On The Convergence of Human Ethics At Reflective Equilibrium
Like half this post is a close-reading of Richard Hanania
A concept I’ve often found useful when thinking about ethics is reflective equilibrium.
I and most of the people I talk to about ethics are moral nonrealists. But we often talk about being “wrong” about ethics. The concept seems incoherent. If I say “I could be wrong about whether abortion is morally wrong,” and I think “abortion is morally wrong” just means “I dislike abortion,”how can I possibly be wrong about it? I know whether I like salads!
The concept of reflective equilibrium is helpful here. Basically, “reflective equilibrium” refers to your moral beliefs if you have all the relevant information, are approaching the issue calmly and rationally, have as much time as you need to think about it, and have made sure that all of your beliefs make up a consistent and coherent whole. When I say “I could be wrong about whether abortion is morally wrong,” what I mean is that I might change my mind if I thought about it more, were less caught up in my personal biases, or knew things I currently don’t know.
I tend to find a very wide concept of “reflective equilibrium” useful. I imagine that I know everything. I imagine that there are no beliefs I hold because it would be embarrassing to admit I’m wrong or because it would require me to do things I don’t want to do. “I am human, nothing human is alien to me” is an important value for me, so I also imagine that I have perfect empathy; I completely understand every person and why they act the way they do. Of course, I’ll never achieve this state. But it helps me to imagine what I would believe if I did.
Do Reflective Equilibria Converge?
One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is whether people will agree with each other at reflective equilibrium. If we know everything and approach the issue of ethics with complete rationality and a fully open mind, will we end up agreeing on what’s right and wrong?
The question is practically important to me because, if 9,999 out of every 10,000 humans agree on ethics at reflective equilibrium, then if that’s not moral realism it’s certainly close enough that you’d be unable to tell them apart in a dimly lit room. If reflective equilibria tend to converge, then I want to create good conditions to think about ethics: educate people, teach them to be rational, encourage them to discuss things with others. If they don’t tend to converge, then I want to motivate other people to have my moral values: have children, teach my values in the schools, create media where the heroes share my values.
But the primary reason I care about it isn’t practical at all. My intuition is that there is something in each of us which points us to the Good. We get confused, we stumble, we go haring off on bizarre tangents. But if you listen to that still small voice inside, the voice of compassion and justice and mercy, it will point you ultimately towards what is right. And… it matters to me, whether this is true, on a level that goes far beyond the implications for cause prioritization. It is a story from which I derive a great deal of comfort, not to mention empathy for people I would otherwise easily dismiss. But it troubles me to believe a story that might not be true.
In Which This Post Fails Godwin’s Law
I recently read Norman Spinrad’s excellent The Iron Dream. It’s set in an alternate universe where, instead of becoming a dictator, Adolf Hitler moved to America and became a moderately popular pulp science fiction author. The in-universe book The Iron Dream, which makes up the vast majority of the novel, is the last book Hitler wrote before he died.
The Iron Dream does a fantastic job of capturing what it’s like to be a Nazi. (I asked a few of my friends who have studied this more in depth than I am and they confirmed.) The worldview of Alternate Universe Adolf Hitler is grim. There is no simple joy described in the novel: pleasure at a flower, or a good meal, or a child’s smile. Sexuality and eroticism are absent; sex exists solely for the preservation of the race, and even that is eventually abolished. In a lovely detail, while characters laugh, they never actually tell a joke that’s funny.
What The Iron Dream has instead of joy is dominance. The ceaseless victories of Your Team over Their Team. The fierce jubilation at the torture and violence you unleash upon those weaker than you, purely to flaunt that they can’t stop you. The endless parade of identical soldiers, marching in unison: the thud of their feet which means strength, power, triumph.
Now, my first response is that, setting aside its flaws as regards genocide and so on, Naziism as an ideology just sounds terrible. You give up everything that’s good in life—eroticism, beauty, ordinary pleasures, humor—in exchange for what? Having the power to crush people, and then crushing them? How is that even desirable in any way? What is the point? Surely at reflective equilibrium no person would be a Nazi, out of naked self-interest.
