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Alejandro1 comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2012) - Less Wrong

25 Post author: orthonormal 26 December 2011 10:57PM

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Comment author: Alejandro1 01 January 2012 09:48:50PM 21 points [-]

Several people have alreadt given good answers to your position on infanticide, but they haven't mentioned what is in my opinion the crucial concept involved here: Schelling points.

We are all agreed that is is wrong to kill people (meaning, fully conscious and intelligent beings). We agree that adult humans beings are people (perhaps excluding those in irreversible coma). The law needs to draw a bright line separating those beings which are people, and hence cannot be killed, from those who are not. Given the importance of the "non-killing" rule to a functioning society. this line needs to be clear and intuitive to all. Any line based on some level of brain development does not satisfy this criterion.

There are only two Schelling points, that is obvious, intuitive places to draw the line: conception and birth. Many people support the first one, and the strongest argument for the anti-abortion position is that conception is in fact in many ways a better Schelling point than birth, since being born does not affect the intrinsic nature of the infant. However, among people without a metaphysical commitment to fetus personhood, most agree that the burdens that prohibition of abortion place on pregnant women are enough to outweigh these considerations, and make birth the chosen Schelling point.

There is no other Schelling point at a later date (your ten-month rule seems arbitrary to me), and a rule against baby infanticide does not place so strong burdens on mothers (giving for adoption is always an option). So there is no good reason to change the law in the direction you propose. Doing it would undermine the strengh of the universal agreement that "people cannot be killed", since the line separating people from non-people would be obscure and arbitrarily drawn.

Comment author: Bakkot 01 January 2012 10:06:02PM 10 points [-]

A good argument, but there's (at least) two little things I object to and a major flaw:

  • First:

This only holds in a society where people aren't sufficiently intelligent for "is obviously not a person" not to work as the criterion. We probably live in such a society, but I hope we don't forever.

  • Second:

Any line based on some level of brain development does not satisfy this criterion.

This was the reason age was chosen, rather than neurological development. Because I'm arguing only that parents should be able to kill their own children, I'm pretty sure this law wouldn't give rise to any confusion.

  • A final objection:

Your whole argument is significantly weakened by the fact that there are other extremely important rules which don't have obvious Schelling points, like "don't have sex with people who can't give informed consent". I don't think that drawing some reasonable line in the sand (say, age 17) has, as you say, undermined the strength of the universal agreement that "we shouldn't have sex with people who can't give informed consent", despite the line separating people able to give informed consent and people not able to give informed consent being absolutely obscure and arbitrarily drawn.

Comment author: Emile 02 January 2012 12:25:53AM 6 points [-]

But there is no universal agreement on the "age of informed consent", it varies from country to country! And yes, the fact that the limit is arbitrary does undermine its strength; there are often scenarios of "reasonable" sex (in that most people don't consider it as wrong) that would be consider statutory rape or whatnot if the law was taken at the letter.

(Also, heck, 10 months is a pretty crappy limit, why not 8 months five days and 42 minutes? 12 months would be much cleaner)

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 01:43:56AM 4 points [-]

But isn't birth - or first menstruation, or what have you - a much cleaner line? Shouldn't we be going by those, instead? No? Of course we shouldn't; sometimes the obvious choices for where to draw a line are so off from what would be reasonable that we're forced to be arbitrary.

Isn't 20 years a much cleaner line than 17, for age of consent and drinking age? Why not go with those? You have to pick something.

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 January 2012 12:53:26AM 5 points [-]

This only holds in a society where people aren't sufficiently intelligent for "is obviously not a person" not to work as the criterion. We probably live in such a society, but I hope we don't forever.

People disagree about obviousness of such things. For some people, a fetus is obviously a person too. For others, even a mentally deficient adult might not qualify as being obviously a person. Unlike you, I don't expect these disagreements to disappear anytime soon, and they are the reason that the law works better with bright Schelling point lines, if such exist.

This was the reason age was chosen, rather than neurological development.

Age is non-ambiguous, but not non-arbitrary.

