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Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 29 April 2013 06:31:17AM *  1 point [-]

But they are important if you are concerned about the role of government.

How big of a concern should this be relative to other possible concerns? (I think "what should the role of government be?" is another privileged question. What do you intend to do with an answer to this question? (I am not convinced of the value of voting.))

If I apply this principle to this author and this post, I'd wonder why take these three issues to make his point

I picked the first three things that came to my head.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 15 June 2013 12:13:46AM 0 points [-]

Seriously, how much effort goes into voting? Perhaps an hour at the most?

Compared to how much tax gets taken off you every day it seems that having some minor influence in guiding the assembly that sets the budget for the spending of said tax is worth your while. If only to sack a representative assembly that displeases you.

What virtues are displayed by not voting? Sloth? Indifference?

If no one voted how would democratic government work?

Does voting increase utility? In a single case not by much but in the aggregate the people can remove a government that displeases them. This is surely better than the alternative (shoot them out as in Syria today).

The fact that Super PACs pay money to persuade people to vote speaks to the value of your vote not its worthlessness.

I think there are reasonable grounds for making the modest effort required to vote.

Comment author: drnickbone 14 June 2013 04:54:06PM *  0 points [-]

Agreed, but the OP was talking about "effective altruism" , rather than about "effective morality" in general. It's difficult to talk about altruism at all except within some sort of consequentialist framework. And while there is no simple way of comparing goods, consideration of "effective" altruism (how much good can I do for a relatively small amount of money?) does force us to look at and make very difficult tradeoffs between different goods.

Incidentally, I generally subscribe to rule consequentialism though without any simple utility function, and for much the reasons you discuss. Avoiding vicious disputes between social agents with different values is, as I understand it, one of the "good things" that a system of moral rules needs to achieve.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 11:05:11PM -2 points [-]

Rule consequentialism is what a call a multi-threaded moral theory - a blend of deontology and consequentialism if you will. I advocate multi-threaded theories. The idea that there is a correct single-threaded theory of morality seems implausible. Moral rules to me are a subset of modal rules for survival-focused agents.

To work out if something is right run a bunch of 'algorithms' (in parallel threads if you like) not just one. (No commitment made to Turing computability of said 'algorithms' though...)


assume virtue ethics

If I do X what virtues does this display/exhibit?

assume categorical imperative

If everyone does X how would I value the world then?

assume principle of utility

Will X increase the greatest happiness for the greatest number?

assume golden rule

If X were done to me instead of my doing X would I accept this?


If I do X will this trigger any emotional reaction (disgust, guilt, shame, embarrassment, joy, ecstasy, triumph etc)


Is there is law or sanction if I do X?


Have I done X before, how did that go?


If I do X what impact will that have on relationships I have?

motives goal

Do I want to do X?

interest welfare prudence

Is X in my interest? Safe? Dangerous etc


Does X have value? To me, to others etc

Sometimes one or two reasons will provide a slam dunk decision. It's illegal and I don't want to do it anyway. Othertimes, the call is harder.

Personally, I find a range of considerations more persuasive than one. I am personally inclined to sentimentalism at the meta-ethical tier and particularism at the normative and applied ethical tiers.

Of course, strictly speaking particularism implies that normative ethical theories are false over-generalizations and that a theory of reasons rests on a theory of values. Values are fundamentally emotive. No amount of post hoc moral rationalization will change that.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 04:46:25AM 0 points [-]

I don't buy the assumption that seems to be implied that many arguments have to be weak and a single argument has to be strong.

Why not have many strong reasons instead of one weak reason?

Certainly for complex questions I find multi-threaded answers more convincing than single-threaded ones.

Fox over hedgehog for me.

In terms of picking a major, do something you enjoy that you can conceivably use to get a job. You can actually get a job with a philosophy degree. I did... after I quit accounting because it was too darn boring...

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 October 2012 05:26:28AM 5 points [-]

Koan answers here for:

What rule could restrict our beliefs to just propositions that can be meaningful, without excluding a priori anything that could in principle be true?

