The Meaning of Right

Continuation of: Changing Your Metaethics, Setting Up Metaethics
Followup to: Does Your Morality Care What You Think?, The Moral Void, Probability is Subjectively Objective, Could Anything Be Right?, The Gift We Give To Tomorrow, Rebelling Within Nature, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, …

(The culmination of a long series of Overcoming Bias posts; if you start here, I accept no responsibility for any resulting confusion, misunderstanding, or unnecessary angst.)

What is morality? What does the word “should”, mean? The many pieces are in place: This question I shall now dissolve.

The key—as it has always been, in my experience so far—is to understand how a certain cognitive algorithm feels from inside. Standard procedure for righting a wrong question: If you don’t know what right-ness is, then take a step beneath and ask how your brain labels things “right”.

It is not the same question—it has no moral aspects to it, being strictly a matter of fact and cognitive science. But it is an illuminating question. Once we know how our brain labels things “right”, perhaps we shall find it easier, afterward, to ask what is really and truly right.

But with that said—the easiest way to begin investigating that question, will be to jump back up to the level of morality and ask what seems right. And if that seems like too much recursion, get used to it—the other 90% of the work lies in handling recursion properly.

(Should you find your grasp on meaningfulness wavering, at any time following, check Changing Your Metaethics for the appropriate prophylactic.)

So! In order to investigate how the brain labels things “right”, we are going to start out by talking about what is right. That is, we’ll start out wearing our morality-goggles, in which we consider morality-as-morality and talk about moral questions directly. As opposed to wearing our reduction-goggles, in which we talk about cognitive algorithms and mere physics. Rigorously distinguishing between these two views is the first step toward mating them together.

As a first step, I offer this observation, on the level of morality-as-morality: Rightness is contagious backward in time.

Suppose there is a switch, currently set to OFF, and it is morally desirable for this switch to be flipped to ON. Perhaps the switch controls the emergency halt on a train bearing down on a child strapped to the railroad tracks, this being my canonical example. If this is the case, then, ceteris paribus and presuming the absence of exceptional conditions or further consequences that were not explicitly specified, we may consider it right that this switch should be flipped.

If it is right to flip the switch, then it is right to pull a string that flips the switch. If it is good to pull a string that flips the switch, it is right and proper to press a button that pulls the string: Pushing the button seems to have more should-ness than not pushing it.

It seems that—all else being equal, and assuming no other consequences or exceptional conditions which were not specified—value flows backward along arrows of causality.

Even in deontological moralities, if you’re obligated to save the child on the tracks, then you’re obligated to press the button. Only very primitive AI systems have motor outputs controlled by strictly local rules that don’t model the future at all. Duty-based or virtue-based ethics are only slightly less consequentialist than consequentialism. It’s hard to say whether moving your arm left or right is more virtuous without talking about what happens next.

Among my readers, there may be some who presently assert—though I hope to persuade them otherwise—that the life of a child is of no value to them. If so, they may substitute anything else that they prefer, at the end of the switch, and ask if they should press the button.

But I also suspect that, among my readers, there are some who wonder if the true morality might be something quite different from what is presently believed among the human kind. They may find it imaginable—plausible?—that human life is of no value, or negative value. They may wonder if the goodness of human happiness, is as much a self-serving delusion as the justice of slavery.

I myself was once numbered among these skeptics, because I was always very suspicious of anything that looked self-serving.

Now here’s a little question I never thought to ask, during those years when I thought I knew nothing about morality:

Could make sense to have a morality in which, if we should save the child from the train tracks, then we should not flip the switch, should pull the string, and should not push the button, so that, finally, we do not push the button?

Or perhaps someone says that it is better to save the child, than to not save them; but doesn’t see why anyone would think this implies it is better to press the button than not press it. (Note the resemblance to the Tortoise who denies modus ponens.)

It seems imaginable, to at least some people, that entirely different things could be should. It didn’t seem nearly so imaginable, at least to me, that should-ness could fail to flow backward in time. When I was trying to question everything else, that thought simply did not occur to me.

