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Archive for the ‘Robin Hanson’ Category

New Abortion

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A thought experiment about creating and valuing lives


Roe v. Wade does not say what you may think it says. Yes, it creates a right to abortion that cannot be unduly interfered with by the states. But it explicitly states that there are two interests that must be balanced: the woman’s privacy interest, and the state’s interest in protecting the “potentiality of human life.” If this “potentiality” for life could somehow be protected without unduly interfering with the woman’s right to end her time as involuntary host organism, it would seem that this would be completely constitutional (not to mention wildly politically popular).

How would that work?

Step 1. Technology is developed such that an implanted embryo may be removed and transplanted to a different woman’s uterus.

Step 2. Such technology becomes cheaply available.

Step 3. Lots of wombs in poverty-stricken slums are available for rent. (Check.)

Step 4. New Abortion: for the same price and the same intrusiveness of a standard termination, your uterus is scraped and the embryo harvested, shipped to Nairobi, and implanted in a starving woman’s uterus, and after gestation, the child is raised until age 6, when he or she is sold to a factory or a brothel.

This procedure could give the precious gift of life to over a million babies a year from the United States alone.

To those who object on sentimental grounds, I direct them to Robin Hanson: do not slum children sold into prostitution also smile? Isn’t the only relevant ethical question whether those children would themselves find their lives to be worthwhile?

Written by Sister Y

May 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Chinese Factories Make Workers Promise Not To Kill Themselves

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Workers in the miserable Chinese factories with embarrassingly high suicide rates are being made to sign “suicide contracts” agreeing that they won’t commit suicide, and that their families will get only minimal damages if they do.

Lots of folks in these factories want to commit suicide, and it’s easy to understand why, especially with a basic understanding of the causes of suicide (that is, failed social belonging and perceived burdensomeness). Workers may not talk to each other, stand for 12-hour shifts, work for subsistence wages, and must work upwards of 40 hours of overtime a week, which breaks even the minimal worker treatment laws in freaking CHINA. “Badly performing workers were humiliated in front of colleagues,” says the article ominously.

Conditions at the factories seem basically designed to create the “subsistence conditions” Robin Hanson imagines for his “ems” – conscious AI human brain emulators that must work to pay for their existence, competing against ever-more-efficient creatures being created all the time.

But Robin Hanson seems sure his em-creatures will be fine. Apparently, American middle- and upper-class workaholics are a better model for them than Chinese iPhone factory workers.

Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Robin Hanson and the Repugnant Conclusion

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Robin Hanson on Respecting Poor People

Based on Robin Hanson’s conversation with Karl Smith regarding population ethics on a recent Blogging Heads TV program, on why the Repugnant Conclusion is not really so repugnant.

Written by Sister Y

March 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm

A Duty to Rape?

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Robin Hanson gamely bites the bullet I offer up in my Rape Doctor Hypothetical, a thought experiment I devised to test intuitions about risks of inflicting harm and benefit on others, in cases where a proxy for consent must be used because actual consent is impossible.

Consent is nice, when you can get it. When consent is impossible, as it often is – when providing medical care for unconscious patients, for example, or when parents make decisions for their children (at least preverbal children), or when we bring a new being into life – we must decide whether to use a proxy for consent. These might include:

  • Ex-post ratification (examined in my piece The Moral Effect of “Being Glad It Happened”)
  • Predictions based on the ex-post ratifications of similarly-situated others (as I think Robin Hanson would have us use in the procreation case)
  • Predictions based on a mental model of the nonconsenting being, including perhaps its likely utility function and the costs and benefits of the action.

All of these, of course, involve probabilities; they are unlikely to be perfect, and are in fact virtually guaranteed to result in some margin of error. How good should we require the predictions to be before using them? How much risk is too much for the nonconsenting beings we are acting on behalf of?

Many accepted proxies for consent are used to avoid harm (e.g., treating an unconscious patient to save his life – since most people wish to remain alive). But what about using proxies for consent to provide a pure benefit – with some risk of harm?

