In episode 09 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I explain how you can measure desires.
Every five episodes we answer audience questions, so please do post your questions and objections below. Make sure your questions address the topics of this episode only. If we plan to address the subject of your question in later episode, we will not answer it in the next Q & A episode. You can also leave your question in audio and we will play it back during the Q & A episode and respond to it: call 413-723-0175 and press 1 to leave a voicemail.
Transcript of episode 09:
LUKE: Alonzo, I just had a brilliant idea.
ALONZO: Uh-oh. Now I’m worried.
LUKE: Hear me out. I was thinking, since we called this podcast “Morality in the Real World,” why don’t we start talking about morality in the real world rather than the desires of fictional characters such as Alph, Betty, and Scrooge. Hmmm? Brilliant or super-brilliant?
ALONZO: We have been talking about morality in the real world. We have been talking about things in the real world that are true. For example we said that desires provide people with reasons to mold the desires of others.
LUKE: Yeah, but are we just talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I can just hear people complaining that none of this can be applied to a world with billions of people with all of their desires, and animals with all their desires.
They’re thinking: “You’ll never get from the simple world of Alph and Betty to something applicable to the world in which we make our day to day decisions.”
ALONZO: Okay, let’s not make things more complicated than they need to be. We don’t need absolute precision to get useful results.
I mean, astronomers have to deal with the fact that every object in the whole universe influences the motion of every other object. They can’t even know all of the things that exist in the universe, let alone measure their gravitional influence on every other thing. You don’t see them throwing their hands up in frustration over the inability to calculate the motion of objects through space.
LUKE: Right. Astronomers look at the most important influences and set aside the rest as trivial.
ALONZO: Well, we can do the same thing relating desires to other desires – to determine if a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. For example, we know that people generally have a great many desires that can’t be fulfilled if the agent dies. I suspect that I’d find it very difficult to continue this podcast if I were to find myself suddenly dead.
LUKE: Our conversations would tend to be a bit one-sided after that.
ALONZO: So, desires that tend to result in getting people killed are likely to rank high as desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit or weaken. We may not be able to calculate the precise degree to which people have reason to inhibit such desires, but we can know that the value is pretty high.
That’s like computing the orbit of the earth around the sun and recognizing that we have no reason to worry about the influence of some undiscovered planet orbiting around some dim star on the far side of the Andromeda Galaxy.
LUKE: But, come on, Alonzo, how are we supposed to add my desire for coffee to your desire for Diet Dr. Pepper and make some value calculation?
ALONZO: You might as well ask, “How are you supposed to add your desire for coffee with my aversion to the pain of being slowly burned alive over a bed of hot coals?”
See, the example you gave me is one in which two desires are so much alike that it’s hard to see a difference between them. However, the fact that it’s hard to see the difference in some cases – like the case you used – doesn’t imply that it’s impossible to see differences in more obvious cases.
Let’s say your main goal in life is to minimize desire-thwarting. You have two controls, one in each hand. If you releases the left control, nuclear warheads will detonate in ten major cities around the world. If you release the right control, then a random stranger in Libby, Montana will experience a mild electrical shock for 5 seconds.
Now, we move these controls further and further apart so you’re going to have to let go of one of them eventually in order to hang on to the other one. Here they go. They’re moving apart. You have five seconds to decide which to drop. Remember, you have one goal: to minimize the total amount of desire-thwarting.
LUKE: Well, I would hold onto the control that will prevent the ten nuclear bombs from going off. Obviously.
ALONZO: You don’t have any problem comparing the different desires of different agents and determining which option thwarted the most and the strongest desires.
LUKE: Well, okay, but what if I want the bombs to go off? What if I want to cause as much desire-thwarting as possible?
ALONZO: If somebody wants to cause as much destruction as possible, he still knows with almost perfect certainty which option will fulfill that desire. The claim that he cannot know – or be very certain – which option would cause the most harm (the most destruction) is absurd. Of course he knows.
It’s the same with height. In some cases it’s difficult to tell which of two people is taller. You can’t point to an example of two people nearly the same height and conclude that it’s impossible ever to know when one person is taller than another.
LUKE: But at least we have a way of measuring height. How do you measure the strength of a desire? What are you going to use for a desire-o-meter?
ALONZO: Okay, that much is true. We don’t have a clear idea of what a desire-o-meter would look like. And that’s a problem. However, it’s not the first time people have faced that kind of a problem.
LUKE: Well, sure. I suppose you’re right. Two thousand years ago, people didn’t know how to measure temperature. And sometimes it was really hard to tell if one thing was warmer than another. They would have had a hard time imagining the thermometer, but that didn’t prove that temperature couldn’t be measured.
ALONZO: Temperature is a good example for another reason. Think about how they actually started measuring temperature.
LUKE: By grabbing two things and judging which felt hotter, I guess.
