Why I am not a Multiplier

One of the catchphrases of the Less Wrong blog is “Shut up and multiply.” In other words, calculating the expected utility of a situation is all there is to say about its moral status, and although that may result in taking positions that seem horrific to you and I, we must trust expected utility calculations above our own intuitions.

Now, frankly this is an unwitting reductio ad absurdum to me, but this is not another post about utilitarianism, I promise. Instead, it’s about how we approach ethical situations more generally.

In hard science, like physics, the source of truth is experimental data. Theory is good to the extent that it agrees with the known results. In mathematics, it’s the reverse – the source of truth is the axioms of mathematics. Theory is good to the extent that it agrees with the given axioms. But in ethics, neither the axioms nor the results are given. People argue about whether we should be deontologists or consequentialists, but they also argue about whether euthanasia is immoral. So the question is, how do we proceed to build a system of ethics?

So according to Less Wrong, the answer is you start by using intuition to work out what the axioms should be, and then you can use them to decide all the results. But why should your intuition to be a consequentialist take priority over your intuition that torturing one person is worse than a lot of people getting a speck of dust in their eye? When Yudkowski says forget your intuitions, shut up and multiply, we have to ask “Is this one of those intuitions that can be wrong, or one of those that can’t?”

The other way around is to work out the results first, and then build axioms around them. This has certain advantages, in that thinking about concrete cases will result in better and clearer thinking, and you can use multiple reinforcing arguments to get to the same result. So, for example, whether you should be a deontologist or a consequentialist is a vague, waffly question. It’s much easier to argue sensibly if you ask what were the rights and wrongs of Pinnel’s Case. Unfortunately this has problems too. As we haven’t established axioms, we might be using completely unsound arguments, and so get the result wrong. Worse, we won’t be able to use our axioms to solve new problems reliably, because the truth of the axiom is only determined by the truth of the result. And of course, we still have the problem of clashing intuitions, if we don’t like the sound of the axioms we come up with. I’d say this is a better way of going about things, but still unsatisfactory.

The best solution is the concept of reflective equilibrium. In other words, consider your ethical axioms in the light not merely of your intuitions about axioms, but also about results. And do the same with your ethical results, while always keeping axioms and results consistent. And so consider the whole system at once. And so you may have to discard some intuitions here and there as inconsistent with the rest, but overall you have a system the totality of which you are happy with. And in so doing, you have no bullets to bite. You don’t have to “shut up and multiply” because you genuinely embrace both the process and the end result.

An analogy I like is that physics is like cartography – your map must accord with what is on the ground. Maths is like Lego – you have some plans and you fit the pieces together accordingly. Reflective equilibrium is like architecture – it’s no good having a great-looking design if it keeps falling down when you try and build it, and it’s no good building a very sturdy skyscraper, if you were trying to set up a bungalow. You have to change your ideas to work in terms of the physical world, but you also have to shape the physical world to your ideas. And hopefully you reach that happy equilibrium where the building is structurally sound, and also looks the way you want it to. If not, you can always plant vines. 🙂

Unfortunately, this is not how many people approach moral questions. Consider this solution to the trolley problem, which I must have heard a million times:

The best result is the one that maximises utility. If I do nothing, five people will die. If I flip the switch, I will save five people and kill one. 1 < 5. So flip the switch.

The argument makes no sense on its own terms. The premise does not lead to the conclusion. It started by saying we need to maximise utility, but it did not consider utility at any point. Instead, it maximised the number of people alive. And yet this is essentially the standard progressive answer to the question. What on earth is going on?

The answer is, essentially, that results are being prioritised over axioms. The axiom has not been chosen randomly – it’s liked because it denies others autonomy and justifies unlimited power. But it’s also been chosen because it’s infinitely pliable, and can be made to work for just about any result. It’s disturbing that the result progressives prefer is to murder someone, but hey ho. What’s more illuminating is to see the way that axiom, argument are conclusion are detached from one another.

Or consider this hypothetical: I walk up behind a stranger and shoot him in the head, killing him instantly and painlessly. Is this moral or immoral? Immoral, we all agree – I hope! But why? I haven’t caused the man any suffering. I ended his life, yes, but why is that a bad thing? Over their lives, people are at an equilibrium between happiness and sadness – indeed, neither concept makes sense without the other. All those people who were act-utilitarians a minute ago with the trolley problem, do they stick to their guns and say that this is a morally neutral act? Or do they try and argue that there is positive utility in his life? No. They suddenly take up positions about “right to life” and use loaded terms like “murder” – and quite right too. Yet they’d denounce such thinking in a different context!

And then to make it worse, they claim they are principled. Ultimately, “shut up and multiply” means “I know I can’t justify this position, but you should fall in lockstep anyway otherwise you’re a traitor to Reason.” I am not a fan.


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