Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A matter of life and death

If you watch Doctor Who, you know that Daleks love to announce their intentions before carrying them out. EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!  This is probably not the best idea, strategically speaking.  It also has welfare consequences, which we're going to talk about today!  On the way, we will discuss animal slaughter, murder, deathbed wishes, criminalizing private acts, and more.

The argument will proceed in the following steps:
  1. What matters is the welfare of agents with preferences.  
  2. Welfare is exclusively a function of an agent's experience, not the underlying state of the world.
  3. Yet we have a strong intuition that we should be allowed to have preferences over states of the world rather than experiences.  
  4. This intuition leads to strange ideas about life, the universe, and everything.
I'm sure the Daleks will fit in there somewhere.  Allons-y!

1. What matters is the welfare of agents with preferences

Well, I dare you to argue otherwise.  

For something to matter, you need an entity it matters to.  If there is no entity with preferences, the state of the world doesn't matter one bit, to anyone or anything.  There is no "better" or "worse," only indifference.  The clock does not care what time it is.

An agent is an entity with preferences.  His preferences generate a sense of "better" and "worse," and the degree to which these preferences are satisfied is captured in his welfare.  

Of course, the agent can care about whatever he wants, including the state of the clock, which is not itself the welfare of an agent.  But if you asked why something matters, it will always be traced back to the fundamental welfare of an agent.

2.  Welfare is exclusively a function of an agent's experience, not the state of the world.

The above implies that agents are the gateways to meaning.  Everything that matters has to go through an agent first.  It has to be experienced by an agent.  

It's important to distinguish between an agent's experience and the underlying state of the world. The state of the world -- the way the world really is -- gets filtered by the senses and turned into an experience.  The mental experience is all the agent directly encounters, and thus the agent's welfare is a direct function of that experience, not the underlying state of the world.

The state of the world is important only insofar as it influences experiences.  If your experience is identical in two states of the world, you must be equally well off.  It could be raining or not, but if you can't tell the difference from inside your windowless office, you are currently just as well off either way.

3. Yet we have a strong intuition that we should be allowed to have preferences over states of the world rather than experiences. 

Suppose someone has taken a compromising photo of you. Do you prefer it to: 
  • circulate without your knowledge, or 
  • not circulate at all?
I know what you want to say, of course.  But supposing that nobody who sees the photo lets on, you can't tell those states of the world apart, so in point of fact you like them equally well.

Mentally, it's hard to disentangle the two, because I'm essentially asking you to choose one, and choosing a state would seem to entail knowing which state is realized.  Also, there is the sidetracking objection that you might find out about (or be otherwise impacted by) the photo at the later date.  To get rid of these, let's consider someone who is (a) not you, and (b) dead.

In particular, Nabokov:
At the time of his death, he was working on a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Véra and son Dmitri were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship,and though he asked them to burn the manuscript, they chose not to destroy his final work.
Now put yourself in Dmitri's shoes and consider the decision of whether to publish the work.  Nabokov has expressed a clear preference for the work to be burned.  However, by the time the work is published, he is dead.  He cannot distinguish the two states of the world -- indeed, all his prior life experiences are identical either way -- and so he is made no worse off by the publication.

Let me be clear that just because we won't be alive in the future doesn't mean we can't care about it.  Our past experiences generate beliefs about the likely future states of the world, and we can have preferences over these believed states.  We can even do things today to make certain states more likely than others.  However, our welfare today is a function of these beliefs, not the realized future state.  (Information can't travel back in time!)

Perhaps Nabokov worried this would happen.  This expectation would have hurt his welfare prior to death.  Nabokov could have given his wishes the force of law, in which case he might have been happier, knowing that his wishes would be fulfilled.  Nevertheless, Dmitri did not harm Nabokov one bit by violating his wishes.

(None of this necessarily means it was a good idea to publish, since freely violating deathbed wishes can influence the beliefs of other people about the likelihood that their own future deathbed wishes will be violated.  Similar logic applies to circulating compromising photos, even if it is possible to do so without the subject ever finding out).

