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SotW: Check Consequentialism

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 March 2012 01:35AM

(The Exercise Prize series of posts is the Center for Applied Rationality asking for help inventing exercises that can teach cognitive skills.  The difficulty is coming up with exercises interesting enough, with a high enough hedonic return, that people actually do them and remember them; this often involves standing up and performing actions, or interacting with other people, not just working alone with an exercise booklet and a pencil.  We offer prizes of $50 for any suggestion we decide to test, and $500 for any suggestion we decide to adopt.  This prize also extends to LW meetup activities and good ideas for verifying that a skill has been acquired.  See here for details.)

Exercise Prize:  Check Consequentialism

In philosophy, "consequentialism" is the belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place, i.e., that actions should be chosen on the basis of their probable outcomes.  It seems like the mental habit of checking consequentialism, asking "What positive future events does this action cause?", would catch numerous cognitive fallacies.

For example, the mental habit of consequentialism would counter the sunk cost fallacy - if a PhD wouldn't really lead to much in the way of desirable job opportunities or a higher income, and the only reason you're still pursuing your PhD is that otherwise all your previous years of work will have been wasted, you will find yourself encountering a blank screen at the point where you try to imagine a positive future outcome of spending another two years working toward your PhD - you will not be able to state what good future events happen as a result.

Or consider the problem of living in the should-universe; if you're thinking, I'm not going to talk to my boyfriend about X because he should know it already, you might be able to spot this as an instance of should-universe thinking (planning/choosing/acting/feeling as though within / by-comparison-to an image of an ideal perfect universe) by having done exercises specifically to sensitize you to should-ness.  Or, if you've practiced the more general skill of Checking Consequentialism, you might notice a problem on asking "What happens if I talk / don't talk to my boyfriend?" - providing that you're sufficiently adept to constrain your consequentialist visualization to what actually happens as opposed to what should happen.


The skill of Checking Consequentialism isn't quite as simple as telling people to ask, "What positive result do I get?"  By itself, this mental query is probably going to return any apparent justification - for example, in the sunk-cost-PhD example, asking "What good thing happens as a result?" will just return, "All my years of work won't have been wasted!  That's good!"  Any choice people are tempted by seems good for some reason, and executing a query about "good reasons" will just return this.

The novel part of Checking Consequentialism is the ability to discriminate "consequentialist reasons" from "non-consequentialist reasons" - being able to distinguish that "Because a PhD gets me a 50% higher salary" talks about future positive consequences, while "Because I don't want my years of work to have been wasted" doesn't.

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