So I was reading through the LessWrong archives after I wrote my last post, trying to figure out what precisely rubbed me up the wrong way about pretty much every article, when I stumbled upon this gem.
Now, would you rather that a googolplex people got dust specks in their eyes, or that one person was tortured for 50 years? I originally asked this question with a vastly larger number – an incomprehensible mathematical magnitude – but a googolplex works fine for this illustration.
Most people chose the dust specks over the torture. Many were proud of this choice, and indignant that anyone should choose otherwise: “How dare you condone torture!”
Reader, you will not be surprised to learn that Yudkowsky comes down firmly on the side of torture, and is appalled that anybody would be so irrational as to not, as he puts it, “shut up and multiply”. This isn’t just biting the bullet on utilitarianism. This is going out and shooting yourself in the mouth, then insisting through the blood that you were right all along, and that mouth-shooting is the only rational thing to do under the circumstances.
The only argument – other than assertion – that Yudkowsky employs is a kind of Ship of Theseus paradox, a light finger moving the scales by one util at a time. Would you choose the dust specks if they were grains of sand instead? How about pebbles? How about boulders? Since we cannot pick a line, he claims, we must treat the grains of sand like boulders (with, of course, much more people needed to balance out the torture).
Any emotional revulsion we feel at the prospect of torturing one person to protect a googolplex of people from dust specks, Yudkowsky says, comes from our own selfish desire to avoid feeling guilt. Guilt is a natural product of behaving in a rational fashion! We have primitive animal brains, after all – we can’t expect them to react appropriately to ethical behaviour.
All this from the guy who argues that ethics can only be a model for what we value, and that there is no objective ethical standard we ought to respect. Here, off the top of my head, are a few problems with his speck-torture argument, any of which ought to be decisive:
- Most people would consent to a speck in their eye to avoid somebody else being tortured. I know I would, and I can’t imagine there being a person who wouldn’t. An infinite number of people who blink away specks, if they consent to doing so, is of course preferable to one person being tortured.
- There is such a thing as a threshold of pain, and while fifty years of torture cracks that threshold resoundingly, a speck in the eye does not even come close. Even an annoying grain of sand is qualitatively different from torture.
- Yudkowsky offers no guideline for why we should accept the utilitarian conclusion here when it is patently against our intuitions. If we should reject our intuitions in this case, why stop there? Following Yudkowsky’s own speck-to-grain-to-boulder argument, there is no reason to keep any intuition – even those that justify utilitarianism.
- This one may not be decisive, but Yudkowsky’s argument justifies the Repugnant Conclusion, which ought to give anybody pause.
Yudkowsky’s stab at philosophy would be grotesque if it weren’t so amusing to watch – and, given his criticism of most of philosophy as baseless and superseded by cognitive science, there’s an element of schadenfreude in watching his arguments fail.