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Comment author: [deleted] 04 February 2013 08:50:15PM *  4 points [-]

"Fruit" is a natural category; apples and oranges share interesting characteristics that make it useful to talk about them in general.

"Utility" is not. The two concepts, "that for which expectation is legitimate", and some quantity related to inter-agent preference aggregation do not share very many characteristics, and they are not even on the same conceptual abstraction layer.

The VNM-stuff is about decision theory. The preference aggregation stuff is about moral philosophy. Those should be completely firewalled. There is no value to a superconcept that crosses that boundary.

As for me using the word "utility" in this discussion, I think it should be unambiguous that I am speaking of VNM-stuff, because the OP is about VNM, and utilitarianism and VNM do not belong in the same discussion, so you can infer that all uses of "utility" refer to the same thing. Nevertheless, I will try to come up with a less ambiguous word to refer to the output of a "preference function".

In response to comment by [deleted] on Pinpointing Utility
Comment author: conchis 05 February 2013 10:01:31PM *  0 points [-]

There is no value to a superconcept that crosses that boundary.

This doesn't seem to me to argue in favour of using wording that's associated with the (potentially illegitimate) superconcept to refer to one part of it. Also, the post you were responding to (conf)used both concepts of utility, so by that stage, they were already in the same discussion, even if they didn't belong there.

Two additional things, FWIW:

(1) There's a lot of existing literature that distinguishes between "decision utility" and "experienced utility" (where "decision utility" corresponds to preference representation) so there is an existing terminology already out there. (Although "experienced utility" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with preference or welfare aggregation either.)

(2) I view moral philosophy as a special case of decision theory (and e.g. axiomatic approaches and other tools of decision theory have been quite useful in to moral philosophy), so to the extent that your firewall intends to cut that off, I think it's problematic. (Not sure that's what you intend - but it's one interpretation of your words in this comment.) Even Harsanyi's argument, while flawed, is interesting in this regard (it's much more sophisticated than Phil's post, so I'd recommend checking it out if you haven't already.)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 February 2013 04:40:19PM *  1 point [-]

But I worry that your language consistently ignores an older, and still entirely valid use of the utility concept. Other types of utility function (hedonic, or welfarist more broadly) may allow for interpersonal comparisons.

I ignore it because they are entirely different concepts. I also ignore aerodynamics in this discussion. It is really unfortunate that we use the same word for them. It is further unfortunate that even LWers can't distinguish between an apple and an orange if you call them both "apple".

"That for which the calculus of expectation is legitimate" is simply not related to inter-agent preference aggregation.

In response to comment by [deleted] on Pinpointing Utility
Comment author: conchis 04 February 2013 12:22:09AM *  1 point [-]

I'm hesitant to get into a terminology argument when we're in substantive agreement. Nonetheless, I personally find your rhetorical approach here a little confusing. (Perhaps I am alone in that.)

Yes, it's annoying when people use the word 'fruit' to refer to both apples and oranges, and as a result confuse themselves into trying to derive propositions about oranges from the properties of apples. But I'd suggest that it's not the most useful response to this problem to insist on using the word 'fruit' to refer exclusively to apples, and to proceed to make claims like 'fruit can't be orange coloured' that are false for some types of fruit. (Even more so when people have been using the word 'fruit' to refer to oranges for longer than they've been using it to refer to apples.) Aren't you just making it more difficult for people to get your point that apples and oranges are different?

On your current approach, every time you make a claim about fruit, I have to try to figure out from context whether you're really making a claim about all fruit, or just apples, or just oranges. And if I guess wrong, we just end up in a pointless and avoidable argument. Surely it's easier to instead phrase your claims as being about apples and oranges directly when they're intended to apply to only one type of fruit?

P.S. For the avoidance of doubt, and with apologies for obviousness: fruit=utility, apples=decision utility, oranges=substantive utility.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 February 2013 08:16:49AM 5 points [-]

Oh wow.

Giving one future self u=10 and another u=0 is equally as good as giving one u=5 and another u=5.

This is the same ethical judgement that an average utilitarian makes when they say that, to calculate social good, we should calculate the average utility of the population

No, not at all. You can't derive mathematical results by playing word games. Even if you could, it doesn't even make sense to take the average utility of a population. Different utility functions are not commensurable.

This is clearer if you use a many-worlds interpretation, and think of maximizing expected value over possible futures as applying average utilitarianism to the population of all possible future yous.

No. That is not at all how it works. A deterministic coin toss will end up the same in all everett branches, but have subjective probability distributed between two possible worlds. You can't conflate them; they are not the same.

Having your math rely on a misinterpreted physical theory is generally a bad sign...

Therefore, I think that, if the 4 axioms are valid when calculating U(lottery), they are probably also valid when calculating not our private utility, but a social utility function s(outcome), which sums over people in a similar way to how U(lottery) sums over possible worlds.

