Michael Anissimov, August 14, 2008 at 10:14 PM asked me to expound.
Sure. I don’t want to write smug little quips without explaining myself. Perhaps I’m wrong.
It’s difficult to engage Eliezer in debate/argument, even in a constructive as opposed to adversarial way, because he writes so much material, and uses so many unfamiliar terms. So, my disagreement may just be based on an inadequate appreciation of his full writings (e.g. I don’t read every word he posts on overcomingbias; although I think doing so would probably be good for my mind, and I eagerly look forward to reading any book he writes).
Let me just say that I’m a skeptic (or “anti-realist”) about moral realism. I think there is no fact of the matter about what we should or should not do. In this tradition, I find the most agreement with Mackie (historically) and Joshua Greene at Harvard (today). I think Eliezer might benefit greatly from reading both of them. You can find Greene’s Ph.d thesis here:
It’s worth reading in entirety.
Why am I a moral skeptic? Before I give good reasons, let me suggest some possibly bad ones: it’s a “shocking” and unpopular position. And I certainly love to be a gadfly. So, if Eliezer and I do have a real disagreement here, it may be drawn along the same lines we have with the free will debate: Eliezer seems to have strong compatibilist leanings, and I’m more inclined towards non-realism about free will. Thus, Eliezer may be inclined to resist shocking or uncomfortable truths, or I may be overly eager to find them. That’s one possible reason for my moral skepticism.
I certainly believe that any philosophical investigations which lead people to generally safe and comfortable positions, in which common sense is vindicated, should give us pause. And people who see their role as philosopher as vindicating common sense, and making cherished beliefs safe for the world, are dishonoring the history of philosophy, and doing a disservice to themselves and the world. To succeed in that project, fully at least, one must engage in the sort of rationalization Eliezer has condemned over and over.
Now let me give my good reasons:
P1. An essential aspect of what it means for something to be morally right is that the something is not just morally right because everyone agrees that the something is. Thus, everyone agrees that if giving to charity, or sorting pebbles, is morally right, it is not just right because everyone says that it is. It is right in some deeper sense.
P2. But, all we have to prove that giving to charity, etc., is right, is that everyone thinks it is (to the extent they do, which is not 100%).
You might say: well, giving to charity increases the sum amount of happiness in the world, or is more fair, or follows some Kantian rule. But, then again, we ask: why? And the only answer seems to be that everyone agrees that happiness should be maximized, or fairness maximized, or that rule followed. But, as we said when we started, the fact that everyone agreed wasn’t a good enough reason.
So we’re left with reasons which we already agree are not good enough. We can only get around this through fancy rationalization, and in particular by forgetting P1.
Eliezer offers his own reasons for believing something is right:
“The human one, of course; not because it is the human one, but because it is right. I do not know perfectly what is right, but neither can I plead entire ignorance.”
What horribly circular logic is that? It’s right because it’s right?
The last few words present a link to another article. And there you find quotes like these:
“Why not accept that, ceteris paribus, joy is preferable to sorrow?”
“You might later find some ground within yourself or built upon yourself with which to criticize this—but why not accept it for now? Not just as a personal preference, mind you; but as something baked into the question you ask when you ask “What is truly right”?”
“Are you willing to relinquish your Socratean ignorance?”
This is special pleading. It is hand waving. It is the sort of insubstantial, waxing poetic that pastors use to captivate their audiences, and young men use to romance young women. It is a sweet nothing. It should make you feel like you’re being dealt with by a used car salesman; that’s how I feel when I read it.
The question isn’t “why not prefer joy over sorrow?” That’s a wild card that can justify anything (just flip it around: “why not prefer sorrow over joy?”). You might not find a decisive reason against preferring joy to sorry, but that’s just because you’re not going to find a decisive reason to believe anything is right or wrong. Any given thing might make the world happier, or follow a popular rule, but what makes that “right”? Nothing. The problem above, involving P1 and P2, does not go away.
The content of morality is not baked into the definitions of words in our moral vocabulary, either (as Eliezer implies when he writes: “you will have problems with the meaning of your words, not just their plausibility”—another link). Definitions are made by agreement and, remember, P1 says that something can’t be moral just because everyone agrees that the something is moral. The language of morality just refers to what we should do. The words themselves, and their definitions, are silent about what the content of that morality is, what the things are that we should actually do.
So I seem to disagree with Eliezer quite substantially about morality, and in a similar way to how we disagree about free will.
Finally, I can answer the question: what scares me about Eliezer’s view? Certainly not that he loves joy and abhors suffering so much. Believe me when I say, about his mission to make the universe one big orgasm: godspeed.
Rather, it’s his apparent willingness to compromise his rationalist and critical thinking principles in the process. The same boy who rationalized a way into believing there was a chocolate cake in the asteroid belt, should know better than to rationalize himself into believing it is right to prefer joy over sorrow.
What he says sounds nice, and sexy, and appealing. No doubt many people would like for it to be true. As far as I can tell, it generally vindicates common sense. But at what cost?
Joy feels better than sorrow. We can promote joy instead of sorrow. We will feel much better for doing so. Nobody will be able to criticize us for doing the wrong thing. The world will be one big orgasm. Let’s satisfy ourselves with that. Let’s satisfy ourselves with the merely real.