Friday, March 1, 2024

The Tyranny of the Majority in Advanced Consumer Economies

In 2017 I went down the ethical cell phone rabbit hole. I didn’t do anything like buy a phone — mostly I just reacquainted myself with the ways the elements of a phone are embedded in dysfunctional, oppressive, and murderous global systems.

I learned there is a phone called a Fairphone that considers itself an “ethical cellphone.” I guessed immediately it wouldn’t be available in my area, and I was correct. The main reason is obvious: insufficient local demand.

“Tyranny of the majority” is a phrase in political philosophy usually meant to indicate the possibility that in contexts of majority-rule, minority interests will get steamrolled.

Conceptually, advanced consumer economies should be consumer paradises where it’s the opposite of majority rule. Everything we might need or want would be for sale, because the existence of people wanting and needing is what causes the market to provide.

So I’m always a bit surprised to crash into the obstacles created by the fact that I often want what other people do not want, and do not want what other people want, which tends to lead to my things being simply unavailable.

The fairphone is a sanctimonious example — mostly I’m talking about garden variety things people spend money on. I would like a portable way to listen to high quality terrestrial radio — surprisingly difficult to access beyond the context of a car. I would like to hail a taxi on the street — in my city, this used to work great, and now it doesn’t, because obviously. I would like clothes that have a bit of stretchy fabric for my body shape but aren’t athleisure-wear — not easy to find. I would like to go out dancing at like 6:30pm, not midnight, but that is evidently not something enough other people want to do.

In the 90s, I noticed that there were TVs available for under $100 and I thought OK great, when my mom’s TV gets old that won’t be a problem. But by the time her TV got old, capitalism had moved on: now the only TVs available had some new and better tech than the old “cathode ray” and now they all cost hundreds of dollars.

It’s always striking to me when the law of supply and demand is held up as one of the more fundamental, universal, or well-established laws of economics and human behavior, because we are surrounded by things — especially in technology — that get less expensive the more people want them. If everyone wants a laptop, laptop prices will go down.

Note that I do not mean that examples falsity the law of supply and demand. It’s the presence of what Mill called “disturbing causes”: the more people want a thing, the more money the producers of the thing can invest in new methods and technologies and the more affordable the thing can be. Except - as with the TVs — when “the thing” becomes a different thing altogether, and everyone buys that, so that is what’s available.

Anyway, I’m not saying there is any problem to be fixed, and I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that from an abstract point of view, it’s striking that a system based on the idea that each person should be able to choose what they want for themselves is also a system where “what everyone else is doing” determines a lot of the texture of your experience.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Directing Your Attention Versus Experiencing Whatever Happens to be Happening

 Like a lot of people, I often feel like my mind is running in the wrong gear. There’s too much whirring and burbling in situations where that isn’t needed. I usually self-medicate with exercise, alcohol, novels, and plenty of down time — all of which work great for me, so please, no advice in the comments.

We all know the Psychiatric Help: Five Cents answer to this problem: meditation. In putting it that way, I don’t mean to imply that meditation wouldn’t help me. It probably would. I am, however, implying that where we are in the culture is a rare moment when gurus of science, wellness, therapy and fitness all agree: really, you should meditate.

My experience with mediation is limited. I go to yoga classes, but they’re usually at the gym, so while we’re “meditating” at the end, there’s often like one person bustling around leaving early, wrecking the vibe, and weirdly sad music on the playlist, making me ponder whether I’m the only one thinking “wait, isn’t music distracting?” and then wondering if I’m missing the point.

To learn more about meditation, I recently downloaded one of the mediation apps and selected a “beginner” series. During the second instalment, I was surprised to hear the narrator make a case for the importance of directing your attention. He said that concentration — being able to direct your attention — is like a muscle, and strengthening that muscle gives you the power to choose what to pay attention to. And nothing is more important than the fundamental ability to pay attention, he said — because what you pay attention to becomes your life.

I realize I’m engaging in the kind of overthinking philosophers are trained and socialized into, but I couldn’t stop myself from being weirded out by the idea that you can always choose what to pay attention to. Because it does seem true, in a way, that what you pay attention to becomes your life. But in that case the idea that you are choosing and directing it seems disturbing. It seems like then you would have to constantly decide what to pay attention to, which is dangerously close to constantly deciding what is worth your attention, which seems overwhelming, overly rationalistic, and in some way just wrong.

I don’t really know anything about eastern philosophy and the general traditions in which meditation is a central activity. So I’m sure there are people who know more than I do about how attention and meditation and focus all fit together and how I may by misinterpreting the fundamentals.

What I want to discuss instead is how the idea of choosing what to pay attention to got me thinking of the cultural expansion of the category “things we control and determine” and the shrivelling of the category “experiencing of whatever happens to be happening.”

I actively enjoy experiencing whatever happens to be happening for its happening part, even when the thing itself is not my fave. For example, I used to love listening to the radio. Part of what I loved about it was listening to “what’s on.” What’s on the radio is on now, and we’re all listening to it. We didn’t choose it, but we’re all out here experiencing it. Because it’s what’s on. I have the same feeling about the NYT crossword. I like to do today’s puzzle. Because it’s today’s puzzle. I don’t want to go into the archive and find a puzzle on a theme I might prefer. I want to do today’s, because today’s puzzle is what’s on now, and we’re all doing it.