Re your final objection, I agree that there are cases such as sexual consent where there are no clear Schelling points, and we need arbitrary lines. This does not mean that it is not best to use Schelling points whenever they exist. In the case of sexual consent, the arbitrariness of the line does have some unfortunate effects: for example, since the lines are drawn differently in different jurisdictions, people who move accross jurisdictions and are not epecially well informed might commit a felony without being aware. There are also problems with people not being aware of their partner's age, etc.

Such problems are not too big and in any case unavoidable, but consider the following counterfactual: if all teenagers underwent a significant and highly visible discrete biological event at exactly age 16, it would make sense (and be an improvement over current law) to have an universal law using this event as trigger for the age of consent, even if the event had no connection to sexual and mental development and these were continuous. The event would be a Schelling point, such as birth is for personhood.

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 02:08:03AM 9 points [-]

People disagree about obviousness of such things. For some people, a fetus is obviously a person too. For others, even a mentally deficient adult might not qualify as being obviously a person. Unlike you, I don't expect these disagreements to disappear anytime soon, and they are the reason that the law works better with bright Schelling point lines, if such exist.

I don't expect them to disappear any time soon, certainly. The point is taken, but I'm not entirely convinced that birth is sufficiently close to reasonable that we should use it.

As it happens, there is a discrete biological event that happens to women, which even pertains (in a way) to sex. Namely, first menstruation. It's not highly visible, but it's certainly a lot less arbitrary than just picking age 16, which how a lot of places do it. So why use age 16 instead of menstruation, at least for women? I'd argue that the reason is that this point is so far off from what's reasonable that we shouldn't be using it. (We could suppose, counterfactually, that menstruation happened to both men and women and was extremely visible for the rest of their lives, but still happened around age 12 or 13. This would still be an unreasonable point to use. This would also be unreasonable if it were too far in the other direction - age 22 or 23, say.)

And by a similar token, I'd argue that birth is so far off from what's reasonable for personhood that we shouldn't be using it either.

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 January 2012 02:50:38AM *  4 points [-]

This is a very good response, that allows us to make our disagreement more precise. I agree that choosing menstruation, or its hypothetical unisex counterpart, is unreasonable because it is too early. I disagree that birth is too early in the same way. Pretty much everyone in our society agrees that 12-year olds cannot meaningfully consent to sex (especially with adults), whereas many believe 6-month old children to be people -- in fact, many believe fetuses to be people! You might say that they are obviously wrong, but the "obviously" is suspicious when so many disagree with you, at the very least for Aumann reasons.

To put it in another way: What makes you so certain that birth is so far off from what is reasonable as a line for personhood, when you are willing to draw your line at 10 months? That is much closer to birth than 17 is to 12 years old.

Also, I think your analogy needs a bit of amending: the relevant question is, if there was a visible unisex menstruation happening at 17 years old, and an established tradition of taking that as the age of consent, why on earth would a society change the law to make it 16 years and 2 months instead?

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 03:00:34AM *  5 points [-]

You might say that they are obviously wrong, but the "obviously" is suspicious when so many disagree with you, at the very least for Aumann reasons.

While true, I suspect most or all of those people would have a hard time giving a good definition of "person" to an AI in such a way that the definition included babies, adults, and thinking aliens, but not pigs or bonobos. So yes, the claim I am implicitly making with this (or any other) controversial opinion is that I think almost everyone is wrong about this specific topic.

That is much closer to birth than 17 is to 12 years old

Only if you think development happens linearly. From my knowledge of biology - which is extremely suspect, so do correct me if I'm wrong - the changes between 0 months after birth and 10 months after birth are vastly larger than the changes between 12 years after birth and 17 years after birth.

if there was a visible unisex menstruation happening at 17 years old, and an established tradition of taking that as the age of consent, why on earth would a society change the law to make it 16 years and 2 months instead?

Of course our selection of analogies is reflective of our positions. From my point of view, the most relevant analogy would be a visible unisex menstruation happening at 30 years old*, and an established tradition of taking that as the age of consent, and I'm arguing that no, it should really be 16.

*(This is based on the assumption that you go through about as many developmental changes between ages 16 and 30 as you do between 0 months and 10 months, which - again from my extremely suspect recollection of biology - is roughly correct.)

