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Book Review: After Virtue

A few weeks ago the blogosphere discovered Ayn Rand’s margin notes on a C.S. Lewis book. They were everything I expected and more. Lewis would make an argument, and then Rand would write a stream of invective in the margin about how much she hated Lewis’ arguments and him personally. I kind of wanted to pat her on the shoulder and say “Look, I’m really sorry, but he can’t hear you.”

But I can also sympathize with her. It is infuriating to read a book making one horrible argument after the other. And when it glibly concludes “…and therefore I am right about everything”, and you know you’ll never be able to contact the author, it gives a pale ghost of satisfaction to at least scrawl in the margin “YOUR ARGUMENTS ARE BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD”.

This is kind of how I felt about Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

As far as I can tell, MacIntyre’s central argument works something like this:

1. There are many theories of ethics in existence today
2. The ones that came after Aristotelianism have failed to objectively ground themselves and create a perfect society in which everyone agrees on a foundation for morality
4. Therefore, we should return to Aristotelianism

You may notice a hole where one might place a Step 3, something like “Aristotelianism, in contrast, did objectively ground itself and create a perfect society in which everyone agreed on a foundation for morality.” This is exactly the argument MacIntyre digresses into a lengthy explanation of how much he likes Greek tragedy to hope we will avoid noticing him not making.

To MacIntyre’s credit, he does a pretty good critique of modern moral philosophy. He says that since society doesn’t share any kind of moral tradition, we can debate important moral questions – like abortion, or redistributive taxation – until the cows come home, but this is in fact only the appearance of debate since we have no agreed-upon standards against which to judge these things. Because we cannot settle these by rational argument, instead we turn to outrage and attempts to shame our opponents, making the protester one of the archetypal figures of the modern world.

(“…making the [unsavory sounding figure] one of the archetypal figures of the modern world” is one of MacIntyre’s pet phrases. It starts grating after a while.)

I broadly agree with him about this problem. I discuss it pretty explicitly in sections 6.5 and 8.1 of my Consequentialism FAQ. I propose as the solution some form of utilitarianism, the only moral theory in which everything is commensurable and so there exists a single determinable standard for deciding among different moral claims.

Annnnnd MacIntyre decides to go with virtue ethics.

The interesting thing about virtue ethics is that it is uniquely bad at this problem. In the entire book, MacIntyre doesn’t give a single example of virtue ethics being used to solve a moral dilemma, as indeed it cannot be. You can attach a virtue (or several virtues) of either side of practically any moral dilemma, and virtue ethics says exactly nothing about how to balance out those conflicting duties. For example, in Kant’s famous “an axe murderer asks you where his intended victim is” case, the virtue of truthfulness conflicts with the virtue of of compassion (note, by the way, that no one has an authoritative list of the virtues and they cannot be derived from first principles, so anyone is welcome to call anything a virtue and most people do).

MacIntyre totally admits this conflict, but instead of saying it’s a problem with his theory he says it’s the tragedy of human existence, then says that the virtue of justice is knowing how to balance those two virtues.

So basically, his entire condemnation of all systems beside his own is based on the difficulty of coming to moral consensus, but his own means of coming to moral consensus is a giant black box labelled “THE VIRTUE OF BEING ABLE TO SOLVE THIS HERE PROBLEM CORRECTLY”.

I don’t like deontology. In fact, I dislike it more than almost anyone I know except maybe Federico. But I will give credit where credit is due: deontology actually comes up with solutions to moral problems. The solutions are wildly incorrect and incredibly harmful, but they get a gold star for effort.

Virtue ethics, as far as I can tell, just gives you a knowing look and says “The very fact that you interpret morality in terms of moral dilemmas is a symptom of the disease of liberal modernity.” This is useful for sounding deeply wise, but little else. If you ask “Okay, but disputes over morality are an actual feature of the real world, and the whole reason we’re doing this ethics stuff is to try to solve them, so if we admit we’re diseased and the ancient Greeks were awesome, maybe you could help us out here?” – then virtue ethics just takes another sip of wine from its table in the corner and says “Your decadent individualist mind has no idea how disappointed Aristotle would be in you for even asking that. Did you even consider just being a virtuous city-state in which everyone is a great-minded soul acting for the good of the polis? I didn’t think so.”

If You Can’t Convince ‘Em, Just Start Reciting The Entire History Of The Human Race

Beyond my distaste for After Virtue‘s philosophy, I wasn’t a huge fan of its history either.

The book claims that the reason we don’t have a working agreed-upon morality is that the ancient Greeks (and medievals) did have a working agreed-upon morality (virtue ethics), but when it collapsed we were left with all these weird phrases like “virtuous” and “should” and “ought” and “the good” and outside the context of virtue ethics had no idea what to do with them. Since we couldn’t use the correct virtue-ethics solution, we entered the age of interminably debating what the correct solution was, hence the modern age of moral dilemmas.

In fact, the beginning of the book is a fascinating and attractive metaphor (drawn from the excellent A Canticle For Leibowitz) in which all scientific knowledge is destroyed by some apocalypse. A future civilization picking over the scraps forms a sort of cargo cult in which they know there are supposed to be things called “electrons”, and that the equation “e = mc^2″ is very important for no reason, but no matter how many times they debate what shape these “electrons” were supposed to be or whether the c in e=mc^2 stands for ‘color’ or ‘correctness’, they can’t seem to produce rockets or nuclear power. Phrases like e=mc^2 only make sense as part of a tradition; a stupid debate about whether c stands for color or correctness is a symbol that we’re trying to interpret it separately from that tradition and we’re just going to end up confusing ourselves. To MacIntyre, the tradition here is virtue ethics and modern society plays the role of the postapocalyptics looking quizzically over the scraps.

(the apocalypse? The Enlightenment, of course. Just once I want to go a whole week without someone blaming everything on the Enlightenment.)

Alasdair MacIntyre is clearly an expert classical scholar. And in fact he discusses the classical world’s disputes on morality very competently in his book. So it bewilders me that he doesn’t notice that actually, modern society’s debates over the Good are no different than those of the classical world. He even cites Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes as an example of moral dilemma in the ancient world. I agree – it is a perfect moral dilemma – of exactly the sort MacIntyre is claiming only exists because our civilization is living in the postapocalyptic ruins of virtue ethics. And Philoctetes was written twenty years before Aristotle was even born. Heck, forget Sophocles, even Socrates is a perfect example of this kind of moral inquiry.

MacIntyre then waxes about the wonder of the Greek city-states, which he says were communities where everyone was united on a single view of the good – that which was the proper telos of man.

Except, once again, all the problems of the modern age appear in the Greek city-states as well. Athens went from the laws of Solon to the tyranny of Peisistratus to the dictatorship of Hippias to the democracy of Cleisthenes to the oligarchy of the Four Hundred to the Thirty Tyrants to the democracy of Thrasybulus all in about a century. The periods of democracy were as rife with hostile factions and unresolved issues as any period in modern America or Europe.

The idea that everyone back then was happily united around the Objectively Proper End of Man is slightly complicated by the fact that no one back then agreed on what the Objectively Proper End of Man was, any more than anyone today agrees on what the Proper End of Man is, least of all virtue ethicists and super-dog-double-least of all anyone who reads the book After Virtue which happily informs us that pursuing it will solve all our problems but neglects to mention what the heck it might be or give us a shred of evidence to overcome our high priors against such a thing existing.

Then there’s a short focus on the medieval period, which I am told is marked by everyone being very virtuous but otherwise not particularly worthy of remark, followed by an attack on David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who apparently both totally failed to be virtue ethicists.

The modern period is marked…okay, I understood this part even less than the other parts. The modern period is marked by the Bureaucrat, who is another one of those Archetypal Figures Of The Modern World (others include the Aesthete and the Therapist). The Bureaucrat claims to have expertise in some subject, but clearly this is a lie, because no one can ever understand human affairs infallibly and this is kind of like saying no one can ever understand human affairs at all. Since everyone loves bureaucrats, who are people who claim to be able to understand human affairs, and yet no one can really understand human affairs, something must be wrong, and for all we know that something could be that we’re not all virtue ethicists (am I strawmanning here? Read pages 79-108 and find out).