Obviously it’s still possible to enjoy experiencing whatever happens to be happening, but I feel like it’s become culturally more challenging — like there’s more friction to it, and it’s harder to opt into, because everyone else is opting out of it — people are crafting their playlists, following their followees, editing their photos, etc. etc. Even friendship has been infiltrated by the power of control: what are you adding to my life, or should I just drop you?

Recently I was in an audio store, and I tried to explain that I wanted a stereo component where I could listen to the radio. No — not through the internet, where I can choose any of a million feeds, just in the regular way of listening to whatever happened to be happening in the area where I can get a radio signal.

I learned this is called “terrestrial radio.” I also learned someone asking for terrestrial radio will be treated as ignorant. The salespeople kept explaining to me again and again that over the internet is better: better sound quality, you can choose any station, it’s the same, only better, was I really so stupid and stubborn as to want the technology of the 1950s?

The good news is I got my terrestrial radio stereo component. The bad news is, my favorite station folded — because no one is listening to terrestrial radio, because don’t you know it’s better over the internet?

Anyway, I’ll have to stick with it meditation-wise, so I can better understand the relationship between directing your attention and still being open to experiencing whatever happens to be happening. Because experiencing whatever happens to be happening is great, and sometimes feels more like relinquishing control than it does like an active choice.

Friday, February 16, 2024

If Human Emotions Are Based On Rationality, I Feel Like An Alien

 Content warning: suicide.

When I was in graduate school, I TAed a course on Contemporary Moral Problems. I can’t remember what the “Problem” was that we were discussing, but at some point our textbook author made the argument that whether or not to kill yourself was a question that could be approached in a rational manner. For example, he said, there are good reasons to kill yourself and bad reasons: a toothache is obviously not a reason to kill yourself.

I remember being taken aback, because in my experience, a toothache is just the kind of thing that makes you want to kill yourself. In saying this, I  do not mean to be treating suicide lightly or simply. I just mean that my own moments of despair most often occur in response to the kind of relentless, slow-burn, non-dramatic things that make life seem grim and pointless. Things like toothaches.

I didn’t study philosophy as an undergrad, so this textbook passage may have been my first time face to face with the philosophical idea that emotions could be objectively appropriate or inappropriate to a situation. It’s an idea that struck me as bizarre, and, to some extent, still strikes me as bizarre. If being a well-functioning person means being sad when bad things happen and happy when good ones do — well, that makes me feel like a bit like an alien.

I mean, of course I want good things and conversely, but for most of everyday life I am much more likely to be influenced by a mood than a thing in the world to which there is an appropriate response. My moods are highly influenced by things like exercise and fresh air and the right mix of people-time and alone-time — things that seem ambient and animalistic and not rationally assessable as causes.  

For some emotions like fear, I suppose I can see it: if you are afraid of a shark attack while walking around downtown, I guess you could say the fear is misplaced and inappropriate to a situation. But I feel like when you try to make a theory out it, things get weird.

For example, speaking of philosophers who believe that emotions are a form of cognitive judgments, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says “On a common interpretation of their view, my anger at someone is the judgment that I have been wronged by that person.” Then you might be correct or not about that.  

Wow, because this seems to say the emotion is a judgment and I would almost say it feels like the opposite: that my feelings of anger and my judgments about whether I have been wronged run on two separate tracks with occasional but obscure points of intersection. Often, I’m not clear whether I feel anger, irritation, hurt feelings or some other negative emotion, and frankly, I often don’t care. In a vast range of cases, there’s no point to doing anything. In those case, I am much more likely to pursue a strategy of emotion-dissipation through distraction. When there is something to be done, the thought process of what that would be barely feels like it engages the original emotion.

I also don’t get how emotions could be “appropriate” in an everyday way to our global situation of climate disaster and injustice on a truly massive scale. I suppose you could say that certain emotions are inappropriate to our situation — people who know what’s up, but just don’t care, aren’t they doing something wrong? Yes — but to me that seems more like a failing than a miscalculation.

Anyway, maybe my textbook author was thinking of a toothache in middle-class US terms — as a temporary problem you can easily address by spending some money and having some short-term pain. Obviously, I also do not want people to kill themselves over temporary, solvable problems.  What a person needs in that situation is partly other people who love them and can say “don’t worry, it won’t last forever!” And even more importantly: good universal health benefits for everyone.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Duelling Metaphors Of Our Time: Optimize and Balance

 It really bothers me that the two fundamental metaphors of how to live life right now are “optimize” and “balance.” How can this be, I ask myself, when optimizing and balancing are like opposite activities?  

“Optimize” is like finding the crucial quantity or aspect or thing and then taking it to its logical extreme. Go as far as you can; get to the max endpoint. “Balance” is anti-extreme. Please avoid the max endpoints; please find an appropriate and moderate middle ground.

