Thursday, May 3, 2018

Eternity And Mediocrity

Nick Bostrom's Infinite Ethics is a worthwhile read, but if you don't have the time, I'll just point you to this bit from the abstract:

  • Modern cosmology teaches that the world might well contain an infinite number of happy and sad people and other candidate value-bearing locations. Aggregative ethics implies that such a world contains an infinite amount of positive value and an infinite amount of negative value. You can affect only a finite amount of good or bad. In standard cardinal arithmetic, an infinite quantity is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of any finite quantity. So it appears you cannot change the value of the world.

Maybe you gawk at the quoted passage and conclude that contemporary cosmologists are out to lunch. Or maybe you figure Bostrom misrepresents or misconstrues what the majority of them actually believe. I don't know, and it doesn't really matter anyway, because you don't have to believe that sentient life sticking around forever is a foregone conclusion. You just have to acknowledge that the finitude of sentience isn't exactly a foregone conclusion either. The best available evidence for infinitude isn't conclusive, but it's not dismissible either.

And even if you are unfazed by the expertise of cosmologists, to the point of remaining 100% confident that sentient life is destined to go extinct for good sometime in the future, I would say the Arithmetic Paralysis quandary outlined in the paper is fascinating enough in its own right to warrant theoretical pivots. Not everything needs to implicate Applied Ethics to be worthy of our mentation.

If you have a bona fide appetite for philosophy, toying with ideas that educe incredulous stares elsewhere should be a picnic.    

"Nothing stifles intellectual curiosity like the craving for familiarity."

Me. Just now.

An organism with some degree of moral standing is an organism with some degree of interests. When someone sets out to compare the moral standings of all relevant organisms across canonical space-time, there is only one Temporally Neutral theory on offer, and its name is aggregationism. Every other theory I have read up on in secular moral philosophy happily violates commitments to this unique and rarely discussed form of neutrality. Violations of it are, of course, recommended in varying degrees; maximally, minimally, or anywhere in between.

Aggregationism is the lone wolf that sticks with temporal neutrality through thick and thin. Arithmetically, pure non-stop aggregation can't help but steer evaluative considerations in directions so unintuitive, it doesn't take an ethical intuitionist to hear an alarm bell or two sound off in its procedural wake.

At the same time, cognitive biases like Scope Neglect make an aggregative handling of Rightness seem like a procedure that cautious, forward-looking ethicists can handily sink their teeth into. Scope Neglect has us paying all sorts of lip service to a morally relevant future that we know is vast, but surely not so vast that it exhausts all hope of a visibly canonical systematization. Surely bollocks! It just might be that incomprehensibly vast; vaster than our mammalian brains can begin to imagine.

The mind-bending nature of this mare's nest only compounds if you happen to be an aggregationist who holds that life is a zero-sum game wherein true positives can never be extracted by any sentient being. An illustration:

When the best any of us can do is climb near the surface or to the surface of the red, and never surpass it for the genuine green, it's hard to see why an unalloyed aggregator would differentiate between the above three sets of everlastingness. Even the euphoric set is entirely relief-based, according to zero-sum theorists. Take a moment to digest just how outlandish these positions are [zero-sum and temporal neutrality] when combined.

                              World 1: -100, -100, -100, -100, -100, -100, -100, -100...

                              World 2: -10, -10, -10, -10, -10, -10, -10...

                              World 3: -1, -1, -1, -1, -1, -1, -1...

If worlds 1/2/3 are canonically infinite, and if value/disvalue is undeviatingly aggregative, our undeviating aggregator has no reason to prefer World 3 over World 2, or World 2 over World 1. The worlds are interchangeable, at least judging by the standard cardinal arithmetic required for rote aggregation.

Luckily, some of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. It's advisable to believe that sentient life is on the whole more trouble than it's worth, without concomitantly denying the existence of true positives on offer. Those who maintain that there are zero true positives on offer must try to make sense of the above "Eternal Suffering = Eternal Mediocrity = Eternal Euphoria" infinite tally without cracking up in the process. Good luck with that.

So then, what matters more when it comes to moral reasoning about foreseeable outcomes? Our effects on the remainder of the 21st Century? Or our ricochet effects on the 22nd and 23rd Centuries, combined? Or maybe our super-duper ricochet effects on the 24th, 25th and 26th Centuries, again combined? Two Centuries are morally weightier than One Century, and Three are morally weightier than Two.

Talk about a head-scratcher.
One way of invalidating this concern is to contend that the population count(s) is bound to plummet so drastically, and quite soon, such that two (or more) ensuing centuries will contain fewer subjects than a single century does now. But the population count(s) is expected to merely stabilize, not nosedive to the point where the 2500-3000 period, say, contains less subjects than the 2018-2118 period will. Absent a natural or manmade disaster wiping out most organisms, two centuries will always be weightier than one, regardless of when they take place.