Somebody Here Is Really Confused, And I Just Hope It’s Not Me

I have never been able to appreciate Continental philosophy (well, Nietzsche was pretty cool, but I have a hard time classifying anyone who can actually write engagingly as a Continental philosopher). After Virtue, despite having been written by a verified Scotsman by all accounts closely engaged with the analytic tradition, just seemed really Continental to me. It avoided logical arguments for a particular well-defined point in favor of long historical meanderings carefully designed to make the reader vaguely worry that everything was socially constructed and that the reader’s social construction was particularly rotten, without ever coming out and explicitly saying anything that could be seized upon as a claim to evaluate.

But the thing is that MacIntyre is considered one of the greatest living philosophers, and After Virtue one of the century’s greatest works on ethics. Just on priors I’m more likely to be misunderstanding him than he is to be talking nonsense. Even people I respect – including Catholics from the Patheos community and a few rationalists from the Less Wrong community – recommend MacIntyre.

Those same people recommended Edward Feser to me. There are a lot of similarities between Feser and MacIntyre – both say that the philosophical tradition of Greece and the medieval age was much better than our own tradition, and that we’re so screwed up we can’t even realize how screwed up we were. Both have very good things to say about teleology, and both ended up Catholic as a result of their philosophical studies.

I really enjoyed Feser’s The Last Superstition (and his Aquinas, although that’s less relevant here). I thought it did a great job bridging a wide inferential gap and really illuminated why he thought the things he thought. I think his account of forms and teleology is flawed because of a few basic errors in his foundations (I started explaining why on my old blog but never really finished) but it was flawed in ways where I could understand the force of his arguments and why his premises would lead to that conclusion. Even if I ended up disagreeing with his answers, I gained a huge admiration for his ability to ask the right questions and go about investigating them in the right way.

But as his occasional enemy Chris Hallquist delights to point out, Feser is not a hugely prestigious figure in mainstream academic philosophy. MacIntyre is. I was hoping for the same fascinating ideas, but with a suave British cool instead of hilarious over-the-top rants. Instead I got…I don’t even know.

I am really sorry, virtue ethicists. But you are going to have to do better than this if you want me to understand you.

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70 Responses to Book Review: After Virtue

  1. Totally love this!

    I hope we get a reply from a McIntyre fan.

    Here’s a thought: the value of philosophy is almost always mainly negative. As a heuristic, one should ignore whatever a philosopher advocates (because it’s bound to be wrong and stupid and probably evil as well) and look at their arguments against other things. In this case, “he does a pretty good critique of modern moral philosophy.”

    If you take seriously the observation “all ethical theories have failed to objectively ground themselves”, and we’ve been at this for like thousands of years, maybe it’s time for Plan B? Like, suppose we put that project aside, and ask “what can we do with ethics (and maybe even politics) if we don’t try to objectively ground it?”

    This seems to me the obviously right question, but next to no one is working on it. One of the few exceptions is Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea-Legs. It’s an easy and fun read. No earth-shaking conclusions, but asks (I think) the right questions at least!

    You have two “leave a reply” blocks at the bottom of the page; might want to check your WordPress config.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      The strongest defense I could give of MacIntyre is that he is doing something like this – he’s saying that if we can’t objectively ground one moral tradition, we might as well make sure we’re all operating inside the same moral tradition so we can talk to each other. I agree and think this is important. I just have no clue where he goes off on saying that this tradition should be virtue ethics, or that this ever worked in the past.

      I’m afraid I don’t really understand the review of Sea Legs on a quick skimming. Quick skimming is probably a bad idea for attempting to revolutionize ethics anyway, so I’ll look over it again tomorrow when I’m less tired.

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      • Well, I’ll try and summarize my view (which might not be Buckingham’s exactly).

        We’ve done without a foundation for ethics for a few million years. Ethics has been happening all that time anyway. Maybe someday someone will find a foundation, in which case great. In the mean time, we might want to devote some resources to an engineering approach, rather than the mathematics/philosophy one, and figure out how to incrementally improve things.

        That means giving up on tidy theories, but seems more likely to be useful. Ethical theorizing so far has been almost entirely useless; professional ethicists mainly admit that they never actually apply their ideas to everyday practice.

        A good starting point is to figure out how ethics has worked as well as it has, sans foundations. This is an empirical (and phenomenological) question, not an a priori one. There’s lots of ways of coming at it; the evopsych stuff on altruism and signaling is clear recent progress.

        So what one observes is that, in practice, ethics isn’t one clear thing. It’s a group of evolved kludges. The kludges evolved biologically, culturally, and in individual development. They address various loosely-related problems (e.g. “what do I do in this emergency,” “how should I live, in general,” “how do I justify myself,” “how do I judge others”). Relatedly, one observes that, in practice, the kinds of justifications people give loosely correspond to deontology, consequentialism, and virtue, usually muddled up. None of them works by itself, and they don’t work very well together either, but trying to choose just one of the three is not likely to work out.

        This is not to commit the “appeal to nature” fallacy of supposing that good is defined by what people have evolved to consider good. It’s just a preliminary to trying to do better.

        We shouldn’t expect a general methodology for converting empirical understanding into “doing better,” and there’s no guarantee that actual ethical progress comes from better understanding. Still, it seems plausible and practical, whereas the “find the ultimate solution to the ethics problem” doesn’t. To me.

        Taking an engineering attitude leads to questions like “what do we want ethics for?” and “how ethical should we be?”. These questions can’t even be stated in terms of ethical foundationalism, much less investigated. Yet “how ethical should I be?” is, I suspect, one of the most pressing and common ethical questions for most people. It accounts for a lot of dysfunctional everyday ethical activity.

        Looking at “so how does ethics work now?”, one thing that sticks out is that the moral landscape is fragmented—by modernity, and even more so now by globalization. “We might as well make sure we’re all operating inside the same moral tradition so we can talk to each other” is a nice fantasy, but it isn’t going to happen. Any engineering approach has to take fragmentation as a given.

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          So now I’ve read your review again, and thought about it more, and this is kind of off-topic, but…

          I’m not so sure that Buddhism doesn’t have that much to say about ethics.

          Like it seems that one thing Buddhism has to say about ethics is “meditate and progress spiritually, and you will become a kinder person”. Ratcheting up kindness doesn’t really *solve* ethical problems so much as lessen the need for a solution.

          This seems to be the argument a lot of people are making in favor of virtue ethics – that it doesn’t solve what morality is, but it helps us use the morality we already have. I reject it because I *don’t* think virtue ethics helps people use morality very well, and its prescriptions are kind of black box ish “Have more virtue!” But a Buddhist version of the same idea might be one I could get behind.

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          • meditate and progress spiritually, and you will become a kinder person

            Yes, I think Buddhism’s big contribution can be specific methods for doing that, such as metta bhavana, tonglen, or chöd. Those methods aren’t “ethics” though; they are non-conceptual ways of increasing the likelihood that one will do the right thing. Recent empirical studies seem to show they work. There’s little or nothing in current Western culture that functions analogously.

            a Buddhist version of the same idea might be one I could get behind

            Well, one of Will Buckingham’s main inspirations is Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva, which is the canonical work of Mahayana virtue ethics (paramitayana). You might want to read at least a summary of it if Buddhist virtue ethics seems worth pursuing.

            I don’t find Shantideva inspiring, and I don’t find his ethics interestingly different from Christian ethics. It’s a system of self-sacrificing sainthood; seems simplistic.

            There are non-Christian conceptions of human greatness that are heroic, rather than saintly (including in Vajrayana Buddhism). That is more to my taste.

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      • Oh my. This may get long.

        So, I’m a formal language theorist and computer security researcher. One of the most practical results of my research has been the observation that if two implementations of the same protocol differ slightly, such that they are actually implementing grammars for mostly-mutually-intelligible “dialects” of the same formal language, this can lead to all sorts of interesting shenanigans. (We broke SSL this way; the paper is in Financial Crypto 2010.)