Can you question it? Should you?

Every now and then, in the course of human existence, we question what should be done and what is right to do, what is better or worse; others come to us with assertions along these lines, and we question them, asking “Why is it right?” Even when we believe a thing is right (because someone told us that it is, or because we wordlessly feel that it is) we may still question why it is right.

Should-ness, it seems, flows backward in time. This gives us one way to question why or whether a particular event has the should-ness property. We can look for some consequence that has the should-ness property. If so, the should-ness of the original event seems to have been plausibly proven or explained.

Ah, but what about the consequence—why is it should? Someone comes to you and says, “You should give me your wallet, because then I’ll have your money, and I should have your money.” If, at this point, you stop asking questions about should-ness, you’re vulnerable to a moral mugging.

So we keep asking the next question. Why should we press the button? To pull the string. Why should we pull the string? To flip the switch. Why should we flip the switch? To pull the child from the railroad tracks. Why pull the child from the railroad tracks? So that they live. Why should the child live?

Now there are people who, caught up in the enthusiasm, go ahead and answer that question in the same style: for example, “Because the child might eventually grow up and become a trade partner with you,” or “Because you will gain honor in the eyes of others,” or “Because the child may become a great scientist and help achieve the Singularity,” or some such. But even if we were to answer in this style, it would only beg the next question.

Even if you try to have a chain of should stretching into the infinite future—a trick I’ve yet to see anyone try to pull, by the way, though I may be only ignorant of the breadths of human folly—then you would simply ask “Why that chain rather than some other?”

Another way that something can be should, is if there’s a general rule that makes it should. If your belief pool starts out with the general rule “All children X: It is better for X to live than to die”, then it is quite a short step to “It is better for Stephanie to live than to die”. Ah, but why save all children? Because they may all become trade partners or scientists? But then where did that general rule come from?

If should-ness only comes from should-ness—from a should-consequence, or from a should-universal—then how does anything end up should in the first place?

Now human beings have argued these issues for thousands of years and maybe much longer. We do not hesitate to continue arguing when we reach a terminal value (something that has a charge of should-ness independently of its consequences). We just go on arguing about the universals.

I usually take, as my archetypal example, the undoing of slavery: Somehow, slaves’ lives went from having no value to having value. Nor do I think that, back at the dawn of time, anyone was even trying to argue that slaves were better off being slaves (as it would be latter argued). They’d probably have looked at you like you were crazy if you even tried. Somehow, we got from there, to here...

And some of us would even hold this up as a case of moral progress, and look at our ancestors as having made a moral error. Which seems easy enough to describe in terms of should-ness: Our ancestors thought that they should enslave defeated enemies, but they were mistaken.

But all our philosophical arguments ultimately seem to ground in statements that no one has bothered to justify—except perhaps to plead that they are self-evident, or that any reasonable mind must surely agree, or that they are a priori truths, or some such. Perhaps, then, all our moral beliefs are as erroneous as that old bit about slavery? Perhaps we have entirely misperceived the flowing streams of should?

So I once believed was plausible; and one of the arguments I wish I could go back and say to myself, is, “If you know nothing at all about should-ness, then how do you know that the procedure, ‘Do whatever Emperor Ming says’ is not the entirety of should-ness? Or even worse, perhaps, the procedure, ‘Do whatever maximizes inclusive genetic fitness’ or ‘Do whatever makes you personally happy’.” The point here would have been to make my past self see that in rejecting these rules, he was asserting a kind of knowledge—that to say, “This is not morality,” he must reveal that, despite himself, he knows something about morality or meta-morality. Otherwise, the procedure “Do whatever Emperor Ming says” would seem just as plausible, as a guiding principle, as his current path of “Rejecting things that seem unjustified.” Unjustified—according to what criterion of justification? Why trust the principle that says that moral statements need to be justified, if you know nothing at all about morality?

What indeed would distinguish, at all, the question “What is right?” from “What is wrong?”

