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Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 02:02:06AM 16 points [-]

I can't see any flaws in the argument, but the conclusion is far more radical than most of us would be willing to admit.

Am I the sort of person who would value my computer over another human being's life? I hope not, that makes me sound like the most horrible sort of psychopath---it is basically the morality of Stalin. But at the same time, did I sell my computer to feed kids in Africa? I did not. Nor did any of you, unless you are reading this at a library computer (in which case I'm sure I can find something you could have given up that would have allowed you to give just a little bit more to some worthy charitable cause.)

It gets worse: Is my college education worth the lives of fifty starving children? Because I surely paid more than that. Is this house I'm living in worth eight hundred life-saving mosquito nets? Because that's how much it cost.

Our entire economic system is based on purchases that would be "unjustified"---even immoral---on the view that every single purchase must be made on this kind of metric. And so if we all stopped doing that, our economy would collapse and we would be starving instead.

I think it comes down to this: Consequentialism is a lot harder than it looks. It's not enough to use the simple heuristic, "Is this purchase worth a child's life?"; no, you've got to carry out the full system of consequences---in principle, propagated to our whole future light cone. (In fact, there's a very good reason not to ask that question: Because of our socialization, we have a taboo in our brains about never saying that something is worth more than a child---even when it obviously is.) You've got to note that once the kid survives malaria, he'll probably die of something else, like malnutrition, or HIV, or a parasite infection. You've got to note that if people didn't go to college and become scientific researchers, we wouldn't even know about HIV or malaria or anything else. You've got to keep in mind the whole system of modified capitalism and the social democratic welfare state that makes your massive wealth possible---and really, I think you should be trying to figure out how to export it to places that don't have it, not skimming off the income that drives it to save one child's life at a time.

And if you think, "Ah ha! We'll just work for the Singularity then!" well, that's a start---and you should, in fact, devote some of your time, energy, and money to the Singularity---but it's not a solution by itself. How much time should you spend trying to make yourself happy? How much effort should you devote to your family, your friends? How important is love compared to what you might be doing---and how much will your effectiveness depend on you being loved? We might even ask: Would we even want to make a Singularity if it meant that no one ever fell in love?

This is why I'm not quite a gung-ho consequentialist. Ultimately consequentialism is right, there can be no doubt about that; but in practical terms, I don't think most people are smart enough for it. (I'm not sure I'm smart enough for it.) It might be better, actually, to make people follow simple rules like "Don't cheat, don't lie, don't kill, don't steal"; if everyone followed those rules, we'd be doing all right. (Most of the really horrible things in this world are deontic violations, like tyranny and genocide.) At the very least, the standard deontic rules are better heuristics than asking, "Is it worth the life of a child?"

Comment author: insigniff 11 August 2013 10:18:24AM 0 points [-]

I have yet to familiarize myself more with effective altruism to know the details of their metrics, but it seems like the reliance on 'number of lives saved per unit money' doesn't necessarily align with the goal of helping people, which i think this post demonstrates well. And then there's the arguably relevant issue of over-population. If everyone contributed some of their education funding on saving lives, wouldn't the Earth get over-populated before sufficient technological progress was made to e.g inhabit another planet?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 05 January 2011 06:05:11PM *  1 point [-]

In another debate with Bill Craig, atheist Christopher Hitchens gave this objection: "Who designed the Designer? Don’t you run the risk… of asking 'Well, where does that come from? And where does that come from?' and running into an infinite regress?" But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science.

I agree that Hitchens should have looked to see what answers theists give to that question. (And he might have; since theists usually respond instead by saying that God is eternal, meaning outside of time and cause and effect, and therefore in no need of having a cause.) But I disagree that there are any more substantive objections to theism. "Who designed the designer?" is the best single knockdown argument against theism.

The question "where did God come from?" is not qualitatively the same as the question "how do you know your observation that a dropped bowling ball falls is correct?" In science, the answer to every "why" is something that is known with more certainty. Entropy decreases as you trace the epistemological/causal chain back up its causes. Theism, by contrast, boils down to the claim that entropy always increases as you trace back the causal chain. A being X must have been created by some being Y with greater entropy (complexity). The scientific epistemological chain converges; the theistic one diverges.

ADDED: This is basically the same as Tim Tyler's comment below.

Comment author: insigniff 05 July 2013 09:43:30AM 1 point [-]

Whether or not the first cause argument should be a concern in science, i think Bertrand Russell summarizes its problems quite well:

"Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality that it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man, and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question, Who made me? cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, Who made God?" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant, and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause." http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell0.htm

Comment author: gwern 05 January 2011 04:06:57PM *  6 points [-]

There is an obvious one, actually - a frequent (perhaps inaccurate) interpretation of the last parts of the Tractatus is as a denial of the possibility of any real philosophy (including Wittgenstein's).

Since one would naturally cover the Tractatus before The Philosophical Investigations or other works, a rather juvenile response would be exactly that anecdote.

Comment author: insigniff 05 July 2013 09:18:44AM 0 points [-]

A perhaps equally juvenile concern of mine, is whether Wittgenstein himself failed to stand on the shoulders of giants (at least in the Tractatus), by essentially starting from scratch with his own propositions, drawing logical conclusions from them rather than using or at least referring to previous work.