A friend on Facebook recently posted the following dilemma, which of course I cannot find right now so I have to vaguely quote my recollection of it:
Would you rather the medieval Church had spent all of its money helping the poor, rather than supporting the arts. So that maybe there were fewer poor people back in medieval times, but we wouldn’t have any cathedrals or triptychs or the Sistine Chapel?
I was surprised to see so many people choosing the cathedrals. I mean, I guess this question is kind of unfair, in that it’s really hard to figure out what it means, moral value wise, for there to have been less suffering in the past. This is especially true if you choose to believe Robin Hanson – as always a decision that starts a mini-civil-war between the rational and intuitive parts of my brain – when he says we should give much more weight the preferences of past individuals.
I think maybe choosing the cathedrals is so appealing because they’re right there, you can touch them, but the starving peasants are hidden all the way in the past where you can’t see them. So it feels like you’re being asked to sacrifice something you really like for something that you would otherwise not have to think about.
This is one of the biggest and scariest problems with utilitarianism. Utiltarianism is at least kind of easy when it’s asking you to trade off some things in your normal world for other things in your normal world. But when it asks you to make everything you consider your normal world unambiguously worse to help some other domain you would otherwise never have to think about, then it starts to become unintuitive and scary.
Imagine a happy town full of prosperous people. Every so often they make nice utilitarian decisions like having everyone chip in a few dollars to help someone who’s fallen sick, and they feel pretty good about themselves for this.
Then one day an explorer discovers a BOTTOMLESS PIT OF ENDLESS SUFFERING on the outskirts of the town. There are hundreds of people trapped inside in a state of abject misery. The pit gods agree to release some of their prisoners, but only for appropriately sumptuous sacrifices.
Suddenly the decision isn’t just “someone in town makes a small sacrifice to help other people in town”. Suddenly it’s about the entire town choking off its luxury and prosperity in order to rescue people they don’t even know, from this pit they didn’t even know was there a week ago. That seems kind of unfair.
So they tell the explorer to cover the lid of the pit with a big tarp that blends in with the surrounding grass, so they don’t have to see it, and then go on with their lives.
The developing world is sort of a bottomless pit of suffering if some First Worlder didn’t expect it to be there. But I think most people do expect it to be there, most people are happy to help (a little), and it doesn’t really confuse or alarm us too much when we are reminded they still exist and still need help.
But what about nursing homes? Most of the doctors I have talked to agree most nursing homes are terrible. I get a steady trickle of psychiatric patients who are perfectly happy to be in the psychiatric hospital but who freak out when I tell them that they seem all better now and it’s time to send them back to their nursing home, saying it’s terrible and they’re abused and neglected and they refuse to go. I very occasionally get elderly patients who have attempted suicide solely because they know doing so will get them out of their nursing home. I don’t have a strong feeling for exactly how bad nursing homes are, but everything I have seen is consistent with at least some of them being very bad.
Solving this would be really expensive – I am perpetually surprised at how quietly and effortlessly we seem to soak up nursing home costs that already can run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year. Solving this would also produce no visible gain, in that bedridden old people are very very bad at complaining in ways anyone else can notice, and if we don’t want to think about them we don’t have to. If we as a country decided to concentrate on decreasing abuse in nursing homes, we might have to take that money away from important causes in our everyday visible world, like welfare and infrastructure and education funding. We would have to take limited Public Attention And Outrage Resources from causes like human rights and gay marriage and what beverages the President is holding while he salutes people. I think everyone agrees it’s a lot easier not to think about it, and nobody can make us.
Prisons are an even uglier case. Not only is prison inherently pretty miserable, but there seems to be rampant abuse and violence going on, including at least 5% of prisoners being raped per year. Every couple of weeks there’s a new story about how, for example, prisoners are gouged on phone bills because someone can do it and nobody is stopping them, or how they’re kept in cells without air conditioning in 110 degree weather in Arizona because no one has any incentive to change that.
Now the reason this is so ugly is…well, a lot of this is due to prison overcrowding. And a lot of people have very reasonably suggested imprisoning fewer people – ending the drug war would be a good start, but the past thirty years have also seen a momentous lowering of the threshhold for imprisoning people in general and a ballooning of America’s prison population. Which is awkward, because the last thirty years have also seen an unprecedented drop in violent crime.
It would be absolutely lovely if this were confirmed to be the result of some very clever policy like reducing lead exposure, or even if Levitt’s theory about abortion were proven true. But the least convenient possible world is that the recent drop in crime is mostly due to the recent rise in imprisonment and the recent lengthening of prison sentences – everybody with even the slightest bit of criminal tendency is already safely locked up [EDIT: strong argument against this]
Think about what a moral nightmare that would be. Sure, you can do something about the bottomless pit of suffering where people are packed together into 110 degree cells and raped for ten or twenty years – but it’s going to raise crime back to the horrible 1990s levels we’re all pretty relieved to have escaped. Or you can just whistle, pretend not to notice, and continue to enjoy nice low-crime 21st century society.
And then there’s a broader worry.
Conservatives like to talk about how much better we all had it back in the 1950s with traditional this and traditional that, and how you can just tell from listening to stories from people of that time. or reading media from that time, that things were a lot calmer and more pleasant.
And the left likes to talk about how we are widening the circle of empathy and bringing in new and finally starting to pay attention to the concerns of downtrodden groups.
What if they’re both right? What if progress since the 1950s has been about opening one bottomless pit of suffering after another, trading off the well-being of the nice prosperous town for getting people out of the pits, and then moving on to another pit somewhere else?
I mean, this is kind of the standard view of history. Except that in the standard view, conservatives tack on “But really, the bottomless pit wasn’t so bad, and the sulfurous flames gave you a nice, warm feeling inside.” And leftists tack on “but in the end, everyone including the people in the nice town benefitted from the increased understanding and diversity this created, so really history was just this series of obvious win-win propositions that everyone was just too stupid to figure out, until now.”
Although there has been a lot of interesting argument against the conservative proposition that things in the nice town have gotten worse since the 50s – some of which I have participated in, it seems important to note that even if the proposition is 100% correct, progress might still have been morally correct.
A lot of the paradoxes of utilitarianism, the things that make it scary and hard to work with, involve philosophers who compulsively seek out bottomless pits and shout at you until you pay attention to them.
Utility monsters are basically one-man bottomless pits.
Pascal’s Wager (or Pascal’s Mugging, if you prefer) splits the universe into a billion Everett branches, then points out that one of these Everett branches is a bottomless pit and asks the others to make sacrifices to help it.
A lot of the addition paradoxes treat a pool of “potential people” as a bottomless pit.
This seems to be the easiest way to break utilitarianism – point to a bottomless pit, real or imagined, and make everyone in the world lose utility to solve it, forever. It’s not always easy to come up with solutions that successfully rule out these problems, while preserving our intuition that we should continue to worry about people in nursing homes or jails.
Contractualism scares me a little because it offers too easy an out from bottomless-pit type dilemmas. It seems really easy to say “All of us people not in jail, we’ll agree to look out for one another, and as for those guys, screw them”. You would need to have something like a veil of ignorance, or at least a good simulation of one, to even begin to care.