On Moral Relevance

I’ve been trying to decide for a while what moral relevance is made of. At the moment I have an answer that seems to serve in day to day life, but I still have the feeling that I haven’t fully resolved the question, a nagging feeling that I’m not yet capturing everything.

Backing up a step, what do I even mean when I say, “moral relevance”?

I consider a to be morally relevant if I think it’s something that I should take into account when choosing my actions. It is accounted for, so that I do not violate any preferences that it has. In short, violations of ‘s preferences is a bad thing, and to be avoided. matters.

A meaningful amount of the problem lies here. I have an intuitive felt sense of what it means to matter, and what it means for a thing to be bad rather than good, but I don’t think I could give a technical explanation of these concepts. I am in some senses a moral realist – it seems to me that there is something more than game theory in being kind to others. I don’t think that you can find an atom of good or the charge carrier of morality, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an atom of human, either, and they certainly seem to exist.

Axioms seem to be necessary to establishing systems, from what I can tell. Investigating this question, it seems that in at least some systems, with enough progress, you can then go back and prove your axioms (see this quora) but note that what I’ve found also supports another claim I’ve made – that a system with no axioms does and can prove nothing; it has no affordances with which one can do anything.

So, my moral axioms:

  1. There is an axis on which events can be measured, this axis runs from “bad” to “good”, and any given action, fully contextualized, has a location on this axis.
  2. The degree to which an event is bad or good depends strongly (although possibly not exclusively) on the degree of suffering that descends from it.
  3. Evil is a quality that bad events can, but do not necessarily have, which requires intentionality – an evil action is one where a bad event will result, the mind that initiated the action was aware of this, and either didn’t care, or (increasing the degree of evil) actively wanted this outcome.
  4. For two events identical in all respects except for the presence or absence of evil, the event which evil was a part of the existence of, is worse (“more bad”).

From this, it can be seen that moral relevance comes the capacity to suffer. Rocks are not morally relevant, because they don’t, as far as we know, experience suffering. People are morally relevant, because they do. This gets… problematic, if one considers engineered beings. Does a person who is identical to me in every respect, except that they experience suffering at twice the intensity, with their upper bound for suffering, matter twice as me? Does a person identical to me in every respect except that she has no capacity to suffer whatsoever, not matter?

I notice, once more, that I am confused.

On reflection, I think that a version of me who didn’t experience suffering at all might not be morally relevant. If she’s not bothered in the hypothetical case where I hit her with a stick as she walks past, I’m not sure where the bad lies.

Similarly, an action that hurts the double-suffering version of me is at least as bad as taking said action towards me. Is it twice as bad? She suffers twice as much, after all.

The incentive gradients are all screwy here, though. It suggests that the right thing to do is to make people who are capable of suffering as much as possible, and then make sure the world (or other people) don’t hurt them, and that seems obviously incorrect.

I need to think more on this topic, clearly, if I’m getting outcomes like this. What are your thoughts, reader?

On Soul-Forging

As I’ve alluded to before, my childhood was not the best. In all honesty, I was a demon child, and a source of great stress and grief to my mother. I got in vast amounts of trouble in school, and that wasn’t even my trouble-causing final form. Without going into too much detail, it was enough that my mother threw up her hands, unable to deal, and I ended up in the care of the state. This is how I ended up never setting foot in a high school.

I don’t blame her, to be clear – demon child is not an exaggeration, or not much. I definitely needed that shock, and if the programs were not in fact an ideal environment, they did lead to my being the person I am now, and I’m glad to be me, although of course I’m still striving to be someone better.

Something that happened fairly early on here ended up making a huge impact on the shape of my life, and I’ve never properly thanked the person responsible. My mother and stepfather visited me, and dropped of some books, novels. On the cover of one of them was a post-it from my stepfather, with a note stating, roughly, that I should read these books with an eye to learning how good people acted.

I don’t know what he expected. What actually happened, though, was that I got the idea of incorporating, actively, facets of characters I admired. I read a lot, then and now, and I’m always on the lookout for something new to attach. One of the reasons I’ve reread Worm as many times as I have is that I want Taylor’s refusal to lose. As I’ve also noted, I think as a species we are up against some Serious Shit, and I want to bring everything I possibly can to bear on the problems facing us.

I’ve cribbed from books, from games, from television. “I will quote the truth wherever I find it,” says Richard Bach in Illusions, and the concept generalizes – I will add to my self that which is worthy wherever I find it.

The last major addition I consciously made was from Unsong. I can’t do the Comet King justice without a direct quote, and so –

“Do you know,” interrupted Jalaketu, “that whenever it’s quiet, and I listen hard, I can hear them? The screams of everybody suffering. In Hell, around the world, anywhere. I think it is a power of the angels which I inherited from my father.”

He spoke calmly, without emotion. “I think I can hear them right now.”

Ellis’ eyes opened wide. “Really?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t . . . ”

“No,” said the Comet King. “Not really.”

They looked at him, confused. “No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to. Maybe that is what being the Comet King means.”

I read this when I lived in Colorado and it had a huge impact on me. We don’t need to hear the screams to know it’s happening, and when I look inside myself at the place that knows this, it grabs the part of me that said in a philosophy class once that if your ethical system tells you the right thing to do is something you don’t want to, you either need to run your ethical calculations again, do the thing, or admit that you’re not good, according to your system. It grabs that part, and shakes it, and demands that I make it stop Make It Stop MAKE IT STOP.

And so I work to fix the vast holes in my education, so that I can do something about the state of things. I’ve built myself a soul from parts I found lying around, and it turns out having done so makes me need to do certain things.

I’m happier about this being the case than the child I was could ever have understood.