Tag Archives: value

Value realism

People have different ideas about how valuable things are. Before I was about fifteen the meaning of this was ambiguous. I think I assumed that a tree for instance has some inherent value, and that when one person wants to cut it down and another wants to protect it, they both have messy estimates of what it’s true value is. At least one of them had to be wrong. This was understandable because value was vague or hard to get at or something.

In my year 11 Environmental Science class it finally clicked that there wasn’t anything more to value than those ‘estimates’.  That a tree has some value to an environmentalist, and a different value to a clearfelling proponent. That it doesn’t have a real objective value somewhere inside it. Not even a vague or hard to know value that is estimated by different people’s ‘opinions’. That there is just nothing there. That even if there is something there, there is no way for me to know about it, so the values I deal with every day can’t be that sort. Value had to be a two place function. 

I was somewhat embarrassed to have ever assumed otherwise, and didn’t really think about it again until recently.  It occurred to me recently that a long list of strange things I notice people believing can be explained by the assumption that they disagree with me on whether things have objective values. So I hypothesize that many people believe that value is a one place function which takes a thing as its argument, not a two place function of an agent and a thing.

Here’s my list of strange things. For each I give two explanations: why it is false, and why it is true if you believe in objective values. Note that these are generally beliefs that cause substantial harm:

When two people trade, one of them is almost certainly losing:

Why it’s false: In most cases where two people are willing to trade, this is because the values they assign to the items in question are such that both will gain by having the other person’s item instead of their own.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value shared somehow between the people’s posessions. Changing the distribution is very likely to harm one party or the other. It follows that people who engage in trade are suspicious, since trades must be mostly characterized by one party exploiting or fooling another.

Trade can be exploitative:

Why it’s false: Assuming exploitation is bad for he who is exploited, if a person chooses to trade, we can assume he is either not exploited or is deceived. Free choice is a filter: it causes people who would benefit from an activity to do it while people who wouldn’t do not.

Why it’s believed: If a person is desperate he might sell his labor for instance at a price below its true value. Since he is forced by circumstance to trade something more valuable for something less valuable, he is effectively robbed.

Prostitution etc should be prevented, because most people wouldn’t want to do it freely, so it must be pushed on those who do it:

Why it’s false: Again, free choice is a filter.

Why it’s believed: If most people wouldn’t be prostitutes, it follows that it is probably quite bad. If a small number of people do want to be prostitutes, they are probably wrong. The alternative is that they are correct, and the rest of society is wrong. It is less likely that a small number of people is correct than a large number. Since these people are wrong, and their being wrong will harm them (most people would really hate to be prostitutes), it is good to prevent them acting on either their false value estimates, or coercion.

If being forced to do X is dreadful, X shouldn’t be allowed:

Why it’s false: Again, choice is a filter. For an arbitrary person doing X, it might terrible, but it is still often good for people who want it. Plus, being forced to do a thing often decreases its value.

Why it’s believed: Very similar to above. The value of X remains the same, regardless of who is thinking about it, whether they are forced to do it. That a person would choose to do a thing others are horrified to have pressed on them, that just indicates that the person is mentally dysfunctional in some way.

Being rich indicates that you are evil:

Why it’s false: Since in every trade, both parties are benefited, being rich indicates that you have contributed to others receiving a large amount of value.

Why it’s believed: Since in every trade, someone wins and someone loses, anyone who has won at trading so many times is evidently an untrustworthy and manipulative character.

Poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich:

Why it’s false: That the rich countries don’t altruistically send a lot of aid into the poor countries is reason perhaps, though it’s not clear that this would help in the long run. Beyond that there’s no obvious connection.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value to be had in the world. The poor can’t become richer without the rich giving up some value.

The primary result of promotion of products is that people buy things they don’t really want:

Why it’s false: The value of products depends on how people feel about them, so it is possible to create value by changing how people feel about them.

Why it’s believed: Products have a fixed value. Changing your perception of this in the direction of you buying more of them is cheatful sophistry.