What is “right”, if you can’t say “good” or “desirable” or “better” or “preferable” or “moral” or “should”? What happens if you try to carry out the operation of replacing the symbol with what it stands for?

If you’re guessing that I’m trying to inveigle you into letting me say: “Well, there are just some things that are baked into the question, when you start asking questions about morality, rather than wakalixes or toaster ovens”, then you would be right. I’ll be making use of that later, and, yes, will address “But why should we ask that question?”

Okay, now: morality-goggles off, reduction-goggles on.

Those who remember Possibility and Could-ness, or those familiar with simple search techniques in AI, will realize that the “should” label is behaving like the inverse of the “could” label, which we previously analyzed in terms of “reachability”. Reachability spreads forward in time: if I could reach the state with the button pressed, I could reach the state with the string pulled; if I could reach the state with the string pulled, I could reach the state with the switch flipped.

Where the “could” label and the “should” label collide, the algorithm produces a plan.

Now, as I say this, I suspect that at least some readers may find themselves fearing that I am about to reduce should-ness to a mere artifact of a way that a planning system feels from inside. Once again I urge you to check Changing Your Metaethics, if this starts to happen. Remember above all the Moral Void: Even if there were no morality, you could still choose to help people rather than hurt them. This, above all, holds in place what you hold precious, while your beliefs about the nature of morality change.

I do not intend, with this post, to take away anything of value; it will all be given back before the end.

Now this algorithm is not very sophisticated, as AI algorithms go, but to apply it in full generality—to learned information, not just ancestrally encountered, genetically programmed situations—is a rare thing among animals. Put a food reward in a transparent box. Put the matching key, which looks unique and uniquely corresponds to that box, in another transparent box. Put the unique key to that box in another box. Do this with five boxes. Mix in another sequence of five boxes that doesn’t lead to a food reward. Then offer a choice of two keys, one of which starts the sequence of five boxes leading to food, one of which starts the sequence leading nowhere.

Chimpanzees can learn to do this, but so far as I know, no non-primate species can pull that trick.

And as smart as chimpanzees are, they are not quite as good as humans at inventing plans—plans such as, for example, planting in the spring to harvest in the fall.

So what else are humans doing, in the way of planning?

It is a general observation that natural selection seems to reuse existing complexity, rather than creating things from scratch, whenever it possibly can—though not always in the same way that a human engineer would. It is a function of the enormous time required for evolution to create machines with many interdependent parts, and the vastly shorter time required to create a mutated copy of something already evolved.

What else are humans doing? Quite a bit, and some of it I don’t understand—there are plans humans make, that no modern-day AI can.

But one of the things we are doing, is reasoning about “right-ness” the same way we would reason about any other observable property.

Are animals with bright colors often poisonous? Does the delicious nid-nut grow only in the spring? Is it usually a good idea to take with a waterskin on long hunts?

It seems that Martha and Fred have an obligation to take care of their child, and Jane and Bob are obligated to take care of their child, and Susan and Wilson have a duty to care for their child. Could it be that parents in general must take care of their children?

By representing right-ness as an attribute of objects, you can recruit a whole previously evolved system that reasons about the attributes of objects. You can save quite a lot of planning time, if you decide (based on experience) that in general it is a good idea to take a waterskin on hunts, from which it follows that it must be a good idea to take a waterskin on hunt #342.

Is this damnable for a Mind Projection Fallacy—treating properties of the mind as if they were out there in the world?

Depends on how you look at it.

This business of, “It’s been a good idea to take waterskins on the last three hunts, maybe it’s a good idea in general, if so it’s a good idea to take a waterskin on this hunt”, does seem to work.

Let’s say that your mind, faced with any countable set of objects, automatically and perceptually tagged them with their remainder modulo 5. If you saw a group of 17 objects, for example, they would look remainder-2-ish. Though, if you didn’t have any notion of what your neurons were doing, and perhaps no notion of modulo arithmetic, you would only see that the group of 17 objects had the same remainder-ness as a group of 2 objects. You might not even know how to count—your brain doing the whole thing automatically, subconsciously and neurally—in which case you would just have five different words for the remainder-ness attributes that we would call 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4.