If you’re looking for advice on how to live your life and make decisions in the 21st century, you can’t get away from optimize. It’s there under every life hack, every productivity app, morsel of input on improving your health, your wealth, your time, your relationships. It’s there every time we do a cost-benefit analysis or think about the greatest good for the greatest number.

If you’re looking for advice on how to live your life and make decisions in the 21st century, you can’t get away from balance. It crowds in from the ether when you try to think about the relationship between work and family, or how much time you should put into your various projects, or what should be your ratio of cocktails and cake now to trying to avoid cancer later.

From my perspective, the history of philosophy is full of the dead ends of people trying to harmonize optimize and balance. The crucial theoretical move would be to find a quantity X that if you maximize it, would yield the perfect balance for all your various life concerns.

In philosophy, the early utilitarians of the 19th century got themselves tied into knots over whether “pleasure” or “happiness” could be the name for X, the thing that when you maximize it you get the right balance. On the pleasure side, you may know about how Jeremy Bentham said “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry” — by which he meant that a dumb game like Candy Crush is just as good as any other activity as long as the pleasure you get out of it is the same.

To which Mill pointed out that having been raised on that principle as a child, he then had a nervous breakdown and could only be revived through the arts and sciences of music and poetry, so no. And 21st century optimizers are not using pleasure as their X: a life of just the right amount of Candy Crush  — or opiates, for that matter — is not what the life hack team are preaching.  

Mill then developed his doctrine of “higher pleasures” — you should maximize happiness, but recognize that in happiness some pleasures are better than others. To which people said: that makes no sense, how can there be one metric but it’s made up of lots of little different metrics?

I’m flying irresponsibly over a hundred plus years of debate, but my sense is that the best answer to this question involves working back from the answer: try to figure out what is best overall, then calculate the mix of things that would form X; now maximizing X is the answer to how to live your life. If you’re a utilitarian, you could call X “utility” and just divorce it from any particular sensation like pleasure.

In economics, the typical science-y approach to the puzzle of how to find X is to say that X is satisfaction of your personal preferences, which can be deduced from your behaviour. If you chose the cocktail it must be because you preferred it, because it brought you more utility (whatever that is), so ultimately when you choose it, you’re maximizing your utility so, when you balance well, you are acting optimally.

Even setting aside the ambiguity of “because” (is that a definition of utility or a substantive claim about human psychology?) the success of this formulation as a useful idealization does little to help us figure out what to do next on an individual level. The life pattern in which you work out your utility from your past choices then apply that to the future is the one in which you do the same thing over and over, simply because you’ve done that before. No life hacker or balance influencer is suggesting this, and it would be a dumb way to life your life.

And all of these puzzles arise just for one person’s optimality! We haven’t even talked about the question of how what is best overall for you individually could be best overall from a community-based perspective, which is an even harder problem.

My own take on the situation is that there is no X. There is just a made-up concept corresponding to the thing that if you were to maximize it, you’d get the best thing to do overall, with the proper balance of all your different things.

Made-up concepts are OK in some contexts, but they’re not useful for figuring out life’s practicalities. So I think "optimize" in this sense is a scam. There’s only balance. 

The problem is that the balance metaphor sounds like there is no right answer, which people find destabilizing, but which I also think is true. There’s no algorithm, there are just people muddling through and trying to figure things out.

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Modern Capitalist Categorical Imperative: You Shall Rate, And You Shall Be Rated

The other day I took a taxi ride in which the driver complained about local politics, vented his anger about Uber, and used the phrase “snot-nosed” in a context I won’t explain further. It felt to me like the 1970s. But in kind of a good way.

For a while now, I have been trying to support the taxi industry. I have the same obvious reasons as everyone else: concern about the gig economy, worry that rideshare will drive out competition then monopolistically raise prices, indignation that private companies can just avoid passengers they find inconvenient for some reason. I mix it up, though, for various reasons.

It took me a while to glom onto the fact that so many of the differences in the textural experience could be traced to the ubiquitous rideshare rating system. In modern capitalism, rating is the new categorial imperative: you shall rate, and you shall be rated. And you shall all be judged on your ratings.

The more experience I have with Uber, the more I’ve tuned in to the implications of mutual rating. In my rides, many Uber drivers are quiet and deferential. At first I was really into it. No chit chat. Driver making sure I’m comfortable and not unnecessarily irritated. Clean car. Smells nice. What a great consumer experience!

Over time, though, I started to get weirded out about it. People spend all day working. Constant surveillance at work sucks. It means you have to be not only competent but also constrained: hyper-efficient, or charming, or whatever. Perhaps because I have a bit of social anxiety, sitting in an Uber car, I start to wonder: are they being quiet and deferential to get a good rating? Does that suck for them? To be that way all the time? Does it suck in ways I can’t imagine because I’m not an Uber driver?

Conversely, as time has gone one, I’ve become more and more aware of my own customer rating and how it turns a bit of awkwardness into a federal case. I follow all the usual principles of being a good capitalist citizen, but sometimes things come up. Once, an Uber driver picking me up from my university circled the ring road — all the way around— then was about to circle it again. I found myself unable to say nothing. Dude. You’re going in circles. He insisted he was following his GPS. Awkward. Did it get me down-rated?  