***

Questions:

Is my hypothesis right? Do you think of value as a one or two place function? (Or more?) Which of the above beliefs do you hold? Are there legitimate or respectable cases for value realism out there? (Moral realism is arguably a subset).

Is it obvious that pain is very important?

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...].  –George Orwell, 1984 via Brian Tomasik , who seems to agree that just considering pain should be enough to tell you that it’s very important.

It seems quite a few people I know consider pain to have some kind of special status of badness, and that preventing it is thus much more important than I think it. I wouldn’t object, except that they apply this in their ethics, rather than just their preferences regarding themselves. For instance arguing that other people shouldn’t have children, because of the possibility of those children suffering pain. I think pain is less important to most people relative to their other values than such negative utilitarians and similar folk believe.

One such argument for the extreme importance of pain is something like ‘it’s obvious’. When you are in a lot of pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. Hell, even when you are in a small amount of pain, mitigating it seems a high priority. When you are looking at something in extreme pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. So pain is just obviously the most important bad thing there is. The feeling of wanting a boat and not having one just can’t compare to pain. The goodness of lying down at the end of a busy day is nothing next to the badness of even relatively small pains.

I hope I do this argument justice, as I don’t have a proper written example of it at hand.

An immediate counter is that when we are not in pain, or directly looking at things in pain, pain doesn’t seem so important. For instance, though many people in the thralls of a hangover consider it to be pretty bad, they are repeatedly willing to trade half a day of hangover for an evening of drunkenness. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘that’s just evidence that life is bad – so bad that they are desperate to relieve themselves from the torment of their sober existences! So desperate that they can’t think of tomorrow!’. But people have been known to plan drinking events, and even to be in quite good spirits in anticipation of the whole thing.

It is implicit in the argument from ‘pain seems really bad close up’ that pain does not seem so bad from a distance. How then to know whether your near or far assessment is better?

You could say that up close is more accurate, because everything is more accurate with more detail. Yet since this is a comparison between different values, being up close to one relative to others should actually bias the judgement.

Perhaps up close is more accurate because at a distance we do our best not to think about pain, because it is the worst thing there is.

If you are like many people, when you are eating potato chips, you really want to eat more potato chips. Concern for your health, your figure, your experience of nausea all pale into nothing when faced with your drive to eat more potato chips. We don’t take that as good evidence that really deep down you want to eat a lot of potato chips, and you are just avoiding thinking about it all the rest of the time to stop yourself from going crazy. How is that different?

Are there other reasons to pay special attention to the importance of pain to people who are actually experiencing it?

Added: I think I have a very low pain threshold, and am in a lot of pain far more often than most people. I also have bad panic attacks from time to time, which I consider more unpleasant than any pain I have come across, and milder panic attacks frequently. So it’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I agree that suffering comes with (or consists of) an intense urge to stop the suffering ASAP. I just don’t see that this means that I should submit to those urges the rest of the time. To the contrary! It’s bad enough to devote that much time to such obsessions. When I am not in pain I prefer to work on other goals I have, like writing interesting blog posts, rather than say trying to discover better painkillers. I am not willing to experiment with drugs that could help if I think they might interfere with my productivity in other ways. Is that wrong?

How much do you really love the internet?

Would you give up the internet for a million dollars?

Many people say they would not. If you are one of them, and in a committed relationship, which of the following is true:

a) You would also not give up your partner for a million dollars

b) The internet is more valuable to you than your partner

The first one looks safer. But people change partners a lot, which suggests for many there is much less than a million dollars expected difference between one’s partner and the next best alternative, since the next best alternative frequently scales that gap and becomes the best. If every time a person changed partners the relative value of the new and old partners had changed by around two million dollars in the new partner’s favor, people should pretty soon stop expecting their current partner to be worth so much in the long run.

It’s easy to offer the internet endless love while nobody ever offers you much reward for giving it up. Relationships are an interesting ‘sacred value’ to compare because we really are frequently in a position to give one up permanently for some other benefit.

