Re: Friendliness and blank-slate goal bootstrap

From: John Stick (
Date: Sun Jan 11 2004 - 23:02:57 MST

Ben Goertzel wrote:

>Good morning fellow SL4-oids...
>I think Metaqualia is raising an important perspective, and I find the
>reactions to his posts a bit severe overall.
Ben, I want to take the other side to this. Technical competence in at
least some fields and at least a little effort to familiarize oneself
with the background to sl1-4 is presumed on this list. Such competence
and effort may not be required when arguing moral philosophy here
(although if friendliness is as important as we all think, perhaps it
should be), but pointing out atrocious arguments about moral philosophy
without mincing words is not a bad thing.

In the midst of an argument whether there is an objectively correct
moral theory, Metaqualia proposed the maximization of positive qualia
and the minimization of negative qualia as an answer to the debate. The
debate has gone off in various directions since, and some of the
subsidiary points are interesting, but his main argument commits three
terrible philosophical howlers.

First, it completely begs the question it set out to answer. Instead of
showing how moral arguments can be objectively justified, it offered a
moral theory that makes judgments by counting purportedly objective
events. But there are an infinite number of similar theories, such as
the theory that morality requires the maximization of the number of
pebbles in the universe, and the minimization of furballs. The
objectivity of the justification of any such theory is separate from the
objectivity of the things counted. Trying to silence objections on the
first level by deflecting attention to the objectivity of, for example,
physiological pleasure and pain, is a common philosophical debating trick.

Second, his theory does not achieve objectivity of even the lesser sort
because "positive" and "negative" are not objective terms. Indeed in
the present context they are circular: Morality asks, "what is good?"
and the theory answers: "Positive, that is, good qualia." This is
the most basic blunder in the field of moral philosophy: defining the
good by merely giving a synonym. Of course, if one gives a more
detailed account of what a positive qualia is that provides content
beyond "a good qualia", then you have something to start a theory with.
 Unfortunately, when pressed, Metaqualia wrote that he did not have a
more elaborate account of what makes a qualia positive.

Third, his other key term, qualia, is not objective either. Indeed, the
modern philosophical use of the term began with the logical
positivists, who wanted to pick out subjective sense impressions with a
term that carried no hint of (and thus contamination from) the objective
causes of the sense impressions. Qualia are the purely subjective
aspect of sense impressions. Once you get to the point of saying, "I
see an apple," you have left the qualia behind: the judgement that the
red splotch you see is an apple is a synthetic judgment (about a
potentially objective state of affairs) that goes well beyond the
subjective sense impression. Or so the standard account goes. Talking
of the stream of consciousness as a qualia stream is also far outside
the standard usage, because the stream of consciousness includes a lot
of things other than sense impressions.

If you just forget objectivity, is Metaqualia's theory of any interest
as a moral theory? Yes, but only because the most charitable way to
read it is as a statement of a basic variant of utilitarianism. And the
arguments people are raising against him, over death for example, are
the same arguments people raised against utilitarianism understood as
increasing the ratio of pleasure to pain. There is no doubt that,
secondary effects aside, killing the most unhappy could improve the
ratio. Utilitarians refined their theory to avoid such arguments, and
Metaqualia presumably will too, if he is pressed. But the argument will
be easier to follow if the misused jargon is just dropped.

I do not mean to dismiss Metaqualia's participation in these threads.
 By all I can tell he is a clever and charming fellow. But while you
seem to think that the list is in danger of being too orthodox, I think
the moral and economic discussions are in danger of losing all rigor and
usefulness. I would like to encourage people who think friendliness is
important to take moral philosophy seriously, do some background reading
and treat the field with some respect. Ben, you and Mitchell Porter on
this list are quite well read in the area, and Eliezer is deeply read in
one part of the field, but you are rarities on this list. There are a
few people, like Samantha Atkins, who have enough common sense and a
good enough bullshit detector to regularly see through theoretical
folderol even in areas well outside her field. Encourage others to be
like you or her; the takers of unorthodox positions need no
encouragement. The members of this list (including Metaqualia) are far
to bright to settle for this level of argument on a topic they think is

(Retired professor crawls back in his hole until spring; sorry for the

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