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Elise_Conolly comments on Circular Altruism - Less Wrong

40 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 January 2008 06:00PM

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Comment author: Elise_Conolly 22 January 2008 07:26:58PM 6 points [-]

Whilst the your analysis of life-saving choices seems fairly uncontentious, I'm not entirely convinced that the arithmetic of different types of suffering add together the way you assume. It seems at least plausible to me that where dust motes are individual points, torture is a section of a contiuous line, and thus you can count the points, or you can measure the lengths of different lines, but no number of the former will add up to the latter.

Comment author: Kingreaper 22 July 2010 12:05:39AM 13 points [-]

A dust speck takes a finite time, not an instant. Unless I'm misunderstanding you, this makes them lines, not points.

Comment author: AndyC 22 April 2014 11:36:40AM *  0 points [-]

You're misunderstanding. It has nothing to do with time -- it's not a time line. It means the dust motes are infinitesimal, while the torture is finite. A finite sum of infinitesimals is always infinitesimal.

Not that you really need to use a math analogy here. The point is just that there is a qualitative difference between specs of dust and torture. They're incommensurable. You cannot divide torture by spec of dust, because neither one is a number to start with.

Comment author: AlexanderRM 27 March 2015 09:41:32PM -1 points [-]

I think the dust motes vs. torture makes sense if you imagine a person being bombarded with dust motes for 50 years. I could easily imagine a continuous stream of dust motes being as bad as torture (although possibly the lack of variation would make it far less effective than what a skilled torturer could do).

Based on that, Eliezer's belief is just that the same number of dust motes spread out among many people is just as bad as one person getting hit by all of them. Which I will admit is a bit harder to justify. One possible way to make the argument is to think in terms of rules utilitarianism, and imagine a world where a huge number of people got the choice, then compare one where they all choose the torture vs. one where they all choose the dust motes- the former outcome would clearly be better. I'm pretty sure there are cases where this could be important in government policy.

Comment author: dxu 27 March 2015 09:56:26PM *  0 points [-]

the dust motes are infinitesimal

This is an interesting claim. Either it implies that the human brain is capable of detecting infinitesimal differences in utility, or else it implies that you should have no preference between having a dust speck in your eye and not having one in your eye.