No Guarantee of a Benevolent World

(My apologies, this post was inspired by another person's blog post, but I can't seem to recall whose)

Imagine a world where there is perfect equivalence between the set of policies that are just and the set of policies that are beneficial. In this world there is never any trade-off between justice and utility. Many libertarians believe in this beautiful equivalence. Furthermore, they believe that libertarianism describes the set of policies that lie at the optimum point for both curves.

But there is an epistemological problem with this belief. However much we desire this equivalence to be true, we can not prove it a priori, because "beneficial" is an empirical quality. This makes the truth of the equivalence contingent on the scrutiny of evidence. And the sad fact is that I observe more evidence against the hypothesis than for it.

For example, I hold Western values towards gender equality and individual autonomy. They seem just and desirable to me. But all the peoples that hold such views are breeding below the population replacement rate, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Demographic Winter".

This raises the possibility that free expression of human individuality is an unstable cultural/policy position for society to adopt. It may be that women's ambitions must be constrained to reproduction and family for a society to survive. Otherwise, too few people will voluntarily choose the pain and effort that comes with raising a family over modern pursuits more carefully tuned to stimulating the pleasure centers of our brains.

Rationalists like the folks over at Less Wrong take the beautiful equivalence a step further by adding a third term: truth. The three-way equivalence is "truth = justice = utility". (I must apologize, it has been awhile since I have read their writing, it could be that any views I attribute to them have changed. I remember it as a naively optimistic place.)

But again, there is no a priori reason for this equivalence to hold. No less than Less Wrong's own Robin Hanson tackles the link between truth and utility, when he opines:

Rationality certainly can have instrumental advantages. There are plenty of situations where being more rational helps one achieve a wide range of goals. In those situtations, "winners", i.e., those who better achieve their goals, should tend to be more rational. In such cases, we might even estimate someone's rationality by looking at his or her "residual" belief-mediated success, i.e., after explaining that success via other observable factors.

But note: we humans were designed in many ways not to be rational, because believing the truth often got in the way of achieving goals evolution had for us. So it is important for everyone who intends to seek truth to clearly understand: rationality has costs, not only in time and effort to achieve it, but also in conflicts with other common goals.

Yes, rationality might help you win that game or argument, get promoted, or win her heart. Or more rationality for you might hinder those outcomes. If what you really want is love, respect, beauty, inspiration, meaning, satisfaction, or success, as commonly understood, we just cannot assure you that rationality is your best approach toward those ends. In fact we often know it is not.

The truth may well be messy, ugly, or dispriting; knowing it make you less popular, loved, or successful. These are actually pretty likely outcomes in many identifiable situations. You may think you want to know the truth no matter what, but how sure can you really be of that? Maybe you just like the heroic image of someone who wants the truth no matter what; or maybe you only really want to know the truth if it is the bright shining glory you hope for.

Rationality is also not necessarily beneficial on a group level. For example, I am a good atheist; I believe that religion is false. However, I also believe that religion may benefit individuals and groups that follow it. Any atheist who believes that religion is solely a scourge upon the human race needs to explain its amazing resilience in human history.

Religion might even be the least bad solution to Demographic Winter - American Mormons live lives that are relatively free compared to most of humanity, but their faith and values still drive them to marry and have babies. If this is the case, then it severs the link between rationality and utility at the level of society. The beautiful equivalence is in tatters.

Assuming the beautiful equivalence is false, we still have choices to make. We can make ourselves martyrs to justice, choosing policies that we believe to be right; knowing that societies with fewer scruples will thrive while we whither away. We can choose policies that make an explicit trade-off between utility, truth, and justice. But if the equivalence is broken, then we must choose. We cannot have everything we desire. The universe is not benevolent.

I brought these worries up at Less Wrong, but nobody was willing to debate with me before I had familiarized myself with dozens of Eliezer's old essays. So, I post them here. Have at them.

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I don't see any reason to

I don't see any reason to postulate the existence of this "justice" stuff. Belief in it seems likely to distract from truth, for whatever that's worth.

