Monday, December 20, 2021

Ethics Is Not a Simple Math Problem

Imagine you brought a child into existence and tortured them for every minute of their life. While doing so, you brought two other children into the world and gave them totally glorious lives. Would that be “ethical”? Would any number of happy children offset the tortured one?

This thought experiment exposes several issues. The first is the asymmetry between pain and pleasure. Secondly, it shows that the suffering of some can’t be simply offset by the pleasure of others. Finally, it shows the difference between “good” and “must.”

As previously discussed, ethics isn’t a simple addition / subtraction problem. Many “effective altruists” think that they have the “true” and “pure” take on ethics because they have supposedly removed intuition and feelings. But their take – simply add up the pluses and minuses – is itself just an intuition.

They are simply wrong. There is no scale. Pluses don’t just cancel out minuses. Any number of people enjoying a sunset with glasses of wine doesn’t offset a child’s torturous death from cancer.

Put another way: well-off highly-educated white males are not ethically obligated to bring children into the world, even though those children may have good lives. But they are ethically obligated not to bring children into the world whose lives they know would just be agony. 

Creating pleasure is a “nice to have” not “must have.” But not creating suffering is a fucking “must have.”

It makes us feel good to think about quadzillions of happy robots in the future. In reality, though, it is an incredibly pathetic and transparent rationalization to avoid our personal complicity in the unnecessary suffering of the present. The real world is complex and horrible, and we should deal with it rather than engage in endless impotent one-upmanship of meaningless numbers.

Happy Holidays from #TeamChicken.

1 comment:

Vincent Berraud said...

That's why I left a lot of Effective Altruism circles. Most of the debates were... well... let's just say they came across as wanky and self-gratifying and seemed to be getting far away from the real world.