The Illusion of Ethical Progress

post by lsusr · 2020-06-28T09:33:29.013Z · score: 3 (29 votes) · LW · GW · 39 comments

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Here are two statements I used to believe.

  1. The world's ethical systems have generally improved over time.
  2. It follows that ethical systems probably will continue to improve into the future.

I think the first statement is an illusion. If the first statement is untrue then the second statement cannot follow from the first.

What does it mean for an ethical system to get "better"? Physics contains no such thing.

Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet… and yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

To judge the quality of an ethical system you must do so through your own ethical system. Ethics are like Minkowski spacetime. You cannot judge ethics in absolute terms. You can only judge an ethical position relative to your own.

A universal standard of ethics must have practical utility in every society at every point in history. Today's fashions often judge ethics by its internal coherence (untenable in traditional Japan[1]) or universality (untenable in tribal pastoralist cultures[2]).

If you believe your society (or somewhere nearby you in ideatic space) is the pinnacle of ethical evolution then what is more likely?

  1. Your society objectively is the pinnacle of ethical evolution.
  2. You judge every ethical system by its distance to your own.

An ethical system similar to your own often seems like a "good ethical system". The illusion of ethical progress follows from this subjective metric. If ethical systems are one-dimensional then morals will appear to be getting better as often as they get worse. (Except for very recent history which will appear to have improved.) But ethical systems have many dimensions.

3d random walk

In the above picture you can see random walks through 3-dimensional space, representing 3 universes with 3 separate ethical evolutions. The higher the dimensionality of ethical space, the less likely an ethical system will walk back to a previous state and thus the more likely ethical evolution will appear to have a direction. Each 3-dimensional path appears to be going from one place to another even though they are all completely random. The more dimensions an ethical space has, the harder it is to distinguish a random walk from progress. Real ethical space has many more than 3 dimensions.

Does this mean ethics is fundamentally relative?

No

Ethics is fundamentally subjective, but not relative.

In the Western intellectual tradition, ethics is a branch of philosophy. Western philosophy has no place for empiricism. Without empirical results, there is no way to compare ethical systems objectively against each other. Progress is indistinguishable from a random walk.

But there is a way to observe ethics in absolute terms. It is called "mysticism".

Have you ever noticed how Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, Siddhartha and Ryokan all had a habit of going alone into the wilderness for several days at a time? Then they came back and made ethical pronouncements and people listened to them? The great mystics cut through the Gordian Knot of moral relativism by approaching ethics empirically.

The Snowmass Contemplative Group

In the early 1980's Father Thomas Keating, a Catholic priest, sponsored a meeting of contemplatives from many different religions. The group represented a few Christian denominations as well as Zen, Tibetan, Islam, Judaism, Native American & Nonaligned. They found the meeting very productive and decided to have annual meetings. Each year they have a meeting at a monastery of a different tradition, and share the daily practice of that tradition as a part of the meetings. The purpose of the meetings was to establish what common understandings they-had achieved as a result of their diverse practices. The group has become known as the Snowmass Contemplative Group because the first of these meetings was held in the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

When scholars from different religious traditions meet, they argue endlessly about their different beliefs. When contemplatives from different religious traditions meet, they celebrate their common understandings. Because of their direct personal understanding, they were able to comprehend experiences which in words are described in many different ways. The Snowmass Contemplative Group has established seven Points of Agreement that they have been refining over the years:

  1. The potential for enlightenment is in every person.
  2. The human mind cannot comprehend ultimate reality, but ultimate reality can be experienced.
  3. The ultimate reality is the source of all existence.
  4. Faith is opening, accepting & responding to ultimate reality.
  5. Confidence in oneself as rooted in the ultimate reality is the necessary corollary to faith in the ultimate reality.
  6. As long as the human experience is experienced as separate from the ultimate realty it is subject to ignorance, illusion, weakness and suffering.
  7. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual journey, yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one's effort but the experience of oneness with ultimate reality.

Saints and Psychopaths by Willian L Hamilton

You cannot "judge" an ethical system objectively. But you can observe it objectively and you can measure it objectively. Such empiricism once formed the foundation for the Age of Reason. Mystics are less like moral philosophers arguing doctrine than they are scientists reconciling separate experiments.


