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Two objections to Bostrom things
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1. AI. In Superintelligence, Bostrom keeps talking about the motivations of AIs, but I don't see why they would have motivations. Or rather, I don't see why they would turn the full fearsome force of their intellects on some specific goal (and harm humanity in the process). Who would tell them to do it? Who would give them the instincts that lead to such an eventuality? I mean, it's possible to imagine it happening, but it would have to be programmed in. I can't see why it would happen by accident.

2. The simulation argument. It's nice, but I think it's quite simply solved by the problem of evil. Why would a (to us) super-entity create conscious beings with so much suffering? I think the idea would be squished by the ethics committee quick sharp.

Asymmetry in position-determined virtue?
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I was arguing the other day that how virtuous one can be is in part determined by the position one find oneself in - in particular, the systems within which you work.

To take an easy example, if you're rich or powerful, you are in a position to do more good than if you're poor. So if you take a consequentialist view, then a rich and powerful person has the capacity to do much more good.

Even if you're not a consequentialist, this could hold. Imagine two people A and B, one of whom has children, while the other doesn't. They are similar in other respects. It seems that A could be virtuous in all aspects of her life, but would still not have displayed the same virtue as B, if B is virtuous in all of A's aspects plus child rearing. Now, one might argue that even though A did not display the child rearing virtues, she may well have possessed them; we should not "mark her down" simply because she didn't engage in that aspect of life. But that seems to me to be a weak argument. Andy Murray is not a top badminton player - he probably could be, but he didn't engage with badminton, and we don't know for sure. So I think that virtue at least can be dependent on circumstance.

Being rich and powerful therefore seems likely to open up more avenues for virtuousness - though of course those avenues could also lead to vice. Also worth noting that the additional opportunities for virtue/vice offered by being rich or powerful may be rather insignificant. Most of our virtue/vice judgments seem to be based on interpersonal relationships, and everyone has those. So the difference between the potential virtue of a poor person and the potential virtue of a billionaire or a US president may only be a marginal 1% or similar.

But what I really wanted to get to was this. It's not obvious that these effects work symmetrically. Think Nixon/Blair. Nixon did something wrong, but in comparison to Blair, his crime was very minor (assuming Blair's was a war crime). But if anything Nixon suffered more opprobrium. On the other side, I at least feel that Deng Xiaoping and Lee Teng-hui deserve credit approximately in proportion to their achievements. That opinion is a bit subjective and harder to measure... perhaps we could compare FDR and Clinton instead? FDR did something great, and is held in enormous respect; Clinton governed reasonably well, and is liked. It seems much more proportionate to me.

This is a spectacularly holey argument. It might be that there is something about the specific minor misdoings of certain leaders which inspire disgust; it might be that we draw clear distinctions between professional and personal misdeeds. I would have to try to tease these out. But it seems to me like this is another example of an asymmetry between positive and negative morality/moral judgments.

译者的“信”
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在文学翻译培训班上,我们讨论到译者怎样读解原文的问题,我跟作家说,译者必须解读,她虽然要对原文“信”,但写出来的译文不得不是自己对原文的理解,她没办法变身成为作者的延伸。但后来我一直在想,那“信”有什么意义呢?译者得解读,没错,但作为译者,并不是任我怎么解读都行,解读有原则——那这些原则是什么呢?
其中一个,我觉得可以参考Harold Bloom。他说“a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare” 用莎翁去解读弗洛伊德是加亮的过程,最后弗洛伊德的原文淹没在莎士比亚的光泽下,而用弗洛伊德去解读莎翁只是让它缩小受限。
所以我是想,译者要尽量避免人为的缩小原文,虽然可以解读但在解读的同时不能堵截原文中其他的潜在意涵,必须照顾非我的读者。
At the CELT we talked about the issue of the translator's interpretation of the text. I said to one of the writers that translators have to interpret. Though we are faithful to the source text, the target we produce is inevitably our own interpretation. We cannot become an extension of the writer's brain. Later on, though, I was thinking about what kind of fidelity that leaves us with. The translator has to interpret, but as a translator I don't allow any interpretation. I judge among my interpretations. But how do I judge?
One way of thinking about it comes from Harold Bloom. He says, "a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare."
My view is that the translator should try to avoid reducing the text. Even though we have to interpret, we should avoid blocking off other interpretations that are potentially there in the text. We should accept the right of other readers to preserve their interpretations.

Decision point versus decision process
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Was just reading about the compatibilist vs. incompatibilist argument again, and I wonder if a lot of the problem in this argument derives from an incorrect view of decision-making.

First, the four positions:
Incompatibilists: Determinism is true, therefore there is no free will.
Libertarians: Determinism is not true, therefore there is free will.
Compatibilism: Determinism is true, but there is still free will.
Non-deterministic compatibilists: It doesn't matter either way for free will, but determinism happens to be untrue.

