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Michael_Sullivan comments on Scope Insensitivity - Less Wrong

46 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 May 2007 02:53AM

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Comment author: Michael_Sullivan 14 May 2007 05:01:57PM 44 points [-]

I'm not sure I buy that this is completely about scope insensitivity rather than marginal utility and people thinking in terms of their fair share of a kantian solution. Or put differently, I think the scope insensitivity is partly inherent in the question, rather than a bias of the people answering.

Let's say I'd be willing to spend $100 to save 10 swans from gruesome deaths. How much should I, *personally*, be willing to spend to save 100 swans from the same fate? $1000? $10,000 for 1,000 swans? What about 100,000 swans -- $1,000,000?

But I don't *have* $1,000,000, so I can't agree to spend that much, even if I believe that it is somehow intrinsically worth that much. When I'm looking at what I personally spend, I'm comparing my ideas about the value of saving swans to the personal utility I give up by spending that money. $100 is a night out. $1000 is a piece of furniture or a small vacation. $10,000 is a car or a year's rent. $100,000 is a big chunk of my net worth and a sizable percentage of what I consider FU money. As I go up the scale my pain increases non-linearly, and my personal pain is what I'm measuring here.

So considering a massive problem like saving 2 million swans, I might take the Kantian approach. If say, 10% of people were willing to put $50 toward it, that seems like it would be enough money, so I'll put $50 toward it figuring that I'd rather live in a world where people are willing to do that than not.

Like many interpretations of studies like this, I think you're pulling to trigger on an irrationality explanation too fast. I believe that what people are thinking here is much more complicated than you're giving them credit for and with an appropriate model their responses might not appear to be innumerate.

It's a hard question to ask in a way that scales appropriately, because money only has value based on scarcity, so you can't say "If you are emperor of a region with unlimited money to spend, what it is worth to save N swans?" because the answer is just "as much as it takes". Money only has value if it is scarce, and what you're really interested in is "Using 2007 US dollars as units: How much other consumption should be foregone to save N swans?". But people can only judge that *accurately* from their own limited perspective where they have only so much consumption capacity to go around.

Comment author: adamzerner 18 September 2013 06:05:13AM *  1 point [-]

You point out a potential flaw in the reasoning for concluding 'scope insensitivity'. But you then seem to go off into saying that 'scope insensitivity is incorrect', and I don't think you supported that claim enough. Remember, reversed stupidity is not intelligence.