Moral seriousness and cooperation

2 minute read


Andres Gomez Emilsson writes:

I remain agnostic about whether Classical or Negative Utilitarianism is more “true”. I do believe that there is a ground truth to be found, and that a fundamental understanding of valence will likely bring about this understanding.

But… candidly, my experience is that Negative Utilitarians (NUs) are more “morally serious” than Classical Utilitarians (CUs). […]

I agree to some extent. I have learnt a great deal from being surrounded by negative-leaning consequentialists in the early days of EA Switzerland. They are unusually clear-headed.

However, many of them also seem to get stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can become too focused on taking suffering seriously. So much so that I’d claim that some of them end up reducing the odds of an overwhelmingly good future.

They do so not by being willing to sacrifice Goodness - most take moral uncertainty very seriously, are super considerate and have impressive epistemics. But they do so simply by discounting all the goodness there is. I think this has become less of a problem the more mature we’ve all gotten but I keep observing it nonetheless.

Discounting or even outright ignoring all the Goodness there really makes reality look very bleak, which results in more suffering.

This strategy only makes sense if you think there will be exactly one discrete singularity through which you can set up all of the long-term future and that is independent of path dependencies. I think few actually think such is the case.

So it might be morally the better strategy to focus on goodness if you want more goodness in the future because it’ll focus more attention on goodness, create more goodness, security, cooperation, abundance –> paradise.

It’s the old question of “do we want to forecast the most likely outcome, prevent the worst, or do we want to defy the odds?” Many of us humans seem pretty bad at doing it all at the same time.

So, as we can’t keep it all together individually, we do need everyone to work together - CUs become better with NUs around and vice versa. Declaring one or the other to be more serious doesn’t help anyone imho.

We need to see that all sides can be equally serious and work together to be able to look nature into its horrifyingly blind thousand eyes AND summon our better angels simultaneously.