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 04:20:09AM 1 point [-]

Restrict propositions to observable references? (Or have a rule about falsifiablility?)

The problem with the observable reference rule is that sense can be divorced from reference and things can be true (in principle) even if un-sensed or un-sensable. However, when we learn language we start by associating sense with concrete reference. Abstractions are trickier.

It is the case that my sensorimotor apparatus will determine my beliefs and my ability to cross-reference my beliefs with other similar agents with similar sensorimotor apparatus will forge consensus on propositions that are meaningful and true.

Falsifiability is better. I can ask another human is Orwell post-Utopian? They can say 'hell no he is dystopian'... But if some say yes and some say no, it seems I have an issue with vagueness which I would have to clarify with some definition of criteria for post-Utopian and dystopian.

Then once we had clarity of definition we could seek evidence in his texts. A lot of humanities texts however just leave observable reference at the door and run amok with new combinations of sense. Thus you get unicorns and other forms of fantasy...

Comment author: drnickbone 13 June 2013 11:33:37AM 4 points [-]

An important question is whether there is a net loss or gain of sentient life by avoiding eating meat. Or, if there is a substitution between different sentient life-forms, is there a net gain to quality of life?

  1. Do we know where the biomass that currently goes into farmed animals would end up if we stopped using farmed animals? Would it go into humans, or into vehicles (biofuels) or into wildlife via land taken out of agricultural production?

  2. Should we assume that farmed animals have a negative quality of life (so that in utilitarian terms, the world would be better if they stopped existing and weren't replaced by other sentient beings)? The animals themselves would probably not assess their lives as having negative value (as far as I'm aware, farmed animals do not attempt to commit suicide at every available opportunity).

  3. Do farmed animals have a lower quality of life than animals living in the wild? Remember that nature is not a nice place either...

My personal guess is that without meat, we would end up with more humans, though mostly poorer humans. Since even the poorest humans would probably have a higher quality of life than the animals they substituted, it looks like a net gain from the point of view of total utility. But whether that is really a good thing or not may depend on whether you are a total utilitarian or an average utilitarian.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 02:24:49AM 0 points [-]

A difficulty of utilitarianism is the question of felicific exchange rates. If you cast morality as a utility function then you are obliged to come up with answers to bizarre hypothetical questions like how many ice-creams is the life of your first born worth because you have defined the right in terms of maximized utility.

If you cast morality as a dispute avoidance mechanism between social agents possessed with power and desire then you are less likely to end up in this kind of dead-end but the price of this casting is the recognition that different agents will have different values and that objectivity of morals is not always possible.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 14 June 2013 01:51:48AM 3 points [-]

I have no interest, rational, emotional or otherwise, in funding a life for free steers in the wild.

Without engaging with any of your other points, I'd just like to point out that the OP considers the good outcome to be one where farm animals don't exist at all, rather than one where they're free in the wild. (Because if animals don't exist then they can't suffer.)

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 02:14:44AM 2 points [-]

Quite so. The OP I think is more concerned about factory farming than the more traditional grazing approaches to cattle. But I think if you push a morality too far up against the hill of human desire it will collapse. Many activists overestimate the "care factor". My ability to care is pretty limited. I can't and won't care about 7 billion other humans on this planet except in the thinnest and most meaningless senses (i.e. stated preferences in surveys which are near worthless) let along the x billion animals. In terms of revealed preferences (where I put my dollars and power) I favour the near and the dear over the stranger and the genetically unrelated.

Comment author: orthonormal 07 June 2013 12:43:42PM 20 points [-]

Incidentally, at the MIRI workshop, we soon started referring to the source-code-swap Prisoner's Dilemma between two modal agents as "modal combat".

Or "MODAL COMBAT!", if you prefer.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 02:00:00AM 2 points [-]

Fascinating paper. Will there be a release of the code used? I would like to be able to play these games and tinker with the code myself.

Hacking is believing...

I think you should put out a game called Modal Combat!

Comment author: seanwelsh77 14 June 2013 01:06:20AM -1 points [-]

I have no argument with your desire to establish the most cost-effective way to get the most bang for your bucks. I simply do not accept the premise that it is wrong to eat meat.

Consider the life of a steer in Cape York. It is born the property of a grazier. It is given health care of a sort (dips, jabs, anti-tick treatment). It lives a free life grazing for a few hundred days in fenced enclosures protected by the grazier's guns from predators. Towards the end, it is mustered by jackaroos and jillaroos, shipped in a truck to the lush volcanic grasslands of the Atherton Tableland to be fattened up. On its last day, it is trucked to an abattoir to be stunned and killed.

If the grazier did not exist the steer would not exist. Now I could make some argument about 'utility' but I won't. And indeed there is a distinction between the factory farming you object to (grain-fed beef) versus older ways (grass-fed beef).

I would not like to be given this treatment myself but I am not a domesticated animal. I am not a beast or a dumb animal. I am a top predator. We have evolved to prefer meat and vegetables in our diet. We have arranged the ecosystem to satisfy our desire for meat. I value steers dead, butchered and then grilled or roasted. I have no interest, rational, emotional or otherwise, in funding a life for free steers in the wild.

A fundamental political problem for vegan advocacy is that people enjoy meat and that it is 'natural' to eat it. Now being natural is not a right maker but going against nature and being dependent on vitamin supplements to avoid anemia is not a right maker either. Stick people in the bush with no food and a bow and arrow and they will figure out how to shoot cute kangaroos and koalas quick smart rather than starve. Submit homo sapiens to enough stress and those predator instincts and drives that are suppressed in the civilized ecosystem come to the fore.

Desire drives us all. Argument that goes against basic human desire goes uphill. Vegetarian advocacy has been around for a long time (since Buddha, Mahavira) as have the moral arguments. Alas, human moral functionality is limited. Your research dollars would be better spent on finding an ethical alternative to meat that tastes way better than soy burgers. When vegans can provide a product that rivals that of the butchers in taste and appeal, then they will succeed.

Until then, they are a tiny minority that get recruits and suffers defections at more or less similarly measurable rates. In the meantime, I prefer organic and free-range products.

Comment author: Juno_Watt 01 May 2013 10:57:51PM 1 point [-]

That seems to imply we understand our rationality...

Comment author: seanwelsh77 09 May 2013 10:42:39AM 0 points [-]

More research...

Gerd Gigerenzer's views on heuristics in moral decision making are very interesting though.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2013 06:30:08AM *  1 point [-]

You could also, in principle, have a utilitarianism that gives unequal weights to different people. I've asked around here for a reason to think that the egalitarian principle is true, but haven't yet received any responses that are up to typical Less Wrong epistemic standards.

Comment author: seanwelsh77 01 May 2013 09:21:15AM -2 points [-]

Your alternative would be to think an aristocratic or meritocratic principle is true. (It's either equal or unequal, right?)

I think we can assume aristocracy is a dead duck along with the Divine Right of Kings and other theological relics.

Meritocracy in some form I believe has been advocated by some utilitarians. People with Oxford degrees get 10 votes. Cambridge 9. Down to the LSE with 2 votes and the common ignorant unlettered herd 1 vote...

This is kind of an epistemocratic voting regime which some think might lead to better outcomes. Alas, no one has been game to try get such laws up. There is little evidence that an electorate of PhDs is any less daft/ignorant/clueless/idle/indifferent on matters outside their specialty than the general public.

From a legal rights perspective, egalitarianism is surely correct. Equal treatment before the law seems a lot easier to defend than unequal treatment.

But put something up that assumes a dis-egalitarian principle and see how it flies. I'd be interested to see if you can come up with something plausible that is dis-egalitarian and up to epistemic scratch...

Hint: plutocracy...

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