  1. For more information about this philosophical framework, read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. ↩︎

  2. For more information about this way of life, read Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. ↩︎

39 comments

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comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-06-28T22:25:34.934Z · score: 30 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps this is not central to the post, but I have always found that bit from Pratchett to be unbelievably inane. Truly, it grinds my gears to see it quoted, in wise tones, as if it expresses some profound truth; and doubly so, to see it quoted on Less Wrong.

Consider the following substitution:

Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of apples, one molecule of chairs.

Right? There aren’t any chair molecules, are there? You won’t find apples on the Periodic Table, will you? So what? Do chairs and apples not exist? Are they somehow not real, or less real than… well, than what…? Hydrogen? Methane? Should we adjust our attitude toward apples, or chairs, or paintings, or tigers, on the basis of this insight? What, actually, is to be concluded from this?

Anyway, this is old news. The point, if you like, is that of course ‘physics’ ‘contains’ ethics, and improvements in ethics; these things are facts about people, and the goings-on in people’s brains—which are (dualistic views aside) very much “contained in physics”. Of course, you could argue otherwise[1], but you must do it without recourse to any such “greedy-reductionist”, “grind down the universe” arguments…


  1. E.g., non-cognitivism, or error theory. I am sympathetic to certain arguments in this broad class; but note that they have nothing much to do with the question of whether [fundamental] ‘physics’ ‘contains’ ethics or not. ↩︎

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T04:56:29.633Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean that chairs and apples are less universal than the Universal Law of Gravitation. Similarly, ethical fashions are not fundamental to the universe. They are, as you put it "facts about people". Though old news to you, this idea is not obvious to many of the people I interact with in real life, including some who love to talk about ethics.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-06-29T06:55:22.102Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean that chairs and apples are less universal than the Universal Law of Gravitation.

In what way?

That the law of gravitation holds is a fact about the universe. That chairs exist is also a fact about the universe.

What does “less universal” mean? Does it mean something like “is applicable or relevant in a smaller volume of the observable universe”? If humanity spreads throughout the cosmos, and if we bring chairs with us everywhere we go, will chairs and gravitation thereby become equally “universal” (or, at least, more equal in “universality” than they are now)?

In any case this comparison is a red herring. The relevant comparison is not “chairs vs. gravity”, it’s “chairs vs. ethics”—or, more to the point, “guns vs. ethics”, “tanks vs. ethics”, “food vs. ethics”, “laws vs. ethics”, “governments vs. ethics”, “money vs. ethics”, “prestige vs. ethics”, etc. No vague allusion to “universality” will help you in any of these cases, since all of the things I’ve just listed are (so far as we know, anyway) approximately equally localized—namely, they are all facts about what exists and happens on the surface of one particular planet.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T19:17:54.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean that chairs and apples are less universal than the Universal Law of Gravitation.

In what way?…What does “less universal” mean? If humanity spreads throughout the cosmos, and if we bring chairs with us everywhere we go, will chairs and gravitation thereby become equally “universal” (or, at least, more equal in “universality” than they are now)?

Gravity is present everywhere in the universe. Apples and chairs are not and will never be present everywhere in the universe.

comment by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-06-28T20:15:46.074Z · score: 27 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Western philosophy has no place for empiricism.

This seems a funny claim to make when there's an entire movement in Western philosophy (the British Empiricists) dedicated to empiricism.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T20:53:30.504Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you could make an even stronger argument against my post by writing the following:

The OP makes two contradictory claims:

  • "Western philosophy has no place for empiricism."
  • "[E]mpiricism once formed the foundation for the Age of Reason."

The "Age of Reason", also known as the "Age of Enlightenment", included the British Empiricists who founded a tradition of Western philosophy so empirical it now dominates the world.

comment by wolajacy · 2020-06-30T15:51:03.855Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Philosophy of empiricism and empiricism itself (such as in physics) are two different things, as the first is a metatheory of the second. I interpret the text as talking about the lack of empirical method in philosophy.

comment by waveman · 2020-06-28T21:49:33.421Z · score: 23 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As with much philosophizing, I agree with your diagnosis of the problem, but the solution seems dubious.

ultimate reality can be experienced

You see this claim all the time (e.g. Ken Wilber) but I have yet to see a shred of evidence for it. Given how the brain works, there seems to be no pathway to experience ultimate reality directly.