Really? Translate the axioms into statements about people. Do they still seem reasonable?

  1. Completeness. Doesn't hold. Preferred by who? The fact that we have a concept of "pareto optimal" should raise your suspicions.

  2. Transitivity. Assuming you can patch Completeness to deal with pareto-optimality, this may or may not hold. Show me the math.

  3. Continuity. Assuming we let population frequency or some such stand in for probability. I reject the assumption that strict averaging by population is valid. So much for reasonable assumptions.

  4. Independence. Adding another subpopulation to all outcomes is not necessarily a no-op.

Other problems include the fact that population can change, while the sum of probabilities is always 1. The theorem probably relies on this.

Assuming you could construct some kind of coherent population-averaging theory from this, it would not involve utility or utility functions. It would be orthogonal to that, and would have to be able to take into account egalitarianism and population change, and varying moral importance of agents and such.

It is even more shocking that it is thus possible to prove, given reasonable assumptions, which type of utilitarianism is correct.

Shocking indeed.

In response to comment by [deleted] on Pinpointing Utility
Comment author: conchis 03 February 2013 12:24:48PM *  -1 points [-]

While I'm in broad agreement with you here, I'd nitpick on a few things.

Different utility functions are not commensurable.

Agree that decision-theoretic or VNM utility functions are not commensurable - they're merely mathematical representations of different individuals' preference orderings. But I worry that your language consistently ignores an older, and still entirely valid use of the utility concept. Other types of utility function (hedonic, or welfarist more broadly) may allow for interpersonal comparisons. (And unless you accept the possibility of such comparisons, any social welfare function you try to construct will likely end up running afoul of Arrow's impossibility theorem).

Translate the axioms into statements about people. Do they still seem reasonable?

I'm actually pretty much OK with Axioms 1 through 3 being applied to a population social welfare function. As Wei Dai pointed out in the linked thread (and Sen argues as well), it's 4 that seems the most problematic when translated to a population context. (Dealing with varying populations tends to be a stumbling block for aggregationist consequentialism in general.)

That said, the fact that decision utility != substantive utility also means that even if you accepted that all 4 VNM axioms were applicable, you wouldn't have proven average utilitarianism: the axioms do not, for example, rule out prioritarianism (which I think was Sen's main point).

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2013 03:16:34PM 13 points [-]

I think that interpersonal "utility" is a different beast from VNM utility. VNM is fundamentally about sovereign preferences, not preferences within an aggregation.

Inside moral philosophy we have an intuition that we ought to aggregate preferences of other people, and we might think that using VNM is a good idea because it is about preferences too, but I think this is an error, because VNM isn't about preferences in that way.

We need a new thing built from the ground up for utilitarian preference aggregation. It may turn out to have similarities to VNM, but I would be very surprised if it actually was VNM.

In response to comment by [deleted] on Pinpointing Utility
Comment author: conchis 03 February 2013 06:55:31AM *  0 points [-]

Are you familiar with the debate between John Harsanyi and Amartya Sen on essentially this topic (which we've discussed ad nauseam before)? In response to an argument of Harsanyi's that purported to use the VNM axioms to justify utilitarianism, Sen reaches a conclusion that broadly aligns with your take on the issue.

If not, some useful references here.

ETA: I worry that I've unduly maligned Harsanyi by associating his argument too heavily with Phil's post. Although I still think it's wrong, Harsanyi's argument is rather more sophisticated than Phil's, and worth checking out if you're at all interested in this area.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 December 2012 06:28:53AM *  10 points [-]

If Hermione takes down Azkaban and survives, and does so without Harry seeming to take control, that would be more amazing to read than I can possibly express.

It would also reflect terribly on Hermione. She'd be an utter fool to attempt that kind of thing without using Harry's brilliance and resourcefulness. Her influence over Harry is one of her most useful powers and killing stuff ingeniously (and surviving) is pretty much Harry's specialty. It isn't hers.

It's one thing to insist on having your own team in a school battle-games. It's quite another to waste the opportunity to accept aid (and in this case even leadership) from an ally in a situation that means the life and death of yourself and others. It'd be disgustingly immature, take 'silliness' to a whole new level and be completely irrational. Unless Hermione's goal in attacking Azkaban really is more about her ego and signalling and not about the need for Azkaban to be attacked for some direct reason... and she had some reason to be completely confident that it wouldn't kill her.

No respect points for ego when it is at the expense of shut up and multiply.

Comment author: conchis 28 December 2012 07:01:19AM *  0 points [-]

It wouldn't necessarily reflect badly on her: if someone has to die to take down Azkaban,* and Harry needs to survive to achieve other important goals, then Hermione taking it down seems like a non-foolish solution to me.

*This is hinted at as being at least a strong possibility.

