In 2013 I was done with Utilitarianism. The “this is too demanding” objection was taking my bones, and I expressed it in a private message to some close friends.
In 2016 I realized that my behavior that attempts to help most others is a deeper and different part of my mind than the part that processes moral convictions, or moral intuitions. It is a preference. These two texts exhibit a kind of inescapability of the altruistic soul. Even after I dropped the moral duty card, after I dropped the moral requirement card, a few years later, I was writing about how I prefer to behave in a way that resembles a lot the utilitarian prescribed way, irrespective of my acceptance of utilitarianism as a moral theory. So here are these two reflections.
I’ve had it with Utilitarianism.
I no longer am a Utilitarian.
Here is why:
I’m serious about things. I’m serious about doing what rationally is requested from me. Serious Utilitarianism, exemplified by “Astronomical Waste” (Bostrom) and rationalaltruist.com leads to extremely complicated reasoning, and unimaginably hard decisions.
Utilitarianism is frequently counter-intuitive to the extreme – making taking care of wild animals be a global priority for instance, or dominating the cosmos prior to another civilization so doing, or causing someone to have to change into a high earning career and donate nearly all one’s money to effective charities.
When reasoning in utilitarian fashion about my decisions, 99,99% ot time I end up concluding that that thing that I would do will be counterfactually irrelevant. Nearly everything I care about or read about, or know about or am able to do (and that is a large set of stuff) would be substituted without loss. My papers could be written by someone else. My future career, whatever it is, will be part of an economic ensemble that will not be changed in the least by my actions.
Every time I think of X, I think about X’s long-term effects on the world as a whole, and apply aggregative consequentialism to it, I find a reason that precludes me from Xing. Here are some examples: Videogames, tennis, couchsurfing, travelling, eating well, frisbee, writing what I want because I want to, writing philosophy, writing about sociology, writing about evolutionary psychology, making something Tim Ferriss style and getting a traveller’s lifestyle, taking my girfriend out, watching TV series with my friends. Learning to play a boardgame. Doing a masters. Doing a PHD.
Basically, anything that has less expected value than making a lot (10^8) of money to donate it to future people or presentpeople or veganism.
Everything that I have ever valued is thrown into the trash if I reason deep enough. Also, all my future choices are precluded from me, instead, I’m left with the duty of performing a calculation and implementing a Max algorithm in whatever the calculation results.
…oh, there is always a “but”, one of the prescriptions of a pragmatic utilitarianism is that you should not do the calculation if you wont really be able to summon the will to implement such harsh policy. Or in some cases, you can “allow” yourself some hours of socializing (the minimal amount) in order to keep your body going. Yet, that is not how it works in the end, if you are serious about it. If you are serious you’ll always catch yourself in the meta-question: “¿am I just before, or just after the threshold of need to relax and do my stuff? can I push just a little further and save just a tenth of that starving child, or would be posthuman?”. Utilitarianism is a ghost that haunts you, it haunts you into deeper crevices than the Christian God.
There is no limit to the utilitarian paralysis. You can go meta as many levels as you like, it is still a paralyzing, stressful condition. You’d think there could be some compromise. But there can’t, not for someone like me. I need my freedom back to relax.
So what am I changing utilitarianism for? Virtue Ethics? Kantian Ethics? No, just the same ethical theory I have always espoused. None. 90% of humans who live a fruitful and joyful life have no idea there are “ethical theories” “ethical imperatives” and “dispositional theorists of value”, I’m falling back into the mob.
Does that mean I’ll turn into an egotist? Or I’ll stop saying to people they should be utilitarians? No, and No. Only if I know someone whose commitment is being an extremist as much as mine is, being 8 or 80, nothing in between. To that person, and that person alone, I shall recommend to refrain from ethics. But I have known nearly none.
Utilitarianism, for me, was a prison made of stress, math, and the end of freedom of choice. I see why people need to be more utilitarian, just a little more. I don’t disagree. I just want to be out of my prison, I want to be in a psychological state in which my desire is not to suppress my pleasures, but to pursue them. Not to contain my excitement, but to display it. Not to harness my emotions into something productive, but to think that my emotions are important in themselves, qua emotions. I want to help other people and beings because that is awesome. I want to be kind because kindness makes my life good, and makes others lives good. I want to help the friendly Singularity because it is the most dramatic transformation that will ever happen, ever, ever. I want to live forever, and that humanity lives forever, because death is bad.
None of those reasons is the maximization of an algorithm. I have no goals whose shapes are mathematical entities of the Max(Arg) sort. None of those reasons is calculation based. None of those reasons is to increase a numerical value, or decrease another.