Compare the unconceived – don’t unchain them

People often criticise me of thinking of potential people as Steven Landsburg describes without necessarily endorsing:

…like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely we are required to help some of them escape.

Such people seem to believe this position is required for considering creating good lives an activity with positive value. It is not required, and I don’t think of potential people like that. My position is closer to this:

Benefit and harm are comparative notions. If something benefits you, it makes your life better than it would have been, and if something harms you it makes your life worse than it would have been. To determine whether some event benefits or harms you, we have to compare the goodness of your life as it is, given the event, with the goodness it would otherwise have had. The comparison is between your whole life as it is and your whole life as it would have been. We do not have to make the comparison time by time, comparing each particular time in one life with the same time in the other life.

That is John Broome explaining why death harms people even if they hold that all benefit and harm consists of pleasure and pain, which are things that can’t happen when you are dead. The same goes for potential people.

Yes, you can’t do much to a person who doesn’t exist. They don’t somehow suffer imaginary pains. If someone doesn’t exist in any possible worlds I agree they can’t be helped or harmed at all.  What makes it possible to affect a potential person is that there are some worlds where they do exist. It is in the comparison between these worlds and the ones where they don’t exist where I say there is a benefit to them in having one over the other. The benefit of existing consists of the usual things that we hold to benefit a person when they exist; bananas, status, silly conversations, etc. The cost of not existing relative to existing consists of failing to have those benefits, which only exist in the world where the person exists. The cost does not consist of anything that happens in the world where the person doesn’t exist. They don’t have any hypothetical sorrow, boredom or emptiness at missing out. If they did have such things and they mattered somehow, that would be another entirely separate cost.

Often it sounds crazy that a non-existent person could ‘suffer’ a cost because you are thinking of pleasures and pains (or whatever you take to be good or bad) themselves, not of a comparison between these things in different worlds. Non-existent people seem quite capable of not having pleasures or pains, not having fulfilled preferences, not having worthwhile lives, of not having anything at all, of not even having a capacity to have. Existent people are quite capable of having pleasures (and pains) and all that other stuff. If you compare the two of them, is it really so implausible that one has more pleasure than the other?

‘Potential people’ makes people think of non-existing people, but for potential people to matter morally, it’s crucial that they do exist in some worlds (in the future) and not in others. It may be better to think of them as semi-existing people.

I take it that the next counterargument is something like ‘you can’t compare two quantities when one of them is not zero, but just isn’t there. What’s bigger, 3 or … ?’ But you decide what quantities you are comparing. You can choose a quantity that doesn’t have a value in one world if you want. Similarly I could claim all the situations you are happy to compare are not comparable. Getting one hundred dollars would not benefit you, because ‘you without a hundred dollars’ just won’t be around in the world where you get paid. On the other hand if you wanted to compare benefits to Amanda across worlds where she may or may not exist, you could compare ‘how much pleasure is had by Amanda’, and the answer would be zero in worlds where she doesn’t exist. Something makes you prefer an algorithm like ‘find Amanda and see how much pleasure she has got’, where you can just fail at the finding Amanda bit and get confused. The real question is why you would want this latter comparison. I can see why you might be agnostic, waiting for more evidence of which is the  true comparison of importance or something, but I don’t recall hearing any argument for leaping to the non-comparable comparison.

Orange juice 2

Image via Wikipedia

In other cases it is intuitive to compare quantities that have values, even when relevant entities differ between worlds. Would you say I have no more orange juice in my cup if I have a cup full of orange juice than if I don’t have a cup or orange juice? I won’t, because I really just wanted the orange juice. And if you do, I won’t come around to have orange juice with you.

I have talked about this a bit before, but not explained in much detail. I’ll try again if someone tells me why they actually believe the comparison between a good life and not existing should come out neutral or with some non-answer such as ‘undefined’. Or at least points me to where whichever philosophers have best explained this.