4. This intuition leads to strange ideas about life, the universe, and everything.

Well, we are already here.  If you think that welfare is a function of the state of the world, you might think that you are somehow making Nabokov better off by following his deathbed wishes.  But that makes no sense.

Time for a bunch more examples.  

Private acts.  Define a consensual private act as an act unobserved by any agent other than the ones directly involved, who mutually consent.  Societies are always trying to block people from doing "immoral" things, even when all involved parties are consenting, even when no one else knows about it.  This bothers me, because such acts would seem to strictly improve welfare, since each agent in society is either better off or cannot distinguish the states of the world.  However, here are some counterarguments:
  1. Consider the private use of illicit substances in light of my previous post.  In this case, future versions of the drug user may be impacted against their will.  Thus, "consensual private act" has narrower scope than first appeared.
  2. Suppose there is a higher power who is always watching, who disapproves of the act but does not block it.  This too narrows the scope of "consensual private act."  On the other hand, it could be argued that if church and state are to be separate, the state cannot implicitly rely on the existence of an all-knowing entity to motivate any of its laws, which is actually an interesting legal limitation.
  3. Even without a higher power, ordinary members of society may prefer a world in which it is harder to engage in acts of which they disapprove, because this supports beliefs that less "immoral" behavior is happening in the world, which increases their welfare.
Note an interesting implication of (3): In this world, it could be socially optimal to both prohibit a behavior and secretly engage in that behavior!  Compare this to the tragedy of the commons, in which it is socially optimal to prohibit overgrazing but only privately optimal to overgraze.  

(Workbook question: What about the case where agents have limited perception and the commons is very large?  Are carbon emissions effectively a private act, since no individual can make a perceptible difference in the CO2 levels?)

Your stance on government's proper role will determine whether you think any of the above arguments are a legitimate basis for lawmaking. But note that even if (3) is a basis for law, such laws should be handled differently than other laws.  If a prohibition exists, it can be socially optimal for you to break it.  As long as you are not caught, you do no harm.  Furthermore, in a basic crime deterrence model, we would normally say that the punishment should be (net harm to others)*(probability of being caught).  However, in this case, it should just be the net harm to others (conditional on getting caught), since you do no harm when you aren't caught.

So many interesting things to think about!  Let's keep going!

A lamb is born and lives an idyllic, free-range life.  At some point before the age of 12 months, it is gathered up by Friendly Farmer John, who has always been nice to the lamb in the past.  On this occasion, Farmer John puts a captive bolt gun to the unsuspecting lamb's head, and instantaneously ends the lamb's consciousness.

How should we feel about this?  Well, our first instinct is to think of the lamb as an agent who wants to live, who has life stripped away from him, therefore harming him.  But that's not right.  To answer this question, it's better to recognize the lamb as a bunch of agents arrayed through time, like in my last post.

Every instance of the lamb prior to death had an experience that the lamb could not distinguish from a scenario in which he was not about to die.  That means that every instance of the lamb prior to death is just as well off as if the farmer had not killed him.

Meanwhile, there are these hypothetical post-slaughter versions of the lamb, which either exist or not, depending on the farmer's actions.  Let me be clear that the choice is not for them to die or not.  The choice is for them to exist or not.

That means you can't rely the lamb's own preferences to weigh those alternatives, because the lamb's preferences are not consistent across the alternatives.  The lamb isn't either happy to be alive or sad to be dead.  He's happy to be alive or he's dead and does not care.

Of course, you can feel however you want about existing versus nonexisting lambs.  But do you feel differently about a lamb who doesn't exist because he was never born versus a lamb who doesn't exist because he was recently slaughtered?  I don't see the difference.  The "continuity" from current lamb to future lambs feels like an illusion, like we discussed in the last post.

How to feel about agents that do and don't exist?  It's a pure matter of preference.  Personally, I feel no obligation to care about entities that don't exist.  I do care about some of them, of course -- for example, my future selves! But I don't feel bad for lambs that don't exist, and I don't feel differently for lambs that died versus lambs that were never born, because to me those seem like the same thing.  I challenge you to make a compelling case for why these are different.