Bear in mind also the claim

the ultimate reality is the source of all existence

So we are supposed to be able to directly apprehend the source of all existence. The fact that many people experience similar feelings/insights/beliefs is weak evidence for the claim. Not much stronger than the common feeling among each and every new generation that they are the most virtuous and ethical of all generations. (As an aside, which usually comes with the feeling that they are the first to discover the wonders of sex and drugs/alcohol).

On the question of enlightenment this is a very overloaded term.

One use of the term that I found useful and other rationalists might is "The Finders" by Jeffery A Martin. This is a practical and useful version of enlightenment with very little mystification and few grandiose claims.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T04:05:56.571Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given how the brain works, there seems to be no pathway to experience ultimate reality directly.

If "ultimate reality" means "the process by which your brain constructs a simulation of reality" or "all of reality as constructed by your brain" then I believe there is a mechanism to experience something like this directly. Specifically, I suspect that connectome-specific harmonic waves [? · GW] exchange information by adjusting their resonances relative to each other. If CSHW resonance works this way and the global workspace is a low frequency harmonic wave then concentrating on a single thing for a long time ought to get different regions to sync up with each other like a room full of pendulums. This ought to increase the information exchange between them, linking together different parts of the brain that are normally separate from each other.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-06-29T10:11:03.213Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a complex claim not backed by a lot of evidence. My heuristics scream pseudoscience.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-06-28T13:38:59.635Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was with you until "But there is a way to observe ethics in absolute terms. It is called "mysticism"" I have no idea what you mean there.

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-28T14:54:35.006Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the OP is referring to the fact that, while mystical experiences are usually thought by non-practitioners as being random bouts of subjective insight with no objectivity at all, hence fundamentally little more than noise, that isn't actually the case. Mystical experiences follow structured patterns, which is why schools of mysticism develop over time with a well established progression system so that more advanced practitioners can evaluate and teach less advanced practitioners. Basically then, while all of those practitioners are having strictly subjective experiences, those experiences are similar enough they can be objectively discussed by, and worked upon, by those others who also have had close or similar enough ones, including those from outside that particular school.

This means those experiences are neither purely subjective, as is the case with someone suffering from schizophrenia or other mental illness, nor purely objective, in the sense of someone who knows nothing about electricity being able to use electric devices thus extrinsically validating the physics on which electrical engineering is based. Rather, they're in a category of their own, which for lack of a better term some call "subjectively objective".

The field of subjectively objective experiences is scarcely studied by modern science, which focus heavily on the other two. There are some initial efforts in that direction, with brain scans of mystics during deep meditation, that kind of thing, but those still focus much more heavily on the strictly objective side of things (what's physically going on in the brain) than on the specifics of the experiences. This happens, I think, because there aren't well developed and agreed upon hard scientific methodologies for dealing with problems that are impossible to study via double, much less triple, blindness. Rather, this category of problems isn't evaluable even via single blindness. To study it researchers would have to go "zero blind", becoming practitioners themselves and examining it from within, which so far is a huge no-no for anything evidence-based.

So, to go back to the OP, when he says mysticism can observe ethics in absolute terms, I infer they mean ethics itself is neither objective, nor subjective, but rather a subjectively objective field, hence why it can be evaluated only by means of mystical practices, which for now are still the only ones directly addressing this third category of problems.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-06-28T15:16:33.853Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand how do you get from "mystical experiences follow structured patterns" to "mystical experiences have implications on ethics". Btw I think that mental illness also follows structured patterns.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T18:42:08.288Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ethics is a construct of the mind. Mysticism is a suite of techniques designed to observe the constructs of your mind in absolute terms. Therefore mysticism can be used to observe ethics on its own absolute terms. The "structured patterns" part provides the intersubjective consistency necessary for productive dialogue about these subjective experiences.

Btw I think that mental illness also follows structured patterns.

You are not wrong. Mystics can be considered mentally ill within the Western paradigm. Psychiatrist Scott Anderson writes about this in his post Gupta on Enlightenment.