ALONZO: That’s good, but I was thinking about the invention of the first thermometers. The first thermometers did not actually measure temperature.
LUKE: Yeah, I guess the early thermometers measured the volume of a liquid, because people noticed that most liquids expand when they get warmer, and so they measured how much space a liquid took up in order to get some estimate of its temperature.
ALONZO: They used a proxy for temperature – something that wasn’t temperature itself but something that temperature affected.
LUKE: Okay, so maybe we can measure something by looking at what it affects. What do desires affect?
ALONZO: Choices. Desires effect choices. We already saw that when we looked at Betty’s desire to fulfill Alph’s desire and compared it to Betty’s desire to scatter stones. Those two different desires had two different effects on how Betty would act in situations where Alph died. Betty with the desire to fulfill Alph’s desires quit scattering stones when Alph died, while Betty with the desire to scatter stones continued to scatter stones when Alph died.
LUKE: That’s not entirely reliable, though. Two people with the same desires, but different beliefs, can make different choices. If we are both thirsty, and I believe that the water in this pitcher has been poisoned, but you believe it’s good clean water, you would drink it, and I will not. But that doesn’t mean our desires were different.
ALONZO: Of course. We have to go to some effort to make sure we are measuring the same thing. This is also true when we measure temperatures. What liquid do we have in the thermomenter? How much is there? What is the diameter of the tube the liquid is expanding into?
Unfortunately, that’s how things are in the real world. We just have to look at the background conditions that apply when we take a measurement.
Now, consider your desire for coffee and my aversion to being roasted alive over a hot flame. Let’s take a person and give him your desire for coffee, and my aversion to being slowly roasted. Now, let’s give him a choice. Let’s give him two options.
Option 1: His coffee desire is fulfilled. He has a nice warm cup of coffee, but he is being roasted over an open fire.
ALONZO: Option 2: His desire not to be roasted over an open flame is fulfilled, but he does not have any coffee,
Given these options, which do you think this agent will choose?
LUKE: He’d probably say: “I’ll skip the coffee, thank you very much, and avoid being roasted over an open flame.”
ALONZO: Are you sure you don’t want any coffee? Our coffee comes with a free 24 hours on a metal grill above a bed of hot coals.
LUKE: I’m thinking he’s still going to decline that option.
ALONZO: So, yeah, we can approximately weigh your desire for coffee against my aversion to being roasted on an open fire. Somebody concerned to fulfill desires can well know that my desire not to be roased over an open flame is stronger than your desire to have some coffee, and if given an option can reasonably be expected to choose the option that prevents me from being roasted over an open flame.
LUKE: So what you’re saying is that whatever this imaginary agent would choose, that’s the right thing to do, right?
ALONZO: You’re testing me. No, that’s wrong. We are not saying anything about what people should do. We are refuting the claim that, when it comes to deciding what people should do, we lack the ability to compare the desires of different agents. I was providing you with a way, here and now, we can compare different desires between different agents in the real world.
LUKE: Okay. But remember what I was talking about earlier. People are going to want to know how to get to conclusions about what should be done in the real world. Ultimately, that’s what this podcast is supposed to be about, right?
ALONZO: Of course. We’ll get there. But that’s going to require knowing how to look at desires in large populations. We have looked at cases in which we can make obvious comparisons. We have looked at a technique for making somewhat more precise comparisons. Now let me give you another trick for looking at desires in large populations. For this, we’ll need to go back to Alph and Betty and their distant planet.
LUKE: Alph is gathering stones and Betty is scattering stones.
ALONZO: That’s them! But let’s make this a bit more complex. Let’s say there are 487,000 Alph-clones, and each of them just wants to gather stones. And there are 73,000 Betty-clones, and each of them just wants to scatter stones.
LUKE: “Alph and Betty: Attack of the Clones!”
ALONZO: See, and you were worried that people might not see this as relevant to morality in the real world.
LUKE: Silly me.
ALONZO: Well, we’re in this deep. We have this world with Alph and Betty clones. Now, we’re going to plop another person on this planet. Which should it be, another Alph clone, or a Betty clone? Can you look at all of these desires and tell me whether these people have more reason to summon another Alph or another Betty?
LUKE: Well, since there are more Alph clones than Betty clone, I guess I would suggest a Betty clone to even out the numbers.
ALONZO: But you have to make some assumptions to get that answer.
LUKE: Well, I suppose. I assume that each Betty clone can scatter stones as quickly as each Alph clone can gather stones.
ALONZO: That makes it too simple. Lets take away that assumption. Some Alphs and Betties are more efficient than others. Our cloning process has some bugs in the software. Some of these clones end up being really tiny, so it takes 10 of those Alphs working together to gather one stone. They hoist it up, put it on a wagon, pull the wagon to the pile, unload it, then take their wagon and go out get another stone. Other Alphs and Betties are big, strong, and efficient. They can pick up stones one-handed and either hurl them out into the field to scatter them or hurl them into the pile to gather them.
