Category: Philosophy

Markets and morals

Markets are indifferent to our love.  That is why the emotions we feel toward the market are often perceived as negative.  She never reciprocates.  Worse, she is indifferent.

That is Kevin Depew, from Victor Niederhoffer’s investment site, which Victor describes as "enterprise-oriented."  Here is Victor playing squash.  Here is a Victor Niederhoffer quotation.  Here is Victor on chess, I once gave him knight odds and he beat me.

Intuition Error and Heritage

Intuitions are our least introspective belief components.  We know the least about their origins, or how they would change if our other beliefs changed.  Of course this does not make them wrong; since we are only consciously aware of a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds, in a sense most belief is intuitive.

reminds Tyler that initial moral intuitions are often contradictory, and therefore in error.  We should thus “curve fit” around our initial intuitions to create a better estimate of moral truth.  And the higher our error rate, the less influential each specific intuition should be.  In this post, let me highlight a huge error source: cultural and genetic heritage.

Put yourself into the frame of mind of a reasonable creature of some indeterminate species and culture, before your culture or species arose.  Did this creature have a reason to expect the moral intuitions arising in your culture or species to be closer to moral truth than intuitions in other random cultures or species?  If not, then any such correspondence would be random luck.

We do not want to just hope that we happen to believe truth; we want to see that the process that produces our beliefs produces a correlation between our beliefs and the truth.  So random influences on our beliefs are bad, inducing more error.  Unless you can see a reason to have expected to be born into a culture or species with more accurate than average intuitions, you must expect your cultural or species specific intuitions to be random, and so not worth endorsing.

A similar argument suggests you reject ways that your intuitions differ the average in your culture or species.  If a neutral observer would have no good reason to think you special, then neither do you.

Against Intuition

Larry Temkin, the noted philosopher, was trying to convince Robin Hanson and I that some moral values should not be traded.  He posed the following question:

Suppose that you had a million children and you could give each of them a better life but only if one of them had a very, very terrible life.  Would you do it?

"Of course," I answered.  "You would be crazy not to," said Robin.  I could tell by the look on Larry’s face that this was not the answer that he had expected.   "But, but," he stammered, "almost all philosophers would tell you that that is wrong."  "So much the worse for almost all philosophers," I replied.

My response to Tyler’s post on animal welfare is similar.  Tyler wants to find a theory that both rationalizes and is consistent with our intuitions.  But that is a fool’s game.  Our intuitions are inconsistent.  Our moral intuitions are heuristics produced by blind evolution operating in a world totally different than our own.  Why would we expect them to be consistent?  Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition.  (Which is to say, they are not without function but don’t expect to be healthy on a yummy diet of sugar and fat.)

The reason to think deeply about ethical matters is the same reason we should think deeply about nutrition – so that we can overcome our intuitions.  Tyler argues that we don’t have a good approach to animal welfare only because he is not willing to give up on intuition. 

Tyler asks (I paraphrase) ‘Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats?  What about a billion cats?’  He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today.  The introduction of "your good friend" (or "children" in Larry’s example) engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler’s answer goes awry.  But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets.  That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.

Similarly, contra Larry, we do make tradeoffs concerning our children and more generally we accept that some people, such as coal miners,  risk a much worse life, i.e. death, in order to benefit everyone else just a little bit.

The dilemmas that Larry and Tyler raise tell us that our intuitions,
taken as a package, are not rationally derivable from a handful of
premises.  But that is no reason to abandon reason instead we should
happily accept that some of intuitions lead us astray.

A sound mind and a sound body both require that we abandon our gut instincts. 

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?