Living in the condition of having no internal dialogue, no flow of thoughts, no flow of images, just Smack, into the present is quite an abrupt thing. For the first couple of weeks I thought I’d gone completely mad. Oh my god I’ve totally broken myself. I’m fucked. And I discovered that I could still go to work, and I could still socialise with people and I could cook and get through all the basic things of life. Nobody outside of me seemed to notice any particular change in my behaviour, even though I was lost in this rapturous state of total absorption with the world. Wow, this is amazing, woah! And then life continued.

I’d run right off the edge of every reality map that I had because if you go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist and say, by the way I did really a lot of meditation and my internal dialogue has totally stopped. Any ideas what I do now? Nobody ever winds up there in the West because nobody does enough meditation, at least they don’t do it right.

Actually, sometimes people do come to psychiatrists with these kinds of complaints. I usually try to explain what’s going on, and they usually tell me they were just meditating because someone said it relieved stress, and nobody warned them they could actually have mystical experiences, and this was not what they signed up for. Symptomatic treatment and a hard ban on further meditation successfully de-mysticize most of these people, and they are able to go back to their regular lives. I assume if there’s an afterlife some sort of cosmic wisdom deity is going to be very angry at me – but hey, I’m just doing my job.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-06-28T20:48:13.935Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mysticism is a suite of techniques designed to observe the constructs of your mind in absolute terms.

I am skeptical. Designed by who, and how? Why do you think this design is any good? What makes it so much better than Western philosophy at understanding ethics?

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T21:08:33.558Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It has been designed by many people all over the world (but mostly in Asia) over thousands of years through extensive trial and error. I think some of the methods are very good and have tried them out myself. I persevered with my favorite technique and it produced fascinating results for me. Mysticism has the advantage over Western philosophy in that it allows a practitioner to observe ethics unfolding in the mind directly. This brings ethics down from philosophical word games into the empirical reality of consciousness.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-06-28T22:02:34.320Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Trial and error assumes an objective, measurable loss function. What is the loss function here, and why is it relevant to ethics? Also, can you give some examples how this method allows solving questions debated in Western philosophy, such as population ethics, the moral status of animals, time discount or nosy preferences?

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T04:26:38.743Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the loss function here, and why is it relevant to ethics?

This is a very complicated question and lots of other people have written about it already, in depth and in better places than eight comments deep into an online forum. If you are sufficiently interested in this subject, I recommend reading a book by Dharma Dan, Brad Warner, Thích Nhất Hạnh or the 14th Dalai Lama. You may prefer Dharma Dan to the others as he is the most secular of this group.

If you are curious about how ethics can exist without a loss function, you may find interesting The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. (I listed this book in the footnotes to the original article.) This book describes a real-world ethical system where internal coherence (an abstract well-defined loss function) was not a value. I hope in the future to write a future about Daoism that expands upon this idea.

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-28T20:17:13.943Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that mental illness also follows structured patterns.

Yes, but not shared ones. To use LW's terminology, consider the map vs. territory distinction.

  • In a strictly objective scenario, all or almost all individuals agree that their respective maps agree with all others and correlate with the territory mostly the same way. At most individual maps differ in precision and resolution, but they all overlap in such a way that overlap is clear to most everyone.

  • In a purely subjective scenario, the opposite happens. Individual maps differ radically from each other, and hence either one map (or a set of overlapping maps) correlates with the territory, the other mutually contradictory maps not correlating to it, or in the extreme none of the maps correlates with the territory.

  • A subjectively objective scenario is an in between situation. You have a wide set of individuals from many different backgrounds who all share a set of clearly overlapping maps, differences between those individual maps also clearly being only in precision and resolution, as is the case in the strictly objective scenario. At the same time, however, this set of overlapping maps isn't shared with all/ almost all individuals.

From the perspective of mystics, the set of overlapping maps they share among themselves doesn't contradict the set of overlapping maps everyone else shares. They see theirs as the wider map of which everyone else's is a subset, and understand themselves and their techniques as means to access and map more of the territory, areas others usually don't draw into their own maps because they don't look that way often, or even don't look at it at all, and therefore these maps cover a smaller territory.

From the perspective of non-mystics though, the map mystics share among themselves correlates to nothing, as it's talking about a section of the territory that doesn't exist, there being nothing "there" to be mapped. Rather, at most mystic techniques activate some weird neurological pathways which, being present in all human brains, work similarly when active, and that would better explain the shared similarity among their maps than the supposition that there's a large section of the territory most everyone doesn't perceive unless they train to perceive it.

