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The net-negative utility of Utilitarianism in the long term

Utilitarianism, taken as a world-historical arrival at the level of civilization itself, might very well have a net-negative utility. It is perfectly plausible that an overly refined awareness of, and sensitivity to, utility would have unintended consequences tending toward catastrophically negative outcomes. Deontological ethical systems have often issued from this intuition, I think. Below are the moving parts to this argument.

Our awareness of all the suffering that might be alleviated has recently exploded due to the information revolution. We still have no idea what this will do to human beings in the long run, but it sure seems plausible that it increases the prevalence of guilt feelings and anxiety about a nearly infinite number of global problems. Incentives exist to highlight and report these negative stimuli, and incentives exist to publicly feel bad about them; it strikes me as perfectly reasonable to imagine that globalized modern civilization is already headlong into an irrecovable spiral of collective depressive delusion. While a utilitarian spirit is obviously not the only or even main driver of this dynamic, it is a a necessary condition for it. The counterfactual — large numbers of individuals switching to a deontological worldview in which they’re only felt sense of obligation is to a small number of categorical local rules — would almost certainly increase global utility to an extraordinary degree. Unless you think the utilitarian reflections of the average person cause them to non-trivially improve the world. With respect to the overwhelming majority of people, this strikes me as unlikely.

Our intuitions and institutions get updated slowly. We suddenly understand many sources of suffering way better than ever, but nobody can change all of our institutions to solve these problems at anywhere near the rate our conscience would need to be be at peace. Therefore, the contemporary global village is plagued with a necessary temporal gap between the suffering that exists, and our ability to reduce it. If you consider the fact that our sense of ethically problematic suffering increases rather than decreases with progress, it is possible that this temporal gap increases even as we make technical progress closing it. Again, the more effectively utilitarian we are, the more felt suffering might increase, precisely as we objectively decrease suffering and increase net-utility with respect to most direct measures.

How great is the suffering caused by this gap? That’s anybody’s guess, but it does not seem implausible that it is greater than the entire history of utility gained by human activity heretofore.

If you doubt that the suffering caused by hyper-awareness of suffering could be so large, here are some reasons why you might not want to dismiss this idea. Human experience is recursive, so it seems to me that this makes it potentially exponential, non-linear. If you’re depressed, you feel guilty for being depressed, then you feel stupid for feeling guilty for feeling depressed, all of which makes you more depressed, and so on. Human experience can rapidly approach infinities of low, and high. I see no reason why human suffering could not potentially skyrocket toward infinity given media-driven negative information glut, instant interconnectivity at large scales, and economic incentives to spread and express sad affects, not to mention cognitive bugs such as negativity bias). None of this dismisses the wealth of data marshaled by people such as Steven Pinker, showing that in so many ways, markers of human suffering are decreasing. Felt perceptions might be wildly miscalibrated with objective data about world trends, and still veer off in an explosive detachment from reality.

Additionally, even if you don’t think that’s possible, a small number of highly suffering people can still wreak untold havoc on society at large. Trends such as anti-natalism and anti-civilizational thought more generally, often promoted by sad people who want to wind down life itself, are to some degree children of utilitarian progress. They look at the costs and benefits of humanity thus far and (however miscalibrated) they decide none of it is really worth it, and they speak and act accordingly. This is perhaps because, in the long run, there are no costs and benefits, and thus the validity of deontology gets revealed with particular clarity in end times. Regardless, if anti-life intellectual currents were to produce future policy changes, or some new, crazier version of these thought-patterns were to take hold in the form of the next big moral panic, which in turn leads to centralized policies with negative systemic effects, some portion of these consequences would have to be counted as causal effects of a short-circuiting utilitarianism. You can say that such ridiculous deductions from the utilitarian starting point are unfounded and you might be right; but you still have to chalk-up such consequences as effects of the utilitarian memeplex’s diffusion into the postmodern polity.

The utilitarian ethical defaults of modern western individuals are in meltdown from overheated inputs they do not have the capacity to process. Cooling innovation always follows hot invention, but we live in a unique historical period where the time lag between new inventions is less than the time lag between one invention and the secondary technologies that make it work over time. Fires are no longer put out, but displaced by new fires, which burn only long enough to sustain a feeling of continuity before the next fire arrives. Calculating net effects seems reasonable when it is possible to imagine a shared world; as human worlds divide, collapse, and revivify differentially, efforts to calculate overall effects on a shared world will be increasingly painful. Deontological ethics receives its final vindication on consequentialist grounds.

Utilitarianism incentivizes suffering, or victim culture as a child of rationalism

Insofar as people live according to its suggestions, Utilitarianism strangely incentivizes suffering. In a society where utilitarianism operates as the governing philosophy, the accommodation you receive from others will be a function of your propensity to suffer. If a society is maximizing its net utility, then it will effectively care more about solving the problems of those who suffer the most. Does this not select for people who suffer more? Does it not make extreme suffering a viable pathway to survival? Especially if technological change makes it impossible to survive through economic competition, the propensity to suffer could become increasingly adaptive for some groups.

I am not referring to merely strategic exaggerations of suffering (although there will be plenty of that, too, of course). More deeply, individuals who genuinely suffer more from one unit of negative stimuli, would fare better than those who genuinely suffer less from that unit, at least within one of multiple equilibria, in one pocket of society. Everyone can exaggerate, but the truly sensitive would exaggerate more convincingly. Moderate sufferers wither away from redistributive neglect while lacking the steeliness necessary for productivity, dying young and having no kids, while only the super-sufferers have what it takes to win a basic income and other survival-support, living longer and having more kids. Victim culture is a child of modern rationalism, a perverse but inevitable life-path within an economic system that finds its chief ethical defenses in utilitarian or consequentialist frameworks.