But then I observe that this is an easy trade for me to make, because I like beauty and humor and sex and all the rest, but I have no dominance instinct. My status-related desires run towards admiration, which can’t be coerced with a gun. I like being able to create interesting experiences for people—parties, roleplaying games, fiction, blog posts, rituals—and thus often like having subordinates I can boss around to help me better reach my Grand Vision, but if I don’t have a Grand Vision then I have no use for being in charge of things. I’m comfortable with delegating tasks, but in general having power over people makes me uncomfortable; I’m like “I don’t want this responsibility! You should pursue your own flourishing as best suits your own preferences!”
I also have no competitive instinct. I think I have a pretty normal lack of interest in power, but I’m a ridiculous outlier in terms of how little competitive instinct I have. In my life I have spent a lot of time watching sports, colossally bored because I cannot find it in me to care about whether one team wins. I hate competitive board games because I find the experience of trying to beat other people really unpleasant. I just want everyone to cooperatively work together in order to solve a problem! Why isn’t every board game Pandemic?
Obviously Naziism isn’t appealing to me.
But perhaps, to someone with a stronger dominance or competitive instinct, Naziism is appealing. Perhaps they would be a Nazi, at reflective equilibrium, at least if sufficiently assured that they’re not a Jew.
A traditional argument against being a Nazi is the “veil of ignorance” argument. If you didn’t know whether you were going to be a Jew or a Gentile, you would obviously choose to live in 2022 Germany rather than 1942 Germany. But do all people, at reflective equilibrium, accept the veil of ignorance argument as relevant? It seems like it is internally consistent to say “I value being able to oppress people, and I value not being oppressed, so I would like to arrange society so I can oppress people and not be oppressed.” Is this a mistake that people would stop making if they considered the question from an balanced perspective?
A Close Reading Of Richard Hanania
Nazis are, perhaps, a farfetched example. In this day and age, literal Naziism is not seriously on the table for consideration as a moral philosophy, however much of a dominance instinct one has. So instead I shall think about Richard Hanania.
Hananaia is not far from me on the social graph, globally speaking; it wouldn’t surprise me if I met him at a party sometime. If Hanania got over my blue hair and pronouns,we could have a fun and interesting discussion about forecasting. I think that that’s useful for this exercise; it’s very easy to assume that people who are socially far away are incomprehensible aliens, and the matter is easier to discuss with people close by.
Like Richard Hanania, I talk more about trans issues than atrocities. Richard Hanania does so because he cares about more about trans issues than atrocities. I talk more about trans issues because trans issues are fun to talk about and make me happy. Whenever I read about atrocities, I cry for hours. Reading Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine was one of the most miserable experiences of my life, and I’ve been hospitalized for mental problems three times. If I can do something about an atrocity, I suffer through becoming informed, but if I can’t I don’t.
My intuitive response is that, if you are more upset by pronouns than atrocities, then this is because you have not read enough about the awful things people do to each other. Perhaps you should read Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine until you are more outraged by famines than by transphobia/people using weird pronouns [delete as appropriate]. Of course, I don’t expect anyone to be as extra about this as I am. (I have a personality disorder, news at 11.) But my intuition is that this is, well, the normal way to be.
Of course, “cares about” means several different things. Many people altruistically care more about atrocities than pronouns, in that they are more upset by people very far away undergoing atrocities than they are by people very far away using odd pronouns. But selfishly people also care more about things that affect them and people they like. Richard Hanania is being asked to use they/them pronouns to refer to certain people, and is not undergoing a famine, so of course he selfishly cares more about the thing that personally affects him. Perhaps Richard Hanania is merely confusing his moral values with his non-moral preferences about the way the world should be. No one claims that everyone’s non-moral preferences are the same at reflective equilibrium.
But then I ask myself: why am I not taking Hanania at his word? Certainly people go through Holocaust education at school; he is old enough to have seen the Abu Gharaib photos twenty years ago. There’s not any reason to believe he’s miscalibrated about how upset he is about horrifying things happening to people he doesn’t know.
I imagine myself and Richard Hanania being kidnapped by superintelligent aliens and set the task of reaching our respective reflective equilibria.I imagine us pouring through books and studying tables of statistics until we’ve memorized them. Perhaps we go through various sorts of cognitive modifications that help us discard our beliefs more easily. Because of my values, we live through simulations of a representative sample of humanity. Because of his values we... uh, do something, I have a hard time modeling his beliefs.