Occam's Razor favors this second take, but the shared nature of the map mystics hold remains intriguing, and there's always the possibility it may indeed refer to existing territory.

comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-06-28T22:09:42.481Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are "shared" phobias, and common types of paranoia. There are also beliefs many people share that have little to do with reality, such as conspiracy theories or UFOs. Of course in the latter case they share those beliefs because they transmitted them to each other, but the mystics are also influenced by each other.

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-28T23:54:20.830Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are "shared" phobias, and common types of paranoia. There are also beliefs many people share that have little to do with reality (...)

These analogies relate to surface similarities. Individual mystic schools provide methodologies that provide highly repeatable sets of results in a progressive sequence, and the ability for advanced 3rd party practitioners to evaluate said progression. If you enroll in one and follow the program you're almost guaranteed results, in the sequence that method delineates. Hence, even if these experiences don't correlate to something extrinsically real, they point to some interesting cognitive features that are little explored. At a minimum there's an entire area of "psychological engineering" waiting to be properly developed under those methods.

(...) the mystics are also influenced by each other.

True, but the practices at the earlier "grades" tend to be very different between different schools even if high level practitioners from different schools can easily dialogue with each other. For example, a high level mystic trained in the Isma'ilic method can at some sit down and talk with a high level mystic trained in the Advaita method, both having a quite productive discussion about their respective experiences while still rejecting each other beliefs, but when it comes to what beginners and mid-level practitioners of either school do in practice, there isn't little similarity. Any such influence then, if it does indeed trickle down from those high level discussions, happens at some meta level once or twice removed from the concrete practices.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-06-29T10:25:37.949Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not even an amateur on mysticism, but I doubt the “shared maps” hypothesis. What I’ve known of religions certainly are contradictory maps. Another hypothesis I advance is that mystics generally speak with vague terms. I.e., they share very rough templates of their maps that can then be retrofitted to many a different map. Mystics who seek other disciplines out also have an incentive to make themselves seem united and similar. (My propaganda Islamic textbooks often labor on how all religions are essentially the same and Islam is their latest version in a linear space.) It might even be that the process of extracting those vague templates from their maps somehow produces similar templates. Their maps almost certainly share several constraints of medium making them more similar, like the constraint of human appeal and allowing hierarchical growth (so that the novice can always “aspire” to the master’s level.).

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-29T14:29:21.528Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I’ve known of religions certainly are contradictory maps.

Yes, but this is a separate issue. Indeed, mystical practices are very often religious and expressed through a conceptual framework based on theistic and supernatural ontologies, but they can be practiced without any of that, and still yield the same subjective experiences, which means these don't depend on those. In fact, mystics of different schools, while they agree one the validity of each other experiences, still usually argue about whose interpretation of those experience is right.

For example, while a Muslim mystic, a Yogi mystic, a Buddhist mystic, and a Neoplatonic mystic may all agree they experienced their self-identities stopping under such and such circumstances and restarting afterwards, the Muslim one, who interprets their experiences as "uniting with Allah", won't be keen on the Yogi one's interpretation of it as "dissolving in the Brahman Supreme", who in turn won't be keen on the Buddhist one interpreting it as "manifesting the Buddha Nature", who also won't be keen on the Neoplatonic one interpreting it as "ascending to the One", and so on and so forth.

So, while the experience may be shared, it doesn't actually offer any kind of concrete answer about what is really going on. This is where modern scientific approaches would, I suppose, provide something more concrete, specially if more skeptics were to practice those techniques to completion and then frame them within more down-to-earth notions.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T20:34:37.760Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comment about "structured patterns". I think you did a great job of explaining ideas I had not delved deep into within my original post. I like your metaphor about how mystics map "more of the territory" too. I think some schools (vipassana especially) map the territory in finer detail as well.

I feel like Eliezer Yudkowsky's argument about Bayesian complexity in his Quantum Physics and Many Worlds [? · GW] sequence favors the mystics' perspective. Why do you think Occam's Razor favors the second perspective? Are "weird neurological pathways" not part of the territory of consciousness?