(edit:formatting)

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 January 2012 03:35:35AM 6 points [-]

While true, I suspect most or all of those people would have a hard time giving a good definition of "person" to an AI in such a way that the definition included babies, adults, and thinking aliens, but not pigs or bonobos. So yes, the claim I am implicitly making with this (or any other) controversial opinion is that I think almost everyone is wrong about this specific topic.

One rough effort at such definition would be: "any post-birth member of a species whose adult members are intelligent and conscious", where "birth" can be replaced by an analogous Schelling point in the development in an alien species, or by an arbitrary chosen line at a similar stage of development, if no such Schelling point exists.

You might say that this definition is an arbtrary kludge that does not "carve Nature at the joints". My reply would be that ethics is adapted for humans, and does not need to carve Nature at intrinsic joints but at the places that humans find relevant.

Your point about different rates of development is well taken, however. I am also not an expert in this topic, so we'll have to let it rest for the moment.

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 03:46:55AM 2 points [-]

One rough effort at such definition would be: "any post-birth member of a species whose adult members are intelligent and conscious", where "birth" can be replaced by an analogous Schelling point in the development in an alien species, or by an arbitrary chosen line at a similar stage of development, if no such Schelling point exists.

Problem: There's no particular reason to expect speciation to be as widespread or as clear-cut as it is in the case of Earth and humans in particular. Certainly not for machine intelligences.

It might so happen that there could be software written for the computer I'm typing this on which could give it intelligence and consciousness. (Unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility.) Should this machine be considered a person?

The reason I'm being so nit-picky is that what I consider the natural definition (namely, "an agent capable of intelligence and consciousness", or something like that) doesn't have this problem at all. I think it's a problem your definition has only because you were forced to deviate from the natural definition to include something that doesn't really seem like it belongs in that group - namely, newborns.

Comment author: Alejandro1 02 January 2012 03:08:44PM 0 points [-]

For computers, hardware and software can be separated in a way that is not possible with humans (with current technology). When the separation is possible, I agree personhood should be attributed to the software rather than the hardware, so your machine should not be considered a person. If in the future it becomes routinely possible to scan, duplicate and emulate human minds, then killing a biological human will probably also be less of a crime than it is now, as long as his/her mind is preserved. (Maybe there would be a taboo instead about deleting minds with no backup, even when they are not "running" on hardware).

It is also possible than in such a future where the concept of a person is commonly associated with a mind pattern, legalizing infanticide before brain development seats in would be acceptable. So perhaps we are not in disagreement after all, since on a different subthread you have said you do not really support legalization of infanticide in our current society.

I still think there is a bit of a meta diagreement: you seem to think that the laws and morality of this hypothetical future society would be better than our current ones, while I see it as a change in what are the appropriate Schelling points for the law to rule, in response to technological changes, without the end point being more "correct" in any absolute sense than our current law.

Comment author: Multiheaded 02 January 2012 08:33:32AM -1 points [-]

Should this machine be considered a person?

Well, yes. This seems obvious to me.

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 06:49:05PM 2 points [-]

I think I must have been unclear - the machine I'm currently typing on should obviously be a person, just because it has the potential to become a person? That seems absurd to me.

Comment author: prase 02 January 2012 02:20:14PM 1 point [-]

Pretty much everyone in our society agrees that 12-year olds cannot meaningfully consent to sex (especially with adults)

As a data point for your statistics, I think that a 12-year old can meaningfully consent to sex. When it comes to issues of pregnancy and having children, the consequences are greater and I don't think such yound people can consent to this, but fortunately sex and children can be kept separate today with only weak side effects.

Comment author: Strange7 05 June 2012 02:05:07AM 0 points [-]

I think that a 12-year old from a society with sensible policies would be able to give meaningful consent, but for some reason an enormous amount of work has been put into keeping American 12-year olds dangerously ignorant. That needs to be fixed first.