Another time a driver said he couldn’t pick me up on the my side of the road, because the street was a one-way street, so he couldn’t come down the other direction to pull over on the other side. The practicality of that mistake is one thing, but the illogic of it made me CRAZY. It’s a one-way street! You can pull over on either side! Reader, yes, I said something about it, and, yes, the driver thought I was wrong and annoying. I instantly regretted it. Would I get down-rated?

The taxi experience is a surprisingly sharp contrast, because not only is there no rating, there is no boss near by. Drivers vary obviously, but for some it feels like getting paid for a ride is almost secondary to the entertainment value I’m providing. I get rants and complaints, I get unsolicited, sometimes problematic opinions, and I get intrusive questions: “Coming from Toronto, huh? Do you live there?” “Coming from the gym, are you? Do you lift weights?” “Going to BeerTown, eh? Going to get drunk?”

For a long time it got me down. But then the rating system started to seem so much more depressing, it gave me like a gestalt switch. I started to see the unrated interaction as a mini free-range relief-zone. The driver can be a bit strange or annoying. I can be a bit strange or annoying. And as long as I get there and I give them the money, it’s all OK.

I wouldn’t say it’s more pleasant, exactly, but it’s something. 

Anyway, if you want to read about Uber versus taxis from the driver’s point of view, I highly recommend this discussion by an Uber driver who switched for one week to driving a taxi. Relevant part: taxi riding more enjoyable (due partly to camaraderie), but less lucrative (due partly to lower demand). Camaraderie! Not something I had even thought of before reading this piece.

Friday, January 26, 2024

The “Eerie” Feeling Of Math

I studied math before I studied philosophy and in my youth I was always that person who liked math. I’ve been re-engaging with math after a long hiatus and it has so great — fun, interesting, awe-inspiring. One thing I had forgotten is how math engenders so many different emotions in people: anxiety and fear about not being “good at math,” comfort and calm about being in a place with a “right answer,” curiosity and indignation about whether math is perceived to be discovered or invented.

One of the emotions of math that gets talked about less is what the physicist Eugene Wigner calls an “eerie” feeling. In the 1950s, Wigner gave a lecture on “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science.” It’s a miracle, he says, that math works. Math concepts are developed by mathematicians according to aesthetic criteria, including “look at me, I’m so ingenious!”-based considerations. Yet these same concepts are massively useful in physics. It’s strange; it’s surprising; It’s a miracle we neither understand nor deserve.

Wigner’s paper is either famous or infamous, depending on how you feel about his topic. In philosophy, there are whole cottage industries devoted to “is it really surprising, though?” and “maybe you only notice the successful ones?” and “no, it actually is a miracle.”

I don’t want to talk philosophy, though, I want to talk feelings. I love the way Wigner opens his paper with the simple story of a statistician and his old classmate from school days. The statistician shows a paper on population trends to his friend, a paper full of complex and sophisticated mathematics. The friend looks at the complex symbolism and is like “wait, what”? … Then the friend points to π and says “and what is this symbol here?” “Oh,” says the statistician, “that is π” —“the ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.” “Now you are pushing your joke too far!” says the classmate, “surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.”

Wigner says the story gives him an “eerie” feeling. Surely, the reaction of the classmate betrays “only plain common sense.” Like: yeah, what does the ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter have to do with population statistics?

I have this eerie feeling about math all the time. I get it about the application of math in science, and I also get it about the application of math to other math. You’ll be going along learning some thing, and suddenly a concept from some completely different concept not only pops up, but turns out to be exactly the thing for situation.

Just look at the Wikipedia page for the constant e and the bewildering array of seemingly unrelated applications: compound interest, probability theory, optimization using calculus, number theory, etc. etc.

In connection with the eeriness of math, I only recently learned more about the emergence and significance of the complex numbers — numbers like a+bi where i is the “imaginary” square root of minus one. They appear in Cardano’s work in the sixteenth century in connection with finding the solutions to polynomial equations — equations like x^2+1=0. If you try to find two numbers that add to 10 and multiply to 40 — that is, solutions to x^2-10x+40=0 — you find that there are no such real numbers, but that 5+√–15 and 5-√–15 work just fine.

While the square roots of negative numbers are not ordinary numbers, Cardano wasn’t uncomfortable with them: “√–9,” he wrote, “is neither +3 or –3 but is some recondite third sort of thing.” 

Complex numbers were essentially thought up to solve mathematical problems, not practical or physics problems. And as Wigner himself says, if you ask a mathematician to justify their interest in complex numbers, they will point (“with some indignation”) to their many uses in “beautiful” theorems in the theory of equations and other branches of math. So it is a bit weird when you find out later on that complex analysis is one of the most directly applied parts of math there is and that imaginary numbers are everywhere in physics and other applications.

A thing I wondered about for many years was why complex numbers were ubiquitous and other analogous ways of extending the real number structure less so. If you’re thinking abstractly, the addition of “i” according to certain principles is just an extension of real numbers with a new symbol according to calculation rules regarding how that symbol works with the existing numbers and relations. So — I never understood: why are we always studying that one extension of the real numbers and not some other one? Why not add multiple new symbols instead of just one? 


