Social ethics vs decision theory

post by AlexMennen · 2011-02-20T04:14:54.389Z · score: 3 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 35 comments

It seems to me that usually, when someone says "ethics" on lesswrong, ey usually means something along the lines of decision theory. When an average person says "ethics", ey is usually referring to a system of intuitions and social pressures designed to influence the behavior of members of a group. I think that a lot of the disagreement regarding ethics (i.e. consequentialism vs deontology) is rooted in a failure to properly distinguish between decision theory and what society pressures people to do. Most lesswrong users probably understand the distinction fairly clearly, but we only ever talk about decision theory. Why don't we talk about the social meaning of ethics?

35 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by komponisto · 2011-02-20T07:41:58.791Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Imagine posting the following on a physics forum:

"When a physicist says 'work', they usually mean something along the lines of 'force times distance'. When an average person says 'work', they are usually referring to the subjective feeling of expending effort. I think that a lot of the disagreement regarding the nature of work (i.e. between specialists and layfolk) is rooted in a failure to properly distinguish between mathematical calculations and everyday intuition. Most physicists probably understand the distinction fairly clearly, but you guys only ever talk about force times distance. Why don't you talk about the psychological meaning of work?"

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-22T16:21:57.458Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would be a valid point if that particular forum of physicists were insisting that people can't possibly be expending energy (beyond normal life-sustenance) to hold heavy objects because, "They aren't applying force to the object through a distance."

There's probably a parallel disconnect in there somewhere that AlexMennen is concerned about.

comment by komponisto · 2011-02-22T17:04:37.269Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that in both cases people are complaining about a conceptual reduction which they don't recognize because the resulting vocabulary doesn't happen to resemble the everyday vocabulary.

Thinking that decision theory lies in a separate magisterium from social pressures is, like most compartmentalizations, a failure to properly abstract. It's akin to not realizing that the physical theory of work includes forces being applied through distances within the body of an organism, and that part of the whole point of a physical theory is that it should not explicitly invoke complex higher-level notions of psychology.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-02-22T23:35:00.125Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh? When you're holding something, you expend energy because your hand shakes. The longer you hold it, the more it shakes.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-22T23:47:53.939Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wasn't claiming that the hypothetical physicists made a valid inference -- just the opposite! And FWIW, the shaking (cycling of tension level in the relevant muscles) can't provide net energy to the object because you apply as much work to it on the up movements as it applies to you on the downward movements. The reason you expend energy while holding it in place is because of the muscle adjustments that your body must undergo to maintain an upward force on the object, which indeed involve "force through a distance" -- it's just that body-energy-consuming forces through distances do not include force through a distance on the object you're holding. [1]

In the scenario I was trying to describe, the physicists have made the mistake incorrectly identifying the correct way to map their models onto a system in a way that accounts for all relevant factors. The more "epicycles" you have to add on to get the model to work (no pun intended), the more questionable its claim to relevance -- hence the parallel to (how I understood) AlexMennen's point.

(And for the record, I don't consider the refutation I gave of the hypothetical physicists to be "adding epicycles" because it simply uses independantly-established knowledge from another field, rather than an ad-hoc fix only applicable to this case, thus showing consilience with biology.)

[1] Added footnote to say: Rather, the kind of "work" here shows up in the expansion and contraction of muscles.

Edit2: Hey, what's with the comment deletion? I had a neat reply to you all written up and then you disappeared the thing I was responding to! :-(

comment by cousin_it · 2011-02-23T01:42:01.840Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry. I deleted my comment because it sounded too obvious. (For onlookers, I said the energy gets spent due to shaking of the arm.)

And FWIW, the shaking (cycling of tension level in the relevant muscles) can't provide net energy to the object because you apply as much work to it on the up movements as it applies to you on the downward movements.

Of course it doesn't provide net energy to the object, but it still takes energy away from you. You spend it on the upward movements, but don't reclaim it on the downward movements because that would involve resynthesizing ATP or whatever. So it becomes heat. Likewise, braking your car doesn't cause refuelling (except when it does).

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-23T17:09:42.534Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the context of the hypothetical physicists, it does not help them resolve their confusion to point to the hand shaking. Their mistake is in only counting the work done by the hand to the object. Once they've made that mistake, telling them that the hand shakes would not change their minds, since it doesn't show net work being done by the body in that respect, which is why I made the comment you quoted.

The mistake could only be corrected by pointing out the incorrect model of how humans generate lifting force.

So while your point is correct, and perhaps obvious, one should also remember that it doesn't address the specific mistake I criticized.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-22T23:53:20.752Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edit2: Hey, what's with the comment deletion? I had a neat reply to you all written up and then you disappeared the thing I was responding to! :-(

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-22T20:24:57.636Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

if that particular forum of physicists were insisting that people can't possibly be expending energy (beyond normal life-sustenance) to hold heavy objects because, "They aren't applying force to the object through a distance."