If you look out upon the world you see, and guess that remainder-ness is a separate and additional attribute of things—like the attribute of having an electric charge—or like a tiny little XML tag hanging off of things—then you will be wrong. But this does not mean it is nonsense to talk about remainder-ness, or that you must automatically commit the Mind Projection Fallacy in doing so. So long as you’ve got a well-defined way to compute a property, it can have a well-defined output and hence an empirical truth condition.

If you’re looking at 17 objects, then their remainder-ness is, indeed and truly, 2, and not 0, 3, 4, or 1. If I tell you, “Those red things you told me to look at are remainder-2-ish”, you have indeed been told a falsifiable and empirical property of those red things. It is just not a separate, additional, physically existent attribute.

And as for reasoning about derived properties, and which other inherent or derived properties they correlate to—I don’t see anything inherently fallacious about that.

One may notice, for example, that things which are 7 modulo 10 are often also 2 modulo 5. Empirical observations of this sort play a large role in mathematics, suggesting theorems to prove. (See Polya’s How To Solve It.)

Indeed, virtually all the experience we have, is derived by complicated neural computations from the raw physical events impinging on our sense organs. By the time you see anything, it has been extensively processed by the retina, lateral geniculate nucleus, visual cortex, parietal cortex, and temporal cortex, into a very complex sort of derived computational property.

If you thought of a property like redness as residing strictly in an apple, you would be committing the Mind Projection Fallacy. The apple’s surface has a reflectance which sends out a mixture of wavelengths that impinge on your retina and are processed with respect to ambient light to extract a summary color of red… But if you tell me that the apple is red, rather than green, and make no claims as to whether this is an ontologically fundamental physical attribute of the apple, then I am quite happy to agree with you.

So as long as there is a stable computation involved, or a stable process—even if you can’t consciously verbalize the specification—it often makes a great deal of sense to talk about properties that are not fundamental. And reason about them, and remember where they have been found in the past, and guess where they will be found next.

(In retrospect, that should have been a separate post in the Reductionism sequence. “Derived Properties”, or “Computational Properties” maybe. Oh, well; I promised you morality this day, and this day morality you shall have.)

Now let’s say we want to make a little machine, one that will save the lives of children. (This enables us to save more children than we could do without a machine, just like you can move more dirt with a shovel than by hand.) The machine will be a planning machine, and it will reason about events that may or may not have the property, leads-to-child-living.

A simple planning machine would just have a pre-made model of the environmental process. It would search forward from its actions, applying a label that we might call “reachable-from-action-ness”, but which might as well say “Xybliz” internally for all that it matters to the program. And it would search backward from scenarios, situations, in which the child lived, labeling these “leads-to-child-living”. If situation X leads to situation Y, and Y has the label “leads-to-child-living”—which might just be a little flag bit, for all the difference it would make—then X will inherit the flag from Y. When the two labels meet in the middle, the leads-to-child-living flag will quickly trace down the stored path of reachability, until finally some particular sequence of actions ends up labeled “leads-to-child-living”. Then the machine automatically executes those actions—that’s just what the machine does.

Now this machine is not complicated enough to feel existential angst. It is not complicated enough to commit the Mind Projection Fallacy. It is not, in fact, complicated enough to reason abstractly about the property “leads-to-child-living-ness”. The machine—as specified so far—does not notice if the action “jump in the air” turns out to always have this property, or never have this property. If “jump in the air” always led to situations in which the child lived, this could greatly simplify future planning—but only if the machine were sophisticated enough to notice this fact and use it.

If it is a fact that “jump in the air” “leads-to-child-living-ness”, this fact is composed of empirical truth and logical truth. It is an empirical truth that if the world is such that if you perform the (ideal abstract) algorithm “trace back from situations where the child lives”, then it will be a logical truth about the output of this (ideal abstract) algorithm that it labels the “jump in the air” action.