After Nakul Krishna posted the best critique of Effective Altruism so far, I did what anyone would do. I tried to steelman his opinions into their best version, and read his sources. For the third time, I was being pointed to Bernard Williams, so I conceded, and read Bernard Williams’s book Ethics and The Limits of Philosophy. It’s a great book, and I’d be curious to hear what Will, Toby, Nick, Amanda, Daniel, Geoff, Jeff and other philosophers in our group have to say about it at some point. But what I want to talk about is what it made me realize: that my reasons for Effective Altruism are not moral reasons.
When we act there can be several reasons for our actions, and some of those reasons may be moral in kind. When a utilitarian reasons about a trolley problem, they usually save the 5 people mostly for moral reasons. They consider the situation not from the perspective of physics, or of biology, or of entropy of the system. They consider which moral agents are participants of the scenario, they reason about how they would like those moral agents (or in the case of animals moral recipients) to fare in the situation, and once done, they issue a response on whether they would pull the lever or not.
This is not what got me here, and I suspect not what got many of you here either.
My reasoning process goes:
Well I could analyse this from the perspective of physics. – but that seems irrelevant.
I could analyse it from the perspective of biology. – that also doesn’t seem like the most important aspect of a trolley problem.
I could find out what my selfish preferences are in this situation. – Huh, that’s interesting, I guess my preferences, given I don’t know any one of the minds involved are a ranking of states of affairs, from best to worst, where if 6 survive, I prefer that, then 5 and so on.
I could analyse what morality would issue me to do. – this has two parts 1) Does morality require of me that I do something in particular? and 2) Does morality permit that I do a thing from a specific (unique) set of actions?
It seems to me that morality certainly permits that I pull the lever, possibly permits that I don’t too. Does it require that I pull it? Not so sure. Let us assume for the time being it does not.
After doing all this thinking, I pull the lever, save 5 people, kill one, and go home with the feeling of a job well done.
However there are two confounding factors there. So far, I have been assuming that I save them for moral reasons, so I backtrack those reasons into the moral theory that would make that action permissible and even sometimes demanded, I find aggregative consequentialism (usually utilitarianism) and thus, I conclude: “I am probably an aggregative consequentialist utilitarian.”
There is other factor though, which is what I prefer in that situation, and that is the ranking of states of affairs I mentioned previously. Maybe I’m not a utilitarian, and I just want the most minds to be happy.
I never tried to tell those apart, until Bernard Williams came knocking. He makes several distinctions that are much more fine grained and deeper than my understanding of ethics or that I could explain here, he writes well and knows how to play the philosopher game. Somehow, he made me realize those confounds in my reasoning. So I proceeded to reason about situations in which there is a conflict between the part of my reasoning that says “This is what is moral” and the part that says “I want there to be the most minds having the time of their lives.”
After doing a bit of this tinkering, tweaking knobs here and there in thought experiments, I concluded that my preference for there being most minds having the time of their lives supersedes my morals. When my mind is in conflict between those things I will happily sacrifice the moral action to instead do the thing that makes most minds better off the most.
So let me add one more strange label to my already elating, if not accurate, “positive utilitarian” badge:
I am an amoral Effective Altruist.
I do not help people (computers, animals and aliens) because I think this is what should be done. I do not do it because this is morally permissible or morally demanded. Like anyone, I have moral uncertainty, maybe some 5% of me is virtue ethicist or Kantian, or some other perspective. But the point is that even if those parts were winning, I would still go there and pull that lever. Toby or Nick suggested that we use a moral parliament to think of moral uncertainty. Well, if I do, then my conclusion is that basically I am not in a parliamentary system, but in some other form of government, and the parliament is not that powerful. I take Effective Altruist actions not because they are what is morally right for me to do, but in spite ofwhat is morally right to do.
So Nakul Krishna and Bernard Williams may well, and in fact might have, reasoned me out of the claim “utilitarianism is the right way to reason morally.” That deepened my understanding of morality a fair bit.
But I’d still pull that goddamn lever.
So much the worse for Morality.
It seems clear from these two texts that I am not moved by moral knowledge as strongly as other people are, that is, upon realizing something to have a high probability of being a moral fact, this does not change my behavior substantially, and it also seems clear that I have very strong altruistic inclinations that come from an origin that is not moral reasoning, but some other drive. This drive seems to be pan-reflectionally stable (stable under reflection in many perspectives, including reading Bernard Williams or Peter Singer or Joshua Greene) and therefore to be robust to manual mode thinking, unlike the deontological judgements people make on the trolley problem, which tend to not survive manual mode reflection.
For lack of a better term, I will call this inescapable altruism, until I better understand it.