A Reasonable Approximation

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Fascists and Rakes

Cross-posted to Less Wrong.

It feels like most people have a moral intuition along the lines of "you should let people do what they want, unless they're hurting other people". We follow this guideline, and we expect other people to follow it. I'll call this the permissiveness principle, that behaviour should be permitted by default. When someone violates the permissiveness principle, we might call them a fascist, someone who exercises control for the sake of control.

And there's another moral intuition, the harm-minimising principle: "you should not hurt other people unless you have a good reason". When someone violates harm-minimisation, we might call them a rake, someone who acts purely for their own pleasure without regard for others.

But sometimes people disagree about what counts as "hurting other people". Maybe one group of people believes that tic-tacs are sentient, and that eating them constitutes harm; and another group believes that tic-tacs are not sentient, so eating them does not hurt anyone.

What should happen here is that people try to work out exactly what it is they disagree about and why. What actually happens is that people appeal to permissiveness.

Of course, by the permissiveness principle, people should be allowed to believe what they want, because holding a belief is harmless as long as you don't act on it. So we say something like "I have no problem with people being morally opposed to eating tic-tacs, but they shouldn't impose their beliefs on the rest of us."

Except that by the harm-minimising principle, those people probably should impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Forbidding you to eat tic-tacs doesn't hurt you much, and it saves the tic-tacs a lot of grief.

It's not that they disagree with the permissiveness principle, they just think it doesn't apply. So appealing to the permissiveness principle isn't going to help much.

I think the problem (or at least part of it) is, depending how you look at it, either double standards or not-double-enough standards.

I apply the permissiveness principle "unless they're hurting other people", which really means "unless I think they're hurting other people". I want you to apply the permissiveness principle "unless they're hurting other people", which still means "unless I think they're hurting other people".

Meanwhile, you apply the permissiveness principle unless you think someone is hurting other people; and you want me to apply it unless you think they're hurting other people.

So when we disagree about whether or not something is hurting other people, I think you're a fascist because you're failing to apply the permissiveness principle; and you think I'm a rake because I'm failing to apply the harm-minimisation principle; or vice-versa. Neither of these things is true, of course.

It gets worse, because once I've decided that you're a fascist, I think the reason we're arguing is that you're a fascist. If you would only stop being a fascist, we could get along fine. You can go on thinking tic-tacs are sentient, you just need to stop being a fascist.

But you're not a fascist. The real reason we're arguing is that you think tic-tacs are sentient. You're acting exactly as you should do if tic-tacs were sentient, but they're not. I need to stop treating you like a fascist, and start trying to convince you that tic-tacs are not sentient.

And, symmetrically, you've decided I'm a rake, which isn't true, and you've decided that that's why we're arguing, which isn't true; we're arguing because I think tic-tacs aren't sentient. You need to stop treating me like a rake, and start trying to convince me that tic-tacs are sentient.

I don't expect either of us to actually convince the other, very often. If it was that easy, someone would probably have already done it. But at least I'd like us both to acknowledge that our opponent is neither a fascist nor a rake, they just believe something that isn't true.

Posted on 04 January 2014

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