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No Son of Mine Is Going to Be a Benthamite (mcsweeneys.net)
163 points by smacktoward 61 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments



> See, in this family, we DON’T just want to maximize the overall quantity of individual happiness (like Bentham). No… In this family, we want to maximize the overall quantity AND the quality of individual happiness (like John Stuart Mill).

But daaad, this now becomes a multi-objective optimization problem, and there are potentially an infinite number of solutions that lie along the Pareto frontier...


I don't know. The solution might be as simple as "make one person very very happy."

https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-04-03


Yes, a utility monster is conceivable under both theories. It's amusing how a utility monster represents a serious objection for utilitarian philosophers, but is a total non-concern for people that solve optimization problems for a living. It would be like software engineers lying awake in bed worrying about what they'd do if they just stopped writing bugs one day.


Avoiding weird solutions by adding appropriate constraints is extremely important to people who solve optimization problems in practice. The classic example from the inventor of linear programming is the diet problem [1], where the naive LP suggested to eat nothing but bouillon cubes or drink 500 gallons of vinegar.

[1]https://resources.mpi-inf.mpg.de/departments/d1/teaching/ws1...


It's even a matter of being aware of assumed, implicit constraints. "In the early 1950s [...] the nutritional requirements didn't show a limit on the amount of salt? "Isn't too much salt dangerous?" He replied that it wasn't necessary; most people had enough sense not to consume too much."


There are certainly cases of weird degenerate solutions to optimization problems. Lots of examples in machine learning (one classic at https://openai.com/blog/faulty-reward-functions/).

In more old-school convex optimization the closest thing is probably insufficiently constrained problems. If you don't say the amount of each food you eat has to be greater than zero, you can get all your dietary needs satisfied for the low low price of minus infinity dollars!

From another perspective, though, perhaps there's a "No True Scotsman" side of this. Is a utility monster a sign of a badly-specified problem, or are they a definitive sign of one? If the former, it stands to reason it's not a "concern" for modellers -- it's a dream!


Utility monster is a case of lack of time constraint on optimization problem and lack of robustness.

For example, the special "Felix" case ignores the case where said guy is stuck by gamma radiation and dies. Over time, the probability of that k or a bunch of other catastrophes ruinning the solution tends to 1.

Therefore, the best solution avoids the most known catastrophes and is updated as new possibilities of those are found. (Tontine lotto, anyone?) Minimax loss optimal. Maximin (maximizing gain without increasing base loss) could be decent as well. Deciding between the two is better left to wizards.

Online stochastic optimization is mathematical black magic anyway so far.

But then, satisfying humans is much easier given all the built in biases we have. Keeping things alive long term is much harder.


Is there not diminishing returns though?

Does the millionth lucky penny feel as special as the first? If you gave Jeff Bezos a million $ would he even notice, let alone feel happier.

I feel that most happiness is gained from being able to feed and house your family, not having your children die from disease. Anything much beyond that is a rounding error and based on standards of the day.


Notice that in neoclassical economics, value grows because satisfaction of the agents grows and nothing else. Therefore growth can be infinite as long as someone could grow infinitely happy with whatever they get out of economic activities. This implies some form of utilitarianism. This also strikes as complete, unreal fantasy. Hmmm.


Well that's just a bug in the machine for measuring happiness using the average instead of the median.


Unfortunately for Felix, all of his slaves were really bringing down the median happiness. But they're all dead now, and he has robots instead!

Having robots makes Felix really happy. Not as happy as having slaves, but still happier than anyone else could ever be.



Maximin is probably better for avoiding those pesky "torture/enslave half of humanity" scenarios.


Not quite -- if a single poor chap starts off with Very Bad torture, maximin will perscribe that everyone else have Medium Bad torture as long as the single worst-off person does a little better.


Hmm, really? Maximin = maximizing the minimum, right? Seems like it could also lead to "Find the people with the most difficult-to-cure genetic conditions and/or abusive upbringings that make them extremely unhappy, and enslave the rest of humanity to try to find cures for them." Unless pumping such people with dopamine or whatever is considered a solution. (Or killing them.)


If your algorithm accounts for future states - and it'll have to, to be practical - "assigning minimal resources to the really unhappy people to let them die from neglect" is also part of the set of options.


I have met at least one vegetarian (who is also a utilitarian) who has said that many species of animals currently suffer so much that it would be better if those species were all dead. I've heard of others who share this opinion. I call it the "Final Solution" to animal welfare; I think the name is quite appropriate.

Anyway, well, then, that seems to leave some big question marks. How is everyone who goes through utilitarian moral reasoning supposed to decide between help and neglect, and hope to come up with the same answer? (Because if two people come up with sufficiently different answers, it may lead to one or both concluding that the expected utility of violently enforcing obedience from the other person is worth the cost, unless they have deontological rules of some sort. Like the kind that the article says Mill supported.)


I don't think that's quite as marginal of an opinion as you think.

If someone is vegetarian/vegan for ethical reasons, it's because they want there to be fewer factory farms. This would of course mean that the animals they would have eaten wouldn't exist at all, so of course they'd consider nonexistence better than a life of torture.

"I'd rather you not have lived at all, rather than live a life of torture" is a pretty mainstream opinion in general, I think.


Possibly. But extinction of the species completely eradicates hope; I would prefer "life under torture with a chance of eventually obtaining a good life" over "permanent nonexistence".

Unless cloning counts? Is extinction okay as long as we have some copies of their DNA and plan to clone them into a decent life eventually? I feel rather uneasy about that resolution; at the very least I'd want to see a species successfully reconstructed in this manner before giving the possibility moral weight.


I believe median*population is a good value to optimise for since then killing everyone but one because counterproductive.


Sounds like a sort of inverse Omelas.


