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Current views on various topics

Morality [confidence: possible]

Consequentialism is probably correct. In practice, humans are unable to predict the outcome of many acts. Many thought experiments constrain the variables to make the result clear, but in real life, we need to consider things like “weakening moral norms against murder” which can be very hard to quantify. In practice, then, it is important to have strong rights that are almost always respected, except if we are really really sure of ourselves. (So yeah, its OK to kill one guy to save a million, go ahead). For myself, I like virtue ethics as a heuristic. Most of the time, I try and do the correct thing based on virtue ethics, constrained by deontology (our strong rights), but when unsure, revert to consequentilist thinking. This seems to work fine.

See a similar idea by R. M Hare

To argue in this way is entirely to neglect the importance for moral philosophy of a study of moral education. Let us suppose that a fully informed archangelic act-utilitarian is thinking about how to bring up his children. He will obviously not bring them up to practise on every occasion on which they are confronted with a moral question the kind of arch angelic thinking that he himself is capable of [complete consequentialist reasoning]; if they are ordinary children, he knows that they will get it wrong. They will not have the time, or the information, or the self-mastery to avoid self-deception prompted by self-interest; this is the real, as opposed to the imagined, veil of ignorance which determines our moral principles.

So he will do two things. First, he will try to implant in them a set of good general principles. I advisedly use the word ‘implant’; these are not rules of thumb, but principles which they will not be able to break without the greatest repugnance, and whose breach by others will arouse in them the highest indignation. These will be the principles they will use in their ordinary level-1 moral thinking, especially in situations of stress. Secondly, since he is not always going to be with them, and since they will have to educate their children, and indeed continue to educate themselves, he will teach them,as far as they are able, to do the kind of thinking that he has been doing himself. This thinking will have three functions. First of all, it will be used when the good general principles conflict in particular cases. If the principles have been well chosen, this will happen rarely; but it will happen. Secondly, there will be cases (even rarer) in which, though there is no conflict between general principles, there is something highly unusual about the case which prompts the question whether the general principles are really fitted to deal with it. But thirdly, and much the most important, this level-2 thinking will be used to select the general principles to be taught both to this and to succeeding generations. The general principles may change, and should change (because the environment changes). And note that, if the educator were not (as we have supposed him to be) arch angelic, we could not even assume that the best level-1 principles were imparted in the first place; perhaps they might be improved.

I also agree with the importance of growth over other considerations, as discussed by Tyler Cowen here:

The Principle of Growth: “We should make political choices so as to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, as defined by Wealth Plus [This includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities]

Over time growth overwhelms everything else, since the increases in wellbeing are so huge due to compounding. Also, there are more people ‘in the future’ than in the present. This conclusion depends on what discount rate you use however. If you discount heavily, you should concentrate less on growth and more on the present. If you discount less (Parfit) you should concentrate on growth, to the detriment of current lives. (For example, discounting at 5% means a death today is worth 131 in 100 years, but 39 billion in 500 years, which would justify sacrificing many earths in 500 years to save one life today, which feels wrong). Additionally, it may be hard for people to truly care about future lives, we might need some concept of ‘faith’ for people to be able to stick to their choices.

Current political systems are short-term focused, maybe something like Futarchy which shifts incentives to be more long-term, would be better.

Eating Meat [confidence: likely]

Eating meat is likely wrong. I believe animals are capable of suffering.

I think most people also believe this, but do not confront the question. For example, most people would presumably prefer a painless method of killing cows were used over a drawn out pain-inducing one, showing that they believe cows do suffer.

When discussing this issue, people often mention the ‘logic of the larder’ argument: that if we stopped eating meat, the number of animals would diminish, thereby reducing the number of farmed animal lives lived, which would be bad. “To help animals”, they say, “you should eat them” (http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/meat.html)

I would argue that the majority of farm animals actually have utility negative lives, so eliminating future farm animal lives is intrinsically good.

Even if you do not believe this, my goal here is not to increase the overall number of cows in the world. My goal is to maximize utility. The argument assumes a false dichotomy whereby you can choose to either raise animals and eat them, or simply throw away all of those resources.

Realistically if we eliminated farmed animals, those freed up resources would be used to provide value to humans in other ways (they could be used to feed, water and house human vegetarians for example). In our current world there is a set of externalities (torture, pollution) that is not priced into the cost of meat. If they were, we might see:

  • a huge drop in meat consumption
  • a drop in the cost of foods, water and land currently consumed by those animals
  • destruction of businesses that do intensive factory farming
  • creation of businesses that raise very happy animals and kill them in mostly painless ways
  • far more investment into cultured meat (that would suddenly become profitable), and meat alternatives

I don’t think that the number of cows is an integral part of most people’s utility function, so keeping a few in zoos should be fine. Removing meat from the diet of humans might be a small utility hit, but surely balanced by the advantages.

Father Christmas [confidence: highly likely]

I have not found a good reason to tell my daughter that Father Christmas is a real person.

Common arguments include:

It is a tradition

Sure, and we may still play the game of hanging the sock and getting presents on Christmas morning, but I see no reason to claim that Santa is real. I enjoy Christmas in general, despite not thinking that Jesus was the son of god, after all.

It gives a sense of wonder to the child

There are other, better ways to achieve this, using things that are actually true. Our world is interesting enough that we do not need to invent things to instill wonder in small children.

It encourages good behavior

Unsure if true, most of the year. Maybe more so around Christmas. I see no reason you could not use a different threat though (be good or your parents will not buy you presents). Additionally I would prefer to use more positive methods to encourage good behavior.

It helps children understand the concept of lying

I would say that generally, it is wrong for parents to lie to their children in the first place. It seems that most children recover from the lie, but why do it in the first place? Beyond this, surely a better way to show children that people lie, is to let them be exposed to a conspiracy of most adults trying to get them to believe in an imaginary man with super powers who will give them nice stuff if they believe in him. I imagine that this will be an excellent lesson.

The child will tell the other children

Maybe. It is not my responsibility to cover for lies made by strangers to their children.

Free Will [confidence: highly likely]

Human minds follow the same physical laws as any other matter, therefore human thought processes are deterministic and theoretically predictable. In practice, the mechanisms are complicated enough that we cannot do so. From the inside, it feels like there is free will, but if you reset a brain to the same state, it would always make the same decision. Assuming we do not have free well, whence moral responsibility? I am unsure if there needs to be free-will for someone to be held responsible. Pragmatically, morality is enforced through social pressure, punishment, rewards. We should continue using these, since they do affect people’s future behaviour. Assuming a creature who was made unable to learn, it would be pointless to punish it if it does something wrong, but it could still be considered morally responsible for its actions. We should quarantine it to prevent it from causing issues in future.

I think that this view is widely held, and most arguments about free-will come from scemantics.