(You cannot always define this fact in entirely empirical terms, by looking for the physical real-world coincidence of jumping and child survival. It might be that “stomp left” also always saves the child, and the machine in fact stomps left. In which case the fact that jumping in the air would have saved the child, is a counterfactual extrapolation.)

Okay, now we’re ready to bridge the levels.

As you must surely have guessed by now, this should-ness stuff is how the human decision algorithm feels from inside. It is not an extra, physical, ontologically fundamental attribute hanging off of events like a tiny little XML tag.

But it is a moral question what we should do about that—how we should react to it.

To adopt an attitude of complete nihilism, because we wanted those tiny little XML tags, and they’re not physically there, strikes me as the wrong move. It is like supposing that the absence of an XML tag, equates to the XML tag being there, saying in its tiny brackets what value we should attach, and having value zero. And then this value zero, in turn, equating to a moral imperative to wear black, feel awful, write gloomy poetry, betray friends, and commit suicide.


So what would I say instead?

The force behind my answer is contained in The Moral Void and The Gift We Give To Tomorrow. I would try to save lives “even if there were no morality”, as it were.

And it seems like an awful shame to—after so many millions and hundreds of millions of years of evolution—after the moral miracle of so much cutthroat genetic competition producing intelligent minds that love, and hope, and appreciate beauty, and create beauty—after coming so far, to throw away the Gift of morality, just because our brain happened to represent morality in such fashion as to potentially mislead us when we reflect on the nature of morality.

This little accident of the Gift doesn’t seem like a good reason to throw away the Gift; it certainly isn’t a inescapable logical justification for wearing black.

Why not keep the Gift, but adjust the way we reflect on it?

So here’s my metaethics:

I earlier asked,

What is “right”, if you can’t say “good” or “desirable” or “better” or “preferable” or “moral” or “should”? What happens if you try to carry out the operation of replacing the symbol with what it stands for?

I answer that if you try to replace the symbol “should” with what it stands for, you end up with quite a large sentence.

For the much simpler save-life machine, the “should” label stands for leads-to-child-living-ness.

For a human this is a much huger blob of a computation that looks like, “Did everyone survive? How many people are happy? Are people in control of their own lives? …” Humans have complex emotions, have many values—the thousand shards of desire, the godshatter of natural selection. I would say, by the way, that the huge blob of a computation is not just my present terminal values (which I don’t really have—I am not a consistent expected utility maximizers); the huge blob of a computation includes the specification of those moral arguments, those justifications, that would sway me if I heard them. So that I can regard my present values, as an approximation to the ideal morality that I would have if I heard all the arguments, to whatever extent such an extrapolation is coherent.

No one can write down their big computation; it is not just too large, it is also unknown to its user. No more could you print out a listing of the neurons in your brain. You never mention your big computation—you only use it, every hour of every day.

Now why might one identify this enormous abstract computation, with what-is-right?

If you identify rightness with this huge computational property, then moral judgments are subjunctively objective (like math), subjectively objective (like probability), and capable of being true (like counterfactuals).

You will find yourself saying, “If I wanted to kill someone—even if I thought it was right to kill someone—that wouldn’t make it right.” Why? Because what is right is a huge computational property—an abstract computation—not tied to the state of anyone’s brain, including your own brain.

This distinction was introduced earlier in 2-Place and 1-Place Words. We can treat the word “sexy” as a 2-place function that goes out and hoovers up someone’s sense of sexiness, and then eats an object of admiration. Or we can treat the word “sexy” as meaning a 1-place function, a particular sense of sexiness, like Sexiness_20934, that only accepts one argument, an object of admiration.

Here we are treating morality as a 1-place function. It does not accept a person as an argument, spit out whatever cognitive algorithm they use to choose between actions, and then apply that algorithm to the situation at hand. When I say right, I mean a certain particular 1-place function that just asks, “Did the child live? Did anyone else get killed? Are people happy? Are they in control of their own lives? Has justice been served?” … and so on through many, many other elements of rightness. (And perhaps those arguments that might persuade me otherwise, which I have not heard.)