I genuinely do not think that at the end of this process I would be morally outraged by blue hair, tattoos, and piercings. I don’t think I would object to hot girls on Sports Illustrated covers. I would not support job discrimination against people because they like puppy play.Taking it up a meta level: I would not want to exert social pressure to get Richard Hanania to get blue hair and a sleeve tattoo, I would not be morally opposed to girls I don’t find attractive appearing on magazine covers, and I would not want to refuse to hire the people in American Hookup because I find their sex lives gross. These are just… not the kind of things I expect to be wrong about?
I might be wrong about a lot of things but I don’t think I’m wrong about the virtues of Minding Your Own Fucking Business and Not Sticking Your Nose In Things Which Don’t Concern You. “You should refuse to hire people purely because you think things they’re doing, which don’t involve you at all, are gross” is not a principle that shows up in any ethics that is still meaningfully mine.
But it seems presumptuous to say that Hanania would change his deeply held values. He seems to be a very self-aware and insightful person, which is why I’m using him as an example; his values are clearly articulated enough that I’m not too worried about misrepresenting him.Am I going to say to him “well, actually, I know you better than you do, and if you really thought about it actually you would realize that I’m right about the virtue of Minding Your Own Fucking Business”? That is the kind of proposition I can endorse in the abstract, but when I am faced with a real actual person I flinch away.
At the end of the post, Hanania writes:
We lesser mortals need something more than an abstract love of humanity or desire to minimize suffering across all sentient life to be passionate about a cause. For me, like most people, it’s aesthetic preferences and ego gratification, which involves contrasting myself with and trying to reduce the status of others who represent things I dislike.
The reading of this that makes Hanania most similar to me is that he is, like I am, motivated by ego gratification. Obviously, he would take a pill that would cause him not to be motivated by ego gratification, and instead to be motivated by his conscience. But since such a pill is not available, he must use his ego gratification to motivate himself to do things that improve the world. Yay! This doesn’t trouble my worldview at all!
This is the peril of the Typical Mind Fallacy, isn’t it? I think that, at reflective equilibrium, most people would realize that they ethically value all people equally and want to make sure life goes well for them. Hanania thinks that, at reflective equilibrium, most people would realize they ethically value trying to reduce the status of people who represent things they dislike. It is difficult for us both to imagine what it would be like to value things we don’t. Am I the strange one? Is Hanania? Are we both strange, and most people value something entirely different? Is there no convergence at all, merely a thousand thousand different attractors into which an ethical system can settle?
It’s difficult to know. Hanania and I are both, for structural reasons, closer to reflective equilibrium than most people ever get. We read philosophy books; we write long Substack posts reflecting on our ethical beliefs; we are the systematizing sort of people who try to make sure our ethics are internally consistent and hold up in edge cases, instead of just doing what intuitively seems right. There is no questionnaire you can give to people to figure out whether they’d be closer to me or Hanania. These questions are hard to answer.
Never Mind, Maybe I’m Like Hanania After All
When I first found out that psilocybin increases Openness to Experience, I said to a friend, “this would of course be wrong, but…”
The friend said, “you kind of want to dump a bunch of psilocybin in the water supply?”
My viewpoint here is remarkably similar to Hanania’s on people with tattoos and blue hair and puppy kinks.In my life, I have gotten along with Republicans, young-earth creationists, members of the alt-right, pro-lifers, traditional Catholics, and people who want to destroy the world, but I draw the line at people who don’t like art museums.
And, of course, this is no different from Hanania’s viewpoint. People who are low Openness are often happy, live good lives, and contribute to society, just like people with blue hair or puppy kinks. I have no consequentialist justification for wanting people to care more about beauty, to want to try new things, and to be curious about the world around them. I just don’t like it very much when they don’t.
In general, I seem to support some sort of detente. Instead of Richard Hanania trying to get people fired and me trying to dump psilocybin in the water supply, we can all agree on a compromise about our viewpoints. No one gets fired from their jobs except for job-relevant things. No one nonconsensually gives other people psychedelics to improve their personalities. Everyone gets to pick their own hair color. The high-Openness people get to decide the school curriculum; the low-Openness people get to decide what activity all the students are going to on Friday night.
More broadly, the combat about What People Should Do follows Marquis of Queensbury rules. I can write a new version of Cosmos or donate to charities which make theater tickets available to the poor or urge my friends to try Ethiopian food; I should not insult people for not liking poetry, or send death threats to people who don’t read popular science books, or organize a pogrom against people who have never tried to solve a crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hanania can write eloquent blog posts making the positive case for not having blue hair, but he should not mock people for their blue hair. And, of course, both Hanania and I can have children, which for the vast majority of people is the most effective way of passing on their preferences about such things to the next generation.