Nothing wastes resources like saving them

Imagine you find yourself in possession of a diamond mine. However you don’t like diamonds very much; you think they are vastly overvalued compared to important resources such as soil. You are horrified that people waste good soil in their front gardens where they are growing nothing of much use, and think it would be better if they decorated with a big pile of this useless carbon crystal. What do you do?

a) Cover your own lawn with diamonds

b) Donate as many diamonds as you can for free to anyone who might use them to decorate where they would use soil

c) Sell the diamonds. Buy something you do value.

d) Something else

Environmentalism often takes the form of the conviction that human labor should take the place of other resource use. Bikes should be ridden instead of cars, repair is superior to replacement, washing and sorting recycling is better than using up tip space, and so on. This is usually called ‘saving resources’ not ‘using up more valuable resources’. One might argue that while human labor is usually relatively expensive (you can generally make much more selling five minutes of time than a liter of tip space and a couple of cans worth of clean used steel), environmentalists often consider the other resources to be truly more valuable, often because they are non-renewable and need to be shared between everyone in the future too. Even so, since when is it sensible to treat your overvalued resources as if they were worthless? How will resources come to be used more efficiently if those who care about the issue destroy their own potential by donating their most valuable assets to the world at large in the form of the very things which the world supposedly blithely squanders?

How the abstraction shield works

All kinds of psychological distance make things seem less important, presumably because they usually are. So it’s better for bad things to seem distant and good things to seem close.

Do we only modify importance in response to distance, or do we change our perception of distance in order to manipulate our perception of importance? This article suggests the latter is true: people view things they don’t want to be guilty of as further back in time:

Germans (but not Canadians) judged the Holocaust to be more subjectively remote in time when they read only about German-perpetrated atrocities than when this threat was mitigated. Greater subjective distance predicted lower collective guilt, which, in turn, predicted less willingness to make amends (Study 1). Distancing under threat was more pronounced among defensive Germans who felt unjustly blamed by other nations (Study 2). In Study 3, the authors examined the causal role of subjective time. Nondefensive Germans induced to view the Holocaust as closer reported more collective guilt and willingness to compensate. In contrast, defensive Germans reported less collective guilt after the closeness induction. Taken together, the studies demonstrate that how past wrongs are psychologically situated in time can play a powerful role in people’s present-day reactions to them.

That defensive Germans thought the Holocaust was earliest than either the innocent Canadians, or the more guilty and more guilt accepting Germans implies that the effect is probably not related to how bad the guilt is, but rather how much a person would like to avoid it.

Psychological distance also alters whether we think in near or far mode and our thinking mode alters our perception of distance.  So if we want to feel distant from bad things we could benefit from thinking about them more abstractly and good things more concretely (as abstraction triggers far mode and concreteness near mode). Do we do this?

Yes. Euphemisms are usually abstract references to bad things, and it is often rude not to use them. We certainly try to think of death abstractly, in terms of higher meanings rather than the messy nature of the event. At funerals we hide the body and talk about values. Admissions and apologies are often made abstractly, e.g. ‘I made a mistake’ rather than ‘I shouldn’t have spent my afternoons having sex with Elise’. We mostly talk about sex abstractly, and while it is not bad it is also not something people want to be near when uninvolved. Menstruation is referred to abstractly (wrong time of the month, ladies’ issues etc). Calling meat ‘dead animal’ or even ‘cow’ is a clear attempt to inflict guilt on the diner.

Some of these things may be thought of abstractly because people object to their details (what their friend looks like having sex) without objecting to the whole thing (the knowledge that their friend has sex), rather than because they want to be distant especially. However then the question remains why they would approve of an abstract thing but not its details, and the answer could be the same (considering what your friend looks like having sex is too much like being there).

On the other hand we keep detailed photographs of people and places we like, collect detailed knowledge of the lives of celebrities we wish we were close to, and plan out every moment of weddings and sometimes holidays months in advance.