        One naive but (apparently) simple way around this problem is, of course, the (software) monoculture: if everyone runs Windows on both client and server, then of course there won’t ever be any mistranslation-based vulnerabilities … until, of course, Microsoft end-of-lifes Windows XP and hundreds of businesses are still stuck on it, not to mention a good chunk of China, and of course IE 6 and IE 8 speak the exact same dialects of HTTP and HTML, right? And those are totally the same dialect that every version of IIS speaks, right? And so does every other webserver written in Java or Ruby or whatever and … yeah, you see where this ends up.

        So, too, I think, with a monoculture of moral traditions, but I think Randall Munroe’s take on aesthetic traditions suffices.

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  2. Slow Learner says:

    I’ll follow with interest any sense you can make of Virtue Ethicism; it’s something I am intrigued by, and every time I see this discussed people say “Well utilitarianism this, and deontology that, and virtue ethicism is just weird.”
    Which is all very well if I’m interested in utilitarianism or deontology, and mostly I am, because most people I am arguing with are either deontologists, or utilitarians who disagree with me on something more specific; it still doesn’t help me to grok virtue ethicism though.

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  3. Mary says:

    “Nietzsche was pretty cool”

    Eh. Nietzsche was marginally coherent. Which is to say, just sufficient coherent that his massive inconsistency are clear. What particularly got me was his repeated professions that he was not writing to be clear to just anyone, vs.

    Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who want to appear deep to the crowd strive for obscurity—for the crowd will consider anything deep if it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going in the water.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Eh. Nietzsche was marginally coherent.”

      Like I said, not really a true Continental! :)

      I like Nietzsche as a sort of prose poetry much more than I like him as philosophy.

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  4. Blake R says:

    I find virtue ethics appealing because it represents the foxish position in ethics, along the lines of David’s Plan B above. It comes off as weird because it’s not an elegant, from-first-principles theory that gives answers in every circumstance, but messiness and context-dependence can be a strength. From this perspective, virtue ethics is not a candidate for the One True Ethics. Some form of consequentialism is still going to be foundational. Instead it’s a collection of heuristics about how to behave, based on the observation that humans are better motivated by identity (“Be a curious, brave, honest, and grateful person” or “Emulate the example of these people”) rather than rules (“Always tell the truth and don’t cause harm to others”). We’ll tend to learn more about how to behave on an everyday basis through empirical study rather than philosophical theorizing.

    I haven’t seen this position argued for anywhere except through hints on LessWrong and somewhat by positive psychologists. It does seem hard in general to argue for foxish theories.

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    • muflax says:

      This. MacIntyre’s criticism of the Enlightenment project is that they thought they could find an elegant theory of morality that would encapsulate a whole community’s shared ethical discourse. This failed (and continues to fail) catastrophically. Instead of pointing to some abstract principles (“do this”), virtue ethics points to characters, goals and narratives we already understand (if not abstractly) and as a community agree on as virtuous, and then says, “be more like this”.

      Relevant articles by Anscombe: Modern Moral Philosophy, aka “stop theorizing until we have solved psychology kthx”.

      (Additional question to Scott: Have you read Weber’s work, in particular “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”? I feel like at all points of confusion you mention, I could point to standard works of (roughly) Continental Philosophy that MacIntyre just assumes the reader knows through classical education or cultural osmosis, and you don’t seem familiar with, but Weber’s narrative is probably the most important.)

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      • Oligopsony says:

        1) Can we solve psychology (in the relevant sense) without moral theorizing? In any event this isn’t like metaphysics where none of our answers actually matter,* we have to answer now! Of course I haven’t read the article yet so this could be total bullshit.

        2) Yes, Weber is good stuff and people should read him, even though in many ways his “story” has had some pernicious intellectual effects. Weber is also a bit odd in that he is simultaneously eclectic and brilliant and wide-ranging AND something of a one-trick pony. But yes, everybody should read him, unless they’re stupid and lazy (not necessarily bad things) and want to read George Ritzer instead.

        *I’m unsure how much I’m trolling you here but it is nonzero.

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      • Scott Alexander says:

        No. Should I? Will it lead to an infinite regress in which I don’t understand Weber and you tell me I need to read another book and so on? If I only have enough muflax-goodwill to read one book you recommend me, should this be the one?

        (actually, that’s a good question. I *do* have enough muflax-goodwill to read at least one book you recommend me. Which should it be?)

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        • muflax says:

          Ok, my question might’ve been easy to misunderstand. My point was that it seems to me that you’re not familiar with the general culture in which MacIntyre writes, and so you don’t even get what he’s saying and what narratives he’s responding to. It’s like reading Nietzsche when you don’t know what Christianity is.

          So your confusions aren’t about what MacIntyre is in fact saying (some of which I think has merit, some doesn’t), but it just fails to connect at all.

          And while I overall like MacIntyre, I’m not enough of a fan to try to bridge that gap for him, and unless I did this full-time for a year or so, I don’t think I could come up with something better than “well, read these dozens of old books that might not seem relevant to you now, and some of which are bad but you won’t understand the later reactions otherwise, and also learn these languages because you can’t translate this stuff”. Which is a horrible answer.

          Worse, it doesn’t even tell you why you should care to begin with. I think part of that is that, besides the meta-point that MacIntyre makes about narratives in general, it seems to me that the concrete construction and discourse he uses is deeply *European* and unless you are reasonably familiar with that, it will seem like one theologian advocating Calvinism instead of Lutherism when you’re Shinto and wonder why you should care about Jesus at all. (This is a general problem for non-continental readings of continental philosophy, I think – it’s deeply rooted in European drama. One reason Aristotle is so attractive is that all European drama theory derives from him and even someone as clever as Brecht couldn’t break it, so he’s an obvious attractor. I, and I suspect many continentals, came to philosophy essentially through drama, and that makes communication with outsiders difficult. Not enough shared language and sometimes very different goals.)

          So I’ll save that goodwill for some later (and more fruitful) topic, if you don’t mind.

          As to MacIntyre’s meta-point of “use the community-negotiated tools and narratives you already have” instead of “look for elegant theories no one actually uses anyway”, well, I *wanted* to write a different explanation of that, but then Vladimir did it already in his comment below, and I couldn’t do a *better* job right now, but he still failed, so…

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          I didn’t mean for that comment to be snarky, and I actually *am* asking you for a book recommendation. Doesn’t have to be about continental philosophy. Anything. Choose my next book for me.

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        • muflax says:

          I’d still like to hang on to that goodwill for when I’m done writing my own propaganda pieces for some neat topics, but it’s tempting to outsource some parts of my reading list to you. I mean, I could definitely use some sane outsiders to explain all the Marxist stuff to me, but you said *one* book… (But seriously, if Oligopsony or some other Marxist has a recommendation, I’ll second it because that’s a tradition that seems very fruitful to me but I have no clue about it, and I don’t expect to get around to it for a long time.)

          But if you insist, there’s a bunch of “not sure if crackpot or genius” books I’d be interested in seeing a charitable reading of. Notably, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good discussion of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis that didn’t require me to already have a PHD in biology, so I’ll nominate Morgan’s “The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis”.

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        • Oligopsony says:

          I struggle to think of a Single Marxist Book one should read, because the tradition is very diverse. Among what Marx himself wrote, the two most important are obviously Germany Ideology and <em?Capital. German Ideology is squarely in the “read backwards” category, while Capital has inferential distance issues. As far as summaries by others, I’d recommend either G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History or Fine ad Saad-Filho’s Karl Marx’s ‘Capital,’ 5th edition, not because I think their interpretations are correct (I don’t, on at least some the important controversies) but because they’re very good at helping bridge the inferential distance you may have with the rest of the literature, (much of) which is valuable.

          If inferential distance weren’t an issue, I would say Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class. For people like Will or Muflax who take inferential distance and creatively misread it into awesome nonsense and love meta I would recommend Lukacs’ What is Orthodox Marxism? If you’re interested in ultra-macro but still empirical history I’d recommend a lot but most of all Immanuel Wallerstein. If you’re interested in philosophy I recommend no one, they all suck.