Now, I'm not so sure about free will, but I think there is something to say about agency. An incompatibilist says this: the outcome of any decision is fully determined by the conditions under which it is made. You offer me the chance to smell a flower or kill a kitten, and the outcome of that decision depends on only the input conditions. Therefore I do not have the free will to determine which I do.

But I say, this argument depends on the premise that a decision is a point event. In fact, decision-making is more like a process, and if we model it like a process, then we'll get a different result. Let's take the simplest possible kind of process: a two-event deterministic process. In this model, every decision is two events, A and B. Imagine determinism is true. A is caused deterministically by the initial conditions - in this case, me and the choice between flower or kitten. B is caused by deterministically by the initial conditions and A. The decision is complete only after the end of B.

Now, the outcome of a decision is necessarily contingent on A, which is a mental event. Does that introduce agency? Meh, I'm not convinced. A is deterministically caused, so there's no real agency there... We do at least get the introduction of an internal, time-dependent causal element. I guess that's a kind of agency. I mean, it's the kind that compatibilists believe in. Not sure that this gets us to a point where we could persuade the incompatibilists, though.

But I think that all I'm getting at here is an advanced form of the external constraints argument. I think we are free if there is nothing external to me constraining what I do. But the incompatibilist says I'm not free if I can't change the sequence of events that unfolds inside me. I think that the incompatibilist argument is incoherent because it mixes up what the subject "I" is... but that's what I've always thought. This decision sequence thing isn't getting me any closer.

Consumption vs utility
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Thinking further about what I wrote about Sumner, it strikes me that he might argue that though one can derive utility from ownership, it's not consumption because the good is not degraded in any way.

Firstly, I don't think this is true. Compare to books and information. In fact Sumner explicitly talks about people consuming their houses, which suffer only minimal or zero degradation. So perhaps I'm wrong and he wouldn't even make the argument.

But I was wondering about the distinction. Firstly there is a quantitative issue. In the past the economy was mostly agriculture, it produced food, and the food was literally consumed. I assume that's where we get the word from. Today, the economy is mostly not agriculture. A large volume of traded goods are not consumed. But in fact the main thing traded is services, which is a funny combination. A service is skill+time, and the time is destroyed in the provision of service, while the skill is not.

In a market, the value of something is the price negotiated for it, so it seems like there's no difference in value between destructive and non-destructive consumption... I dunno. Scarcity, plenty, consumption, utility... and all I think is that we have to wait for the technofix. Is that wrong? 

Motivation
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Eric Schwitzgebel has a great post up about what moral philosophy is for: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-calibration-view-of-moral-reflection.html

I just wanted to think about one issue in it. He writes as though there are basically two motivations for acting: one is self-interest, the other morality. He doesn't make this claim explicitly, but that basic picture seems to inform the post.

I was just wondering if that's true. What other kinds of motivations for action could there be?

Well, there could be emotional reasons: I could lash out in anger, even though it's neither moral nor in my rational self interest. I could act out of love, even though the object of my affections is obviously uninterested.

There are reasons of expediency: Along the way to fulfilling another aim, I could do something that is not motivated by any basic cause. For example, let's say I want to be altruistic for moral reasons, so I go and spend time researching the best way to give money. You can call this a moral action, because it is part of a moral action, but there might be a lot of little actions in the middle which are purely expedient or functional on the way to the moral goal. I might buy a Peter Singer book, for example, not because I want it or because buying the book is good in itself, but because it helps me along the way to my goal.

Could there be motivations which are rational, but neither self-interested nor moral? I suppose there could... how about aesthetics and truth? Could I plausibly deny that beauty is moral, and yet still pursue it rationally? I'm not sure what that would mean. What about truth? A scientist might deny that truth is moral, but if so is he just doing his job for the money? Emotional satisfaction? I'm not sure these are possible. I think if you rationally pursue a goal, then it's normative, and so we'd call it moral.

What about doing things for other people? When it's strangers, that's probably morality, isn't it? If it's family, then I guess it's emotional or some extended definition of self-interest.

So, this ends up being quite interesting. If this is right, then "moral" is more about "non-self-interest" than anything else. But philosophers don't generally think of it like that. Has that introduced systematic biases into moral philosophy?

Consumption and growth
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Another area of disagreement with Sumner: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/06/unpersuaded.html

He says: "5. Misers are more altruistic than big spenders."

But this has got to be wrong. Modern economies in the west are consumption-driven. Indeed, they have to be consumption-driven. Why else would production happen?! He doesn't define misers, but they are presumably people who spend less than they earn. Generalise it out: if everyone spent less than they earned, the economy would shrink (er, I think... not 100% certain on this, but as a first approximation, I think it holds). So how are misers supposed to be the good guys?

Big spenders, on the other hand, spend more than they earn. They consume, causing others to produce, and drive economic growth. These guys are the goodies, not the misers. Now, generalise them out: if everyone spends more than they earn, what happens? Well, credit happens, which is usually a good thing. But ultimately the country's debt will increase. That seems to be OK: if the debt increases no more than GDP growth, then you just end up with a stable level of debt, and recent economic history says that that's fine. Problems occur when debt increases relative to the size of the economy, not when it increases absolutely. So some big spending is allowed.

