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Michael_G.R. comments on Torture vs. Dust Specks - Less Wrong

41 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 October 2007 02:50AM

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Comment author: Michael_G.R. 30 October 2007 04:12:35AM 4 points [-]

The dust speck is described as "barely enough to make you notice", so however many people it would happen to, it seems better than even something a lot less worse than 50 years of horrible torture. There are so many irritating things that a human barely notices in his/her life, what's an extra dust speck?

I think I'd trade the dust specks for even a kick in the groin.

But hey, maybe I'm missing something here...

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 31 October 2011 06:17:34PM 2 points [-]

If 3^^^3 people get dust in their eye, an extraordinary number of people will die. I'm not thinking even 1% of those affected will die, but perhaps 0.000000000000001% might, if that. But when dealing with numbers this huge, I think the death toll would measure greater than 7 billion. Knowing this, I would take the torture.

Comment author: thomblake 16 December 2011 08:11:52PM 8 points [-]

If 3^^^3 people get dust in their eye, an extraordinary number of people will die.

The premise assumes it's "barely enough to make you notice", which was supposed to rule out any other unpleasant side-effects.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 09:23:49PM 0 points [-]

No, I'm pretty sure it makes you notice. It's "enough". "barely enough", but still "enough". However, that doesn't seem to be what's really important. If I consider you to be correct in your interpretation of the dilemma, in that there are no other side effects, then yes, the 3^^^3 people getting dust in their eyes is a much better choice.

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 09:41:00PM 0 points [-]

The thought experiment is, 3^^^3 bad events, each just so bad that you notice their badness. Considering consequences of the particular bad thing means that in fact there are other things as well that are depending on your choice, and that's a different thought experiment.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 09:51:13PM -2 points [-]

That is in no way what was said. Also, the idea of an event that somehow manages to have no effect aside from being bad is... insanely contrived. More contrived than the dilemma itself.

However, let's say that instead of 3^^^3 people getting dust in their eye, 3^^^3 people experience a single nano-second of despair, which is immediately erased from their memory to prevent any psychological damage. If I had a choice between that and torturing a person for 50 years, then I would probably choose the former.

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 10:00:31PM *  2 points [-]

That is in no way what was said. Also, the idea of an event that somehow manages to have no effect aside from being bad is... insanely contrived. More contrived than the dilemma itself.

The notion of 3^^^3 events of any sort is far more contrived than the elimination of knock-on effects of an event. There isn't enough matter in the universe to make that many dust specks, let alone the eyes to be hit and nervous systems to experience it. Of course it's contrived. It's a thought experiment. I don't assert that the original formulation makes it entirely clear; my point is to keep the focus on the actual relevant bit of the experiment - if you wander, you're answering a less interesting question.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 10:10:15PM 1 point [-]

I don't agree. The existence 3^^^3 people, or 3^^^3 dust specks, is impossible because there isn't enough matter, as you said. The existence of an event that has only effects that are tailored to fit a particular person's idea of 'bad' does not fit my model of how causality works. That seems like a worse infraction, to me.

However, all of that is irrelevant, because I answered the more "interesting question" in the comment you quoted. To be blunt, why are we still talking about this?

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 10:21:51PM 0 points [-]

I don't agree. The existence 3^^^3 people, or 3^^^3 dust specks, is impossible because there isn't enough matter, as you said. The existence of an event that has only effects that are tailored to fit a particular person's idea of 'bad' does not fit my model of how causality works. That seems like a worse infraction, to me.

I'm not sure I agree, but "which impossible thing is more impossible" does seem an odd thing to be arguing about, so I'll not go into the reasons unless someone asks for them.

However, all of that is irrelevant, because I answered the more "interesting question" in the comment you quoted. To be blunt, why are we still talking about this?

I meant a more generalized you, in my last sentence. You in particular did indeed answer the more interesting question.

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 09:44:35PM 1 point [-]

[T]he 3^^^3 people getting dust in their eyes is a much better choice.

Can you explain a bit about your moral or decision theory that would lead you to conclude that?

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 09:56:26PM 2 points [-]

Yes. I believe that because any suffering caused by the 3^^^3 dust specks is spread across 3^^^3 people, it is of lesser evil than torturing a man for 50 years. Assuming there to be no side effects to the dust specks.

Comment author: Nornagest 16 December 2011 10:08:21PM *  0 points [-]

That's not general enough to mean very much: it fits a number of deontological moral theories and a few utilitarian ones (what the right answer within virtue ethics is is far too dependent on assumptions to mean much), and seems to fit a number of others if you don't look too closely. Its validity depends greatly on which you've picked.

As best I can tell the most common utilitarian objection to TvDS is to deny that Specks are individually of moral significance, which seems to me to miss the point rather badly. Another is to treat various kinds of disutility as incommensurate with each other, which is at least consistent with the spirit of the argument but leads to some rather weird consequences around the edge cases.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 10:21:55PM 0 points [-]

No-one asked for a general explanation.

The best term I have found, the one that seems to describe the way I evaluate situations the most accurately, is consequentialism. However, that may still be inaccurate. I don't have a fully reliable way to determine what consequentialism entails; all I have is Wikipedia, at the moment.

I tend to just use cost-benefit analysis. I also have a mental, and quite arbitrary, scale of what things I do and don't value, and to what degree, to avoid situations where I am presented with multiple, equally beneficial choices. I also have a few heuristics. One of them essentially says that given a choice between a loss that is spread out amongst many, and an equal loss divided amongst the few, the former is the more moral choice. Does that help?

Comment author: Nornagest 16 December 2011 10:27:28PM *  0 points [-]

It helps me understand your reasoning, yes. But if you aren't arguing within a fairly consistent utilitarian framework, there's not much point in trying to convince others that the intuitive option is correct in a dilemma designed to illustrate counterintuitive consequences of utilitarianism.

So far it sounds like you're telling us that Specks is intuitively more reasonable than Torture, because the losses are so small and so widely distributed. Well, yes, it is. That's the point.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 16 December 2011 10:31:33PM 0 points [-]

At what point is utilitarianism not completely arbitrary?

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 10:12:45PM 0 points [-]

That's not quite what I meant by "explain" - I had understood that to be your position, and was trying to get insight into your reasoning.

Drawing an analogy to mathematics, would you say that this is an axiom, or a theorem?

If an axiom, it clearly must be produced by a schema of some sort (as you clearly don't have 3^^^3 incompressible rules in your head). Can you explore somewhat the nature of that schema?

If a theorem, what sort of axioms, and how arranged, produce it?

Comment author: TimS 16 December 2011 10:22:25PM 0 points [-]

When I participated in this debate, this post convinced me that a utilitarian must believe that dust specks cause more overall suffering (or whatever badness measure you prefer). Since I already wasn't a utilitarian, this didn't bother me.

Comment author: dlthomas 16 December 2011 10:47:20PM 2 points [-]

As a utilitarian (in broad strokes), I agree, and this doesn't bother me because this example is so far out of the range of what is possible that I don't object to saying, "yes, somewhere out there torture might be a better choice." I don't have to worry about that changing what the answer is around these parts.