          I guess if I had to make it one book, I would cheat and say Capital, because you’ll need to hire another book as a sherpa.

          Reading blogs like Notes & Commentaries or MLM Mayhem! may actually be the best way to rapidly familiarize yourself with the theories and discourse, in the same way that blogs are probably the best gateway to the ultraright.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      It sounds like you’re saying “assuming we already agree upon morality, virtue ethics is a science for increasing your compliance to the moral law, which you already want to do.” That makes sense, but it wasn’t what I got out of MacIntyre at all.

      I also think if I were to actually try to invent a science for that, it wouldn’t end up looking anything like virtue ethics.

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  5. Assorted reactions:

    First of all: I’d never read that post with Rand’s marginalia on Lewis, and it makes me want to re-read The Abolition of Man from a transhumanist perspective.

    “To MacIntyre’s credit, he does a pretty good critique of modern moral philosophy. He says that since society doesn’t share any kind of moral tradition, we can debate important moral questions – like abortion, or redistributive taxation – until the cows come home, but this is in fact only the appearance of debate since we have no agreed-upon standards against which to judge these things. Because we cannot settle these by rational argument, instead we turn to outrage and attempts to shame our opponents, making the protester one of the archetypal figures of the modern world.”

    I totally agree with MacIntyre if his point is that modern moral philosophy isn’t good at resolving moral disputes. But the dismissive attitude to protest, outrage, and shame makes me queasy. They can be misused, yes, but it’s not like they can be arbitrarily used to support any cause with equal ease. They depend on appealing to values we all share, even if we struggle to articulate those values or apply them to particular cases. And very often protest and outrage are the tools of oppressed groups, and dismissing them suggests a dismissive attitude to oppressed groups.

    Heck, even anti-abortion protesters, who I disagree with strongly, bank on the premise that the unborn are a kind of oppressed group. I think there are several things wrong with that premise, but it doesn’t make outraged protest on the behalf of the oppressed a bad thing in itself.

    “Just once I want to go a whole week without someone blaming everything on the Enlightenment.”

    Your reading habits must be very different than mine. Normally I only hear people blaming everything on the Enlightenment when I’m reading Peter van Inwagen.

    Finally, hearing MacIntyre called “one of the greatest living philosophers” and “a hugely prestigious figure in mainstream academic philosophy” sounds odd to my ear. Like it’s not exactly true, but not exactly false either. Virtue ethics is kind of an awkward third wheel in moral philosophy–but of course the vast majority of philosophers don’t even manage to invent an awkward third wheel for any major branch of philosophy. Part of it may be that I never had to read MacIntyre after five and a half years of studying analytic philosophy. I did pick up After Virtue at one point while I was at Notre Dame on my own, but never finished it.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      “They can be misused, yes, but it’s not like they can be arbitrarily used to support any cause with equal ease. They depend on appealing to values we all share, even if we struggle to articulate those values or apply them to particular cases.”

      No, I don’t think that’s right. Have you ever listened to a hack on a side you don’t agree with (like Rush Limbaugh)? Their whole spiel is being outraged by appealing to values you don’t agree with, and they’re pretty good at it. They let a gay couple go to prom! That’s so outrageous! How come we let people get away with slowly eroding everything that makes America great! We need to take back this country!

      “And very often protest and outrage are the tools of oppressed groups, and dismissing them suggests a dismissive attitude to oppressed groups.”

      Are you considering that the protest and outrage of groups you don’t consider oppressed never make it to you, or don’t get recorded, or you don’t consider them legitimate “protest”? I guarantee you there was a lot of “protest” against integration, and I’m not even certain that there’s was more pro-integration protest than anti-integration protest.

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      • komponisto says:

        Believe it or not, I basically grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh (!), and I don’t think you’re representing him correctly (even if your general point is right). His approach to a story such as a gay couple going to a prom (20 years ago, because he probably wouldn’t care at all now, and nor would it even make the news) would more likely have been to treat it as ridiculous and a source of humor rather than outrageous and a call to political action.

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      • michael vassar says:

        Great points!

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  6. Deiseach says:

    My only contribution to this is that, as a Southern Irish Catholic, I was pretty much rolling on the floor laughing at Rand’s marginalia about Lewis wanting “a science subservient to the pope”.

    Girl, talkin’ ’bout Ulster Protestant! No Pope Here! :-)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I admit to being pretty confused about how Catholic Lewis was or wasn’t. I mean, I know he wasn’t officially Catholic, but he sure gets (and takes) a lot of support from those quarters.

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      • Deiseach says:

        Quick gallop through the condensed version of The Eight Hundred Years: 12th century Norman-British come in as mercenaries for a Leinster king, decide they like it here and will stay, their king decides that since he’s their overlord that makes him de facto King of Ireland, us and them dispute this point vigorously up till the 1920 War of Independence.

        Henry VIII (of whom you may have heard) changes his opinion on church governance, leading to imposed change of religion in all his dominions. Us being one of same, new religion comes in here. Majority of country goes “Heck, no!” and us and them dispute it vigorously etc.

        Northern Ireland (Ulster) being close to Scotland, there are close ties between them and the Scots. Scotland going ultra-Protestant (Knox and Calvin), and British kings thinking it a great idea to pacify Ireland by importing a lot of English and Scots settlers, it works out that the Scots Protestants become a (bare) majority in Norn Iron.

        But wait! The Church of England and Church of Ireland (Irish version of same) are not the same thing as the Presbyterian Church, which the majority of the Ulster Protestants (due to Scottish heritage) follow. Church of Ireland (being in a majority Roman Catholic country) emphasises Pure Reformed heritage by being liturgically ‘low’ and wavering a bit in theology between Low Church and Broad Church (there is some High Church, but anything looking too ‘Catholic’ is discouraged).

        Finally we get to C.S. Lewis. Late 19th/early 20th century, born in Belfast of Church of Ireland (that is, Anglican) background. Fell away from any religion in school years and later, came back in adulthood while living in England to Anglicanism (Church of England version). So, often has theological sympathies with elements of Roman Catholicism – but the Ulster comes through in him, as well, so no – No Pope Here! ;-)

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        • Deiseach says:

          Errata and addenda to above: By a “bare majority”, I meant an economic and political majority. Numerically, the native Irish were always in the ascendancy, which meant that (for instance) when the border was being drawn up in 1921 between British and Irish governments, six out of the nine counties of Ulster were included in the new province of Northern Ireland (as in “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” instead of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” heretofore).

          Three counties were left out because had they been included, the balance would have tipped towards the Irish/Catholic/Nationalist side and made the situation even more unstable than it already was. Hence, during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, the start of “The Troubles” as an increasing Catholic population and a dominant Protestant population fought over access to power.

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        • Deiseach says:

          Even more addenda: that’s why it drives me nuts to see outside commentators talking about the situation in Northern Ireland as mainly or purely Catholic versus Protestant. And yes, English atheists, I’m looking at you especially hard about this.

          Religion was entwined with national identity, access to power, wealth, and political representation. And the English manoeuvred and manipulated that situation to and for their own benefit (e.g. Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, coming over to Northern Ireland to “play the Orange Card” during the 1886 campaign for a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which involved deliberately whipping up mob hysteria about what the Catholics would do if they got power).

          So I do get annoyed when I hear, for example, Richard Dawkins talking about religion as being at the root of the troubles in Northern Ireland but it seemingly never occurring to him, as an Englishman, to own responsibility for what his country and his governments did to set things up that way. He’s happy to ask Catholics to accept responsibility for things like the Crusades, so I’d ask him to do the same re: Irish and British history.

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        • komponisto says:

          Religion was entwined with national identity, access to power, wealth, and political representation. And the English manoeuvred and manipulated that situation to and for their own benefit (e.g. Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, coming over to Northern Ireland to “play the Orange Card” during the 1886 campaign for a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which involved deliberately whipping up mob hysteria about what the Catholics would do if they got power).

          But that seems to support the Dawkins view: that religion was used to get people stirred up against each other.