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-28T23:58:41.026Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you think Occam's Razor favors the second perspective?

Because assuming there's a larger territory means, within a reductionist perspective such as the one favored by LWers, assuming a larger set of first principles, while assuming it's an incorrect perception retains the same set of first principles. Hence, Occam's Razor favors the second alternative. But only as long as there's no further evidence for the first, at which point the likelihood for both hypothesis would slide accordingly.

comment by Viliam · 2020-06-28T17:16:51.724Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Have you ever noticed how Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, Siddhartha and Ryokan all had a habit of going alone into the wilderness for several days at a time? Then they came back and made ethical pronouncements and people listened to them?

And how much similarity is there between the ethical pronouncements? Should you sacrifice your son to a hallucinated god, turn the other cheek, slay the unbelievers and rape their women, observe your thoughts until you conclude that nothing is real, or...?

So far, I find it plausible that going away from other people for several days is good to focus on developing your own philosophy. These days, you should probably also turn off the social networks. But is this walk less random?

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T17:51:49.171Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should you sacrifice your son to a hallucinated god, turn the other cheek, slay the unbelievers and rape their women, observe your thoughts until you conclude that nothing is real, or...?

"No", "yes", "no", "no", and "it depends", respectively. Some of these questions are more complicated than they appear to outsiders. For example, while the Covenant is seen as a one-way street in Christianity, the Jewish Covenant can be seen more as a two-way negotiation within Jewish theology. Would Abraham have sacrificed Isaac if God had not rescinded the command? Perhaps Abraham was testing God rather than the other way around. But I do not think any of these specific questions get to the crux of our disagreement.

And how much similarity is there between the ethical pronouncements?

I think this is the crux of our disagreement. The ethical systems pronounced are all context-dependent products of their time, so to compare them we must examine them in a context-free way. The simplest way to cut away much of the context is to examine their epistemology.

Most (all?) contemplation-based mystic techniques have strikingly similar methods. By focusing one's thoughts on a single target of attention, they not only get the junk from your social networks[1] out of your mind, they help you get other junk out of your mind too.

So far, I find it plausible that going away from other people for several days is good to focus on developing your own philosophy.

I think we have common ground here. Furthermore, I contend there exist contemplative techniques that can magnify the effect of getting away from it all.


  1. Social networks have been around since before Homo sapiens. ↩︎

comment by Collisteru · 2020-06-28T22:34:27.549Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed and agreed with the first part of this article: I think the analogy of the random walk is an interesting way to think about progress in ethics. The section addressing moral relativism does raise a few questions, though.

Ethics is fundamentally subjective, but not relative.

Could you clarify what you meant by this? What is the difference between the terms, in context?

The Snowmass example has a few problems. To begin, religion =/= ethics. None of the Points of Agreement involve ethics in a meaningful way and they're all vague, involving meaningless terms like "ultimate reality." They're essentially religious Barnum statements.

Finally, how can contemplation in the wilderness be an experiment in observing anything but individual human psychology? I would be more convinced by an experimental attempt at optimizing religion/ethics if it involved, for example, looking at how prevalence of certain ethical/religious beliefs in communities correlates with objective, measurable values such as happiness or wealth. Empiricism involves analyzing experimental results against a current model, not just other experiments.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T04:18:29.120Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By "subjective" I mean that ethics is not meaningful without an observer. There can be no meaningful ethics in a lifeless, brain-less world without actors. By "relative" I mean taking the measure of an ethical system relative to another ethical system. "Differences in degrees Celsius" is a relative measure but "degrees Kelvin" is an absolute measure.

As someone with experience meditating, I don't think these are religious Barnum statements at all. But this is not obvious if you have not had certain experiences for yourself.

Finally, how can contemplation in the wilderness be an experiment in observing anything but individual human psychology?

It isn't. But we are all the same species and tend to be similar to each other in the most fundamental ways. Study one mouse thoroughly enough and you will learn a lot about mice in general. I would love to see a wealth of scientific data on the effect of mystical practice on happiness and other metrics like default mode activation, but such data does not exist right now.

comment by TAG · 2020-06-28T23:28:29.480Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does it mean for an ethical system to get “better”? Physics contains no such thing.