Then a few months ago I read Numbers: A Very Short Introduction, and I learned that “it is not possible to construct an augmented number system that contains [the complex numbers] and also retains all the normal laws of algebra.” Aha! That is a clear explanation of the specialness of the complex numbers: you can’t go bigger and still keep the rules you want to keep.

Of course, it’s a clear mathematical explanation. It explains how the complex numbers are mathematically special. But then the complex numbers are also special in applications of math — so much so that while you can take a “pure math” course on “Complex Analysis,” there are also courses on “Applied Complex Analysis.” Does the mathematical specialness of the complex numbers somehow carry over to the scientific context?  

It is strange! For me, the deeper I go, the eerier it gets.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Yes, But What If Novel-Reading Is Also Mind-Numbing Pointless Distraction?

Every so often it comes up that reading — especially fiction — used to be considered the kind of mind-numbing, character-destroying, pointless distraction that we now take social media to be. But I feel like we never get to the next step: in that world view, what doesn’t count as pointless distraction?

I ask this not in the sense of “those people of the past, so wacky!” but rather in practical advice-seeking mode. If you know me, you know that I read novels pretty regularly. I don’t consider myself a big reader — there are always people out there who are reading like a book a day or even two books a week and that is never me. But I enjoy reading and I don’t enjoy most watching so yeah, for fun I often read.
 
In my experience, if there is something else you are hoping to do instead, novel reading is incredibly distracting. The other day I broke one my most inflexible rules for myself and I dipped into novel reading in the middle of the day. I was on the subway for like ten minutes and near the end of a chapter. “What’s the harm?” I asked myself.
 
That was a crash course in why I have that rule. After experiencing the easy, frictionless, pleasure of being swept along by narrative and crafted characters, the idea of turning to my philosophy writing — which is what I was supposed to be doing for the next few hours — seemed impossible — dull, dry, and difficult. What a disaster. I spent most of that afternoon as one of the many zombies in the university library: scrolling, scrolling, scrolling — all the while trying to find my way out of my browser and back to my word processing program.
 
That reminded me of the distracting power of reading, which reminded me that in our cultural moment, novel reading is often held up as the opposite of distraction — the model of sustained attention that people are getting distracted from. Those seduced by the internet get down on themselves because they can’t read books, because they get one or two pages in and they get that fidgety feeling.
 
I have experienced this phenomenon as well. If I’ve been too much on the internet, I can’t even read, never mind write, work, or do other things. But when I get back to being able to read, instead of “yay,” I’m more like “uh, what am I doing with my life?”
 
Maybe this kind of overthinking is why doing philosophy is bad for my mental health, but I find the question seriously disturbing, Like, I’m losing myself in a novel. Shouldn’t I be spending my time doing something? Being productive? Making things happen? At least being active, instead of just lying there passively absorbing someone else’s little stories?
 
Obviously, some people have had ideas about what we should really be doing, what the meaningful activities are that are not reading. How do I know this? Well - in part I know it from novels. The novels I learned this from include Victorian novels by authors like Trollope. From these books I have learned that the anti-novel people are often the pro-Christianity people: novel reading is flaky and distracting and bad for your character because what you should really be doing is Bible study or contemplation of God.
 
I am an atheist and for that reason and many others, those answers for life’s purposes aren’t going to work for me. Still, the nagging feeling persists. Why am I rereading Jane Smiley’s Moo when I could be doing something with my life?

Friday, January 12, 2024

Ethical Math And Sex With Random Strangers

When I was a frosh in college in the 80s, a guy friend tried to talk me into having sex with him by pointing out that the benefit to him would be much greater than the cost to me. That is, he argued that even if I wasn’t attracted to him — which I wasn’t — I should agree to have sex with him just on principle, the way you’d do any other thing to be nice, kind, or generous to a friend.

I declined to have sex with him. It’s not that a disagreed with his premises. He was a young guy, and didn’t know many people socially; I wouldn’t be surprised that he’d want to have sex, that having sex would not only be pleasurable but would also add a lot to his medium-term, overall happiness with his life. While I wasn’t attracted to him, I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit sex-wise and he was, after all, a friend, a nice person etc. etc.

I didn’t have the philosophical sophistication to explain what was wrong with his point of view; I think I just said “that’s not how that works” — which I still think is basically the right answer. While I believe there can be good reasons to decide to have sex even if you’re not exactly feeling it in the moment, and that even altruism is not always misplaced as a sexual motive, there’s no obligation to have sex with someone just because the happiness numbers add up higher on the one side than they do on the other.

Years later, in philosophy graduate school, I encountered the theory of ethical utilitarianism, which says that you should do that act that will bring about the most happiness or well-being overall. It’s the greatest good for the greatest number, which means you have to do the ethical math -- which action will bring about the most well-being or pleasure overall, where everyone counts the same amount? -- and do the one on top of your spreadsheet. And I started to wonder: if ethical utilitarianism were true, would I be ethically obligated to have sex with my friend — and, really, any other random stranger who would really enjoy it?

