Monday, April 28, 2014

The Repugnant Conclusion

One last post on a topic from "Reasons and Persons". I like challenging thought experiments, and The Repugnant Conclusion is one of the best for making me question my moral intuitions.

The chart above shows 2 possible worlds: A and Z. In A, everyone has really awesome lives. In Z, everyone has lives that are barely worth living, but there are way way more people in existence. Which is better? Most everyone, including myself, would agree that A is better.

Now consider the possible worlds shown above, represented in the same way as the first picture. How does A compare to A+? A+ takes the same people with the same quality of life as in A, and adds another equally-sized group of people with a lesser but still enjoyable quality of life. For simplicity, assume that the 2 groups of people are completely isolated and have no effect on each other. How would you compare those 2 worlds? Most everyone, including myself, would find it obvious that, at the very least, A+ is not worse than A. Merely adding people with enjoyable lives, as long as they don't reduce the quality of the previously existing people's lives, surely cannot be a bad thing.

What about comparing A+ and B? They both have the same number of people. Quality of life for those people is much higher than the lesser group in A+ but only slightly lower than the higher group in A+. So the average life is better than in A+. Most of us, including myself, would say that B is a better world than A+.

So we've decided that A > Z, A+ >= A, and B > A+. Do you see the problem? If B > A+ and A+ is not worse than A, that logically means that B > A. And if you keep increasing the population and rebalancing from B, the same way you moved from A to B, you can get to Z... where there are a whole lot of people with lives barely worth living. We intuitively feel that Z is worse than A. But our intuitions on some other scenarios imply the opposite. So we have a contradiction. Which of our intuitions are incorrect?

It may be simpler to imagine, and with similarly disturbing results, to apply this same line of thought to 1 person's life, where expanding horizontally in the graphs above is adding more years to their life rather than adding more people.

I used to think utilitarianism, while difficult in practice, was extremely simple in theory. I guess not.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dividing your conscious self

Yet another post on something from "Reasons and Persons"...

Your upper brain, which is associated with your consciousness, memory, personality, language, etc., has two hemispheres. They are normally connected and work together to do largely the same stuff. In some cases, like a stroke, one hemisphere can die, and the remaining hemisphere still functions as the seat of consciousness for the person (although they suddenly become bad at things like motor skills).

So normally both sides combined have one consciousness - you. But it is possible for the right side to carry your consciousness independently of the left side, and vice versa. So although we currently don't have the technical means to do so, the following case is possible:

My Division. My body is fatally injured, as are the brains of my two brothers. My brain is divided, and each half is successfully transplanted into the body of one of my brothers. Each of the resulting people believes that he is me, seems to remember living my life, has my character, and is in every other way psychologically continuous with me.

In this case, who would you be? One of them but not the other? Both? Neither? And if this is possible, then recombining them to turn 2 independent consciousnesses into 1 should also be possible. What does all this tell us about the nature of consciousness and personal identity?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Intertemporal and Interpersonal Reasons

This is another post basically just making note of an interesting section of Reasons and Persons.

"Intertemporal" means "occurring across time". We basically all accept that reasonable decisions must account for their effects on ourselves across time. If someone chooses to jump off their roof because they enjoy the sensation of falling, and then they feel miserable when 2 seconds later they break their leg, we would consider there to be something seriously wrong with them. Such a person could argue "but at the time I chose to jump it was enjoyable; why should I have cared at that enjoyable moment that my future self would be in severe pain?" We would consider that argument to be irrational and that person to be mentally unstable.

"Interpersonal" means "occurring across people". We mostly accept that taking interpersonal affects of our actions into account is covered by morality but not rationality. In other words, while we may claim that someone is morally wrong to make a selfish decision that favors themselves at the expense of others, we don't think it's necessarily irrational to do so.