Comment author: Oligopsony 02 January 2012 03:30:23AM *  8 points [-]

I do think there are some advantages to setting the cutoff point just slightly later than birth, even if by just a few hours:
*evaluations of whether a person should come into existence can rest on surer information when the infant is out of the womb
* non-maternal reproductive autonomy - under the current legal personhood cutoff, I can count this as an acceptable loss, as I consider maternal bodily autonomy and the interests of the child to be more important, but with infanticide all three can be reconciled
* psychologically, parents (especially fathers) might feel more buy-in to their status, even if almost none actually end up choosing otherwise, and if infant non-personhood catches on culturally infant deaths very close to births might cause less grief among parents

(All this assumes that late-term abortions are a morally acceptable choice to make in their own right, of course, rather than something which must be legally tolerated to preserve maternal bodily autonomy.)

Comment author: Strange7 05 June 2012 01:54:53AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps the detachment of the umbilical cord would be a suitably symbolic point?

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2012 01:44:07AM *  3 points [-]

Mild updating of my original position due to this conversation:

I still don't have many moral qualms about allowing parents to kill children, but realize that actually legalizing it in our current society would lead to some unintended consequences, due to considerations such as the Schelling point, and killing infants as a gateway to further sociopathic behaviours.

Part of my difficulty is that some humans, such as infants, have less blicket than animals. If its ok to kill animals, then there's no reason to say it's not ok to kill blicket-less humans. Then I realize that even though it's legal to kill animals, it's still something I can't do for anything except certain bugs. Even spiders I let be, or take outside.

So maybe a wiser way to reconcile these would be to say that since infants have less blicket than animals, and we don't kill infants, that we also shouldn't kill animals. It's what I live by anyway, and seems to cause less disturbance than saying that since infants have less blicket than animals and we kill animals, that it's ok to kill infants.

Comment author: Zetetic 02 January 2012 07:56:11AM 6 points [-]

If its ok to kill animals, then there's no reason to say it's not ok to kill blicket-less humans.

I just want to point out this alternative position: Healthy (mentally and otherwise) babies can gain sufficient mental acuity/self-awareness to outstrip animals in their normal trajectory - i.e. babies become people after a while.

Although I don't wholeheartedly agree with this position, it seems consistent. The stance that such a position would imply is that babies with severe medical conditions (debilitating birth defects, congenital diseases etc.) could be killed with parental consent, and fetuses likely to develop birth defects can be aborted, but healthy fetuses cannot be aborted, and healthy babies cannot be killed. I bring this up in particular because of your other post about the family with the severely disabled 6-year-old.

I think it becomes a little more complicated when we're talking about situations in which we have the ability to impart self-awareness that was previously not there. On the practical level I certainly wouldn't want to force a family to either face endless debt from an expensive procedure or a lifetime of grief from a child that can't function in day to day tasks. It also brings up the question of whether to make animals self-aware, which is... kind of interesting but probably starting to drift off topic.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 January 2012 01:59:35AM 8 points [-]

Part of my difficulty is that some humans, such as infants, have less blicket than animals. If its ok to kill animals, then there's no reason to say it's not ok to kill blicket-less humans. Then I realize that even though it's legal to kill animals, it's still something I can't do for anything except certain bugs. Even spiders I let be, or take outside.

Don't worry, there would probably be a baby killing service if it were legal. Just like we have other people to kill animals for us.

Comment author: FAWS 02 January 2012 02:04:16AM 2 points [-]

Are you aware that in many countries it's illegal to kill animals without good reason, and that wanting to get rid of a pet does not qualify?

Comment author: Bakkot 02 January 2012 02:31:44AM 1 point [-]

I still don't have many moral qualms about allowing parents to kill children, but realize that actually legalizing it in our current society would lead to some unintended consequences, due to considerations such as the Schelling point, and killing infants as a gateway to further sociopathic behaviours.

Yeah, that's roughly my stance also.

So maybe a wiser way to reconcile these would be to say that since infants have less blicket than animals, and we don't kill infants, that we also shouldn't kill animals.

I was really hoping someone would come to this conclusion :). I don't agree with it, but it does seem the obvious consistent alternative to my position. Unfortunately, at least if you want to understand your moral position so well that you could build an FAI, you're still not entirely out of the woods - you have to describe a criterion for "ok to destroy" vs "not okay to destroy", ideally one that generalizes to machines and aliens. And "has sufficient amount of blicket" is still probably the best you can do. Certainly it's the best I can do.