All Vows

"Avinu Malkeinu, we have sinned against you! Avinu Malkeinu, forgive us, bless us, grant us atonement!"

"Why do you bother? You're not a child. You've studied the history of our world. You should know that there's no one to grant you atonement."

"You don't know that! Science doesn't know everything. You can't prove that there's no Higher Power."

"As you say. But if there is a Higher Power, It clearly hasn't concerned Itself with the operation of the moral law."

"In this world."

"Yes, in this world. But surely it is this world that we must concerned with, for if there is a next world, we are too ignorant to speak of it."

"That is why it is also a teaching of my people that this is also a time for us to forgive each other for the wrongs we have committed in the past year, as well as seeking reconciliation with haShem."

"And you anticipate the same thing being necessary next year?"

"I don't understand. How could it not be necessary?"

"'Knock, knock.'"

True Inclusiveness

"Even after racism, sexism, and speciesism have been eradicated, the work of social justice won't be done. We still live in a viciously existence-biased Society, which cruelly disregards the interests of possible creatures just because they happen to not have been created yet!"

"'Creatures'?—I see you're still mired in the insidious grip of of organism privilege! What about all the possible qualia-bearing processes like orgasmium or paperclip-manufacturing nanoware, which don't factorize into distinct entities? My friend, I say there will be no justice until Society's sphere of moral concern extends to all possible computations in inverse proportion to their complexity!"

The Demandingness Objection

"Well, I'm not giving up dairy, but I can probably give up meat, and milk is at the very bottom of Brian's table of suffering per kilogram demanded, so I'd be contributing to much less evil than I was before. That's good, right?

"For all the unimaginably terrible things our species do to each other and to other creatures, we're not—we're probably not any worse than the rest of nature. Gazelles suffer terribly as lions eat them alive, but we can't intervene because then the lions would starve, and the gazelles would have a population explosion and starve, too. We have this glorious idea that people need to consent before sex, but male ducks just rape the females, and there's no one to stop it—nothing else besides humans around capable of formulating the proposition, as a proposition, that the torment and horror in the world is wrong and should stop. Animals have been eating each other for hundreds of millions of years; we may be murderous, predatory apes, but we're murderous, predatory apes with Reason—well, sort of—and a care/harm moral foundation that lets some of us, with proper training, to at least wish to be something better.

"I don't actually know much history or biology, but I know enough to want it to not be real, to not have happened that way. But it couldn't have been otherwise. In the absence of an ontologically fundamental creator God, Darwinian evolution is the only way to get purpose from nowhere, design without a designer. My wish for things to have been otherwise ... probably isn't even coherent; any wish for the nature of reality to have been different, can only be made from within reality.

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The Horror of Naturalism

There's this deeply uncomfortable tension between being an animal physiologically incapable of caring about anything other than what happens to me in the near future, and the knowledge of the terrifying symmetry that cannot be unseen: that my own suffering can't literally be more important, just because it's mine. You do some philosophy and decide that your sphere of moral concern should properly extend to all sentient life—whatever sentient turns out to mean—but life is built to survive at the expense of other life.

I want to say, "Why can't everyone just get along and be nice?"—but those are just English words that only make sense to other humans from my native culture, who share the cognitive machinery that generated them. The real world is made out of physics and game theory; my entire concept of "getting along and being nice" is the extremely specific, contingent result of the pattern of cooperation and conflict in my causal past: the billions of corpses on the way to Homo sapiens, the thousands of years of culture on the way to the early twenty-first century United States, the nonshared environmental noise on the way to me. Even if another animal would agree that pleasure is better than pain and peace is better than war, the real world has implementation details that we won't agree on, and the implementation details have to be settled somehow.

I console myself with the concept of decision-theoretic irrelevance: insofar as we construe the function of thought as to select actions, being upset about things that you can't affect is a waste of cognition. It doesn't help anyone for me to be upset about all the suffering in the world when I don't know how to alleviate it. Even in the face of moral and ontological uncertainty, there are still plenty of things-worth-doing. I will play positive-sum games, acquire skills, acquire resources, and use the resources to protect some of the things I care about, making the world slightly less terrible with me than without me. And if I'm left with the lingering intuition that there was supposed to be something else, some grand ideal more important than friendship and Pareto improvements ... I don't remember it anymore.

Actually Personal Responsibility

Dear reader, you occasionally hear people with conservative tendencies complain that the problem with Society today is that people lack personal responsibility: that the young and the poor need to take charge of themselves and stop mooching off their parents or the government: to shut up, do their homework, and get a job. I lack any sort of conservative tendency and would never say that sort of thing, but I would endorse a related-but-quite-distinct concept that I want to refer to using the same phrase personal responsibility, as long as it's clear from context that I don't mean it in the traditional, conservative way.

The problem with the traditional sense of personal responsibility is that it's not personal; it's an attempt to shame people into doing what the extant social order expects of them. I'm aware that that kind of social pressure often does serve useful purposes—but I think it's possible to do better. The local authorities really don't know everything; the moral rules and social norms you were raised with can actually be mistaken in all sorts of disastrous ways that no one warned you about. So I think people should strive to take personal responsibility for their own affairs not as a burdensome duty to Society, but because it will actually result in better outcomes, both for the individual in question, and for Society.

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Seriously Now

"But it's kind of funny how my current idea of morality is so different and so much improved from what I picked up in childhood."

"Is it?"

"Well, funny is the wrong word; maybe it's better to say notable when what I really want is just to note it, just to make it salient, maybe eventually salient enough such that I can actually start to be moral for once, instead of continuing to sit and cry about how I was betrayed."

It's Not Whether You Win or Lose

It's how close you come to doing the Right Thing at each and every one of the uncounted millions of decision points that make up your life, with how you play in any particular game only constituting a tiny fraction of these, and it being not at all clear that choosing to play a game just then is closer to the Right Thing than any number of non-game-playing actions you might have chosen instead, but didn't.

Moral Mechanism

It feels immoral to even think of using techniques to motivate oneself; one should instead just use one's free will to choose the correct action. How utterly degrading it would be, how insulting to the very notion of human dignity, to stoop to the level of contemplating one's own psychology using mere cause-and-effect reasoning, as if one were some sort of animal, or a machine!

But this moralizing is itself immoral, because it doesn't work. If I'm not smart enough to do the right thing for the right reasons, then I might at least aspire to do the right thing for the wrong reasons for the right reasons.

The Morality of Ringing a Bell

"Synthia, I want your opinion on something," said Quiana.

"You will have it."

"Is it wrong to enjoy ringing a bell?"

"Pardon me?" said Synthia.

"I said," said Quiana, "is it wrong to enjoy ringing a bell?"

"I heard you the first time," said Synthia irritably, "but I presume the question is prompted by some context you have not yet told me, a context I would need to know to provide you with the best answer I can give."

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