LUKE: Incoming! Heads up, little ones!
ALONZO: They’ll be careful.
LUKE: They’d better.
ALONZO: So, now, can you tell me whether this population has more and stronger reasons to bring in a new Betty clone or a new Alph clone?
LUKE: Um… well, I guess you could just look at the piles of stones. If the piles are getting bigger over time, that would argue in favor of bringing in a stone scatterer. And if the piles are getting smaller over time, then that would argue for bringing in another stone gatherer.
ALONZO: Right. There’s no complex math involved. If the piles are getting smaller, then the stone scatterers will soon face a point where they will not be able to scatter stones. They have a reason to call for this new person to be a stone gatherer. The gatherers, however, have no reason to call for bringing in another scatterer. They’re too busy gathering stones, and they see their stone-gathering possibilities going on into the indefinite future.
LUKE: Hold on. That went by a little fast. You’re saying that there is no reason to choose a scatterer? And that’s because the piles are getting smaller, so none of the gatherers are facing a prospect of thwarted desires, so they have no reason to call for bringing yet another scatterer into this world?
ALONZO: That’s exactly right. Which means that in spite of the numbers of people, the lack of information on how efficient people are, and knowing nothing about how badly people want to gather or scatter stones, we can use the size of the piles as a proxy to measure the reasons to bring another stone scatterer or stone gatherer into the world.
LUKE: Well, okay, in a world of Alph and Betty clones. But can you tell me how this can possibly be useful in the real world?
ALONZO: Okay, here’s a taste of how this type of information can be useful in the real world. Think of something in the real world where the piles are getting smaller and smaller and, if they disappear entirely, we face a lot of thwarted desires.
LUKE: You mean something like food, clean water, or oil.
ALONZO: Yeah. Something along those lines.
ALONZO: Let’s go with oil. For the sake of this argument we are not going to get into a debate over whether global supplies are actually shrinking. We only need to look at the fact that, if they shrink, desire-thwartings will result.
LUKE: Most definitely.
ALONZO: One of the ways that we can reduce the desire-thwartings of diminishing stockpiles is by giving people an aversion to those things that are causing the stockpiles to diminish. What if we could give people a pill where they simply do not want some of the things that involved drawing down the stockpiles of oil? Then, there would be fewer thwartings of desires caused by a diminishing supply.
LUKE: I can see two effects. There would be fewer desire-thwartings because there would be fewer desires to thwart. Obviously, to the degree that people didn’t want things that required consuming oil, then to that degree the lack of oil wouldn’t bother them.
And, another way that desire-thwartings would diminish is that people would not be drawing down the stockpiles so quickly, so the desires that require having oil around would continue to be fulfilled for a longer time.
ALONZO: If we could give people an aversion to using large energy-guzzling vehicles to run to the bank three blocks away, then, at least in that context, the price of gas would not bother them because they wouldn’t need gas. Meanwhile, that would leave more gas for fulfilling desires that we can’t change so easily.
LUKE: So, you’re saying that, in the real world, we should give people an aversion to driving around in big gas-guzzling vehicles.
ALONZO: No. Let’s phrase it this way. In the real world, if the quantity of oil diminishes, a lot of people will have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to driving around in large gas-guzzling vehicles. That seems true.
LUKE: That’s not the same thing as what I said.
ALONZO: Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. That’s a question for a future episode.
LUKE: Well, before we go on to that future episode, let’s see if people have any questions about our last 4 episodes. If you want to ask a question about what we’ve discussed so far, you can leave that question in the comments on the website, or you can call 413-723-0175 and leave your question in the voicemail, and we may play it back on the air and respond to it.
ALONZO: What was that number again? I wasn’t ready.
LUKE: Alonzo, you don’t have to do that. This is a podcast, not a radio show. People can just jump back 10 seconds if they need the number.
LUKE: Alright, so send in your questions, and we’ll see you next time!
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Whipping the Horse’s Eyes” from Feast of Wire by Calexico
- “Fluidscape” by Kevin MacLeod*
- “Pizzicato” from Sylvia by Leo Delibes / Andrew Mogrelia
- “Moonlight Sonata” from Makara by E.S. Posthumous
* marks royalty-free music. With copyrighted music, we use only short clips and hope this qualifies as Fair Use. Fair Use is defined in the courts, but please note that we make no profit from this podcast, and we hope to bring profit to the copyright owners by linking listeners to somewhere they can purchase the music. If you are a copyright owner and have a complaint, please contact us and we will respond immediately. The text and the recordings of Luke and Alonzo for this podcast are licensed with Creative Commons license Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0, which means you are welcome to republish or remix this work as long as you (1) cite the original source, and (2) share your remix using the same license, and (3) do not use it for commercial purposes.