RE: Ethical theories

From: Rafal Smigrodzki (
Date: Tue Feb 03 2004 - 21:19:29 MST

Ben wrote:
> Jef,

> You're suggesting that the place to get this standard is from the
> *universe itself*. That is: favor ethical systems that embody
> principles that seem to be embodied by the universe itself. For
> example, growth... expansion of information...


 One distinction that seems to be missing in our recent discussions of
> ethics, is the distinction between:
> -- specific ethical rules (e.g. don't kill people, be nice to humans,
> don't eat the yellow snow, etc.)
> -- ethical systems (an ethical system contains a set of specific
> ethical rules, and also some procedures for generating new ethical
> rules to deal with new situations)
> -- abstract principles specifying what's desirable in the universe
> This is somewhat similar to the distinction between
> -- specific scientific theories
> -- scientific research programmes (Lakatos) or paradigms (Kuhn)
> -- abstract principles specifying what's the overall goal of science
> as opposed to, say, witchcraft, juggling, prostitution or music
> An example of an abstract principle specifying the overall goal of
> science is Popper's dictum: "Create conjectures that have greater
> empirical support than their predecessors." Note that this is an
> informal statement, and it may be formalized and interpreted in many
> different ways. But nevertheless, essentially everyone involved in
> the scientific enterprise will agree with this abstract principle,
> even if they adhere to different research programmes or interpret the
> terms slightly differently.

### These two quotes from separate posts jibe with what I think about the
initial problem you posited, the description of methods for evaluation of
ethical systems in the abstract, a metaethics. Metaethics would have to be
independent of the qualia of desire and the application of these qualia to
evaluation of outcomes - otherwise it would be identical to ethics itself.

Yet, most of the discussion so far focused on what we (or imaginary beings
such as the Buddha AI or Friendly AI) might think about particular systems,
seen as tools for achieving goals that suit our fancy, such as joyous
growth, enlightenment, the intellectual pleasure associated with absence of
contradictions in thinking (consistency), etc - in fact, confining itself to
observer-dependent ethics.

But, if not for desire, how can value (in the eVALUation) be formed?

Let me first observe that as you write above, a meta-statement can be made
about the overall goal of science - although instead of Popper's injunction
I would say "Create conjectures that come true". In view of this
metascientific statement, a good research programme is one that generates
multiple conjectures in various areas, which tend to come true, with minimum
amount of computation (so as to avoid crowding out of parsimonious but
fertile ideas by computationally intensive and relatively barren ones).
Farther down the line, application of such research programmes leads me for
example to accept the mitochondrial theory of PD causation, rather than
other theories.

Second observation is that one might also say that demanding "Conjectures
that come true" leads automatically to principles that are embodied in the
universe itself, and independent of the desires of the observer regarding
particular outcomes.

How can we use the above observations for deriving a metaethics by analogy
to metascience, without direct recourse to desires and ethics itself?

I think we could begin by making the metaethical statement "Formulate rules
which will be accepted" (although this statement is actually a high-level
link in a very long-term recursive mental process, rather than a starting
logical premise). Just as science is a way of finding what will be,
metaethics is then a way of predicting what the *should* will be (i.e. what
will be perceived as right in the future or by some sentients). Note the
association of a verb anchored in time, "predict", which is science-related
and non-emotional and the somewhat atemporal "should", which is emotional
and ethics-related. A metaethics is then "predictive ethics", a form of
thinking independent of desire, like science, but taking the future of
desire, the essence of ethics, as its subject.

If the rules ("specific ethical applications") derived from an ethical
system (an "ethical programme") find wide and stable acceptance, then by
predictive ethics this programme is better than a programme whose rules are
rejected - and such rejection may among others take the form of the physical
disappearance of those who follow such rules. In this way, "the universe
itself", by evolving or removing structures (individuals, societies) capable
of accepting some rules but not others, is the ultimate source of the good
(=predicted) ethical system, while removing the bad (=unacceptable) ones, in
a way acting in an observer-independent way.

This may sound like fatalist "what will be, will be" musings, or perhaps a
strange tautology, not ethics - but then, we don't want to come up with yet
another ethical system, but a metaethics. For me, predictive ethics is not a
sterile exercise in sophistry, after all, because it is predictive ethics
(as processed in my admittedly limited frontopolar cortex) that prompts me
to accept volitionism, the idea (=ethical research programme) that the best
ethical rules can be derived by careful analysis of sentient volition and
its interactions with the physical world, and it is in part because of
predictive ethics that I reject the concept of "objective ethics". It allows
you to reject pleasant ideas which cannot come true (like building a
chemical rocket flying faster than light, or universal, feedback-free giving
of unlimited resources to all who ask), and instead concentrate on at least
theoretically viable options, like laser-propulsion von Neumann probes, or

Of course, YMMV.


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