It’s otherwise unclear to me why concrete language about bad things should be more offensive or hurtful often than abstract language, though obviously it is. People are aware of the equivalence of the concepts, so how can one be worse? I think the answer is that abstract language forces the listener psychologically close to the content, which automatically makes it feel important to them, which is a harm if the thing you are referring to is bad. It is offensive in the same way that holding poo in front of someone’s face is meaner than pointing it out to them across a field.

You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences. Continue reading

Dignity

Dignity is apparently big in parts of ethics, particularly as a reason to stop others doing anything ‘unnatural’ regarding their bodies, such as selling their organs, modifying themselves or reproducing in unusual ways. Dignity apparently belongs to you except that you aren’t allowed to sell it or renounce it. Nobody who finds it important seems keen to give it a precise meaning. So I wondered if there was some definition floating around that would sensibly warrant the claims that dignity is important and is imperiled by futuristic behaviours.

These are the ones I came across variations on often:

The state or quality of being worthy of respect

An innate moral worthiness, often considered specific to homo sapiens.

Being respected by other people is sure handy, but so are all the other things we trade off against one another at our own whims. Money is great too for instance, but it’s no sin to diminish your wealth. Plus plenty of things people already do make other people respect them less, without anyone thinking there’s some ethical case for banning them. Where are the papers condemning being employed as a cleaner, making jokes that aren’t very funny, or drunkenly revealing your embarrassing desires? The mere act of failing to become well read and stylishly dressed is an affront to your personal dignity.

This may seem silly; surely when people argue about dignity in ethics they are talking about the other, higher definition – the innate worthiness that humans have, not some concrete fact about how others treat you. Apparently not though. When people discuss organ donation for instance, there is no increased likelihood of ceasing to be human and losing whatever dollop of inherent worth that comes with it during the operation just because cash was exchanged. Just plain old risk that people will think ill of you if you sell yourself.

The second definition, if it innately applies to humans without consideration for their characteristics, is presumably harder to lose. It’s also impossible to use. How you are treated by people is determined by what those people think of you.  You can have as much immeasurable innate worthiness as you like; you will still be spat on if people disagree with reality, which they probably will with no faculties for perceiving innate moral values. Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy either. So why care if you have this kind of dignity, even if you think such a thing exists?

What is hope?

At first it seems like a mixture of desire and belief in a possibility. It’s not just desire because you can ‘have your hopes too high’, though the hoped for outcome is well worthy of desire, or ‘abandon hope’ when something reaches some level of unlikelihood. But hope is also not linked to a particular level of chance. It implies uncertainty about the outcome, but nothing beyond that.

Is it a mixture of significant uncertainty and a valuable outcome then? No, you can consider something plausible and wonderful, but not worth hoping for. Sometimes it is worse to hope for the most marvelous things. No matter how likely, folks ‘don’t want to get their hopes up’ or ‘can’t bear to hope’ .

So there is apparently a cost to hoping. Hopes can bring you unhappiness if they fail, while another possibility with similar chances and desirability which was not hoped for would cause no distress. So hope is to do with something other than value or likelihood.

A hope sounds like a goal which you can’t necessarily influence then. Failing in a goal is worse than failing in something you did not intend to achieve. A hope or a goal seems to be particular point in outcome space where you will be extra happy if it is reached or surpassed and extra unhappy otherwise. We seem to choose goals according to a trade-off of ease and desirability, which is reminiscent of our seemingly choosing hopes according to likelihood and desirability. Unlike hopes though, we pretty much always try harder for goals when the potential gains are big. This probably makes sense; trying harder at a goal increases the likelihood of success, whereas hoping more does not, yet still gives you the larger misery of failure.

Why hope at all then? Why not just have smooth utility functions? Goals help direct actions, which is extremely handy. Hopes seem to be outcomes you cheer for from the sidelines. Is this useful at all? Is it just a side effect of having goals? Is it so we can show others what would be our goals if we had the power? In which case should we expect declared hopes to be less honest than declared goals? Why are hopes so ubiquitous?

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?