You say that as though there is no other possible basis to make an objective judgement. Naturalists tend to reject the idea of a separate ontological domain of ethical value, whoch is fair enough. but nihilism is too hasty a conclusion. There is also the domain of human cultural constructs, which is neither derivable from physics, nor ontologically non-physical.[*]

Norms about how well things function, how well they do their job, are objective enough, yet are not rooted in physics. There are norms about how to play chess well, although chess is clearly a human construct. There are norms about how to play run a economy , although money is clearly a human construct.

To judge the quality of an ethical system you must do so through your own ethical system

Ethical philosophy itself is an attempt to judge ethics by norms that are not ethical, such as rational norms. (Or mathematical ones in the case of "torture vs. dust specs").

The assumption that ethics has a function, that it is part of the "operating system" of society allows us to make judgements about better and worse systems of ethics, where "better" and "worse" are cashed out as fulfilling a function well or badly, and are not therefore circular appeals to the ethical sense of better and worse.

A universal standard of ethics must have practical utility in every society at every point in history.

I suppose so, but why would you want one? In order to justify moral progress, you need an objective standard of ethics, not a universal one.

Minimally, an objective truth is not a subjective truth, that is to say, it is not mind-dependent. Lack of mind dependence does not imply that objective truth needs to be the same everywhere, which is to say it does not imply universalism. Truths that are objective but not universal would be truths that vary with objective circumstances: that does not entail subjectivity, because subjectivity is mind dependence.

I like to use the analogy of big G and little g in physics. Big G is a universal constant, little g is the local acceleration due to gravity, and will vary from planet to planet (and, in a fine-grained way, at different points on the earths surface). But little g is perfectly objective, for all its lack of universality.

To give some examples that are actually about morality and how it is contextual:

  • A food-scarce society will develop rules about who can eat how much of which kind of food.

  • A society without birth control and close to Malthusian limits will develop restrictions on sexual behaviour, in order to prevent people being born who are doomed to starve, whereas a society with birth control can afford to be more liberal.

[* from Vaniver's review of Hariri's Sapiens]

But, of course, those modern institutions (as well as the ‘primitive’ ones) function. One division Harari discusses that I found useful was objective, subjective, and inter-subjective:

An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. … [Radioactivity is his example.]

The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. … [A child’s imaginary friend is his example.]

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. …

Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

That last list looks familiar. Gods and prices are not features of the wavefunction of the physical universe—they’re features of communication networks, or cultures. The creation of a third, explicitly defined category (phrases that mean similar things are “social construct” and “myth,” at least when used non-pejoratively) solves the epistemic crisis of realizing that many, if not most, of the interesting things in life are neither objective nor subjective. The rules of association football are not objective natural laws baked into the universe before there was time, but neither can they be changed by a single person deciding to play differently. (Many authors fall headlong into this epistemic crisis, and Harari every now and then seems to have his presentation, if not his arguments, tripped up by it. But on the whole he manages it well.)

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T04:35:16.883Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A universal standard of ethics must have practical utility in every society at every point in history.

I suppose so, but why would you want one?

Because if I do not follow a universal standard of ethics then my entire ethical system will be founded on nothing more than transient fashions. Little is sufficient for most practical applications. Big is about understanding the universe. I want to understand the universe.

comment by alexgieg · 2020-06-29T14:55:36.064Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because if I do not follow a universal standard of ethics then my entire ethical system will be founded on nothing more than transient fashions.

Alas, you won't find that in mysticism, as mystics' ethics isn't universal either.

What I observed reading and listening to many mystics over the years is that, while their ethics did indeed change in a more or less similar way due to their mystical experiences, it didn't do so in a "big G" way, but rather only in a "little g" way. Basically, their experiences change their utility function in a very specific way: they end up believing that achieving those experiences is a value unto itself, that everyone should have them, and so they propose changes and tweaks to their pre-existing, culturally conditioned moral framework that, if applied at large, result in facilitating and encouraging more people to achieve mystical experiences.

Now, this isn't to say that having those experiences doesn't provide objective benefits. It seems to do, as it's been shown that people who've had them are in general calmer, more focused, less anxious etc. But that's a far cry from "understanding the universe". Mystical experiences don't provide for that, for if they did, mystics wouldn't all keep disagreeing with each other about how the universe works, which they definitely do, on most of everything.