But I can imagine Hanania saying to me: how wimpy! Be a man! This is a competitive world, nature red in tooth and claw and all that. Fight for your preferences about other people’s personalities and hair colors! Let the strongest preference-coalition win! And perhaps I would endorse this, at reflective equilibrium. It seems better for me, at least if I have a chance of winning. And if I don’t have a chance of winning, why should I expect the winners to go along with this? They’re going to try to screw me over. So I might as well fight for my side.
And, of course, if people converge to the second thing, then they aren’t going to converge about any downstream moral issues, like who is in charge of choosing other people’s hair colors.
On the other hand, I feel like I can, reasonably, justify my detente position. All-out values war is bad for everyone, as long as you don’t value war in itself, like our hypothetical Nazi. Most people care far more about getting to pick their own hair color than they do about getting to pick other people’s hair colors. Most people care far more about not being forcibly drugged than they do about being allowed to forcibly drug others. Even if we don’t converge on everything at reflective equilibrium, we can converge on a lot of things. We can work to build a good society on the basis of what humans do, in general, agree upon at reflective equilibrium, from having enough food to religious freedom. And then we can fight about the rest later.
Further, it… does seem plausible to me that my objection to low-Openness people is a mistake? Perhaps, at reflective equilibrium, I would realize that people who don’t like art museums are a valid part of the beautiful tapestry of sapient life. I would accept that the diversity I value needs to expand to include minds so alien, so incomprehensible, that they don’t think fungi are really cool. And if I think that then maybe I can say that Richard Hanania ought to come to the same conclusion about blue hair.
On the other hand, “diversity is good” sure is a high Openness take. Hm.
I don’t have any firm conclusions, but I hope this presents some food for thought. I am very interested in coherent articulations of Value Systems Very Different From My Own, to further help my thinking about this.
Yes, yes, there are lots of kinds of moral nonrealism.
This section in no way is intended to generalize about all of the “anti-woke.” Bryan Caplan (say) is anti-woke but I believe we would converge at reflective equilibrium.
So much for the tolerant Right.
I am sorry about how this section comes off as really weird real-person fanfic.
I am really used to social justice people criticizing me for my “don’t fire people from their jobs for things that aren’t relevant to their jobs” position. Defending this position from an anti-woke person is novel.
Of course misrepresenting people is always a concern, and I welcome Hanania’s criticism if I have misrepresented him anywhere.
Perhaps reflecting our different viewpoints on other ethical questions, Hanania seems to primarily want people with tattoos to be low-status, while I primarily want low Openness people to become high Openness.
Children do have an annoying tendency to grow up to disagree with you, but many personality traits are genetic and children are more likely to agree with their parents than a randomly selected person somewhere on Earth is.
I do think I have a better chance of winning than Hanania. All I care about is Openness. Hanania’s disapproval of blue hair creates a crucial fracture in the all-important “people should like thinking about things” faction.
Thanks for this. It's always flattering when people take the time to write about one's views. A couple of thoughts upon reading it.
1) I think the concept of "reflective equilibrium" is useful. I tend to think that at reflective equilibrium, few people would want blue hair, androgyny, etc. There are good evolutionary reasons to think this. People want to impress others and gain mates, so that would mean being driven to be conventionally attractive to heterosexual members of the opposite sex. Empirically, we can see a strong connection between left-wing cultural views and unhappiness. You seem to see this as a matter of simply being open or not open to experience. I'm pretty open to experience when it comes to drugs, being outgoing, meeting new people, new ideas, etc. I think the pronoun stuff and blue hair reflect openness to experience plus something else that I don't think is healthy. Was Don Draper in Mad Men "open to experience"? I think so, but people would recognize there's something very different between him and what we mean when we use that term today. That said, you are right that I find polyamory, etc., sort of disgusting and would not want it to be widespread no matter what, as per the pronoun/genocide piece.
2) You underestimate the extent to which my worldview is libertarian, or at least don't give it enough attention. We can talk about my instincts, but actual policy opinions are where the rubber meets the road, and there I'm probably more libertarian than 99% of the population. My main objection to wokeness is in the form of hating civil rights laws, because they tell private individuals and institutions what to do. So it would be a mistake I think to exaggerate the links between my thought and right-wing authoritarianism. I'm happy to live and let live mostly. But I think you are touching on something real when it comes to conservatives more generally, where all the tribal insanity is part of the joy of politics. Yet I'd consider many of those people on the "right" to be political opponents. I therefore think that this probably works better as an essay about conservatives more generally than just me, with my writing being a sort of window into how others see the world.