Hence the notion, “Replace the symbol with what it stands for.”

Since what’s right is a 1-place function, if I subjunctively imagine a world in which someone has slipped me a pill that makes me want to kill people, then, in this subjunctive world, it is not right to kill people. That’s not merely because I’m judging with my current brain. It’s because when I say right, I am referring to a 1-place function. Rightness doesn’t go out and hoover up the current state of my brain, in this subjunctive world, before producing the judgment “Oh, wait, it’s now okay to kill people.” When I say right, I don’t mean “that which my future self wants”, I mean the function that looks at a situation and asks, “Did anyone get killed? Are people happy? Are they in control of their own lives? …”

And once you’ve defined a particular abstract computation that says what is right—or even if you haven’t defined it, and it’s computed in some part of your brain you can’t perfectly print out, but the computation is stable—more or less—then as with any other derived property, it makes sense to speak of a moral judgment being true. If I say that today was a good day, you’ve learned something empirical and falsifiable about my day—if it turns out that actually my grandmother died, you will suspect that I was originally lying.

The apparent objectivity of morality has just been explained—and not explained away. For indeed, if someone slipped me a pill that made me want to kill people, nonetheless, it would not be right to kill people. Perhaps I would actually kill people, in that situation—but that is because something other than morality would be controlling my actions.

Morality is not just subjunctively objective, but subjectively objective. I experience it as something I cannot change. Even after I know that it’s myself who computes this 1-place function, and not a rock somewhere—even after I know that I will not find any star or mountain that computes this function, that only upon me is it written—even so, I find that I wish to save lives, and that even if I could change this by an act of will, I would not choose to do so. I do not wish to reject joy, or beauty, or freedom. What else would I do instead? I do not wish to reject the Gift that natural selection accidentally barfed into me. This is the principle of The Moral Void and The Gift We Give To Tomorrow.

Our origins may seem unattractive, our brains untrustworthy.

But love has to enter the universe somehow, starting from non-love, or love cannot enter time.

And if our brains are untrustworthy, it is only our own brains that say so. Do you sometimes think that human beings are not very nice? Then it is you, a human being, who says so. It is you, a human being, who judges that human beings could do better. You will not find such written upon the stars or the mountains: they are not minds, they cannot think.

In this, of course, we find a justificational strange loop through the meta-level. Which is unavoidable so far as I can see—you can’t argue morality, or any kind of goal optimization, into a rock. But note the exact structure of this strange loop: there is no general moral principle which says that you should do what evolution programmed you to do. There is, indeed, no general principle to trust your moral intuitions! You can find a moral intuition within yourself, describe it—quote it—consider it deliberately and in the full light of your entire morality, and reject it, on grounds of other arguments. What counts as an argument is also built into the rightness-function.

Just as, in the strange loop of rationality, there is no general principle in rationality to trust your brain, or to believe what evolution programmed you to believe—but indeed, when you ask which parts of your brain you need to rebel against, you do so using your current brain. When you ask whether the universe is simple, you can consider the simple hypothesis that the universe’s apparent simplicity is explained by its actual simplicity.

Rather than trying to unwind ourselves into rocks, I proposed that we should use the full strength of our current rationality, in reflecting upon ourselves—that no part of ourselves be immune from examination, and that we use all of ourselves that we currently believe in to examine it.

You would do the same thing with morality; if you consider that a part of yourself might be considered harmful, then use your best current guess at what is right, your full moral strength, to do the considering. Why should we want to unwind ourselves to a rock? Why should we do less than our best, when reflecting? You can’t unwind past Occam’s Razor, modus ponens, or morality and it’s not clear why you should try.

For any part of rightness, you can always imagine another part that overrides it—it would not be right to drag the child from the train tracks, if this resulted in everyone on Earth becoming unable to love—or so I would judge. For every part of rightness you examine, you will find that it cannot be the sole and perfect and only criterion of rightness. This may lead to the incorrect inference that there is something beyond, some perfect and only criterion from which all the others are derived—but that does not follow. The whole is the sum of the parts. We ran into an analogous situation with free will, where no part of ourselves seems perfectly decisive.