To anti-natalists, it is good for a population to wither away by failing to reproduce. From this I derive the apocalyptic imperative (though as I am not an antinatalist I do not have to accept it).

In this world there is never

In this world there is never any trade-off between justice and utility. Many libertarians believe in this beautiful equivalence.

I'm not quite libertarian, and cannot really speak for anyone's interpretation of the trade-off.

But I think that the concept of utility is not useful here. We have no way of measuring utility. There is no way to compare utility between people, cultures, time periods, etc. Even it we could come up with gross measures of utility, there would be no way for me to make judgments about what will improve your utility.

Society cannot aim to maximize utility. But it can aim to be Pareto Optimum. The libertarian non-aggression principle is just such a device. By forcing all transactions to be voluntary, we allow each person maximize their own happiness without doing so at the expense of others.

Your second point is very interesting. You throw in a third element - Darwinian fitness. Perhaps neither justice nor utility nor pareto optimality results in the maximum Darwinian fitness for a group. Perhaps being rational does not lead to Darwinian fitness, and the "Less Wrong" people will end up being a historical curiosity to be replaced by a breed of uber-religious Mormons and Muslims. This is a fascinating topic. If I get around to it, I could write a long blog post about it.

I'd like to make a point

I'd like to make a point related to Devin Finbar's. One problem with sacrificing justice for the sake of utility is that it's a crapshoot- it guarantees the commission of injustice for a chance of greater utility. Not only do we not know if we'll actually get the utility we usually don't even know our chances of getting the utility, there's often a very good chance that utility will be lost instead of gained, our inability to measure utility or compare our world with the nonexistent one where we didn't attempt the trade-off means we don't know if we succeeded or not.

Imagine a world where there

Imagine a world where there is perfect equivalence between the set of policies that are just and the set of policies that are beneficial. In this world there is never any trade-off between justice and utility. Many libertarians believe in this beautiful equivalence. Furthermore, they believe that libertarianism describes the set of policies that lie at the optimum point for both curves.

Not my type of libertarianism. In past submissions to this blog I have long criticized the general moral philosophical approach that presupposes that morality is a question of maximizing something like a global utility function. (I tend to favor the view that morality is a kind of Nash equilibrium. My reason is empirical: I look around me and actual morality as people invent it and re-invent it (or if you prefer, discover and re-discover it) in their daily lives, as opposed to philosopher's idealized morality, really is an outcome of a many-player game.)

But there is an epistemological problem with this belief. However much we desire this equivalence to be true, we can not prove it a priori, because "beneficial" is an empirical quality.

However, my own view of morality is derived from empirical observations.

For example, I hold Western values towards gender equality and individual autonomy.

These are slogans, not philosophies, and I've seen people from all over the political spectrum appeal to them. For example, Marx and Engels famously said that workers of the world should unite because they nothing to lose but their chains. That image - losing one's chains - is a powerful image of individual autonomy. A lot of people claiming to be radical individualists were socialists. Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own is a favorite among leftist anti-capitalists. Existentialists were big on individual autonomy (their concept of "authenticity" has a lot to do with individual autonomy) and a lot of them were leftists (or Nazis). Yes, I know we see these philosophies as anti-individual, but commies say the same thing about advocates of free market capitalism.

But all the peoples that hold such views are breeding below the population replacement rate, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Demographic Winter".

There are a lot of things that more or less correlate with a low number of children. Wealth is one. I think it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that some particular thing is the true cause of low birthrate, unless you have pretty strong data that strongly distinguishes your favored culprit from a dozen other likely suspects.

Rationalists like the folks over at Less Wrong take the beautiful equivalence a step further by adding a third term: truth. The three-way equivalence is "truth = justice = utility". (I must apologize, it has been awhile since I have read their writing, it could be that any views I attribute to them have changed. I remember it as a naively optimistic place.)

But you quote Robin Hanson against this idea, and Robin Hanson is one of the thought leaders at Less Wrong. So maybe you're mischaracterizing their view.