The ante can always be upped, meaning the Raw Numbers Axis is on a 1:1 collision course with the Unpredictability Axis [for those committed to temporally-unbiased judgments of moral action]. The more unseen organisms at stake, the more insuperable it is for those of us stuck in the present to reason over the appropriate methods with which to help subjects in the 22/23/24/25/26th Centuries, and so on. This has the makings of a methodical trapping even if suffering is drawn-out but finite. It's a mega-trapping when suffering is infinite.

Come now. Be generous and assume that the span of sentience isn't infinite, just so we can get closely-related issues off the ground...


Even then, there is little sense in picking "The 21st Century" as the more relevant century, because the predicted ramifications of everything we do or fail to do don't stretch out to 2099, only to stop being predictable in 2100. They're confined to a decade, or to a handful of years, and that's if you're a gifted prognosticator or an actuary. For most people, the guesswork is confined to a few months or weeks, at best. It's beyond time for suffering-reducers to make peace with there being no singular marker for "foreseeable" and "unforeseeable" paths to harm alleviation.

You may recall that in this post, I made a similar enough observation about there being no clear division between "nearsighted" and "farsighted" outcomes. Whatever demarcation you settle on will be as arbitrary as declaring 59% a flunking grade and 60% a passing grade.

Back to the world(s) of probable infinity...

Okay, so assessing moral vs. immoral actions and agents, or better vs. worse actions and agents, is a crapshoot under temporally-neutral aggregationism. But before you start ceding undue ground to anti-aggregationists, try to recall what motivated your original allegiance to aggregation. With me, it came down to temporally-biased concerns over the [conceivable] future. The hopeless trappings of temporally-unbiased calculations needn't hamper those original commitments. The more visible the [non-far] future is to our limited brain capacities, the more reasons we have to try and improve that future. As fallible primates, we'll take what we can get; trade in temporally-invariant aggregationism for a temporally-variant one, and voila, everything goes back to normal.

But wait, even under this move, there's still the problem of infinite quantities [good and bad] being unchanged by the addition or subtraction of finite quantities. Thus the whole notion of 'improvement' remains suspect. Sure, we can restrict the scope of the morally-relevant-future to a "near enough" future, but even after doing so, it's still impossible for anyone to increase or decrease final value in a world where all qualifiable value-bearing locations are neverending.

If you're anything like me, you will now find yourself saying: Forget ethics. What about axiological groundings? Does parting ways with a coherent criterion of The Right entail parting ways with a coherent criterion of The Good?

Surely it doesn't, because our criterion of The Good need not be a temporally-invariant one. And unlike a temporally-variant ethical theory that controls for our unreliable guesswork by aggregating interests to a degree only, our axiological theory won't suffer issues of incoherence as a result of those modifications.

Unlike the outwardly prescriptive demands of moral>immoral action, the non-prescriptive fabric of axiological conceptual analysis frees us from tantalizingly difficult riddles. Riddles like "What is the bare minimum amount of reasoning expected from a moral agent who is obligated to forecast the 'predictable' consequences of his lifespan for the year 2500?". Argue that something other than a stalemate is available as an answer, and you've checkmated yourself.

This is where Mediocrity comes in to restore sanity. In a nutshell, the criterion of goodness I have in mind holds that a mediocre life is a passable life. Yes, better to favor the existence of an uncountable number of Mediocre Lives than to favor the existence of a single Tragic Life, all-encompassing summed products be dammed.

When I said forget ethics, I freaking meant it. But I realize that this is too radical a move for most, so let me briefly revisit... ethics "social responsibility".

Next assume that the main driver of "social responsibility" is procreative cautiousness.

There is a world of difference between my pro-mediocrity valuation and a socially-normative proposition that tries to correspond to it by stipulating that it would be more commendable to willingly spawn an endless number of Mediocre Lives than to willingly spawn a single Tragic Life. I would take issue with this socially-laced proposition, despite it staying true to the axiological standard I just laid out. What gives? Since prospective parents are so often clueless as to what kind of life they're about to create, the nexus of their social shortcoming has to be their hubristic willingness to proceed anyway, and not the incidental Raw Numbers.

Take the case of a barely pubescent new mom, talked into giving birth by adults who should've known better. Specifically, a teenage rape victim whose devout parents pressured her into not getting an abortion. She reluctantly spawns octuplets, all of whom go on to have lives not worth living. Compare our teenage preggo with a grown-ass couple who are poor and who, absent any outside pressures, decide to spawn one child. The life of this single child happens to be well above average, yet none of this absolves the impoverished couple of their unwarranted cockiness, and it certainly doesn't make them more considerate than the teen who was all but coerced into having her octuplets.

