RE: Ethical theories

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Wed Feb 04 2004 - 06:55:37 MST


> ### These two quotes from separate posts jibe with what I think about the
> initial problem you posited, the description of methods for evaluation of
> ethical systems in the abstract, a metaethics. Metaethics would have to be
> independent of the qualia of desire and the application of these qualia to
> evaluation of outcomes - otherwise it would be identical to ethics itself.

Yes, you have expressed very well what I would like to see a "metaethics"

> Yet, most of the discussion so far focused on what we (or imaginary beings
> such as the Buddha AI or Friendly AI) might think about
> particular systems,
> seen as tools for achieving goals that suit our fancy, such as joyous
> growth, enlightenment, the intellectual pleasure associated with
> absence of
> contradictions in thinking (consistency), etc - in fact,
> confining itself to
> observer-dependent ethics.

I agree -- rather than a true meta-ethics, something like "joyous growth" is
in fact a *maximally abstracted ethical principle*. As compared to
particular ethical rules like "don't kill people", this is moving in the
direction of a meta-ethic, but it's still not a meta-ethic...

> Let me first observe that as you write above, a meta-statement can be made
> about the overall goal of science - although instead of Popper's
> injunction
> I would say "Create conjectures that come true".

Obviously, Popper intentionally avoided this phrasing to avoid quibbles
about the philosophy of "truth"... your phrasing is fine with me though...

> How can we use the above observations for deriving a metaethics by analogy
> to metascience, without direct recourse to desires and ethics itself?
> I think we could begin by making the metaethical statement
> "Formulate rules
> which will be accepted" (although this statement is actually a high-level
> link in a very long-term recursive mental process, rather than a starting
> logical premise).

That's interesting. It's a little deeper than it seems at first, and I need
to think about it more.

At first it seems a pure triviality, but then you realize what the
preconditions are, in order for the statement to be meaningful. For "be
accepted" to be meaningful, one needs to assume there is some mind or
community of minds that has the intelligence and the freedom to accept or to
not accept. So one is implicitly assuming the existence of mind and
freedom. So your rule is really equivalent to

"Ensure that one or more minds with some form of volition exist, and then
formulate rules that these minds will 'freely' choose to accept"

If we define happiness_* (one variant of the vague notion of "happiness") as
"the state of mind a volitional agent assumes when it's obtained what it
wants", then your rule is really equivalent to

"Ensure that one or more minds with some form of volition exist, and then
formulate rules that these minds will 'freely' choose to accept, because
they assess that accepting these rules will bring them an acceptable level
of happiness_*"

My point in tautologously unfolding your rule in this way, is to show that
(as you obviously realize) it contains more than it might at first appear

However, the shortcoming it has, is that it doesn't protect against minds
being stupid and self-delusional. Volitional agents may accept something
even if it's bad for them in many senses. (This is because happiness_* is
not the only meaningful sense of happiness).

The problem is that "to accept" is a vague and somewhat screwy notion,
particularly when you're dealing with minds that are stupid and
self-conflicted (like most human minds). Just because a human says "I
accept X" doesn't mean that all parts of them accept X -- it just means that
the subsystems that's grabbed control of the mouth says "I accept X." It
also doesn't mean they really understand what X means -- they may accept X
out of some dumb misunderstanding of what the consequences of X will be.
Acceptance becomes more and more meaningful, the smarter and more self-aware
the acceptor becomes.

And this is where "growth" seems to play a role, if you interpret "growth"
as meaning "minds becoming less stupid and self-delusional over time."

So I want to say something like

"Iteratively create rule-sets that will be accepted, by a community of minds
that are increasingly intelligent and self-aware"

Now, you could argue that this veers further away from being a pure
meta-ethic. Or, you could argue that "accepting a rule" means more for a
mind that is more intelligent and self-aware, so that it actually makes your
meta-ethic more powerful and meaningful.

But of course my modified version is basically a variant of my Principle of
Joyous Growth -- since I have growth in there in the form of "increasing
intelligence and self-awareness", and "joyousness" in the form of

-- Ben G

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