A better response to that would be that although holding heavy objects with maximal effeciency would expend no energy, humans are very ineffecient, and their muscles will convert chemical energy into heat in the process of holding heavy objects.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-02-23T00:06:57.116Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See my obviated reply to cousin_it: yes, the physicists are wrong to make this inference, and it's because they are not using the appropriate model-to-reality mapping, which makes its usefulness appear questionable, and this negative appearance is further worsened when they get to the point of literally saying "Humans holding heavy stuff isn't work." (Which is wrong in both the lay and the technical sense.)

comment by bogus · 2011-02-20T11:00:01.628Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When an average person says "ethics", ey is usually referring to a system of intuitions and social pressures designed to influence the behavior of members of a group.

What you're talking about is generally called morality, or sometimes "normative ethics" (a rather misleading term--see below). Ethics properly defined generally refers to a process of de-escalating moral conflicts and educating ourselves to see others' points of view. As Rushworth Kidder would put it, ethics balances "right versus right". Now, in order for each individual to assert a "right" in the first place, there must be a dependence on some sort of morality, but ethics itself takes our moral intuitions as given: resolution of the conflict is the only thing we can influence.

One application of this is in politics: Jane Jacobs, George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt all separately claim that the moral intuitions of "left wing" and "right wing" folks are so different as to appear nearly irreconcilable. This conflict thus evolves into a full system of politics, which Bernard Crick called "ethics done in public". The distinction between "ethics" and "politics" probably depends on the scope of the conflict: Whithin small groups of up to 70 people, one can generally apply ethics very directly, using only informal sanction and punishment. This includes such things as etiquette, which as the word suggests is a kind of minimal "negative ethics" dealing with everyday situations, aimed towards avoiding needless conflict and misunderstanding.[1]

As groups get larger this becomes harder to do and one needs to agree to such things as a moral code, and formal procedures such as electoral and legal systems which decrease the potential for conflict, at the expense of requiring more and more trust in central arbitration mechanisms--these may eventually become indistinguishable from simple moral authority.

Now, there is some merit to the idea that at least some moral principles are universal, and thus one can talk about "normative ethics" independent of any ethical or political conflict of "right versus right". For instance, most communities will support such values as fairness, knowledge, honesty and a good, thriving life. However, each of these concepts may itself depend on moral judgments. And even then, this does not mean that any individual's moral judgment can be directly relied upon in a shared or predictable way.

[1] Thus, etiquette and related norms should never be used as an excuse to trump deeper ethics: e.g. it is clearly wrong to dismiss a genuine moral grievance as someone just being "rude" or "disrespecting the community". Unfortunately, authority figures will often do this, not so much in "real world" communities as in online services such as forums, wikis and blogs. This often results in a failure of basic deliberation and rationality, as deep groupthink takes over.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2011-02-21T04:43:44.293Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ethics properly defined

That is an interesting third notion of ethics, but your insistence that it is the one true meaning seems like a pretty good illustration of the point of the post. (PS, upvoted)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-20T05:07:35.013Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When an average person says "ethics", ey is usually referring to a system of intuitions and social pressures designed to influence the behavior of members of a group. ... Why don't we talk about the social meaning of ethics?

I get the impression that to a utilitarian, ethics doesn't have a "social meaning" in the sense that it deals with the way society pressures us to behave in a certain way. A utilitarian cares about other people, but ey doesn't pay too much attention to what society wants - given a choice between doing what society wants and doing the right thing, a utilitarian moral realist will try to do the right thing.

... a failure to properly distinguish between decision theory and what society pressures people to do. Most lesswrong users probably understand the distinction fairly clearly ...

They do indeed, but many of them probably deny that "what society pressures people to do" is the same thing as "what is right". And the utilitarians are able to embed their morality in their utility function, and so they use the same decision theory for what is 'right' and for what is 'advantageous'.

comment by AlexMennen · 2011-02-20T05:21:55.035Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you ever met a utilitarian?

comment by Dorikka · 2011-02-20T05:37:31.002Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think of values/morality/desires/preferences/etc. in the form of a large utility function. I can't work with numbers, of course, but it helps me sort things out in my head.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-20T05:29:40.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you ever met a utilitarian?

Not outside of a philosophy text or a blog posting, no, I haven't. But I'm pretty sure they do exist.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-02-20T17:38:13.377Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I exist. I am conscious of my own identity. I was born and I shall die. I have arms and legs. I occupy a particular point in space. No other solid object can occupy the same point simultaneously.

Is it in that sense, that you are pretty sure that utilitarians exist?

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-20T18:03:45.958Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure that there are people who sincerely claim to be utilitarians in the sense that they try to use that ethical doctrine to guide their actions. Is this really controversial? To anyone besides tim_tyler, that is?

ETA: I recognize that I am confused. Can anyone point out what I am missing here?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-02-21T00:28:39.975Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought you might be suggesting that no-one is actually a utilitarian, although they might believe they are.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-02-21T01:50:40.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I said I had never met a utilitarian, I meant, literally, that I have never even met someone who claimed to be a utilitarian. When I said that I am sure that there are sincere utilitarians who try their best to use the doctrine to guide their actions, I meant exactly that.