The classic dilemma for those who would trust their moral intuitions, I believe, is the one who says: “Interracial marriage is repugnant—it disgusts me—and that is my moral intuition!” I reply, “There is no general rule to obey your intuitions. You just mentioned intuitions, rather than using them. Very few people have legitimate cause to mention intuitions—Friendly AI programmers, for example, delving into the cognitive science of things, have a legitimate reason to mention them. Everyone else just has ordinary moral arguments, in which they use their intuitions, for example, by saying, ‘An interracial marriage doesn’t hurt anyone, if both parties consent’. I do not say, ‘And I have an intuition that anything consenting adults do is right, and all intuitions must be obeyed, therefore I win.’ I just offer up that argument, and any others I can think of, to weigh in the balance.”

Indeed, evolution that made us cannot be trusted—so there is no general principle to trust it! Rightness is not defined in terms of automatic correspondence to any possible decision we actually make—so there’s no general principle that says you’re infallible! Just do what is, ahem, right—to the best of your ability to weigh the arguments you have heard, and ponder the arguments you may not have heard.

If you were hoping to have a perfectly trustworthy system, or to have been created in correspondence with a perfectly trustworthy morality—well, I can’t give that back to you; but even most religions don’t try that one. Even most religions have the human psychology containing elements of sin, and even most religions don’t actually give you an effectively executable and perfect procedure, though they may tell you “Consult the Bible! It always works!”

If you hoped to find a source of morality outside humanity—well, I can’t give that back, but I can ask once again: Why would you even want that? And what good would it do? Even if there were some great light in the sky—something that could tell us, “Sorry, happiness is bad for you, pain is better, now get out there and kill some babies!”—it would still be your own decision to follow it. You cannot evade responsibility.

There isn’t enough mystery left to justify reasonable doubt as to whether the causal origin of morality is something outside humanity. We have evolutionary psychology. We know where morality came from. We pretty much know how it works, in broad outline at least. We know there are no little XML value tags on electrons (and indeed, even if you found them, why should you pay attention to what is written there?)

If you hoped that morality would be universalizable—sorry, that one I really can’t give back. Well, unless we’re just talking about humans. Between neurologically intact humans, there is indeed much cause to hope for overlap and coherence; and a great and reasonable doubt as to whether any present disagreement is really unresolvable, even it seems to be about “values”. The obvious reason for hope is the psychological unity of humankind, and the intuitions of symmetry, universalizability, and simplicity that we execute in the course of our moral arguments. (In retrospect, I should have done a post on Interpersonal Morality before this...)

If I tell you that three people have found a pie and are arguing about how to divide it up, the thought “Give one-third of the pie to each” is bound to occur to you—and if the three people are humans, it’s bound to occur to them, too. If one of them is a psychopath and insists on getting the whole pie, though, there may be nothing for it but to say: “Sorry, fairness is not ‘what everyone thinks is fair’, fairness is everyone getting a third of the pie”. You might be able to resolve the remaining disagreement by politics and game theory, short of violence—but that is not the same as coming to agreement on values. (Maybe you could persuade the psychopath that taking a pill to be more human, if one were available, would make them happier? Would you be justified in forcing them to swallow the pill? These get us into stranger waters that deserve a separate post.)

If I define rightness to include the space of arguments that move me, then when you and I argue about what is right, we are arguing our approximations to what we would come to believe if we knew all empirical facts and had a million years to think about it—and that might be a lot closer than the present and heated argument. Or it might not. This gets into the notion of ‘construing an extrapolated volition’ which would be, again, a separate post.

