August 21, 2022

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics vs Quantifying Sacred Values

Original Twitter thread

Jai Dhyani’s Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says:

When you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it

The idea is, if you try to do something good, you will be criticized for it not being maximally helpful, even if it was better than nothing. And so people are incentivized to not even try.

This is illustrated well by the first example: In 2010, New York chose some homeless people to take part in a program, and tracked those not in the program as a control group… They were criticized for making guinea pigs out of the most vulnerable”, despite helping as many as possible while also trying to actually measure outcomes

I think this is a real and unfortunate phenomenon! However, I think some of the other examples in the post actually point to a different problem, which deserves a post of its own: our distaste for quantifying sacred values, even in consensual trades

The next example is: In 2012, some homeless people in Austin were given WiFi hotspots so they could offer SXSW attendees WiFi in exchange for $20 per day plus donations. It was labeled a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia…a completely problematic treatment of a problem”

In this case, I don’t think people were outraged because it wasn’t the maximally helpful thing. People were outraged because it feels demeaning to pay homeless people trivial amounts of money to provide WiFi to wealthy tech people. It’s trading dignity (a sacred value) for money

Another example given is when PETA offered to pay the water bills of poor families in Detroit if they went vegan for 30 days.

Again, I don’t think people were angry that this isn’t maximally helpful, they were angry because they perceive PETA to be taking advantage of someone’s misfortune to further their own agenda. That feels icky.

Philip Tetlock defines a sacred value as any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values”

By our distaste for quantifying sacred values” I mean putting a number on them, giving them finite value, weighing them into trade-off calculations

I think the SXSW and PETA examples better support what is perhaps an implicit secondary claim in the post: if someone consensually accepts an offer, they believe the offer will improve their life, and we should support that even if it involves a sacred value”

In sum, I think there are two different observations in the post:

  1. It’s bad to get mad at people for doing something even if that something isn’t maximally effective
  2. It’s bad to get mad at people for offering a trade that involves a sacred value if it’s consensually accepted

I think both are valid points, but some examples better support (1) which is the stated Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics”, and some better support (2), which should ideally have its own name/post.