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        • Deiseach says:

          My beef with Dawkins on this is not as Catholic versus atheist, it’s as Irish versus English :-)

          He exhibits (and I may be being unfair to him, as it was a quick interview back in 2002 in which he said it) what I would consider the typical British (or rather, English, and there’s a reason I make that distinction) attitude that “The North is all about those silly Catholic Irish and those silly Protestant Irish fighting and why can’t they just get along?” with no recognition or acceptance (it would seem) that it’s a teeny bit more complicated than that and that the English establishment do not have clean hands in that regard. Same way that in the 60s the British Army went in as a peacekeeping force (and that did work for all of ten minutes) but the rationale of the British government on “the mainland” (and that is a very fraught and codified phrase) was that they were sent in as a neutral party. Which is rather like the U.S. government saying it was sending in the 7th Cavalry to an Indian Reservation as a neutral peace-keeping force which had nothing to do with the reasons two native groups were fighting on a self-governing reservation.

          The natural question there is “Well, how come there’s a reservation in the first place? And how come you are associated as a governing body?”

          Yes, religion was used as an excuse in the example I gave, but the base of the action was not religion as such, it was political opportunism in the Tory versus Liberal struggle over what (to one side) looked like going soft on the Union and a threat to the Empire and (on the other side) looked like at last giving justice to Ireland.

          The nearest example I can think of in an American context (and since I’m not an expert on American history or politics, I’ll make all kinds of errors here) would be demagoguery about immigrants or black civil rights, with a politician from party headquarters coming down to whip up opposition on the basis of “They’ll take all our jobs/rape our women/steal our precious bodily fluids”, then heading back to the capital or up north or where you will while the KKK or the anti-immigrant group rampaged through the part of town where the blacks/immigrants lived and did a bit of arson, assault and battery.

          In that interview, Dawkins said:

          ”.If you look at what’s going on in Northern Ireland, for example, one gets into trouble if one says that the conflict in Northern Ireland is about religion, people argue, “No, it’s not religion, it’s all about politics, it’s all about economic deprivation and the unfairness of things” and of course it is, but if you ask how do they know who’s “us” and who’s “them”, how do they know who’s the one who’s been oppressing them economically over centuries, how do they identify that WE have been oppressed by THEM over the centuries, it turns out that religion is the only label. If they were different in colour as in South Africa , or if they were different in language as in Belgium, then that would be the badge. But in Northern Ireland they’re the same colour, they speak the same language. Religion is the main candidate for a badge to identify us versus them.

          He’s saying “It’s Catholic versus Protestant, I’m not a believer, it’s nothing to do with me”. I’m saying “It’s clashing cultural and ethnic identities on a deliberately fostered divide by the ruling power, you’re English, it very much has to do with you.”

          Dawkins asks “How do they identify that WE have been oppressed by THEM over the centuries, it turns out that religion is the only label” – that is, the Irish can only identify the British as oppressors on the grounds of ‘religion’.

          And some of us do it because we’ve read Giraldius Cambrensis, who defended the Norman Invasion of Ireland not on grounds of religion (because at the time, both countries were Roman Catholic) but because

          This people then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner, just like the modern fashion recently introduced; indeed, all their habits are barbarisms. But habits are formed by mutual intercourse; and as these people inhabit a country so remote from the rest of the world and lying at its furthest extremity, forming is it were, another world, and are thus excluded from civilised nations, they learn nothing and practise nothing, but the barbarism in which they are born and bred and which sticks to them like a second nature. Whatever natural gifts they possess are excellent, in whatever requires industry they are worthless”.

          and we’ve read Edmund Spenser after him, Richard :-)

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  7. Patrick (orthonormal) says:

    I read After Virtue while I was in my “crisis of metaethics” phase after turning atheist (at about the same time I read Mackie, Nietzsche, and EY’s metaethics sequence). I remember enjoying it, but not getting anything useful from it, and I can’t even extract a particular core argument from my memories.

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  8. Joe says:

    I enjoyed how MacIntyre shows that Charity as a virtue was unheard of before Christianity came on the scene. It’s amazing how much we moderns take the concept of Charity as virtue for granted.

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  9. Alex says:

    Sigh, I was hoping that the premier book on virtue ethics would at least clarify how to distinguish virtue form non-virtue without appealing to consequence or duty. Did MacIntyre really neglect this?

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  10. Federico says:

    Ethics and meta-ethics need a reboot. Our terminology does not cleave reality at its joints. Here’s what I have.

    0. The distinction between meta-ethics, ethics and policy-level decisions may not be useful. What has it to show? To leave the question open, I encapsulate this field of inquiry in a new word: fundaments. Fundaments is like configuring software or trimming an F1 car: essential preparation, before one tackles difficult problems and takes important decisions.

    1. Objective vs. subjective shouldness

    We use the word “should”. I should do X; you should do Y. It has two different senses.

    Firstly, one has a terminal goal and instrumental goals derived from it. An instrumental goal is just a mental shortcut. Subjective shouldness links a goal to a decision: it says concisely that a certain decision best satisfies a certain goal. Terminal goals are input to fundaments; decision agents seem to have a substrate of goal-ness, an optimisation process that just exists.

    Secondly, one might be “objectively” required to take a certain decision. You should do X, because it is moral. This objective shouldness, which is used by most humans in ordinary speech, applies to all decision-agents. By Occam’s razor, it is skew to reality; belief in objective shouldness is an evolutionary bias.

    How should we name each form of shouldness? Moral realism vs. anti-realism is one possibility. Moralism vs. desirism would be a clean break. In Scott’s links, I use deontology vs. consequentialism. In any case this joint ought to be cut.

    How does one, or an agent itself, discover the agent’s terminal goal? This is a difficult problem, perhaps Gödelian. We don’t even know how a decision-agent distinguishes itself from the rest of the causally-entangled Universe. I think that such a distinction is, mind-bendingly, to be determined by the agent’s own utility.

    “What am I?…aha…now, what should this volume of reality do?…Hm, in the process of asking that question the volume of reality has changed and expanded…”

    Competent decision-agents exist, so the problem can’t be intractable, but it is a matter of fiddly, imperfect engineering and not philosophy—a Mercedes engine, not a Carnot cycle.

    2. Selfhood

    “What am I?” deserves further attention. Most of us believe that humans have qualia, but this may be tangential to our (other) nature as decision-agents. Non-sentient optimisers are easy to imagine. Might a sleepwalking human be one?

    One’s memories of qualia lead one carelessly to suppose that one is a constant decision-agent over time. Our language—our language—is built around this assumption. Yet why suppose that the engineering problem above is solved when each snapshot of decision-agenthood considers itself identical to every other snapshot instantiated by the same brain? This seems a remarkable coincidence. And how long is a snapshot? The duration of a decision-problem might also be determined by utility, in the same messy and self-referential way.

    3. Complex vs. simple terminal goals

    To maximise the amount of orgasmium in Platonia is a simple goal. To bring about a future of humans on hedonic treadmills is a complex goal.

    Simple goals distinguish little if at all between regions of spacetime. They say, “X is good, wherever and whenever.” Complex goals say, “This much X, Y and Z is good on Earth in 2090, and this much W, X, Y and Z is good on Earth in 2100″. An intermediate goal might say, “X is good, wherever and whenever, but Y of Z on Earth is also good, and these are balanced according to such-and-such a utility function”.

    Selfhood intersects with this question. How broad am “I”? If I am a narrow decision-agent—a small volume of reality—I might prefer orgasmium; other human values like love, music and identity belong to rival decision-agents. If I am a broad decision-agent, many human shards of desire might combine to form a complex terminal goal.

    I think natural selection biased us towards an inclusive view of self—selfhood bias. I am therefore skeptical of complex terminal goals.

    4. Local vs. universal terminal goals

    Goals are or are not totally indifferent to outcomes in certain regions of Platonia. Local goals have more Kolmogorov complexity ceteris paribus than universal goals, but there are other sources of complexity so this is a separate axis.