If so, that strikes me like a bizarre conclusion. I am not a utilitarian, so I am not worried about the implications for my life. But I am curious about whether other people share my sense that if the theory entails these obligations, the theory must be wrong in some way.

My understanding of the general relationship of utilitarianism and sexual ethics is that an important component is sexual liberty — or open-minded free choice. In the late 19th century, the British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham advocated for gay rights at a time when gay sex was illegal in Britain. In contemporary theory, utilitarians may argue that generally speaking, the most pleasure and happiness are produced when each person chooses what sexual activity they want and prefer, which aligns with many modern western views about sexual ethics. It’s your choice, so do what you want.

As a general principle, that does seem to follow from the utilitarian calculations. But if you think the right action in specific circumstances is the specific one that brings about the most happiness, that seems to imply that there can be occasions when one person is obligated to have sex with another even when they don’t really want to — at least, assuming the suffering or pain of doing so is less than the happiness or pleasure on the other side. That wouldn’t be a violation of the consent framework, it would be saying “here is a situation when you should (are obligated to) consent.”

Again, this conclusion doesn’t fit with my sense of sexual ethics. You could choose to have sex to be nice, but the pleasure calculations shouldn’t entail that you’re required to.

A utilitarian might want to deny that the numbers could ever shake out like this. Maybe they would say that choosing to have sex when you don’t want to, out of a sense of duty, would be psychologically bad for a person, so that the benefits of doing so could never outweigh the relevant costs. Like, in the case of my friend, they may say maybe I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to me to say yes despite not wanting to, but I was wrong: saying yes would lead to damage of my sexual identity or well-being.

But that’s not how I experience my psychology. I can have sex with people even if I am not really attracted to them, and it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal. Like I said at the start, I think my friend’s premises were sound — it’s the reasoning that doesn’t work.

In any case, I know these kinds of objections to utilitarianism are a dime-a-dozen: the theory says X, but people believe not-X. Many of those Xs have to do with values like justice, fairness, and equity. But the sex context seems to me to be differently interesting, because sexual ethics is usually understood in such a personalized way — and the utilitarian calculations are obviously anything but personal.

When it comes to why the utilitarianism answer is the wrong answer to the sexual consent question, I still think “that’s not how that works” is roughly correct — even if people don’t agree, and even if they can’t explain, why it is correct.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Rationality Bros, Expected Value (EV) Calculations, and The Real Woo-Woo

There’s a certain type of person who considers it “objective rationality” if they can enter measurable quantities into a formula and just “vibes” or even “stupidity” when decisions are made using other methods. The implication is that we’re out here, doing woo-woo and getting the world into trouble, while they’re in there, heroically calculating.

But in reality, even the most rationality-lover’s rationality theory says you should base decisions on what you want and care about. Those  “measurable quantities” is where the real woo-woo is actually happening.

My most recent encounter with magical rationality thinking was reading about Sam Bankman-Fried in Zeke Faux’s cryptomania romp Number Go Up. Like a lot of people, I got obsessed with SBF while he was in the news. It had never occurred to me that I would see the ins and outs of utilitarian ethical theory debated in the popular press, but right there in the middle the trial, his ex-girlfriend said “he believed that the ways that people tried to justify rules like ‘don’t lie’ and ‘don’t steal’ within utilitarianism didn’t work.” 

Ha, because me too! But I decided utilitarian ethical theory is wrong, while I guess SBF went more in the pro- lying and stealing direction.

To extract more entertainment from the trial, I read Number Go Up. Toward the end, Faux spends some quality time with SBF and they talk about decision-making. SBF invokes the concept of “Expected Value” or “EV”. EV is like a weighted average: in a bet, it reflects the average amount you’d expect to win or lose if you played the same game over and over. SBF likes to make decisions that are EV+ — that is, the expected value is positive.

There are contexts where this is straightforward. If you’re trying to decide whether to take a bet where you put up a dollar and 50-50 odds you lose and 50-50 odds you win three dollars, the expected value for the bet is (-1)(.5)+3(.5) = +1 dollar. On average, you’ll gain a dollar each time you play. Since this is positive, it’s a good bet. If your only goal is to maximize your dollars, you should go ahead and take it.

But there are difficulties applying EV to life, because the V in EV — “value” — represents outcomes, and is not the same as the U in utility, which represents how desirable or good outcomes are. And it’s the U you need when you’re trying to make decisions. That’s why the standard decision-theory concept is called “expected UTILITY theory.”  

U and V are not the same, because how good things are is a judgment call and varies from one situation to another. Suppose you have a million dollars and someone offers you a bet with 50-50 odds where if you win, you get two million more dollars, but if you lose, you lose all you have. If the “V” is measured in money, this bet is strongly EV+: in the average weighted outcome, you are up (-1,000,000)*.5+(2,00,000)*.5= $500,000.

But utility-wise, taking the bet could be wildly irrational. If that million is all your money, and it’s earmarked for your family’s well-being, you’d care way more about keeping it than about failing to gain more. Your personal utility of losing $1,000,000 is that it is destitution and disaster, something you’d do anything to avoid. Your utility of failing to gain another $2,000,000 is that it is too bad not to have more, but not even comparable to the badness of the difference between having your $1,000,000 and having nothing. If your U is what matters, it’s a terrible bet.

