[Epistemic status: Probably not the first person to think about this, possibly just reinventing scope insensitivity. Title with apologies to Julian Jaynes]
Non-American readers may not be familiar with the history of the US House and Senate.
During the Constitutional Convention, a fight broke out between the smaller states and the bigger states. The smaller states, like Delaware, wanted each state to elect a fixed number of representatives to the legislature, so that Delaware would have just as much of a say as, for example, New York. The bigger states wanted legislative representation to be proportional to population, so that if New York had ten times as many people as Delaware, they would get ten times as many representatives.
Eventually everyone just agreed to compromise by splitting the legislature into the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House worked the way New York wanted things, the Senate worked the way Delaware wanted things, and they would have to agree to get anything done.
This system has continued down to the present. Today, Delaware has only one Representative, far less than New York’s twenty-seven. But both states have an equal number of Senators, even though New York has a population of twenty million and Delaware is uninhabited except by corporations looking for tax loopholes.
To me, the House system seems much fairer. If New York has ten times the population of Delaware, but both have the same number of representatives, then Delaware citizens have ten times as much political power just because they live on one side of an arbitrary line. And New York might be tempted to split up into ten smaller states, and thus increase its political power tenfold. Heck, why don’t we just declare some random farm a state and give five people and a cow the same political power as all of California?
But despite my professed distaste for the Senate’s representational system, I find myself using something similar in parts of my own thought processes where I least expect.
Every election, I see charts like this:
And I tend to think something like “Well, I agree with this guy about the Iraq war and global warming, but I agree with that guy about election paper trails and gays in the military, so it’s kind of a toss-up.”
And this way of thinking is awful.
The Iraq War probably killed somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people. If you think that it was unnecessary, and that it was possible to know beforehand how poorly it would turn out, then killing a few hundred thousand people is a really big deal. I like having paper trails in elections as much as the next person, but if one guy isn’t going to keep a very good record of election results, and the other guy is going to kill a million people, that’s not a toss-up.
Likewise with global warming versus gays in the military. It would be nice if homosexual people have the same right to be killed by roadside explosive devices that the rest of us enjoy, but not frying the planet is pretty important too.
(if you don’t believe in global warming, fine, having a government that agrees with you and doesn’t waste 5% of the world GDP fighting it is still more important than anything else on this list)
Saying “some boxes are more important than others” doesn’t really cut it; it sounds like they might be twice, maybe three times more important, whereas in fact they might literally be a million times more important. It doesn’t convey the right sense of “Why are you even looking at that other box?”
I worry that, by portraying issues in this nice little set of boxes, this graphic is priming reasoning similar to the US Senate, where each box gets the same level of representation in my decision-making process, regardless of whether it’s a Delaware-sized box that affects a handful of people, or a New York sized box with millions of lives hanging in the balance.
I was thinking about this again back in March when I had a brief crisis caused by worrying that the moral value of the world’s chickens vastly exceeded the moral value of the world’s humans. I ended up being trivially wrong – there are only about twenty billion chickens, as opposed to the hundreds of billions I originally thought. But I was contingently wrong – in other words, I got lucky. Honestly, I didn’t know whether there were twenty billion chickens or twenty trillion.
And honestly, 99% of me doesn’t care. I do want to improve chickens, and I do think that their suffering matters. But thanks to the miracle of scope insensitivity, I don’t particularly care more about twenty trillion chickens than twenty billion chickens.
Once again, chickens seem to get two seats to my moral Senate, no matter how many of them there are. Other groups that get two seats include “starving African children”, “homeless people”, “my patients in hospital”, “my immediate family”, and “my close friends”. Obviously some of these groups contain thousands of times more people than others. They still get two seats. And so I am neither willing to reduce chickens’ values to zero value units per chicken, nor accept that if there are enough chickens they will end up able to outvote everyone else.
(I’m not sure whether “chickens” and “cows” are two separate states, or if there’s just one state of “Animals”. It probably depends on my mood. Which is worrying.)
And most recently I thought about this because of the post on California water I wrote last week. It seems very wise to say we all have to make sacrifices, and to concentrate about equally on natural categories of water use like showers, and toilets, and farms, and lawns – without noticing that one of those is ten times bigger than the other three combined. It seems like most people who think about the water crisis are using a Senate model, where each category is treated as an equally important area to optimize. In a House model, you wouldn’t be thinking about showers any more than a 2008 voter should be thinking of election paper trails.
I’m tempted to say “The House is just plain right and the Senate is just plain wrong”, but I’ve got to admit that would clash with my own very strong inclinations on things like the chicken problem. The Senate view seems to sort of fit with a class of solutions to the dust specks problem where after the somethingth dust speck or so you just stop caring about more of them, with the sort of environmentalist perspective where biodiversity itself is valuable, and with the Leibnizian answer to Job.
But I’m pretty sure those only kick in at the extremes. Take it too far, and you’re just saying the life of a Delawarean is worth twenty-something New Yorkers.