Suppose you live in a world where every time you try to do something good, it gives rise to such a giant waterfall of side effects that half the time the net effect of your actions is bad, and half the time it is good but largely from sources you didn’t anticipate. Also suppose that the analogous thing would happen if you tried, hypothetically, to do bad things.
It sometimes seems plausible that we do live in such a world, and this sometimes makes it seem that doing good is a hopeless affair.
However I propose that in the most plausible worlds like this, when you try to do good things, in expectation you do a bit of good, and the good is merely overwhelmed by a vast random term, with expected value zero. In which case, even though your actions cause net bad half the time, they have positive expected value, and are about as good in expectation as you thought before considering the side effects. Is that so hopelessness inducing?
If so, consider a related scenario. Every time you do anything, it has exactly the desired consequences, and no others of importance. Except that it also causes a random number generator to run, and add or subtract a random amount of utility from the world, with expected value zero. Does this seem hopeless, or do you just ignore the random number generator, and do good things?
If our world is very noisy like this, is the aforementioned model a good description?
Inspired by a conversation with Paul Christiano, in which he said something like this.