2009-04-25

One value set to rule them all

Phil Goetz argues on Less Wrong that everyone should use the same set of values for personal decisions as well as for moral reasoning. His article has an interesting passage with which I agree:
How do you weigh rationality, and your other qualities and activities, relative to life itself? I would say that life itself has zero value; the value of a life is the sum of the values of things done and experienced during that life. But society teaches the opposite: that mere life has a tremendous value, and anything you do with your life has negligible additional value. That's why it's controversial to execute criminals, but not controversial to lock them up in a bare room for 20 years. We have a death-penalty debate in the US, which has consequences for less than 100 people per year. We have a few hundred thousand people serving sentences of 20 years and up, but no debate about it. That shows that most Americans place a huge value on life itself, and almost no value on what happens to that life.

I think this comes from believing in the soul, and binary thought in general. People want a simple moral system that classifies things as good or bad, allowable or not allowable, valuable or not valuable. We use real values in deciding what to do on Saturday, but we discretize them on Sunday. Killing people is not allowable; locking them up forever is. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; killing enemy civilians is not. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; torturing them is not. Losing a pilot is not acceptable; losing a $360,000,000 plane is. The results of this binarized thought include millions of lives wasted in prison; and hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined, and economies wrecked, because we fight wars in a way intended to avoid violating boundary constraints of a binarized value system rather than in a way intended to maximize our values.

The idea of the soul is the ultimate discretizer. Saving souls is good. Losing souls is bad. That is the sum total of Christian pragmatic morality.
This, I think, is very good reasoning.

I'm not sure whether I'm in agreement with Phil's major premise though, which is that one should "use just one logic and one set of values for all decisions", whether micro (what am I going to do tonight?) or macro (what's best for everyone?).

Even if your micro values (what should I do today?) are mostly compatible with your macro values (what's best for everyone?), there are values people have which seem immaterial in macro decisions, but apply strongly to micro decisions.

For example, consider a tragedy of the commons where people are over-exploiting a resource and thus gaining an advantage. There is no infrastructure in place to prevent over-exploitation. Should you join in and contribute to the over-exploitation, or abstain and suffer a disadvantage for it?

Note that you cannot affect the macro end result. The resource will be over-exploited and the damage will be irreversible. There is however a major difference to you: you will either share the benefits of over-exploitation with others, or you will suffer a significant disadvantage for not partaking.

What should you do?

In my opinion, everyone is rational in competing for the over-exploited resource, but everyone should at the same time be open to an agreement to impose an infrastructure to prevent over-exploitation; and should preferably act to impose such an agreement soon.

Perhaps this is in compliance with Phil's call for a single value set, if we take the value "no one should have to be the sucker" to apply both in the micro and the macro world.

The above tragedy of the commons example leads me to this paragraph from Phil's post:
Rationality is a win for the rational agent. But in many prisoners-dilemma and tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios, having rational agents is not a win for society. Religion teaches people to replace rational morality with an irrational dual-system morality under the (hidden) theory that rational morality leads to worse outcomes.
Quite so.

Religion is one of humanity's answers to the question:

"What infrastructure can we impose to discourage behavior that is individually rational but harmful when done by everyone?"

The problem with such infrastructures is that they can themselves be harmful. Religion is one of those.

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