On the macroeconomic level, Sumner's (5) seems just flat wrong. I think he gets it from the microeconomic level, where he is saying that misers leave resources for others to use. But that doesn't seem right, either. I mean, Scrooge doesn't leave resources for Bob Cratchit to use. He hoards.

One final point on this. I suspect that Sumner has a different view of consumption to me. I'm not certain about this, but I view a lot of consumption as forced. It is forced on us by advertising and social pressure of various kinds. My wife puts snail goop on her face. I eat fruit from Mexico. Neither of these things are natural or particularly conducive to our well-being. But we do it because we're as dumb as everyone else.

But this kind of forced culture of consumption may be making our world a better place. That's what capitalism+consumerism magazine tells me. So I'll go along with it for the time being.

I'm not sure Sumner believes this. I think he thinks that all consumption is good and righteous - or rather, that it's all equivalent on the economic level. But the point is that consumption drives production. So if we consume certain kinds of stuff, we will then produce that stuff. If we consume other stuff, we will produce other stuff. If my wife consumes snail goop, people in the world will spend their lives farming snails and extracting the goop. That to me seems like a bad choice. It's bad for them (number of snailophiliacs in the world can't be high). It's bad for her, because in reality snail goop does nothing for her skin, and is only making her stupider.

Why tax capital
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Sumner say it is inefficient to tax capital, so we should tax only consumption. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/06/unpersuaded.html
Let's assume the economics is right. There are still reasons not to accept the conclusion.

Ownership of capital is consumption. Imagine two people: one lives from paycheck to paycheck, has no savings and spends all of the 40,000 she makes in a year. The other is well-off, has a million in the bank, but is thrifty, and only happens to spend 40,000 in a year. Under the Sumner doctrine, they would pay about the same tax.

To me this seems pretty counterintuitive. One reason is that the rich woman seems to get some utility from her money in the form of security. As a corollary of this, she is less likely to need government services in future because of unemployment or homelessness, so a government investment in her now is less likely to bring the government savings in the future. So there are human efficiency conditions separate from economic efficiency.

There's also the question of fairness, though this is rather vexed. Does fairness mean the government should acknowledge the truth that one woman is poorer than the other, and give her more support? Or does it mean that the government should reward the thriftiness of the richer citizen? Given how difficult the fairness argument is, it might be better just to leave it out altogether at this stage, because I don't think the economic argument is finished yet, even if Sumner is right about the macroeconomics.

The point is, a) ownership of capital is utility; b) taxation is not just a macroeconomic tool, it is also a microeconomic transaction. 

A Rawls move in education
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My brother has been writing about moral education, and to the extent that I have seen, his argument goes like this: schools should present morals to kids with good reasons, because anything else would be indoctrination. Those reasons should not be minority or exclusive reasons, like religious doctrine. Instead they should use the problem of sociality as the underlying problem which morality sets out to solve.

I like it. I think I've just argued myself around to the same way of thinking. I was thinking about Rawls and his move. Basically he aims to get buy-in from all people by setting limits on the state, giving people the room they want to manoeuvre, then he turns those limits into positive virtues and defining structures in his politics. If we can do the same thing in education, then that would be great. And Michael's argument might be doing just that.

He says, education can't trespass on certain grounds: it can't indoctrinate. But education has a need to do something - I think he has separate arguments for why moral education is desirable. Therefore we turn the limitation into a positive virtue: if a school is not to indoctrinate it must teach and persuade, or at the very least teach with reasons, and the reasons must be of the kind that can be accepted by everybody.

So even if a Christian would want to say that morality comes from God, they would have to admit that some aspects of morality are at least connected to the problems of coexistence in society. Therefore they can accept the teaching of that bit of morality, or the provision of those kinds of reasons for morality, and the God-related bits they can provide themselves.

Now if you're not a godless liberal like me, you might think that schools would thus end up teaching a rather impoverished morality, missing whatever bit you hold dear (God, Kantian imperatives, the Way). But that seems OK to me. These restrictions fall away at the school gate and at the age of 18, when kids can subject themselves to whatever brainwashing they want. But there is a bit of tension perhaps to be be resolved between arguments for teaching morality and arguments for excluding a lot of morality from the classroom. I'm not sure how to bridge that yet.

I wonder if it would be possible to create a nice image, akin to the veil of ignorance, with which to present this argument. That might make it more palatable.

What does it mean to be rich?
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And pondering further: what does it mean for a culture to be rich?

We know what it is for an individual to be rich. But when is a civilisation rich? Does the ability to build the pyramids or the Taj Mahal make your country rich? I'd say not. You still have peasants dying of hunger and serfs working the fields.

The very definition of a rich country is one where the poorest people are rich. Where they can get healthcare, education and all the goods that they need. 

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