7 votes

Can effective altruism avoid collapsing into absurdity?

1 comment

  1. skybrian
    From the article: [....] [...] [...] [...]

    From the article:

    Indeed, in section five Cowen comes close to suggesting a quasi-algorithmic procedure for generating challenges to utilitarianism.[9] You just need a sum over a large number of individually-imperceptible epsilons somewhere in your example, and everything else falls into place. The epsilons can represent tiny amounts of pleasure, or pain, or probability, or something else; the large number can be extended in time, or space, or state-space, or across possible worlds; it can be a one-shot or repeated game. It doesn’t matter. You just need some Σ ε and you can generate a new absurdity: you start with an obvious choice between two options, then keep adding additional epsilons to the worse option until either utility vanishes in importance or utility dominates everything else.


    Once you let utilitarian calculations into your moral theory at all, there is no principled way to prevent them from swallowing everything else. And, in turn, there’s no way to have these calculations swallow everything without them leading to pretty absurd results. While some of you might bite the bullet on the repugnant conclusion or the experience machine, it is very likely that you will eventually find a bullet that you don’t want to bite, and you will want to get off the train to crazy town; but you cannot consistently do this without giving up the idea that scale matters, and that it doesn’t just stop mattering after some point.


    If we accept a certain amount of incommensurability between our values, and thus a certain amount of non-systematicity in our ethics, we can avoid the absurdities directly. Different values are just valuable in different ways, and they are not systematically comparable: while sometimes the choices between different values are obvious, often we just have to respond to trade-offs between values with context-specific judgment. On these views, as we add more and more utility to option B, eventually we reach a point where the different goods in A and B are incommensurable and the trade-off is systematically undecidable; as such, we can avoid the problem of utility swallowing all other considerations without arbitrarily declaring it unimportant past a certain point.


    Such a position would rule out utilitarianism as a general-purpose theory of morality, or even its more limited role as a theory of the (supposed) part of morality philosophers call ‘beneficence’. But it wouldn’t stop us from using utilitarianism as a model for moral thinking, a framework representing certain ways we think about difficult questions. It might be especially relevant to thinking about trade-offs where we have to weigh up costs and benefits—especially if, as Barbara Fried has argued, it is the only rigourous ethical framework that is able to face up to uncertainty and scarcity. But, like all models, it would only be valid within a certain context. Utilitarianism can remain a really important aspect of moral reasoning, just not in the way that we are familiar with from universal moral theories.


    And this seems to be all Effective Altruism needs. Holden Karnofsky recently made a call for pluralism within Effective Altruism: the community needs to temper its central ‘ideas/themes/memes’ with pluralism and moderation. But Karnofsky argues, further, that the community already does this: ‘My sense is that many EAs’ writings and statements are much more one-dimensional … than their actions.’ In practice, Effective Altruists are not willing to purchase theoretical coherence at the price of absurdity; they place utilitarian reasoning in a pluralist context. They may do this unreflectively, and I think they do it imperfectly; but it is an existence proof of a version of Effective Altruism that accepts that utility considerations are embedded in a wider context, and tempers them with judgment.

    2 votes