Pareto Principles in Infinite Ethics

I’ve been reading the dissertation of that title by Amanda Askell, following her podcast with Robert Wiblin.  And there is also the work of Nick Bostrom on “infinite ethics.”

In the thesis, Amanda considers the possibility that world-states might simply be incomparable when there are an infinite number of relevant beings and infinite total utility in the universe, as seems to be implied by some cosmologies.

That in turn conflicts with the notion that agents are “locations of goodness.”  If you give me some chocolate ice cream, it seems I am better off, and that judgment ought to be allowed to proceed without undue attention being paid to the broader cosmos.  Yet that will imply pairwise comparisons are possible in an infinite universe, if only through the Pareto principle.  But when you compare two overall states of the (infinite) universe in pairwise fashion, it is hard to see what value the “new” ice cream cone brings, because both ex ante and ex post there is an infinite consumption of ice cream.

Maybe the view that agents are locations of goodness doesn’t make sense when paired with infinities.  Might the apparent increase in ice cream mean — whether in some causal sense or not — that still the total number of ice cream-eating beings in the universe has not increased, because if it had the infinity would not have held in the first place?  Metaphysically speaking, one ice cream might push out the other.  Sadly, my (finite) mind cannot readily deal with the intuitions, nor what happens if you try to imagine what kind of infinities we are dealing with, a’la Cantor.

Still, I will gladly accept the assumption of incomparability across different world-states in an infinite universe.  In fact I view incomparability in the infinite universe case as the friend of comparability in the world we live in.  It is by no means certain that the universe is infinite, but there is some chance it is infinite.

When doing expected value calculations, we need to take account of both possibilitites, namely that the universe may or may not be infinite.  But if the infinity scenarios all lead to incomparability across various options (if indeed they are “options” to begin with), you can argue that the calculations for the finite universe scenario dominate the final calculus that we face today, operating under agnosticism about the nature of the universe (infinite or not).  Which brings us back to finite universe ethics and persons being locations of value.  And chocolate ice cream.

Another way to put this is that worrying about infinities “too much” ends up meaning you don’t have to worry about them at all.


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