Now, the slaughtered lamb might have friends and family who miss him.  That is a decent reason to prefer life in this case.

Let's keep climbing the ladder...

Sherlock: People have died.
People think that death hurts them in some way.  And while the prospect of death can certainly affect our welfare, the actual state of being dead doesn't hurt you at all.  You are not an agent who will live a longer or shorter life, with a single utility function that sums your utility over time, producing a larger total if you live longer.  No, you are a series of agents who will exist or not,  at each instant in time, each with their own utility function if they exist, and nothing if they don't.  Death is a dividing line, not a state.

(Of course I'm separating death from the pain often associated with the act of dying). 

Below, I explore a few implications of making the following untraditional assumption which I first introduced when talking about lambs above:

Assumption 1: The life of a "previously alive" agent is not intrinsically different than the life of a nonexistent agent.  Harm is not inflicted on either type of agent by the fact of it not existing.

This is the assumption that's driving everything.  If you have a problem with this post, which is likely, then this is probably what you want to challenge.  Which I welcome!  (Workbook Question: What happens if a previously alive agent persists in the form of a "soul"?  Does it matter if they're en route to Heaven or Hell?).

But for now, take this assumption as given, and continue to charitably maintain whatever other assumptions I've implied up to now.  Some observations:
  • In some ways, livestock have it lucky.  It is easy to systematically delude them.  You can slaughter every last lamb before their first birthday and they will never catch on.  It's hard to do that to humans, outside of sci-fi.  That said, many of the worlds explored in sci-fi cannot be distinguished from the one in which we live.  The plug on the Matrix could be pulled any time, and the simulators of this world need not feel any guilt at all, even if they have the utmost respect for our sentience.  But it is dangerous to talk about such matters since we don't know who may be listening.
  • There are, obviously, lots of good reasons for murder to be outlawed.  I am not advocating the killing of humans.  However, murder is bad in a bizarre, backwards way: the harm from the (painless) death of an agent comes from its effect on other agents!  This is so counterintuitive, but so is the tragedy of the commons: everyone is hurt by overgrazing, but no individual is hurt by their own overgrazing.  In the same way, when the murder rate rises we are all hurt, even though no murdered agent is hurt by his own murder.  I know, it's still counterintuitive.  Feel free to argue...
    • Oh, and if you are going to kill someone, for God's sake don't tell them they are about to be exterminated.  Daleks have so many opportunities to kill people unexpectedly and instantaneously, but they blow it every time.  (I told you we'd get to Daleks!)
  • I said the slaughtered lamb might have friends and family who are sad when it dies.  That's even more true of people, generally.  But one interesting philosophical case is that of an abortion in which the mother and father are the only ones who know about the baby, and do not want it.  Here, the abortion does not negatively alter the observed experience of any agent who exists.  The fetus is like the lamb; the parents prefer it; everyone else who might not prefer it doesn't know.  However, note that if you believe that a higher power exists and that he has a strong preference for the baby to live, then that's a third agent right there who will know and be sad when his preferences are violated.

Whether you agree with any of this or not, I hope you have found it thought-provoking.  I leave you with two final thoughts:  

1) For an individual, the worst part about dying is not death, it's the act of dying, all the pain and suffering and fear of death that precedes being dead.  That could be a good reason to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order.  Because once you've lost consciousness, you've already gone through all that suffering, and maybe you don't want to do it again.  (It depends on other factors, too, like how much your death will upset your loved ones).

2) Death is scariest when it is imminent.  People may prefer to live in a world where they are taken by surprise, even if it means living slightly shorter lives.  Suppose instantaneous death arrives each day with a fixed probability p, constant over time, for your whole life.  Under what circumstances would that be preferable?  Or what if we could be systematically deluded into thinking we would live for 100 years, only to be euthanized at 75?  Would people choose such a world over the one we're living in?

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