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Mike_Blume comments on Leave a Line of Retreat - Less Wrong

59 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 February 2008 11:57PM

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Comment author: Mike_Blume 27 July 2008 09:00:32PM 4 points [-]

This reminds me of an item from a list of "horrible job interview questions" we once devised for SIAI:

Would you kill babies if it was intrinsically the right thing to do? Yes/No

If you circled "no", explain under what circumstances you would not do the right thing to do: I assume by "intrinsically right thing to do", you do not intend something straightforward like "here are five babies carrying a virus which, if left unchecked, will wipe out half the population of the planet. There is no means by which they can be quarantined, the virus can cross even the cold reaches of space. The only way to save us is to kill them". I assume rather, that you, Eliezer Yudkowsky, hand me a booklet, possibly hundreds of pages long. On page 0 are listed my most cherished moral truths, and on page N is written: "thus, it is right and decent to kill as many babies as possible, whenever the opportunity arises. Any man who walks past a mother pushing a stroller, and does not immediately throttle the infant where it lies, is nothing more than a moral coward." For all n between 1 and N inclusive, the statements on page n seem to me to follow naturally and self-evidently from my acceptance of the statements on page n-1. As I look up, astonishment etched on my face, I see you standing before me, grinning broadly. You hand me a long, curved blade, and tell me the staff of the SIAI are taking the afternoon off to raid the local nursery, and would I like to join?

Under these circumstances I would assign high probability to the idea that you are morally ill, and wish to murder infants for your own enjoyment. That somewhere in the proof you have given me is a logical error - the moral equivalent of dividing by zero. I would imagine, not that morality led me astray, but that my incomplete knowledge of morality led me not to spot this error. I would show the proof to as many moral philosophers as I could, ones whose intelligence and expertise in the field I respected, and held to be above my own, and who were initially as unenthusiastic as I am at the prospect of infanticide. I would ask them if they could point me to an error in the proof, and explain to me clearly and fully why this step, which had seemed so simple to me, is not a legal move in the dance at that point. If they could not explain this to me to my satisfaction, I would devote much of my time from then on to the study of morality so that I could better understand it, and until I could, would distrust any moral conclusions I came to on my own. If none of them could find an error, I would still assign high probability to the notion that somewhere in the proof is an error which we humans have not advanced sufficiently in the study of metamorality to discover. I would consider it one of the most important outstanding problems in the field, and would, again, distrust any major moral decisions which did not clearly add up to normality until it was solved.

Just as the mathematical "proof" that 2=1 would, if accepted, destroy the foundations of mathematics itself, and must therefore be doubted until we can discover its error, so your proof that killing babies is good, would, if accepted, destroy the foundations of my morality, and so I must doubt it until I can find an error.

I am well aware that a fundamentalist could take my previous paragraph, replace "killing babies" with "oral sex" and thus make his prudery unassailable by argument. So much the worse for him, I say. If he considers the prohibition of a mutually beneficial and joyful act to be at the foundation of his morality, then he is a miserable creature and all my rationality will not save him from himself.

I have tried indirectly to answer your question. To answer it directly I will have to resort to what seems a paradox. I would not do "the right thing to do" if I know, at bottom, that it simply is not the right thing to do.

If you circled "yes", how right would it have to be, for how many babies? N/A

So, would I get the job?