Also, depending on how those tweaks to pre-existing moral norms are done, the end result sometimes can be worse than the original. For a remarkable example check Kelley L. Ross's article Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao, which shows how incredibly wrong things can go in that area.

comment by TAG · 2020-06-29T18:46:05.785Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What universal system of ethics would apply both to humans and aliens who eat their own young? [LW · GW]

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T19:11:45.964Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My answer to that question it is so far off the collective map of Less Wrong that stating it here would not result in a productive conversation [? · GW]. If our timeline is the blue walk of the post's 3D plot then my answer comes from the red one.

comment by Mike Stop Continues · 2020-06-28T13:12:00.772Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really enjoyed this, though I'm not sure I agree with your opening premise. It seems like an individual can subjectively improve their ethics over time, and through empiricism, so can a society. 

That said, I suspect an unspoken aspect to your argument is that we have already randomly walked around, if not precisely on, the optimal human ethic. In this way, there can be no ethical progress. It's just a matter of getting a critical mass of humanity to zero in on that location. 

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-28T18:19:32.904Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am happy to hear you enjoyed this article.

I agree that an individual can subjectively improve zir ethics over time. It follows that so can a society. But just because a society can improve does not mean it has improved.

That said, I suspect an unspoken aspect to your argument is that we have already randomly walked around, if not precisely on, the optimal human ethic. In this way, there can be no ethical progress. It's just a matter of getting a critical mass of humanity to zero in on that location.

Really? Why do you think so? I claim ethics is absolute. No mass of humanity shouting will ever make it so.

comment by Mike Stop Continues · 2020-06-29T17:54:24.337Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess I misinterpreted your argument on that point. I'm somewhat inclined to the belief I attributed to you, so I'll try to defend it...

We've been circling the same set of ethical ideas for quite a while now, if not for the whole of our species history. So either we're stuck in a local maxima of ethical reasoning, or there's a disconnect between our capacity to reason about ethics (which we've found possibly the absolute maximum of) and our capacity to implement it (having reached varying local maxima across the globe). I'm inclined to believe the latter, because the problem of ethics is ever-pressing, and yet we've seen no new formulations since (roughly) the enlightenment.

If that's the case, the real challenge is getting a critical mass of humanity up to the absolute peak of ethics, where it's easier to pull up those lagging behind, and where we can more accurately quibble about where the precise peak is.

I don't believe that's happening, for all the reasons it's typically hard to escape local maxima. We've got to take "big" steps to get across valleys, which is not something particularly easy for societies to do, and we seem hard pressed to find a Moses-esque leader up to that challenge.

In this sense, I could understand an argument that said we're not making ethical progress, both because we've already discovered the approximate peak and also because it's seemingly impossible for us to get there.

What do you think? And how did you actually mean progress is impossible?

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-29T18:13:08.595Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The enlightenment started around 300 years ago. It sounds like 300 years is a long period of historical time to you. To me, it is a short period of historical time. This itself could be the crux of our disagreement.

I do not mean that progress is impossible either. My argument is far more precise than that. I just saying that it is impossible to distinguish progress from a random walk using certain common meta-epistemological methods.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-06-29T10:34:01.336Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed the first part of the post on how our sense of ethical progress might be an illusion. It’d do nicely as an isolated post.

The second part that goes on advocating mysticism reads like a non sequitur. It’s an extraordinary claim that most secular STEM people have low priors for. Evidence is not presented for it. It is implied that somehow mysticism can escape the criticism of the first part. This implication does not follow for any not already in the choir.

So the whole post feels like propaganda; A somewhat interesting point is made, and then an unrelated position presented. It relies on the emotional goodwill of the first part to carry the second.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-06-29T10:33:07.705Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed the first part of the post on how our sense of ethical progress might be an illusion. It’d do nicely as an isolated post.

The second part that goes on advocating mysticism reads like a non sequitur. It’s an extraordinary claim that most secular STEM people have low priors for. Evidence is not presented for it. It is implied that somehow mysticism can escape the criticism of the first part. This implication does not follow for any not already in the choir.

So the whole post feels like propaganda; A somewhat interesting point is made, and then an unrelated position presented. It relies on the emotional goodwill of the first part to carry the second.