Sunday, November 14, 2021

Un-unshakable Beliefs

What I wrote yesterday was probably not a shock to any long-time reader. What many of you who have read my adult-life-story don't know is that I was a very devout alter-boy Catholic who considered the priesthood (in no small part because I couldn't find a girlfriend most of the time). So changing my mind is not unheard of.

I've never really written about my dismay at spending most of my adult life building a "vegan" group – even as I tried to moderate the message – and advancing people who turned out to be more desirous of adulation, power, and (somewhat) money. But most of that effort made the world a worse place.

I can, of course, imagine that my feelings for people I love could change. I've been betrayed by a person I loved and would have trusted with my life (whoops). I've watched another long-time friend go off the deep-end. It is not beyond the realm of imagining that Anne or I could have a stroke and become a different person. One of Anne's older friends is married to a supporter of F–kface Von Clownstick / the King of Redneckistan / Cheeto Jeesus. This would be intolerable for me (and for Anne, I'm sure). 

Aw baby, don't leave me! I'm all-Biden.

Perhaps more interesting are my changes and doubts in philosophy. I've written a lot about this elsewhere, but to summarize some of the issues:

1.  I question the main premise of much applied philosophy and activism: that the continuation of humanity is the ultimate good. This does not seem obvious to me.

2. There is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Pain is "bad" much more than pleasure can be "good." The best pleasure is great, but the worst pain is much worse. It disturbs me when people are worried about future robots when there is so much acute and unnecessary suffering now.

3. I don't believe that you should cause some people to suffer for another group of people's pleasure. (But this doesn't seem like a hard-and-fast rule, or else I wouldn't be willing to have Anne stub her toe so a bunch of other people could have incredible pleasure. Hmmmm.)

This is different than setting policy where you are distributing suffering. But that is related to:

4. I do not believe you can honestly sum across individuals. This is partially discussed more here (one of my most important posts, which interacts with the ideas here).

But in short, there is no entity that is experiencing the summed pleasure or pain in any particular situation. When discussing potential outcomes of a policy, for instance, the universe doesn't experience pleasure level 10 if ten individuals are experiencing pleasure level 1. 

It is, I think, a cognitive bias that we sum things in our mind by default: "Ten people with pleasure level 9 is better than one person with pleasure level 10." We just can't help ourselves. But assuming we're capturing everything*, there are only isolated conscious minds experiencing pain and pleasure. This leads to conclusions that can seem wrong, even offensive, but at this point, I see no way around it.

* One mind's happiness or suffering can influence another's. But I'm assuming we capture that in the "final" numbers. 

I used to think differently – I used to speak in terms of "less suffering in the world." But the only way to think about it correctly would be to think about individuals suffering. (Again: more here.)

I could be wrong.

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