    A deontologist might think, “I should not lie”. This does not necessarily make him a moral realist. If this is a subjective “should”, his terminal goal is to utter no deliberately inaccurate claim. These utterances occupy a tiny sliver of Platonia and her mathematical objects—he is minimally concerned with the supermajority of outcomes in physics. It is therefore trivial to construct a dilemma in which he voluntarily condemns an astronomical number of sentient beings to hell in order to avoid speaking a lie.

    Such a terminal goal is improbable, hence in Scott’s links I use “deontology” as a synonym for mistaken belief in objective shouldness. Yet to be duly pedantic, deontology could denote subjective shouldness and a local terminal goal.

    Deontology may be defined as “rule-following in dilemmas”, but this is unsatisfactory since “take utilitarian decisions” and “take awesome decisions” are rules-for-dilemmas which few be consider to be deontology—they unpack to universal terminal goals.

    Deontology vs. consequentialism is thus a false dichotomy. It fudges two proper distinctions: (false) objective shouldness vs. subjective shouldness, and (improbable) local terminal goals vs. universal terminal goals. Rules vs. consequences is similar to each distinction, but cleaves neither at its joint.

    The deontologist might claim that he has multiple terminal goals: “I should not lie, steal, murder…” However, there are dilemmas in which it is necessary to lie in order not to murder, etc., and the decision-agent’s real terminal goal is revealed by his informed choice in such a dilemma. Whatever a decision-agent’s substrate of goal-ness be, it is one substrate. “An agent” with more than one clearly defined terminal goal is not usefully viewed as a single decision-agent.

    5. Uncertainty

    Decision-agents have only one terminal goal. However, they cannot know what it is for certain. Decision problems usually assume that the agent has a utility function; does the analysis change when it has a probability distribution over utility functions?

    6. Practical ethics

    Timeless decision theory
    says that one’s decisions determine the outcome of Platonic computations, instantiated in a plethora of similar minds. In a Parfit’s Hitchhiker
    scenario, it is optimal to pay the driver after he has given one a lift. Due to TDT, such quasi-deontological behaviour is consistent with desirism and a simple, universal terminal goal.

    TDT has yet to be worked out in detail, so its scope is unclear. I might e.g. only donate money to MIRI as a CDT-agent, but perhaps spread my donations as a TDT-agent because I want other, less singularitarian folks to do likewise. Do they have “sufficiently similar” minds?

    The sub-agent perspective also bears on practical ethics. I have a narrow view of selfhood: the decision-agent built around my brain’s most analytic and evolutionarily modern part (probably) desires an orgasmium future, but other sub-agents with CPU-time have different goals. My utilitarian sub-agent cannot trammel the others; how might it best calibrate and coax them?

    “Virtue ethics” thus describes the behaviour of humans who understand fundaments—utilitarians should rarely kill fat men,
    for TDT and sub-agent reasons, and not just because the hedonic calculus is dominated by the singularity. TDT and the sub-agent perspective imply that utilitarian decision-agents instantiated in human brains should cause the gestalt human to be virtuous, in the eyes of one or other social milieu. TDT and virtue intersect in social norms of reciprocation, and (if and) when one determines the collective behaviour of sufficiently similar minds. Individuals and cultures that are considered virtuous provide evidence about how our sub-agents might best be calibrated.

    Interpersonal ethics—what ethical beliefs should one encourage in others?—ought not be a part of fundaments, since socially desirable beliefs might be false. It is nonetheless an important question.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      How does one, or an agent itself, discover the agent’s terminal goal?

      Are you coming at this from a perspective where our terminal goals exist, and we just have to discover them?

      This is not my perspective. I wrote about this in “Blue Minimizing Robot”. You wrote a response, but it seemed to assume that humans could be modeled as goal-directed agents. I agree goal-direction is one mode of thought, but not the one that motivates our reward system and only one of a few that combine to influence our actions.

      As such, I don’t think we, or any subagent of ourselves worthy of the name, have terminal goals, at least not ones we don’t make up in a very conscious way.

      Deontology vs. consequentialism is thus a false dichotomy. It fudges two proper distinctions: (false) objective shouldness vs. subjective shouldness, and (improbable) local terminal goals vs. universal terminal goals.

      My last post, Whose Utilitarianism, touched on this. It was me realizing utilitarianism can mean two things. First, that it is objectively right to maximize the utilit of all beings. Second, that you might as well just maximize for your own desires since that’s what you’re doing anyway. The post was me switching from the first to the second, but it seems to me that most people who use the word “utilitarianism” are talking about the first, or else split 50-50 and talking past each other. If that’s right, then “deontology vs. consequentialism” is more of a natural divide than you think.

      The decision-agent built around my brain’s most analytic and evolutionarily modern part (probably) desires an orgasmium future.

      Sorry, confused here. Are you saying you’re pro-wireheading?

      “Virtue ethics” thus describes the behaviour of humans who understand fundaments—utilitarians should rarely kill fat men, for TDT and sub-agent reasons, and not just because the hedonic calculus is dominated by the singularity.

      And you’ve lost me. Why does virtue ethics imply not killing fat men, and why is this the correct answer by TDT? Timelessly, I desire a world where everyone in that situation would kill fat men.

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      • Federico says:

        I don’t think we, or any subagent of ourselves worthy of the name, have terminal goals, at least not ones we don’t make up in a very conscious way.

        This is an important distinction, which cannot be glossed over. Not every decision-agent consciously apprehends its terminal goal, but it is always useful to treat them as having a substrate of goal-ness. Since “goal” is such a useful concept, even if it doesn’t admit of an easy reduction the burden of proof is on the abolitionist.

        A decision-agent may be of use to another agent, and you seem to argue that the two agents therefore rationally disagree about what is the first agent’s terminal goal. I say otherwise: the first agent self-referentially distinguishes a volume of reality that encapsulates him and his substrate of goal-ness—he definitely distinguishes one and not another such volume himself. The agent without this level of self-reflection must implicitly do so, just as humans are necessarily approximate Bayesian reasoners in the process of reasoning at all.

        However it is conceivable that the first agent would perceive himself to be inextricable from the second, should the second be heavily entangled with him in the process of observation. In that case their terminal goal might be (sufficiently close to) the same. This is probably the equilibrium between sub-processes in a superintelligent brain, otherwise it would spilt itself apart.

        Any really intelligent agent—maybe not a blue-minimising robot—has a utility-maximising reason to investigate its own terminal goal, and will do so unless it is biased.

        Sorry, confused here. Are you saying you’re pro-wireheading?

        I think my most powerful sub-agent (or the one with most executive control) would prefer the singularity to create lots of orgasmium, although I quibble the “limited consciousness” description. It excludes all the other shards of human desire.

        And you’ve lost me. Why does virtue ethics imply not killing fat men, and why is this the correct answer by TDT? Timelessly, I desire a world where everyone in that situation would kill fat men.

        If I take a decision like a ruthless calculating utilitarian, I timelessly determine other people’s accurate perceptions of me, throughout my past and future life. This may determine a number of personal failures that have already or are yet to happen, because most people are unwilling to cooperate with calculating utilitarians.

        I also timelessly determine the ruthlessness of similar minds that are not utilitarians—I determine that a number of humans are unwilling to obey important social norms of cooperation, should that conflict with certain of their personal priorities, and thereby timelessly cause society in general to function less efficiently. We need social norms and laws, and if I break them for CDT-good reasons so might too many other people, making this a TDT-bad idea.

        At least, this is my intuitive guess about timeless decision theory. We lack a detailed specification of “sufficiently similar” mind that would clarify matters.

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    • Paul Torek says:

      Non-sentient optimisers are easy to imagine.

      True and extremely important. I’d love to see a longer discussion on this.

      I think natural selection biased us towards an inclusive view of self—selfhood bias. I am therefore skeptical of complex terminal goals.

      This argument appears to be missing some vital components.

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  11. Vladimir says:

    I haven’t read MacIntyre, so I don’t know how good his arguments are, or how close his understanding of virtue ethics is to mine. Nevertheless, it’s strange that the notion of virtue ethics causes such confusion, when in fact this is the only kind of ethics that people normally use in practice and that matters in real life. (This of course applies to the self-professed deontologists and utilitarians as well.)