But if you were stepping outside the human and hoping for moral arguments that would persuade any possible mind, even a mind that just wanted to maximize the number of paperclips in the universe, then sorry—the space of possible mind designs is too large to permit universally compelling arguments. You are better off treating your intuition that your moral arguments ought to persuade others, as applying only to other humans who are more or less neurologically intact. Trying it on human psychopaths would be dangerous, yet perhaps possible. But a paperclip maximizer is just not the sort of mind that would be moved by a moral argument. (This will definitely be a separate post.)

Once, in my wild and reckless youth, I tried dutifully—I thought it was my duty—to be ready and willing to follow the dictates of a great light in the sky, an external objective morality, when I discovered it. I questioned everything, even altruism toward human lives, even the value of happiness. Finally I realized that there was no foundation but humanity—no evidence pointing to even a reasonable doubt that there was anything else—and indeed I shouldn’t even want to hope for anything else—and indeed would have no moral cause to follow the dictates of a light in the sky, even if I found one.

I didn’t get back immediately all the pieces of myself that I had tried to deprecate—it took time for the realization “There is nothing else” to sink in. The notion that humanity could just… you know… live and have fun… seemed much too good to be true, so I mistrusted it. But eventually, it sank in that there really was nothing else to take the place of beauty. And then I got it back.

So you see, it all really does add up to moral normality, very exactly in fact. You go on with the same morals as before, and the same moral arguments as before. There is no sudden Grand Overlord Procedure to which you can appeal to get a perfectly trustworthy answer. You don’t know, cannot print out, the great rightness-function; and even if you could, you would not have enough computational power to search the entire specified space of arguments that might move you. You will just have to argue it out.

I suspect that a fair number of those who propound metaethics do so in order to have it add up to some new and unusual moral—else why would they bother? In my case, I bother because I am a Friendly AI programmer and I have to make a physical system outside myself do what’s right; for which purpose metaethics becomes very important indeed. But for the most part, the effect of my proffered metaethic is threefold:

  • Anyone worried that reductionism drains the meaning from existence can stop worrying;

  • Anyone who was rejecting parts of their human existence based on strange metaethics—i.e., “Why should I care about others, if that doesn’t help me maximize my inclusive genetic fitness?”—can welcome back all the parts of themselves that they once exiled.

  • You can stop arguing about metaethics, and go back to whatever ordinary moral argument you were having before then. This knowledge will help you avoid metaethical mistakes that mess up moral arguments, but you can’t actually use it to settle debates unless you can build a Friendly AI.

And, oh yes—why is it right to save a child’s life?

Well… you could ask “Is this event that just happened, right?” and find that the child had survived, in which case you would have discovered the nonobvious empirical fact about the world, that it had come out right.

Or you could start out already knowing a complicated state of the world, but still have to apply the rightness-function to it in a nontrivial way—one involving a complicated moral argument, or extrapolating consequences into the future—in which case you would learn the nonobvious logical /​ computational fact that rightness, applied to this situation, yielded thumbs-up.

In both these cases, there are nonobvious facts to learn, which seem to explain why what just happened is right.

But if you ask “Why is it good to be happy?” and then replace the symbol ‘good’ with what it stands for, you’ll end up with a question like “Why does happiness match {happiness + survival + justice + individuality + …}?” This gets computed so fast, that it scarcely seems like there’s anything there to be explained. It’s like asking “Why does 4 = 4?” instead of “Why does 2 + 2 = 4?”

Now, I bet that feels quite a bit like what happens when I ask you: “Why is happiness good?”


And that’s also my answer to Moore’s Open Question. Why is this big function I’m talking about, right? Because when I say “that big function”, and you say “right”, we are dereferencing two different pointers to the same unverbalizable abstract computation. I mean, that big function I’m talking about, happens to be the same thing that labels things right in your own brain. You might reflect on the pieces of the quotation of the big function, but you would start out by using your sense of right-ness to do it. If you had the perfect empirical knowledge to taboo both “that big function” and “right”, substitute what the pointers stood for, and write out the full enormity of the resulting sentence, it would come out as… sorry, I can’t resist this one… A=A.

Part of The Metaethics Sequence

Next post: “Interpersonal Morality

Previous post: “Setting Up Metaethics