But why? Why would reason extend across time but not across people? Derek Parfit (the author of "Reasons and Persons") makes the case that we should think about these the same, which seemed absurd to me at first, but after further thinking (and further explanation in the book), it has started to make a lot of sense. He claims that we should see good intertemporal decisions as under the realm of morality rather than rationality. It seems like you can make the reverse claim just as well: immoral actions are irrational. We may be instinctively inclined to care more about our future selves than about other people, but both my future self and another person matter equally from an objective/rational standpoint.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cost/benefit analysis of voting

I've always viewed voting in a presidential election as a civic duty and celebration of an important right that is all-too-easy to take for granted, but not as something that is justified purely from a narrow act-consequentialist perspective, because the odds of our vote changing the outcome is so astronomically low. But I've been reading Derek Parfit's "Reasons and Persons", which makes a compelling case why that may be wrong (or at least, similar thinking applied to similar types of choices). That book has been full of stuff that has been changing the way I think in some form, and I'll probably make many posts about topics from it.

Basically, for the same reason that a single vote has a very low chance of changing a presidential election (i.e. it is decided by so many people), it also has a very high potential impact (because it would affect so many people), and so we have to weigh the former against the latter. In the "Ignoring Small Chances" chapter of the "Mistakes In Moral Mathematics" section of the book, it explains how you might calculate this. The expected benefit of an act is the possible impact multiplied by the chance that the act will produce it. So you calculate the value of your vote (to America) between 2 candidates, versus the cost in your time to do so, like this:

((the average net benefit to Americans if your candidate is elected) x (the number of Americans) x (the odds of your vote causing your candidate to win)) - (the cost of voting)

At the time this book was written, there were about 200,000,000 Americans, and apparently a common estimate of the chance of your vote tipping the scales in some states was 1/100,000,000. Using these numbers, the sum will be positive - i.e. voting is worth your time from a pure cost/benefit analysis - if the average benefit to Americans if your candidate wins is more than half as great as what taking your time to vote cost you. And voting doesn't cost you much.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

I don't understand govt-mandated paid vacation

Laws that require all employees to get X number of paid vacation days per year don't make sense to me. A lot of people support it, but it seems like it's based off misunderstandings of what that would really mean. I haven't read much on this so maybe I'm missing important factors that I should be considering, but here's why it sounds like a bad idea to me:

1. "Paid vacation" is meaningless. My wife is a teacher and gets summers off. When you do this, you get to choose between 2 different ways of getting paid: a smaller amount every month, or a larger amount in only the non-summer months. Either way, you get paid the same salary, but one of those is "paid vacation" and the other is "unpaid vacation".

2. When people work less, we collectively become poorer. Money is only as valuable as the goods and services you can exchange it for. Goods and services are created by people's labor. If we pass a law forcing people to work less, then there will be less goods and services. So if we pass a law that leads to less goods/services, yet somehow force everyone to get paid the same salary, we have only tricked people into thinking they are getting free vacation because the way we've really paid for it is by lowering the value of that salary.

There is a trade-off to be made between paid work and time off. In other words, even though the cost can often get hidden, vacation has a cost. Different people will value that trade-off at different points. But tricking everyone into mistakenly thinking they are getting free vacation seems like a bad way to arrive at that right mix for each person. Because vacation has a cost, the well-off have more freedom/ability to get it than the less-well-off. So the best way to provide more time off to the less-well-off, to the extent that they want it, is to help them with the means to afford it, through something like a NIT or wage subsidies or tax cuts.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Obama is better than most Democrats: free trade edition

"President Obama ... wants to pass sweeping trade deals with Asia and Europe. concern ... has driven the top Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to block Obama's trade agenda -- opening a major rift in the party ahead of the mid-terms."
-- link

If there really is a rift in Democratic primaries around free trade, you know what side I'll be on.

"If there were an Economist's Creed, it would surely contain the affirmations 'I understand the Principle of Comparative Advantage' and 'I advocate Free Trade'."
-- Paul Krugman

Friday, April 4, 2014

Wait... what does vegetarian mean?

From here:
survey asked a large representative sample of Americans whether they identified as vegetarians, and on separate occasions asked detailed questions about what they had eaten in the past 24 hours. Of those who identified as vegetarians, 64% had eaten what the study considered a non-negligible amount of meat in one or both 24 hour periods