    Debates over abstract deontological maxims and utilitarian calculations may be a fun diversion, and they’re often useful as a signaling device or in service of politicking, lawyering, and ideological warfare. Yet in reality, practically everyone always makes personally relevant moral judgments and decisions based on a different question, namely: what kind of person would act that way? In other words, when it comes to moral questions that really matter for them personally, people judge character and virtue, not deontological maxims and utilitarian scales.

    This is by no means a mere artifact of bias, ignorance, or rationalizations of self-interest (although of course all these factors are always present). Rather, it is simply inevitable for the members of a highly intelligent, social, and predatory species. Thus it’s unsurprising that people who try to base morality on some utilitarian or deontological abstraction will inevitably fall back on their instinctive virtue ethics in real-life situations where their theoretically favored approach contradicts it.

    As for the problem of disagreement about what constitutes virtue and the consequent practical disputes, clearly there are always going to be fundamental disagreements between people that must end with compromise, separation, or coercion. However, appealing to the (at least partly) shared notions of virtue and character is a much more realistic starting point for finding common ground than appeals to utilitarian or deontological principles, which can always be readily turned into a lawyerly argument for anyone’s convenience.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m a bit confused by this.

      I think Pope Francis is an incredibly wonderful person. He clearly cares about the poor a lot, and I think he’s willing to undergo practically any amount of self-sacrifice in order to help them. He’s also smart, humble, and insert all sorts of other positive adjectives here.

      However, I also think all his moral beliefs are wrong and actively harmful, and that absent the consideration that the next Pope would be the same or worse, his existence is actively making the world a worse place.

      How is that not a refutation of what you’re talking about? I agree that from a virtue-ethics point of view Pope Francis is great, but in reality, using the moral judgments I actually use, he’s terrible.

      If you claim that he lacks the virtue of “judgment” or something like that – you could make the same argument in favor of “virtue math”. You could claim math isn’t about rule-following, but about being a virtuous mathematician, and that part of being a virtuous mathematician is having the judgment-virtue that allows you to select the right answer to math problems. But that would be a terrible way of parsing what mathematics is about.

      There is certainly this aspect of yes I think some people are good people and this corresponds to a sort of virtue-ethicsy sense (although there’s also a lot of Aristotelian virtue ethics which seems totally unrelated to this). But there’s also a totally different aspect of morality which virtue ethics fails to capture, and that seems to be the part that’s interesting and important and worth debating about.

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      • Leon says:

        It certainly seems possible, within a virtue-ethical framework, to morally approve of your enemies.

        The virtue of prudence may help (“prudence” in this context apparently means something like, “being someone who acts accordance with truth). But if you believe Francis is trying to do this then the above point still holds.

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        • Leon says:

          Sorry, “prudence” in my comment probably just means your “judgement”. An imprudently hasty comment.

          On mathematicians, surely one could say something like: a good mathematician is someone who can reason precisely using symbols, translate freely between geometric and algebraic thinking, convert intuition into rigorous argument and vice-versa, etc.

          Also, the issue above seems to highlight a basic difference between virtue ethics and consequentialism, in that the latter takes as its input a range of situations and outputs an order on them; whereas virtue ethics takes some kind of category or class (viewed in an essentialist-ish way) and outputs what a good member of that category or class should look like.

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      • Vladimir says:

        Note the “personally relevant” qualification above. Your opinions about people with whom you have no personal connection or business are completely irrelevant to your interests, except insofar as they might have some signalling value.

        My point is that people — whatever their theoretical and ideological allegiances may be — use virtue ethics in things that really matter, i.e. when it comes to moral judgements where their direct interest (rather than just signaling value) is at stake. That is obvious if we just consider what happens when people’s utilitarian or deontological theories clash with their common-sense virtue-ethical judgement. They’ll bite bullets only from a safe distance.

        Consider for example a utilitarian who argues that in some trolley-like scenario where one must choose between butchering innocent people and passively allowing something even more terrible to happen, the right thing to do is to go for the former option. Now imagine this same utilitarian — whom we’ll assume to be a generally normal human — meeting in person someone who has been in such a situation, and who went on and slit these people’s throat without blinking, calmly confident that he was doing the right thing.

        Is our utilitarian going to be all admiring and happy that he’s meeting a hero so capable of shedding his human biases and having the courage to do the right thing? Of course not. He’ll be creeped out and scared to death just from being in the general vicinity of this person. Why? Because when it comes to his own safety, he’s not so crazy as to let his abstract theory override his common-sense virtue-ethical judgements.

        This is admittedly an extreme example, but I think it elucidates the basic principle well. It’s not hard to find more mundane examples, although with these it’s easier to find some convenient rationalization.

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        • yli says:

          Yes, that utilitarian is creepy. But if he had good judgment, that is he was reliably right in his greater good comparisons, I’d still want as many people like him as possible to exist in the world. If he had bad judgment or was rationalizing, I’d hate him and wouldn’t want him around anywhere, but that is not really an indictment of utilitarianism. The reason I’d be creeped out by the guy is the mental image of him stabbing me because he thinks the UFOs are gonna blow up the continent otherwise, but that’s obviously a case of bad judgment.

          Whether I’d want him as my neighbour depends. One one hand I don’t want to get sacrificed to save two strangers. On the other hand in a situation where he had to sacrifice 1 person to save 2, I’d be more likely to be one of the 2. I wouldn’t want him in my vicinity if I was in a position where I was disproportinately likely to end up as someone to be sacrificed rather than someone to be saved, like if I had healthy organs in a town where the other residents were in bad health and more likely to end up getting my organs delivered to them by the utilitarian than vice versa. Otherwise, I’d be *safer* with him around.

          Maybe we can’t trust *anyone* to have good enough judgment to be allowed to run around making decisions on a utilitarian basis. Most people have bad judgment, and I think this is the real reason I’d be creeped out by the guy. Not because of his utilitarian act per se, but because the act is more evidence of him being an unhinged psycho than a reliable utilitarian with good enough judgment that I can trust him.

          And yes, this is the same answer I would have gotten if I had used virtue ethics and asked “what kind of person does that?”.

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    • this is the only kind of ethics that people normally use in practice and that matters in real life

      Do you have citation(s) for this? (I’m not challenging it; I want to follow up if there’s empirical research.) Or is this your own observation? Thanks!

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    • Federico says:

      [I]t’s strange that the notion of virtue ethics causes such confusion, when in fact this is the only kind of ethics that people normally use in practice and that matters in real life.

      Virtue ethics collapses, on analysis, into ordinary consequentialism. It passes the buck from “What is my terminal goal?” to “What kind of person (who necessarily has some terminal goal) do I resemble?”—a distinction without a difference. Am I a utilitarian; would a utilitarian act this way?

      The sub-agent perspective and timeless decision theory account for the discrepancy between gestalt and autistic theoretical utilitarianism, and the behaviour of soi-disant utilitarians in practice. “Virtue ethics” might be a good name for utilitarianism (etc.) in combination with TDT and sub-agent rivalry, but this makes it compatible with utilitarianism and not an alternative as you imply.

      However, appealing to the (at least partly) shared notions of virtue and character is a much more realistic starting point for finding common ground than appeals to utilitarian or deontological principles, which can always be readily turned into a lawyerly argument for anyone’s convenience.

      Philosophical rigour is appropriate to private discussions, but a pragmatic combination of half-truths, falsehoods and platitudes suits the public sphere—hence the distinction between fundaments and interpersonal ethics. In private venues of high epistemic quality, the utilitarian has stuck his neck out and the virtue ethicist has not. In the public sphere, as you say utilitarianism is likely to be an out-of-control ideological weapon.

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      • Vladimir says:

        “Virtue ethics” might be a good name for utilitarianism (etc.) in combination with TDT and sub-agent rivalry, but this makes it compatible with utilitarianism and not an alternative as you imply.

        I would agree with this statement with some qualifications, and if you replaced “utilitarianism” with “consequentialism.” As it stands, however, I have at least two objections:

        1. Utilitarianism requires interpersonal comparisons of utility, which an absolutely fatal and conclusive objection against it. There’s simply no way around that problem.