You don’t have to take my word for it. “The Expected Utility Hypothesis is that rational agents maximize utility, meaning the subjective desirability of their actions.” Desirability — i. e., how much you want or care about a thing. Bernoulli argued in 1738 that different bets are rational for rich people and poor people. 

At one point, SBV tells Faux that when starting up his business, he estimated an 80 percent chance of financial failure. But the magnitude of the potential financial gain was so great,  he said, that even with the smallish 20 percent chance of success, the decision overall was “EV positive.” He describes this perspective as “risk neutral,” which I guess means each dollar counts for the same amount, whether it is lost or gained.

Faux says that to a normal person, such calculations lead to decisions that “normal people” would find “insane.” “Normal people” find these decisions make no sense because most people do not value their millionth dollar as much as their first — the utility money brings varies from person to person and depends how much you have. SBF says the calculations make sense within “effective altruism” — that is, he is considering not his own personal utility but rather what utility it would hypothetically bring if he hypothetically gave it away to a cause that would hypothetically make the world a better place proportionally to the hypothetical dollar amount. There may be something to that, depending on how you interpret all those hypotheticals. But it doesn’t mean you’re being objective or rational if you just count up the dollars and ignore why the dollars matter.

Later, it gets weirder: SBF is quoted as saying he’d take a bet in which “51 percent you double the earth out somewhere else, forty-nine percent it all disappears.” Now instead of maximizing “dollars” you’re maximizing “earths.” Using standard decision theory, that is a rational perspective only if you have roughly as much positive feeling about having an extra earth as you do negative feelings about having no earths. How is that state of mind possible? I’m not even sure I want two earths.

My point is that rational decision making always rests on evaluation, either of your subjective utility or, if you’re someone who believes in objective value, of your assessment of that value. Yes, you can try to quantify your evaluations, and then you can use EV (or, rather, EU) theory to hone your decision-making if you are good at that kind of quantification. But putting in numbers that correspond to the desirability of the outcomes is the hard part. Just mapping the numbers over — “two earths is twice as good as one earth” — ignores the most important pieces of information. With respect to money, to say that your millionth dollar is as important as your first requires assuming that money has some fixed inherent value and thus denying basic economic principles like the law of diminishing marginal utility.

In a scientific approach to the world, it’s people who value things. Our valuing of them determines their worth. This is how all of contemporary economics operates. So acting like you can just count up the obvious numbers, and set aside your personal evaluations — that is magical rationality thinking and the real woo-woo. Underneath any calculation, it’s utility — desirability and goodness — that makes decisions rational or not.

Of course, people evaluate the desirability of outcomes in different ways, which makes different decisions rational from different points of view. This is one reason social and public decision-making is so fraught and complicated and living together is hard. But we’re not going to make it easier by being more hard-headed about numbers — especially if the numbers themselves don’t make any sense.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Fictional Evil Utilitarian N.I.C.E. And The Actual Utilitarian U. K. N.I.C.E. WTF?

I was talking with my partner one morning about the vexing modern problem of putting numbers on amorphous things so you can measure the unmeasurable. And because I've been immersed in a research project on philosophical issues in Cost-Effectiveness Analysis, I brought up the example of quantification in health care resource allocation.

I said something like "They quantify health through QALYs, which evaluate the burdensomeness of health states on a scale from 0 to 1, to prioritize potential treatments according to how many QALYs they produce per dollar. Or sometimes they use a threshold: a specific cost-per-QALY value -- say, $30,000 per QALY. Treatments producing too few QALYs per dollar won't be funded." 

My partner, being an interesting person and not a philosopher, said "Hold on, who is 'they?'"

And I said, "Oh, well in the UK it's N.I.C.E." The National Institute for something something. Care and Excellence. Or something."

"Did you say "N.I.C.E"? Because N.I.C.E. is also the name of the dystopian evil utilitarian organization in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength."

Wait. What? Are you telling me that an actual utilitarian U. K. organization founded in the late 20th century has the same acronymic name as a fiction evil utilitarian organization in a 1945 book by a famous U.K. author? How is that possible?

At the time we had this conversation, I had never read That Hideous Strength, but it had long figured in our family imaginary. For my partner and his daughter, it occupied a  space in the overlap zone between "brilliant" and "problematic" -- problematic because sexist, homophobic, and shot through with imperialism. Despite their warnings, of course I had to read the book immediately.


The author, C. S. Lewis, is the British Christian fantasy writer who also produced the Narnia chronicles. So when I say that N.I.C.E. in Lewis's book is "evil," that's not an exaggerating synonym for "committing bad acts." They're literally evil.

In the novel, N.I.C.E. -- "The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments" -- is publicly a scientific and social planning agency weaning us from sentimental attachments to usher in an era of objective social improvements. Behind the scenes, N.I.C.E. is furtively pursuing its evil program for the exploitation of nature and the annihilation of humanity.  

