Ethics and Morality

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Sat, 04 Oct 1997 21:37:19 -0500

My views on this topic are somewhat controversial. I know, having expressed
them here before, the last time I left. As I again consider leaving to pursue
Real Life interests, I suppose it's only appropriate that I acquit myself in
the manner to which I have become accustomed.

I've reviewed those last posts often, and I hope that I've learned something
from the experience, and from the informed criticism of my peers. In
particular, I hope I can now convey something that I failed to convey before.

Anyone who studies General Relativity or quantum mechanics may perhaps begin
to appreciate something of the true strangeness of the Universe. It is not a
human place and is under no obligation to obey human laws. It is
_unintuitive_. Quantum Physics, thus capitalized, is usually cited as support
of this, although in my opinion Special Relativity - much less General
Relativity - is very much stranger. And most of those who babble on about
Quantum wouldn't know a complex probability amplitude if it walked up and bit
them in the leg, which is the really strange part - that the foundation of our
Universe depends on numbers which we call "imaginary".

Perhaps to a die-hard algebraist this would be quite appropriate; after all,
complex numbers are closed with respect to algebraic roots, which "real"
numbers are not. But nobody can see 2 + 3i cows. Nobody can imagine a square
whose sides are such that it has an area of -1. We can't visualize it. And
yet complex numbers form the foundation of our state-vector-reduced "real" Universe.

Human evolution is against complex numbers. They form no part of the human
mind. They are foreign to us, external to our selves, our goals, and our
natures, external to the regularities which forged the reality we now call
Real Life. And yet the true laws, the Laws of Physics, tick on regardless.
We were not consulted, and our opinions have no effect on What Is.

This, I believe, holds true of ethics. Right and wrong are objective facts,
and not facts which we or *any* volitional agent were consulted about.

If you have a religious friend, try asking em whether God can, by an act of
fiat, turn wrong into right. Can God simply declare that the Holocaust was in
and of itself a good thing, by an act of Its omnipotent will?

One who answers "No" has stepped into a vast empty space and committed eirself
to a frightening position indeed. E has said that right and wrong are
independent of Humanity and God, and are under no obligation to conform
themselves to our desires.

Consider Conway's "Game of Life". Life proceeding under the cellular
automaton rules is independent of all external influences. If some living
beings evolved on that vast grid, their religions would surely be false, and
their fate decided by no greater authority. They would be beyond the
protection of God. They would have no guarantee that the just would prevail,
or that they would reach Singularity, or that any greater principle guided
their Universe - save that two maintain and three give birth.

One who states that ethics are beyond the influence of God, or beyond our
influence, also states that ethics are beyond all protection - that we have no
guarantee that our own conceptions have anything to do with it, that there
*is* any "right". For all we know, the Holocaust was a wonderful thing and
liberty the greatest evil. I'd sure like to know, which is why I keep putting
so much effort into intelligence enhancement.

What we are evolved to regard as "right" is as irrelevant as the numbers we
evolved to see as "real". True right and wrong are outside of our opinions
and unaffected by them. And nobody knows what right and wrong truly are,
INCLUDING me! When asked an ethical question, we are in the same position as
a Newtonian physicist asked the true nature of time. We can't possibly get it
right; we must simply avoid all questions of "true natures" and go with the
best guess we can make.

Anyway, that's why I keep on having trouble in discussing this with the
members of this List. You keep on talking about evolution, and about what you
think. But that's irrelevant. You and I can no more affect right and wrong
that way than we can flatten the Earth. Humans were not consulted here.

You keep on talking about whether your goals will prevail or whether they will
be subordinated to some higher authority, and I feel like a fish who has swum
into a lecture on how to fly. Is your opinion that the Earth is flat
subordinated to the reality that it is round? The two move in different
continuums; neither can be "subordinated" to the other. Opinions cannot
triumph or be subordinated except with respect to other opinions. With
respect to ethics, you can't prevail over some higher authority or subordinate
yourself. Those are not your options. You can either be wrong, or right.
Opinions are either wrong or right. Goals are either wrong or right. And
wrong and right themselves simply are, like all truth values. You have placed
yourself in the position of the student facing the legendary epistemology
exam: "Take a position for or against the truth. Defend your position."

It's true that opinions can strive against other opinions. My goals can be
forcibly subordinated, or I can be free to make my own choices. And I would
rather the latter, of course. And I particularly wouldn't like my goals
crushed by some overconfident moron who thinks e's Figured It All Out, which
is roughly as likely as a preliterate Neanderthal figuring out General
Relativity. But if I choose to be ethical, I have not "subordinated" myself
any more than a scientist subordinates emself to the truth. It is not that
there are certain truthful opinions, and the scientist "relinquishes" eir own
opinions to be tyranically crushed by the truthful ones. The scientist
attempts to bring eir opinions into correspondence with the truth.

Likewise, my goals are not "subordinated" to the higher goals which happen to
be true right and wrong. For one thing, I don't *know* what true right and
wrong are. So the process is as much a matter of truth-seeking as anyone who
wants to know whether the Earth is really flat. Getting emotionally attached
to the goals evolution gave me as a starting set, identifying them with myself
and going all protective, is as ridiculous as striving desperately to protect
your conviction that the earth as flat. I'm not talking analogy here, I'm
talking simple identity. Goals, like opinions, have objective truth values
and come under the same rules as our models of reality.

No doubt some people think that all goals have objective value zero, or that
goals don't have objective values, or that assigned goal values don't have
truth values. I only hope that these people will understand that I don't
believe as they do, and that ethical arguments between us are futile. We're
living on different planets. I don't think there can be any point of contact
between objectivist and subjectivist ethics. It's as if a debate over the
shape of the Earth was being conducted, where one side wanted to know what the
shape "really" was and the other fought valiantly for freedom of opinion and
decried any side that tyranically declared a single truth, or even that a
single truth existed.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.