        2. This would trivialize the notion of consequentialism, turning it into a tautological idea that only things that are real matter. In reality, the notions of consequentialism and especially utilitarianism are understood to involve more concrete and practical assumptions.

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        • yli says:

          > Utilitarianism requires interpersonal comparisons of utility, which an absolutely fatal and conclusive objection against it.

          It’s an objection to the idea of formalized utilitarianism. It just means that we have to use judgment and intuition when deciding whether Alice eating an apple creates more pleasure than Bob taking a hot shower, instead of just being able to calculate it… just like in virtue ethics!!

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        • Gilbert says:

          Intuition is not magic. It won’t get you around the mathematical fact that a correct solution is impossible any more than you can square the circle intuitively.

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        • yli says:

          “A correct solution is impossible”? More like there is no single mathematically pinned down solution, there are infinitely many possible solutions that we have to choose from.

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        • Gilbert says:

          On that I would refer you to a similar discussion at Scott’s old gig.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          As Sniffoy says, invoking Arrow’s impossibility theorem in the context of utilitarian interpersonal comparison is a math error. I suspect Vladimir means something else, though.

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        • Gilbert says:

          Um, care to point out the math error? Or, less politely, did you actually read that thread beyond the first reply?

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          (1) Arrow’s theorem requires the ordinal aggregation depend only the ordinal preferences of the voters; changing the utility function of the voter can change the ordinal aggregation preference without changing; (2) Utility functions allow ties, indeed require them, though in some examples they don’t come up in the domain of comparison and in a larger class you can break them using dictatorship.

          The way to understand the conflict between Arrow’s theorem and utilitarian aggregation is to think about the case of two parties. Everyone knows how to split a cake and everyone knows that there’s no way to adjudicate between two voters electing one of them dictator.

          Or a formal model: the question of how to split a pot of money (infinitely divisible, or just two coins), with square root utility. The aggregate utility function prefers more equitable divisions to less, with equal division the maximum. It is not a total order, being indifferent between (a,1-a) and (1-a,a), but we can break that tie by letting the first player choose between them.

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        • Gilbert says:

          (1) Nope. Just replace every instance of a <_i b with u_i(a)<u_i(b) and all the standard proofs of Arrow's theorem translate straightforwordly to the cardinal case.
          (2) Preference rankings also (can) allow ties, but the Pareto rule is not compatible with ties in certain places either for social preference ranks or for social utility functions. Of course you can just say the social utility function is 42 for every possible outcome. But naively one would expect a social utility function to, for example, assign higher utility to not torturing everyone to death than to doing so. Dictatorship is a solution, but then remember a dictator in the mathematically relevant meaning of the term imposes the entire preference schedule and not just some single preference. So yeah, we can pick someone and call his utility the utility of society without violating Arrow’s theorem. But nay, I don’t think that’s what anyone really means when they talk of utility aggregation.

          Your cake and money examples both assume that both parties have identical preference schedules over possible resource baskets. That is plausible if there is only one resource (cake and money respectively in your examples) and Arrow’s theorem does indeed not ban aggregation of preferences basically identical in that way. But then utilitarianism working in all cases except where people have different preferences doesn’t sound that hot either.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          When I said “divide a cake” I meant not cutting in half by volume, but the procedure for dividing an inhomogeneous cake. Namely, one party divides it into two parts and the second party chooses one of those parts. The whole point of this procedure is that the parties might have wildly different preferences; indeed, that they might be ignorant of each other’s preferences.

          As to the rest, you simply have no idea what Arrow’s theorem says. In particular, it does say that it impossible to divide a pile of coins, based purely on the preferences of which agents would prefer to have or not have which coins.

          PS – Arrow himself says that the theorem does not apply to cardinal systems.

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        • Gilbert says:

          In all bluntness, my evaluation of your competence is very similar to yours of mine. So a few last words for the audience, an then I’ll be gone from this particular discussion and nobody can accuse me of having left because of something unanswerable.

          Used on inhomogeneous cakes and particularly if the other party’s preferences are unknown your cake dividing algorithm does have the problems you claim it avoids. The audience can see this without much math. For example, I might prefer vanilla and you might prefer chocolate except I think you also prefer vanilla. The cake is half chocolate and half vanilla. So I divide it giving both lots equal parts of chocolate and vanilla and then it doesn’t matter which lot you chose, and we both would have done better by giving me all the vanilla and you all the chocolate. In math-speak that means the division is not Pareto-optimal. That particular problem wouldn’t occur if we both new each other’s preferences, but then suppose the cake has only one indivisible good part and is otherwise gross. Then the chooser will get the good part and the divider will get only junk. In math-speak that’s dictatorship.

          I don’t see what your coin example is about, but some interpretation of it probably can be made into an example of Arrow’s theorem. That definitely doesn’t mean the theorem is only about coins.

          In that interview – and, free strategy advice, you could really have clicked through to the actual interview rather than making it obvious you’re getting your entire subject knowledge from a Wikipedia article on a political subject – Arrow is talking about practical real-life voting systems and what kind of trade-offs to make from a least bad perspective. In that context it’s fairly clear there is more information on the problem approval voting choses to solve, but no pretension that it is isomorphic to the original problem of preference or utility aggregation. I’ve actually read Arrow saying ordinality doesn’t help when he actually was writing about preference aggregation in some paper, but I don’t have it at hand right now so I guess you are free to disbelieve me.

          With that I’ll leave it to the audience to make their minds up about which if any of us two knows what he’s talking about.

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        • yli says:

          Just a quick note on one thing: utility aggregation obviously shouldn’t even satisfy condition 2 of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which is “If every voter’s preference between X and Y remains unchanged, then the group’s preference between X and Y will also remain unchanged”. Imagine we want to decide whether to make soup or pizza for Alice and Bob. Alice really hates pizza and loves soup. Bob slightly prefers pizza to soup. So we should give them soup. Now Alice learns to appreciate pizza and gets a bit bored with soup, but still slightly prefers soup to pizza, while Bob becomes more extreme in his love of pizza and doesn’t want to eat anything else ever again. Now we should give them pizza. But this violates the condition, because everyone’s preference ordering between pizza and soup remained the same, but we still changed from soup to pizza.

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    • Paul Torek says:

      At first, until I read your reply to Scott’s reply, I misunderstood you. (And I think David Chapman misunderstands you in the way that I did.) In truth, people rarely make explicit appeals to any of the three types of reasoning highlighted by deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue theory. But it sounded like you were making a statistical claim about the relative prevalence of mentions of: rules followed or violated, good or bad consequences, and types of people who do certain things. Hence David’s request for research citations.

      But no. You’re making a virtue of virtue’s vice.

      The vice of virtue theory is its inability to solve, as Scott says, a single dilemma. It’s just a big black box. But voila! If people pull their judgments seemingly from nowhere, they must be using virtue theory! After all, it looks exactly like what you’d expect them to do if they were.

      I’m not buying it. It looks exactly like what you’d expect if they had very little in the way of theory of any sort. That’s where my prior is heavily stacked, and you haven’t budged me from there.

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  14. john says:

    Do you ever listen to The Partially Examined Life podcast?

    They had a nice bit on MacIntyre a while back:
    http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2012/07/05/ep59/

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  15. Ronak M Soni says:

    ” both ended up Catholic as a result of their philosophical studies.”
    This is interesting; do you have any idea why Catholicism in particular?

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  16. Pingback: Against worrying about what kind of person would do that

  17. Luke says:

    > MacIntyre is considered one of the greatest living philosophers, and After Virtue one of the century’s greatest works on ethics. Just on priors I’m more likely to be misunderstanding him than he is to be talking nonsense. Even people I respect – including Catholics from the Patheos community and a few rationalists from the Less Wrong community – recommend MacIntyre.

    In that case, you’re miscalibrated about (1) the ability of the philosophical community to identify their own greatest works and researchers, and about (2) the degree to which your “respect” for people correlates with their philosophical ability.

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