Please read my whole hypothetical for details, but in short, I posit a situation in which a doctor has identified a class of patients with Forced Sexual Contact Arousal Syndrome, who are only capable of sexual arousal through rape and will be benefited, not harmed, by being raped:

Based on his research, Dr. A has statistical grounds to believe that, of FSAD patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D, 99.9% will experience sexual enjoyment exclusively from forced sexual contact. Beyond that, Dr. A notices that his FSCAS patients who have been raped are much more socially and emotionally well-adjusted than those who have not. It is statistically reasonable for him to believe that, out of 1000 patients with FSCAS who have not been raped, 999 will experience a great deal of sexual enjoyment and a much better quality of life if raped; one will experience the usual extreme distress that rape would cause a normal woman.

So should Dr. A rape his patients? Robin Hanson says: “I’ll bite the bullet and say that the rape has expected good consequences in this case.” I take this to mean that the special rape under these circumstances is at least permissible, and perhaps that Dr. A even has a duty to rape his FSCAS patients.

Intuitions are the stuff of ethics. Here, Robin Hanson is taking (I think) a position I describe in my article as an extreme form of consequentialism – the idea that the suffering of a few is offset by the pleasure of others. It is the move from humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency – that the suffering of a few is a fair price for the benefit of the many, even if that suffering is not consented to.

Hanson and I disagree as to whether a 99.9% chance of pleasure and life benefit is worth a 0.1% chance of the ordinary harm of rape. A more general phrasing of the question is this:

The Dilemma of Impossible Consent: In cases where consent is impossible and a proxy for consent must be used, how risk-averse should we be on behalf of those our decisions will affect?

My answer to this, supported by my own intuition and what I see as commonly-held intuition across a variety of situations, is: extremely risk-averse. In addition to the thought experiment above, I examine this notion in my post on dosing strangers with ecstasy. Seana Shiffrin examines this position in her paper “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm” (Legal Theory 5:117-148, 1999), which I summarize here. It is a notion that is usually uncontroversial – except when it is brought to someone’s attention that antinatalism is among its ethical conclusions.

How risk-averse should we be when potentially dealing out unconsented harm to others? I think the position Robin Hanson is articulating is: not that risk-averse. How risk-averse, then? As I mention in the comments, how far would we have to skew the probability in the Rape Doctor Hypothetical to make the rape impermissible (or, if there is a duty to rape under my facts, to make it permissible to refuse)?

There is a related question which I think is separate from the first, and that is:

The Dilemma of Uncompensated Suffering: To what extent may a few be made to suffer greatly, without their consent, so that many people will be benefited?

This is a separate question from the first, although both are appropriate perspectives to consider in the case of creating or refusing to create a person (and raping or refusing to rape a likely rape-beneficiary). The first question inquires how we should treat risk in a decision affecting a non-consenting other; the second inquires how we should balance and compare interpersonal utility functions.

I am interested in (but have not encountered) a strong defense of the position that some may (or must) be sacrificed for the benefit of many. John Leslie carefully considers the issues in his book The End of the World: the Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (he’s anti-extinction, by the way), but acknowledges that he fails to provide anything like a proof of the position. (Note that this was written before Benatar’s Better Never to have Been was published, and Leslie does not consider Benatar’s arguments.)

Again, ethics must be based on intuitions. The most interesting ethics happens when intuitions conflict. My intuition is that it is never permissible to seriously harm one in order to provide a pure benefit to many; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that this is fine, under some circumstances. My intuition is that we must be very risk-averse on behalf of others if we may harm them seriously without their consent; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that we can be utility-maximizing without any special regard for risk-aversion. In other words, there are real ethical disagreements regarding the basic intuitions underlying the ethics of reproduction.

In addition to my two dilemmas, I pose a third:

Dilemma of Ethical Uncertainty: Given ethical disagreement between epistemic peers, what is the proper course of action in the real world regarding reproduction?

See also Chip Smith’s One Man’s Exquisite Treasure.

Correction: I incorrectly refer to risk aversion (preference for certainty) throughout this piece when I mean loss aversion (desire to avoid harm is greater than desire to realize gain of the same magnitude). I leave the text as is since comments were made before I noticed my error. In other news, I have a hard time telling left from right and I tend to pronounce “scourge” phonetically.

Written by Sister Y

September 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm