri­teria of what counts as a per­suas­ive ar­gu­ment. Even so, when you con­sider the total tra­ject­ory arising out of that en­tire frame­work, that moral frame of ref­er­ence, there is no sep­ar­able prop­erty of jus­ti­fic­a­tion-ness, apart from any par­tic­u­lar cri­terion of jus­ti­fic­a­tion; no fi­nal an­swer apart from a start­ing ques­tion.

I some­times say that mor­al­ity is “cre­ated already in mo­tion”.

There is no per­fect ar­gu­ment that per­suades the ideal philo­sopher of per­fect empti­ness to at­tach a per­fectly ab­stract la­bel of ‘good’. The no­tion of the per­fectly ab­stract la­bel is in­co­her­ent, which is why people chase it round and round in circles. What would dis­tin­guish a per­fectly empty la­bel of ‘good’ from a per­fectly empty la­bel of ‘bad’? How would you tell which was which?

But since every sup­posed cri­terion of good­ness that we de­scribe, turns out to be wrong, or in­com­plete, or changes the next time we hear a moral ar­gu­ment, it’s easy to see why someone might think that ‘good­ness’ was a thing apart from any cri­terion at all.

Hu­mans have a cog­nit­ive ar­chi­tec­ture that eas­ily mis­leads us into con­ceiv­ing of good­ness as some­thing that can be de­tached from any cri­terion.

This con­cep­tion turns out to be in­co­her­ent. Very sad. I too was hop­ing for a per­fectly ab­stract ar­gu­ment; it ap­pealed to my uni­ver­sal­iz­ing in­stinct. But...

But the ques­tion then be­comes: is that little fil­lip of hu­man psy­cho­logy, more im­port­ant than everything else? Is it more im­port­ant than the hap­pi­ness of your fam­ily, your friends, your mate, your ex­ten­ded tribe, and your­self? If your uni­ver­sal­iz­ing in­stinct is frus­trated, is that worth abandon­ing life? If you rep­res­en­ted right­ness wrongly, do pic­tures stop be­ing beau­ti­ful and maths stop be­ing el­eg­ant? Is that one tiny mis­take worth for­sak­ing the gift we could give to to­mor­row? Is it even really worth all that much in the way of ex­ist­en­tial angst?

Or will you just say “Oops” and go back to life, to truth, fun, art, free­dom, chal­lenge, hu­mor, moral ar­gu­ments, and all those other things that in their sum and in their re­flect­ive tra­ject­ory, are the en­tire and only mean­ing of the word ‘right’?

Here is the strange habit of thought I mean to con­vey: Don’t look to some sur­pris­ing un­usual twist of lo­gic for your jus­ti­fic­a­tion. Look to the liv­ing child, suc­cess­fully dragged off the train tracks. There you will find your jus­ti­fic­a­tion. What ever should be more im­port­ant than that?

I could dress that up in com­pu­ta­tional metaethics and FAI the­ory—which in­deed is whence the no­tion first came to me—but when I trans­lated it all back into hu­man-talk, that is what it turned out to say.

If we can­not take joy in things that are merely good, our lives shall be empty in­deed.

Part of The Metaethics Sequence

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