"I am very interested in coherent articulations of Value Systems Very Different From My Own, to further help my thinking about this."
I think I have a fairly detailed model of conservative values. I don't know for sure if my model is actually true or if it's just a steelman. I also necessarily expect it to be accurate for the median conservative, as it's based on my experience with certain online conservatives. But I suspect it to be accurate for Richard Hanania, since he is among the people who my model is inspired by.
I think the critical value difference is that you've got the value of "diversity is good", which is closely allied with "universalist" values such as "everyone should be treated as a first-class citizen". A lot of things seem to follow from a model of conservatives as being total utilitarians who proxy men's and women's preferences by rounding them off to the median man and the median woman. I'm unsure to what extent this proxying is just for practical convenience (accurately modelling diversity is hard, interaction effects are often small relative to main effects) vs a genuine values difference; but whether it's a convenience or a values difference probably doesn't make much of a difference for most cases where you'd apply this model.
Once you've got a values difference, this is likely going to ripple down into a bunch of epistemic differences, due to which memes get the benefit of doubt. Consider for instance the meme "Gay people are born that way and sexual orientation is immutable"; this is not a meme that most people can straightforwardly evaluate from everyday experience. They could decide to just copy it, as they naively should due to Aumann's agreement theorem. But if you don't value diversity, it would be more convenient if everyone could be straight, as then they would fit in better under your preferred policies. And if you don't value diversity, the fact that there are people right over there who do value diversity, and who might push this meme despite its being wrong, makes accepting the meme a form of security vulnerability, and therefore it must be rejected. At scale, this leads to differences on all sorts of empirical questions.
Next, lifestyle. Conservatives want everyone to form heterosexual couples, get married, and have kids. Why? Partly, because this ranks reasonably well under the median utilities. But also partly, because as total utilitarians (or people who are aware of economic problems due to the population pyramid, or ...) they *very much* want to increase the total population. (*Especially* the total population of smart, mentally healthy, highly productive, prosocial people, as such people generate a lot of value for others.) Notably, if you take the importance of increasing the total population seriously, then that raises questions such as "Shouldn't we tell people who are on the fence that they ought to have more kids?" - essentially making offspring encouraged and childlessness stigmatized. Furthermore, since most people aren't relentlessly optimizing for long-term goals, conservatives would tend to want there to be nudges and pressures which push people toward the situations that tend to generate families - such as dating for long term relationships rather than causal sex.
And this then gets into conflicts, because there are some people who very much would not like this. A woman who is running a company might not have time to birth a huge family. While many gay people want children, I have the impression that it is far more common for gay people to just go childfree, presumably for the obvious reason of having less direct opportunity to reproduce. Teenage transition will similarly prevent fertility.
The diversity-valuing way to address these conflicts would be to try to make a space that accommodates everyone's preferences, which at the margin especially means investing energy in accommodating the minority's preferences (both because decisions are usually made by majority members and therefore take their preferences into account, and because for historical reasons a lot of institutions did not properly value the minority's preferences). But this makes sacrifices on the extent to which one can push child-having, and I suspect that those sacrifices are pretty big in terms of number of children (IIRC the far right have something like twice as many children as the far left, which is of course not entirely exogenous, but also this neglects the effects that applying it on greater societal scale might have, so I think that might cancel out the endogeneity).
Another thing: If you don't consider diversity, it's easier to apply certain kinds of deontological reasoning. You don't have to wonder about whether something is good for some people and bad for others. You don't have to wonder what proportion of people might engage in a behavior if it was permitted; you can just assume everyone will.
Ok, so we've got all that, but still, why be so opposed to blue hair of all things? I think there's a conflict element to it. Having blue hair and pronouns in bio is correlated with supporting progressive, diversity-appreciating norms. And if you have enough of such people around, you get the sorts of societal moral changes that we've seen over the past decades (or centuries, idk how far back Hanania would go).
This is far from the whole story of my model of conservative values, but my comment is getting long so I'll stop here and answer questions. Also remember to take my model with a grain of salt because I am not a conservative so real conservatives might differ from my model of them. It's more like a steelman.