Alright, now I really am done with ethics social responsibility. Back to my theory of the good...

Axiology is not a placeholder for an experiential continuum wherein a bit of pleasure is synonymous with a bit of intrinsic goodness and a bit of pain is synonymous with a bit of intrinsic badness. So even if you hold to a hardened negative axiology, the promise of a stagnantly mediocre living, existing across all space-time in perpetuity, is not some calamity in urgent need of rectification. Conceptually speaking, the nadir is nowhere near as experientially fluid as that.

The idea that a hedon is a hedon is a hedon is a hedon, has had its day. For if no sentient being ever falls a notch below mediocrity, the permanence of this mediocrity is no more a grave problem than an eternity of blissful eudemonia is.

Just as negative axiologists don't favor tiny qualitative decreases for hellish lives so as to obtain much larger qualitative increases for eudemonic lives, they should likewise disfavor a fate where the only means of discontinuing a ceaseless mediocrity for All is by fostering a shortened tragedy on the Few, or the One.

It's essential to grasp that aggregative hardliners who disagree with me have to believe that qualitative tameness, when everlasting, is infinitely worse than a generation or two of pure torment followed by the end of all sentience. A remarkable bullet to bite. Reflect on their deeper aspirations and see that it's improper for them to rank a tame but permanent life as a smidgen better, or even as considerably better, than a finitely-situated horror-show.

The indefiniteness, no matter how mild for those noticing-it-forever, must be incalculably worse than any determinate span we might compare it to. This, if the hardliners care to be canonically consistent.

When value/disvalue is so tidily reducible to qualia as such, its fluidity conquers all. There is no cardinal (or ordinal) disentanglement to be had. Ever. Spooky stuff.

To recap:

Without lexical-orderings between stages of suffering, or with bads-over-goods, attempts to distinguish moral standings across mind-bending vastness are moot on arrival. Hyperactive aggregation would see moral agents fixate on the expected summed goodness [final value] and halt expected summed badness [final disvalue] above all else. Included in the All Else are oodles of noise-over-signal, though there is discernible signal-over-noise, like the distribution of harms/benefits for all individuals. If permanence is categorically worse than impermanence, it remains so regardless of the distributed welfare-levels for each subject.

It's one thing to believe that sentience resembles an uncontainable fire that is best left unlit, or the sort of fire that, though at times perfectly containable, should by no means be lit flippantly. That's certainly my conclusion, and frequenters of this blog are familiar with the non-categorical lines of reasoning I employ to reach it.

But it's something else altogether to believe that sentient life is all downside potential, no matter what, and to bake in those sweeping accounts of downside potential in your rankings of outcomes. That's the immodest stance with the categorical line of reasoning, and it ushers in ostensibly savage approaches to means/ends calibrations. In principle, the calibrations can recommend short-lived tragedy, not only when the lone alternative is a lived eternity that's merely meh, but also in the face of a lone alternative that sees a paradisiacal eternity with needs/wants still spinning on the proverbial hamster wheel.


Note: Consequentialism and aggregationism are standardly thought of as interchangeable theories. An understandable mistake. Few well-known consequentialists speak out against the principle of uninterrupted tallies. Only sufficientarian slants on consequentialism are susceptible to an interruptible tally that distorts the above-feared calibrations adequately enough. At least on first glance, the principle of sufficiency seems capable of this.

I've briefly considered sufficientarianism in the past, but always passed on it for reasons most consequentialists cite; it struck me as kooky to tolerate humongous spikes in overall disutility just to secure [allegedly] small gains for those stuck a jot or two below the sufficiency threshold (to see them lifted a jot or two above it). If every threshold is 100% arbitrarily designated, or is oddly narrow, this is a powerful objection indeed. Still, I hope to challenge it in an upcoming post. In the past, I thought it out of question to even try, as I operated on the amateurish premise that the drawbacks of 'arbitrariness' would not persist ceaselessly. If they do persist forever and ever, so do the upsides, which seems to capture the pro-mediocrity valuation I'm after.

At any rate, consequentialism's leading figures haven't felt any pressure to adjourn aggregation in similarly circumscribed contexts. The ones who have, are far from influential. It's so badly skewed, I can't come up with any big name counterexamples off the top of my head. To be expected, as all classical consequentialist theories have stuck to the aggregative script from A to Z. There was no room whatsoever for disaggregation, because 'disaggregating' the good was seen as a departure from 'identifying' outcomes-as-the-good.

Sufficientarianism is the ugly duckling... the black sheep... so bring it on.

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