I have no problem with the idea that the pursuit of truth could be bad for you in some important ways. But I use this idea to assist in my own pursuit of truth. I watch out for the biasing effect of my own self-interest. So, I acknowledge that pursuit of truth can be bad for me and I choose truth. It's not that hard a choice to make. A lot of people make parallel choices. Everybody with a vice (alcoholics, drug users, smokers, the obese) chooses to pursue an activity which they know perfectly well will tend to harm them.

Any atheist who believes that religion is solely a scourge upon the human race needs to explain its amazing resilience in human history.

I'm an atheist because my reasoning leads me to it, not because I think that being an atheist would benefit me, or benefits the world. I'm not one of those proselytizing atheists who wants other people to become atheists. I'm comfortable with other people believing things that aren't true - provided those beliefs are harmless, and for the most part, religion in its current American manifestation is harmless - at least as harmless as atheism. Commies are godless, after all.

We can make ourselves martyrs to justice, choosing policies that we believe to be right; knowing that societies with fewer scruples will thrive while we whither away.

What concern is it of yours whether your society thrives? It is not your concern because it is not in your power. Your society will do whatever it will do pretty much regardless of what you do. If you decide to become a Mormon and have many kids, that individual action isn't going to change the historical tide. It won't necessarily even change the fate of your family line - if your children abandon the faith. So you may as well continue being a childless atheist.

Suppose that, for demographic reasons, religion will triumph over atheism in the end. If that's the case, then that's what's fated to be, and nothing you can do is going to change it. So your decision about whether to continue to be an atheist or to convert to Mormonism doesn't have any ultimate effect on the outcome. Since your choices won't affect the outcome, then you are free to choose whatever you like. You don't need to worry about the effects of your choices.

However, I will say this: that liberty and the pursuit of truth exist for a reason. They are not just random mutations. You should consider the ramifications of the fact that your brain seeks out truth. Yes, it does - if it did not you would not be faced with this supposed dilemma you're worried about. If your brain sought out lies and delusion you wouldn't even be writing this entry. Evidently, your brain seeks truth. And that's no accident. It's not some mutation which is going to be wiped out from the human race by the rising tide of Mormonism. That it exists at all is proof that it is advantageous in some important way. So don't expect it to go away any time soon.

The difference between beneficial and just

Last I checked, "justice" was in my utility function, so the definition of "beneficial" includes all concerns of "justice." I suspect the same holds for you as well.

That being said, the libertarians you are criticizing don't hold this view, in which case, they do have a problem.

edit:

The people at lesswrong do realize that truth (i.e. epistemic rationality) is not necessarily instrumentally rational. See this, this, this, etc.

truth = justice = utility

"This raises the possibility that free expression of human individuality is an unstable cultural/policy position for society to adopt."

I agree that I don't see much evidence that this happy condition that societies sometimes approximate is stable. Then again I don't see much evidence that any post industrial society is stable. Its not like the total state has shown any stability in the post industrial world either.

On the bright side, I believe there is evidence for the veracity of truth = justice = utility througout history. Those societies that approximate libertarian principles the most closely seem to rapidly aquire wealth and power. For example, the recent improvements in Asia and coincident declines of the West seem to correspond fairly well with increasing freedom in Asia and decreasing freedom in the West.

My fear is that greater degrees of freedom works wonderfully in the aquisition of wealth and power. It then proceeds to destabalize all the poverty stricken total states around either by force or by way of example before succumbing to statism from within. If the existence of freedom somewhere else is the primary cause of the failure of statism to be stable, then the end game could very well be a world wide total state and a return to world wide poverty and slavery for the average person.

I console myself with the argument that the degree of freedom measured by raw numbers seems to be rising. If India obtains the freedom of the U.S while inversley the U.S. sinks to the level of India in the recent past, that's a net gain for freedom of something like a half billion people. Admittedly, even if this turns out to be true, it could easily be a coincidence of this moment in history.

Another bright spot, chattel slavery is at all time lows on a percentage basis, and where it does exist it hides. Certainly, that has to count as an improvement fitting the truth = justice = utility paradigm. So there is some evidence that significant world wide improvements lasting longer then 100 years are possible.