On British Reservedness and American Boisterousness

The British are known be to reserved, and Americans boisterous, but I don’t think Americans communicate more in their higher volume of noises and gesticulations. If one could somehow measure the information content of interpersonal micro-gestures — all the nods, grunts, spoken comments people use to lubricate interactions with others in public spaces, I think on average British people would be found to communicate more. What is called their reservedness refers primarily to a lower volume of noise, but because of this a greater proportion of their emissions are received as signals. In an American cafe, if you accidentally cut someone in line, say, you might apologize with a hammed-up smile, to signal that it was a genuine mistake and you mean well toward the other; seeing your smile the other might wonder if that means you’re playing some kind of joke, and their uncertainty and insecurity triggers in them perhaps a vaguely cold glare before they correct it, with an equally vague smile at the end. You, in turn, are left wondering whether they got your signal, or if they nonetheless take you for an inconsiderate aggressor. Both parties leave the situation less clear about who exactly they just interacted with, and what exactly just happened. A British person making this kind of faux pas might mumble an awkward “sorry” while nervously looking at their shoes, and the other British person might say nothing at all, or grunt inaudibly so as to dismiss the situation as a non-event. The British situation might look like poorer or weaker communication, but really it’s more effective communication, and more proportional to the situation: with an expenditure of nearly zero effort, both parties walk away quite confident this meaningless misunderstanding meant nothing at all and that the other thinks nothing of it. The Americans did not generate more light, but much more heat.

Multiple heuristic equilibria (cognitive patchwork)

If we are living through a “semantic apocalypse,” a likely implication is that the signal-to-noise ratio in most explicit political debates is not only lower than it might seem, but asymptotically approaching zero. The differential value or accuracy of true news vs. fake news, or smart opinions vs. dumb opinions, is increasingly slim relative to their shared arbitrariness and inadequacy with respect to the complexity of our environment.

How, then, do we regenerate heuristics for our intentional cognition that are aligned with our systematic, scientific cognition?

While there is only one true reality, there exists almost an infinite number of conceptual registers in which one valid scientific model can be stated. In short, there exists an extreme nominal arbitrariness to scientific models. The register that ultimately gets selected as the recognized register is a function of intellectually non-justified criteria: social forces (e.g., marketing considerations), individual psychological forces (e.g., personality-contingent word-choice preferences).

All of this suggests to me that the most promising path at present is small-scale efforts of world-creation, in which strategically arranged social and temperamental forces are leveraged to generate novel heuristics for intentional cognition in a scientifically disciplined fashion.

“Scientifically disciplined” is very different than “scientific.” Groups can think, say, and do almost any number of things in a fashion that is scientifically disciplined, without any of it being scientific and without the different groups necessarily converging or accumulating as science does.

At the core of being scientifically disciplined is simply admitting what you don’t know, which anyone can do.

Being scientifically disciplined still permits the widest variety of the most fantastic inventions–so long as they don’t pretend to an epistemic status they do not really possess.

What this means is that we could very well see a huge number of multiple cognitive equilibria: a variety of small groups that generate radically different heuristics for thinking about each other, sustaining internal order, and productively interacting with the outside. They might sustain the flourishing of members and the health of the community equally well, with insanely different conceptual registers, behaviors, and affective tendencies. They could all be equally scientifically disciplined and therefore calibrated to the complexity of reality, with seemingly no convergence or accumulation in their “findings,” or internal wisdom.

This itself is very hard to process given our intuitions about what it means to be scientifically valid. Our intuitions about science and empirical validity make us feel like pursuing the truth and understanding how society really works should look, sound, and smell like a bunch of people trying really hard to arrive at a certain set of shared words through a difficult and combative process of testing and critiquing different individuals’ and group’s proposals or hypotheses. This is the hitherto socially selected image of science, selected due to contingent factors related to Modernity (centralized institutions, progressive metanarratives, etc.). But it is not at all what it means to live an authentic life that is scientifically disciplined. What that looks like under postmodern conditions still remains to be seen.

A machine superintelligence might never display itself

This seems to me a crucial point not often discussed by the AI Risk folks such as Bostrom and Yudkowsky. Whether it’s a bug or a feature of the AI Risk industry is harder to know, a thorn in the side of their project, or beneficial for (potentially endless) fundraising? Only time will tell, or it won’t.

This is from Superintelligence cannot be contained: Lessons from Computability Theory (Alfonseca et al. 2016):

Another lesson from computability theory is the following: we may not even know when superintelligent machines have arrived, as deciding whether a machine exhibits intelligence is in the same realm of problems as the containment problem. This is a consequence of Rice’s theorem [24], which states that, any non-trivial property (e.g. “harm humans” or “display superintelligence”) of a Turing machine is undecidable.

I have a short article coming out soon in an IEEE publication, which builds on this insight.

Left Singularity

…modern political history has a characteristic shape, which combines a duration of escalating ‘progress’ with a terminal, quasi-punctual interruption, or catastrophe – a restoration or ‘reboot’. Like mould in a Petri dish, progressive polities ‘develop’ explosively until all available resources have been consumed, but unlike slime colonies they exhibit a dynamism that is further exaggerated (from the exponential to the hyperbolic) by the fact that resource depletion accelerates the development trend.

Economic decay erodes productive potential and increases dependency, binding populations ever more desperately to the promise of political remedy. The progressive slope steepens towards the precipice of supreme radicality, or total absorption into the state…

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