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John_Mlynarski comments on Nonperson Predicates - Less Wrong

29 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 December 2008 01:47AM

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Comment author: John_Mlynarski 12 May 2017 01:53:41AM *  0 points [-]

But saying that e.g. rats are not sentient in the context of concern about the treatment of sentient beings is like saying that Negroes are not men in the context of the Declaration of Independence. Not only are the purely semantic aspects dubious, but excluding entities from a moral category on semantic grounds seems like a severe mistake regardless.

Words like "sentience" and especially "consciousness" are often used to refer to the soul without sounding dogmatic about it. You can tell this from the ways people use them: "Would a perfect duplicate of you have the same consciousness?", "Are chimps conscious?", etc. You can even use such terminology in such ways if you're a materialist who denies the existence of souls. You'd sound crazy talking about souls like they're real things if you say that there are no such things as souls, wouldn't you? Besides, souls are supernatural. Consciousness, on the other hand, is an emergent phenomenon, which sounds much more scientific.

Is there good reason to think that there is some sort of psychic élan vital? It strikes me as probably being about as real as phlogiston or luminiferous aether; i.e. you can describe phenomena in terms of the concept, and it doesn't necessarily prevent you from doing so basically correctly, but you can do better without it.

And, of course, in the no-nonsense senses of the terms, rats are sentient, conscious, aware, or however else you want to put it. Not all of the time, of course. They can also be asleep or dead or other things, as can humans, but rats are often sentient. And it's not hard to tell that plenty of non-humans also experience mental phenomena, which is why it's common knowledge that they do.

I can't recall ever seeing an argument that mistreating minds without self-awareness or metacognition or whatever specific mental faculty is arbitrarily singled out, is kinder or more just or in any normal sense more moral than mistreating a mind without it. And you can treat any position as a self-justifying axiom, so doing so doesn't work out to an argument for the position's truth in anything but a purely relativist sense.

It is both weird and alarming to see Eliezer arguing against blindly assuming that a mind is too simple to be "sentient" while also pretty clearly taking the position that anything much simpler than our own minds isn't. It really seems like he rather plainly isn't following his own advice, and that that could happen without him realizing it is very worrying. He has admitted that this is something he's confused about and is aware that others are more inclusive, but that doesn't seem to have prompted him to rethink his position all that much, which suggests that Eliezer is really confused about this in a way that may be hard to correct.

Looking for a nonperson predicate is kind of seeking an answer to the question "Who is it okay to do evil things to?" I would like to suggest that the correct answer is "No one", and that asking the question in the first place is a sign that you made a big mistake somewhere if you're trying to avoid being evil.

If having the right not to have something done to you just means that it's morally wrong to do that thing to you, then everything has rights. Making a rock suffer against it will would be, if anything, particularly evil, as it would require you to go out of your way to give the rock a will and the capacity to suffer. Obviously, avoiding violating anything's rights requires an ability to recognize what something wills, what will cause it to suffer, and/or etc. Those are useful distinctions. But it seems like Eliezer is talking about something different.

Has he written anything more recently on this subject?