As far as I am concerned, someone who tries to be a utilitarian really is a utilitarian.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-02-20T17:54:02.777Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No other solid object can occupy the same point simultaneously.

(With overwhelmingly high probability.)

comment by Dorikka · 2011-02-20T04:38:48.937Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that such a topic for discussion would be best introduced by proposing a reason why discussing it would be useful for us. Discussing optimal strategies for pursuing utility functions is useful to us for obvious reasons -- why do you suggest we should talk about "the social meaning of ethics?"

comment by timtyler · 2011-02-20T14:14:14.626Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am curious about how best to model utilitarianism. Several possible models spring to mind:

  • One is that it is a signalling device: selfishness is bad, utilitarianism is ultimate unselfishness - and so it signals goodness.

  • Another is that it is a manipulation device. Some utilitarianism advocates run causes that benefit from donations.

Another point of interest is exactly how bad utilitarianism is for the individual. One might think - like many memetic hijckings - it would typically lead to sterility. However, the famous utilitarian Peter Singer - for example - is married, with three daughters and three grandchildren. Similarly, Yudkowsky's fastest possible escape route wound up landing him a girlfriend. What gives? Is talking about helping others actually just a thinly-veiled way of helping yourself?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-02-20T14:19:59.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a lot of different sorts of utilitarianism, and I'm not sure that all of them would lead to choosing not to have children. What's your line of thought that utilitarianism would lead to sterility?

Also, it wouldn't surprise me if many people who call themselves utilitarians actually mean they're more utilitarian than most people rather than that they're absolutely utilitarian. People (especially non-geeks) are very good at resilience in the face of memes.

Signaling might be even cruder and stupider than you imagine. How about "it's better to sound as though one has a highly intellectual system of ethics"?

comment by timtyler · 2011-02-20T14:31:08.382Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's your line of thought that utilitarianism would lead to sterility?

If you have a choice between feeding your kids and feeding someone elses, usually the other person's needs will be greater than your own. Even if you want to make more utilitarians, much the same applies.

More generally, the "memetic hijcking" model diverts resources from genes to memes - often leading to compromised fertility.

How about "it's better to sound as though one has a highly intellectual system of ethics"?

Something like that probably explains a lot of interest in morality in general. There are also things like: look how much time I have to spend on things not involving finding my next meal.

comment by Dorikka · 2011-02-20T16:29:29.822Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you talking about "assigning everyone's welfare equal utility" utilitarianism or "models one's world-state preferences and subjective preferences using a utility function?" I think that you could be the latter and a complete egoist at the same time. (I am the latter, not the former.)

comment by wedrifid · 2011-02-20T17:25:49.761Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As tim pointed out, 'the latter' just isn't utilitarianism. It is a different brand of consequentialism. Utilitarianism itself is a mixture of obviously stupid and kind of evil (to the extent that it is taken seriously).

comment by timtyler · 2011-02-20T17:19:23.687Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"assigning everyone's welfare equal utility" utilitarianism

That is what the dictionary says "utilitarianism" means. See the "summed among all sentient beings" bit.

or "models one's world-state preferences and subjective preferences using a utility function?"

It would be nice if "utilitarianism" meant that - but it usually doesn't.

We have to call that sort of system "utility-based" at the moment. Come the revolution...

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-02-22T09:11:57.592Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

or "models one's world-state preferences and subjective preferences using a utility function?

Many around here would call that "consequentialism".

comment by Dorikka · 2011-02-21T02:37:15.586Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mmkay; I yield to the dictionary.

comment by AlexMennen · 2011-02-20T04:47:48.517Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe because it could help us figure out how to better manipulate the system? Or maybe some of us would just find it interesting? I don't have any particular reason to believe that such a discussion would be useful, but as I couldn't think of any compelling argument that it could not be useful, it seemed at least worth bringing up, if not necessarily worth following through on.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-02-20T05:28:47.613Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you clarify the difference you see, if any, between what you understand "ethics" to refer to when used by an average person, and what you understand "peer pressure" to refer to?

Because if you don't see a difference, I'd just as soon call that "peer pressure." Calling it "ethics" seems to confuse the issue.

In either case, if you have something interesting to say about it, go right ahead.

comment by AlexMennen · 2011-02-21T01:43:16.134Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you clarify the difference you see, if any, between what you understand "ethics" to refer to when used by an average person, and what you understand "peer pressure" to refer to?

Peer pressure is moral in nature if people think of it that way. I can't provide an ontologically basic definition of social morality, but given that you are a human, I'm pretty sure you can identify it when you see it. Pressures within a group that serve to help the group function better are usually moral in nature.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-02-20T14:21:31.345Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

but we only ever talk about decision theory.

I wish! ;)

comment by timtyler · 2011-02-20T13:56:51.254Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why don't we talk about the social meaning of ethics?

I do, from time to time - e.g. see this comment - about morality as signalling and manipulation.