If you've ever encountered the arguments utilitarians use to defend their idea that the right action is the one that rationally brings about the best consequences, passages from (fictional) N.I.C.E.'s representatives will sound eerily familiar. Their aim is "the scientific reconstruction of the human race in the direction of increased efficiency." Other value judgments based on justice, beauty, or love are "essentially subjective and instinctive." Ethical beliefs turn out on inspection "to be simply an expression of emotion."

Readers of Peter Singer's 1995 "Ethics and Intuitions" may be reminded of his idea that common moral judgements conflicting with utilitarian outcomes are a "biological residue of our evolutionary history." We evolved to have "intuitions" about justice only because punishing wrongdoers was an evolutionary success.

As Singer explains, the status of moral judgments -- especially those reflecting justice -- is significant because these judgments have long been used to discredit utilitarianism. "H. J. McCloskey, writing at a time when lynchings in the U.S. South were still a possibility, thought it a decisive objection to utilitarianism that the theory might direct a sheriff to frame an innocent man in order to prevent a white mob lynching half a dozen innocents in revenge for a rape" (Singer 343-345). That is, our judgment is that framing an innocent person is wrong, regardless of the consequences, because it is unjust. But "bringing about the best consequences" seems to entail that preventing the riot could be the right thing to do. Thus judgments based on justice seem to undermine utilitarianism.

But Singer says not so. Unlike utilitarian judgments like "five deaths is worse than one," which is "rational," our justice-based "intuitions" should have no standing in our figuring out what is right. As with the fictional N.I.C.E., Singer urges that they reflect an "instinctive" sense of reciprocity -- and should be discarded.  

In retrospect, it's not surprising that Lewis would put into the mouths of N.I.C.E.'s representatives talking points familiar from utilitarianism. The rough idea Singer is presenting goes back at least to the British philosopher Sidgwick in the late 19th century. And it's obvious why a Christian ethics would be deeply at odds with utilitarian thinking and why Lewis would be tempted to depict utilitarianism as a manifestation of evil.

The U.K.'s actual real life N.I.C.E. isn't exactly utilitarian, but it does use the utilitarian principles of Cost-Effectiveness Analysis to decide which treatments should be publicly funded. Proposed treatments are evaluated according to how many QALYs they are likely to produce per unit cost: decisions are thus based on bringing about aggregated good consequences. 

Like utilitarianism, CEA leads to outcomes conflicting with our moral judgments. The process can lead to discrimination against people with disabilities, as people with disabilities are often judged to have a lower quality of life than non-disabled people; thus interventions extending their lives may be seen as less effective. Since "a QALY is a QALY," the process is insensitive to distribution and equity, with no priority for younger people or the worse off, and no amelioration of existing health inequities. Because of aggregation, low-cost interventions that benefit many people may be more cost-effective than those bringing enormous benefits to small numbers of people: in one famous example, the state of Oregon carried out a large-scale CEA that resulted in part in the conclusion that paying for capping teeth would be more cost-effective than paying for appendectomies.

How to respond to these problems with CEA is part of my current research project on Cost-Benefit Analysis and its offshoots, but this post isn't about that, it's about ACRONYMS. Who thought it was a good idea for an actual utilitarian U. K. organization promoting social progress and rationality to have the same name as a fictional evil utilitarian organization promoting social progress and rationality?

Did no one on the original board of directions pipe up and say "Hey, I know we're not the evil kind of utilitarians. But don't you think it's going to look weird if we say we're N.I.C.E, for progress, science, and rationality, and that other N.I.C.E. also says it's for science, progress, and rationality -- and the other one is EVIL?"

The only discussion of the acronym issue I could find on the internet was from "LifeSite," describing the case of Leslie Burke, a man with degenerative motor neurone disease who sued the UK government for the right not to be denied nutrition and hydration when his illness rendered him unable to swallow or communicate. The U.K. government appealed an initial ruling in his favor, with a representative for the government explaining that N.I.C.E. guidelines combine considerations of efficacy, quality of life judgments, and economics. "If the principle that "clinicians should be able to follow NICE guidelines without being obliged to accede to patient demands" were undermined, the government argued, then "there would be considerable risk of inefficient use of NHS resources."

Describing the principles of the fictional, evil N.I.C.E. as "a mechanistic and ultra-utilitarian, anti-life philosophy that regards human beings as merely a disposable means to an end," LifeSite says "it seems beyond a coincidental irony that a real-life, government-funded organization that bases its decisions on the same utilitarian principles, could be known by the same acronym: N.I.C.E." With this last part, I agree. It does seem beyond a coincidental irony.

As to the broader question of the status of moral judgments or "intuitions," in his article Singer doesn't say what he thinks about framing an innocent person to prevent a riot -- whether he thinks there is some way that contrary to first appearances framing the innocent person actually doesn't produce the best consequences, or whether he thinks framing an innocent person could be the ethical right action.

As a non-utilitarian, I can say more simply that framing an innocent person is wrong, because it's unjust, and I think that is true partly because moral judgments reflect what we care about, which can include values like justice.

In the spirit of this post you may be wondering: could you modify CEA so that instead of measuring QALYs it quantifies and takes into account these other values and thus becomes a new and improved decision-making method? I am so glad you asked! That is what I am working on. It's complicated, but the short answer seems to be "no."