“Go west, young man!”—Preferences in (imperfect) maps

Many peo­ple are very na­tion­al­is­tic, putting their coun­try above all oth­ers. Such peo­ple can be hazy about what “above all oth­ers” can mean, out­side of a few clear ex­am­ples—eg win­ning a to­tal war to­tally. They’re also very hazy on what is meant by “their coun­try”—ge­og­ra­phy is cer­tainly in­volved, as is pro­claimed or le­gal na­tion­al­ity, maybe some eth­nic groups or a lan­guage, or even just giv­ing defer­ence to cer­tain ideals.

Con­sider the plight of a com­mu­nist Croa­t­ian Yu­goslav na­tion­al­ist dur­ing the 1990s...

I’d ar­gue that the situ­a­tion these na­tion­al­ists find them­selves in—strong views on poorly defined con­cepts—is the gen­eral hu­man state for prefer­ences. Or, to use an ap­pro­pri­ate map and ter­ri­tory anal­ogy:

  • Most peo­ple forge their prefer­ences by ex­plor­ing their lo­cal ter­ri­tory, cre­at­ing a men­tal map of this, and tak­ing strong prefer­ences over the con­cepts within their men­tal map. When the map starts to be­come im­perfect, they will try to ex­tend the con­cepts to new ar­eas, so that their prefer­ences can also be ex­tended.

Some of the de­bates about the mean­ing of words are about this ex­ten­sion-of-prefer­ences pro­cess. Scott Alexan­der recom­mends that we dis­solve con­cepts such as dis­ease, look­ing for the rele­vant cat­e­gories of ‘de­serves sym­pa­thy’ and ‘ac­cept­able to treat in a med­i­cal way’.

And that dis­solv­ing is in­deed the cor­rect thing for ra­tio­nal­ists to do. But, for most peo­ple, in­clud­ing most ra­tio­nal­ists, ‘sick peo­ple de­serve sym­pa­thy’ is a start­ing moral prin­ci­ple, one we’ve learnt by ex­am­ple and ex­pe­rience in child­hood. When we ask ‘do obese peo­ple de­serve sym­pa­thy?’ we’ve try­ing to ex­tend that moral prin­ci­ple to a situ­a­tion where our map/​model (which in­cludes, say, three cat­e­gories of peo­ple: healthy, mildly sick, very sick) no longer matches up with re­al­ity.

Scott’s dis­solv­ing pro­cess re­quires de­com­pos­ing ‘dis­ease’ into more nodes, and then ap­ply­ing moral prin­ci­ples to those in­di­vi­d­ual nodes. In this case, a com­pel­ling con­se­quen­tial­ist anal­y­sis is to look at whether con­dem­na­tion or praise is effec­tive at chang­ing the con­di­tion; ie does fat-sham­ing peo­ple make them less likely to be fat, or oth­ers less likely to be­come fat in the first place? Here the moral prin­ci­ple in­volved is some­thing like “it’s wrong to harm some­one (eg through sham­ing them) if there is no benefit to them or oth­ers from do­ing so”.

And that’s a com­pel­ling moral prin­ci­ple, but it’s not the same one that we started with. Some peo­ple will have a strong “no harm” in­tu­ition, of which “sick peo­ple de­serve sym­pa­thy” is merely an illus­tra­tive ex­am­ple. But many (most?) will have been taught that sick peo­ple de­serve sym­pa­thy, as a spe­cific moral re­quire­ment they should fol­low. When we dis­solve the defi­ni­tion of dis­ease, we lose a part of of our moral prefer­ences.

And yes, hu­man val­ues are such a mess that we could do with los­ing or sim­plify­ing a bunch of them. But hu­man val­ues are gen­uinely com­pli­cated, and we don’t want to over-sim­plify them. So it’s im­por­tant to note that the “dis­solv­ing” pro­cess also gen­er­ally in­volves dis­card­ing a por­tion of our val­ues, those that don’t fit neatly on the new map we have. It’s im­por­tant to de­cide when we’re will­ing to pay that price, and when we’re not.

Rev­ers­ing the pur­pose of maps

We gen­er­ally see maps as work­ing the other way round: as tools to that serve the pur­poses of our “real” goals. Eliezer writes about how, if defi­ni­tions didn’t stand for some query, some­thing rele­vant to our “real” prefer­ences, we’d have no rea­son to care about them.

But if, as I’ve ar­gued, most of our prefer­ences live in our men­tal maps, then chang­ing defi­ni­tions or im­prov­ing maps can tear up our prefer­ences and val­ues—or at least force us to re-as­sess them.

Defend­ing “pu­rity”

This is why I spend so much time think­ing about “con­ser­va­tive” val­ues, es­pe­cially those around the moral foun­da­tion of pu­rity. I mainly don’t share that moral foun­da­tion, so it’s clear to me how in­co­her­ent it is. It’s painful to listen to some­one who has that moral foun­da­tion, twist and turn and try to jus­tify it based on more con­se­quen­tial­ist rea­son­ing. Yes, rit­u­als can bind a com­mu­nity to­gether; but are you re­ally tel­ling me that if, say, TV shows or face­book games were shown to do a bet­ter bind­ing job, you’d cheer­fully dis­card those rit­u­als?

But I strongly sus­pect that, ul­ti­mately, the moral foun­da­tions I do care about, such as care/​harm, as also in­co­her­ent when we push too far into un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. So I want to forge some­thing co­her­ent out of pu­rity, as prac­tice for forg­ing some­thing co­her­ent out of all our val­ues.

A metaphor­i­cal example

Your par­ent, on their deathbed, gives you your mis­sion in life: an old map, a com­pass, and the in­struc­tions “Go west, young man[1]!”

  1. The map is… in­com­plete:

  1. The com­pass is fine, but, as we know, its con­cept of west is not ex­actly the same as the stan­dard ge­o­graph­i­cal one.

  2. In the era and place that your hy­po­thet­i­cal par­ent was from, the con­no­ta­tions of “go­ing west” in­volve ad­ven­ture and po­ten­tial rich­ness.

  3. And, most im­por­tantly, nei­ther of you have yet re­al­ised that the world is round.

So, for a short while, “go­ing west” seems like a clear, well-defined goal. But as we get to the edge of the map, both liter­ally and metaphor­i­cally, the con­cept starts to lose defi­ni­tion and be­come far more un­cer­tain; and hence, so does your goal.

What will you do with your goal when your men­tal maps are forced to change?


  1. Don’t worry if you’re not ac­tu­ally a young man; their mind was start­ing to go, to­wards the end. ↩︎