Comment author: nshepperd 17 April 2011 02:09:19PM *  0 points [-]

Sometimes I wonder why it's called "grammatical gender" at all, when it so often has no connection to actual gender whatsoever. In your example, there's no gender information transferred at all! It may as well be called "grammatical colour" or "grammatical arbitrary class".

On the other hand, you'd be lucky to be able to exert enough control on convention to make "he" into that kind of word.

Comment author: conchis 18 April 2011 11:04:43PM *  5 points [-]

Although I agree it's odd, it does in fact seem that there is gender information transferred / inferred from grammatical gender.

From Lera Boroditsky's Edge piece

Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 18 April 2011 12:05:04AM 1 point [-]

I agree that some people do treat as moral failings many practices that, to my mind, are better treated as mistakes.

I also think that some people react to that by defending practices that, to my mind, are better treated as mistakes.

Regarding the supposed biases arising due to gendered language, do you think that they exist to a significant degree in practice?

I'm not sure.

One way I might approach the question is to teach an experimental subject some new words to denote new roles, and then have the subjects select people to fill those roles based on resumes. By manipulating the genderedness of the name used for the role (e.g., "farner," "farness," or "farnist") and the nominal sex of the candidate (e.g., male or female), we could determine what effect an X-gendered term had on the odds of choosing a Y-sexed candidate.

I have no idea if that study has been performed.

So, for example, would I expect English-speakers (on average) selecting a candidate for the role of "farness" to select a female candidate more often than for the role of "farner"?

Yes, I think so. Probably not a huge difference, though. Call it a 65% confidence for a statistically significant difference.

What's your estimate? (Or, if you'd rather operationalize the question differently, go for it.)

Comment author: conchis 18 April 2011 10:58:31PM *  1 point [-]

My understanding of the relevant research* is that it's a fairly consistent finding that masculine generics (a) do cause people to imagine men rather than women, and (b) that this can have negative effects ranging from impaired recall, comprehension, and self-esteem in women, to reducing female job applications. (Some of these negative effects have also been established for men from feminine generics as well, which favours using they/them/their rather than she/her as replacements.)

* There's an overview of some of this here (from p.26).

Comment author: toto 20 February 2010 08:23:15PM *  5 points [-]

I dispute none of this, but so far as I can tell or guess, the main thing powering the superior statistical strength of PatientsLikeMe is the fact that medical researchers have learned to game the system and use complicated ad-hoc frequentist statistics to get whatever answer they want or think they ought to get, and PatientsLikeMe has some standard statistical techniques that they use every time.

1) I'd like to see independent evidence of their "superior statistical strength".

2) On the face of it, the main difference between these guys and a proper clinical trial is an assumption that you can trust self-reports. Placebo effect be damned.

In particular, I'd really, really like to see the results for some homeopathic "remedy" (a real one, not one of those that silently include real active compounds).

Comment author: conchis 23 February 2010 06:33:01PM 0 points [-]

Isn't the main difference just that they have a bigger sample. (e.g. "4x" in the hardcore group).

Comment author: conchis 16 September 2009 02:47:54AM 0 points [-]

Isn't the claim in 6 (that there is a planning-optimal choice, but no action-optimal choice) inconsistent with 4 (a choice that is planning optimal is also action optimal)?

Comment author: SilasBarta 03 September 2009 10:32:29PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for your reply.

For the purposes of the argument I was making, "possible in principle to physically extract" is the same as "possible in principle to extract". For once you know the laws of physics, which supposedly you can learn from a pebble, you can physically extract data that is functionally equivalent to alternatives/utility assignments.

For example, our knowledge of thermodynamics and chemistry tells us that a chemical would go to a lower energy state (and perhaps release heat) if it could observe certain other chemicals (which we call "catalysts"). It is our knowledge of science that justifies saying that there is this lower energy state that it "has a tendency" to want to go to, which is an "alternative" lacking "couldness" in the same sense of the proposed CSAs.

Laying down rules for what counts as evidence that a body is considering alternatives, is messier than AnnaSalamon thinks.

Comment author: conchis 03 September 2009 10:50:12PM *  1 point [-]

Laying down rules for what counts as evidence that a body is considering alternatives, is mess[y]

Agreed. But I don't think that means that it's not possible to do so, or that there aren't clear cases on either side of the line. My previous formulation probably wasn't as clear as it should have been, but would the distinction seem more tenable to you if I said "possible in principle to observe physical representations of" instead of "possible in principle to physically extract"? I think the former better captures my intended meaning.

If there were a (potentially) observable physical process going on inside the pebble that contained representations of alternative paths available to it, and the utility assigned to them, then I think you could argue that the pebble is a CSA. But we have no evidence of that whatsoever. Those representations might exist in our minds once we decide to model the pebble in that way, but that isn't the same thing at all.

On the other hand, we do seem to have such evidence for e.g. chess-playing computers, and (while claims about what neuroimaging studies have identified are frequently overstated) we also seem to be gathering it for the human brain.

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