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

Next post: “Sort­ing Peb­bles Into Cor­rect Heaps

Pre­vi­ous post: “Mo­ral­ity as Fixed Com­pu­ta­tion