I love SMBC. He does this kind of comic so well, where it starts out with some interesting premise and then go to complete hilarious absurdity with some "logical" steps. I can't think of anyone else who has the same type of humor.


I've really enjoyed watching him develop over the years. His earlier comics, while good, are just so mediocre compared to how good he is today. While he's obviously always been funny, I guess 10+ years of grinding have really helped him hone his craft. He's probably my favorite comic - and his books are excellent as well.


> make one person very very happy

Didn't you just describe North Korea?


That dude does NOT seem happy, fwiw


Are you saying the difference between quantity and quality is zero sum, or maybe more like dividing by zero?

I feel like Pareto efficiency only comes into the picture if the quantities are actually clear, but I don't understand how to make that concrete in ethical (not economic) terms.

The "rule" of "quality" seems like it can easily be abused by whoever is in power in the given situation. E.g. an assertion such as this could be valid: it's okay for police to shoot "innocent" people if "they were disturbing the peace".

Are quality and quantity both vulnerable to being gamed?


pareto means optimizing one dimension without sacrificing the other.

the frontier is the points in space where neither can be further optimized without impacting the other.


Yeah flashbacks from econ 101.. Was referring to the coherence issue of moving away from known quantities/dimensions.


This reminded me of an old Emo Philips joke;

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

I said, "Don't do it!"

He said, "Nobody loves me."

I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"

He said, "A Christian."

I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"

He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"

He said, "Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."

I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over the bridge.


I found John Stuart Mill's life to be interesting. John's father was a radical and a prominent Benthamite. He raised his son to be the lion of their cause, and home schooled John to avoid the the state education system. John's father felt that the state schools instilled too much conformity and discouraged independent thinking.

For a time, John Stuart Mill was indeed a lion for his father's ideals. However, it should perhaps not be too terribly surprising that Stuart's independent thinking lead him to somewhat diverge from his father's perspectives.

One of the more important moments for that was in his twenties. John came to realize that even if all the reforms he wished for came to pass, he would still be unhappy. That realization lead to a nervous breakdown. He slowly recovered, reworking his father's philosophy into something that would allow him to live a life worth living.


Seems like the father forgot about Dostoyevsky:

>Man is unhappy because he doesn't know he's happy. It's only that. [1]

[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Fyodor_Dostoyevsky


... implying that happiness is not scalar. But if happiness is not measurable, what does utilitarianism measure? The amount of pain - or rather the lack thereof?


What you are describing is called "Negative Utilitarianism"


> In this family, we want to maximize the overall quantity AND the quality of individual happiness (like John Stuart Mill).

I can't see that sentience and the quality of individual happiness are necessarily related. It may be that some other species is capable of sustaining a higher quality of happiness. If, for example, that species turns out to be a kind of duck, are John Stuart Mill utilitarians obligated to maximize the quantity of very happy ducks over happy humans?


Hmmm, so is the prose intending a logical AND? If so it would seem that we couldn't discount the prior quantity of non-duck happiness and would somehow need to hold the two types of happiness in balance.

I'm not familiar with Mill or Bentham. What would a "preponderance" of the evidence on both sides look like if there were to be a balance, I wonder? Can we even compare quantity and quality in any way?


I know a lot of the article is tongue in cheek...it's Mcsweeney's after all. Yet, the absence of Peter Singer from the discussion disappoints me. Utilitarianism is not a 19th century fossil and Singer's utilitarian reasoning is arguably (in an academic sense, not just because it's the internet) one of the most important positions in 20th century moral philosophy.

It's hard to name another philosopher from the past fifty years who has had similar impact on people's behavior and secular moral discourse.


Seeing as it's making fun of a fossilized religious fundamentalism, it's appropriate to leave out more contemporary positions.


Can someone explain what I just read?


A McSweeney's piece about Bentham vs. Mill utilitarianism.

If you're interested, they also have some interesting things to say about the upcoming decorative gourd season.


Vi vs Emacs for a branch of philosophy.


The idea is that the reader - briefly acquainted with Bentham and Mill as part of their undergraduate education - has a smug, knowing chuckle when they recognize these references. (Similar to “clapter,” I’d call this a “snuckle” piece.) The quality of the satire itself is irrelevant. Substantive satire is actually impossible: the author briefly recaps Mill and Bentham’s differences for that “oh yeah, I remember now” feel-good reader moment, but can’t get too far into the details as this would alienate the reader, reminding them just how much of their education they’ve forgotten (if they ever did the assigned readings in the first place).

Cynical attitude aside, I’m not sure why this is on HN. It doesn’t seem particularly insightful, interesting, or funny.


Not sure why you were down-voted. That's obviously the main value of the thing. Maybe you've hit a wound spot.

>Cynical attitude aside, I’m not sure why this is on HN. It doesn’t seem particularly insightful, interesting, or funny.

The average HN reader does probably know enough about philosophy to know the differences between Bentham and Mill but not enough to make that seem trivial.


As a smug postgraduate I find it kinda odd I'd be called out as an undergraduate, since I found the article funny. Cheers.


I’m generalizing based on my own experience here (and taking some polemic license), but that’s all one can do.

If I’ve misjudged the HN audience and enough do appreciate this link, I can’t/won’t argue with their upvotes!


The article is an enjoyable and novel intro to philosophies regarding the underlying value systems that we optimize for as a society. That is intellectually interesting to me.


It’s a satire illustrating the phenomenon of people getting into the most acrimonious fights with the people ideologically closest to them. It’s likely specifically directed at American liberals and their tendency to viciously claw at each other over whether Bernie’s record on race is ideologically pure enough or Hillary is too “establishment,” weakening the pursuit of their common interests against opponents who are a million times farther from them than the gap between them.


I think a more straightforward reading is that it is satire directed at religious people.


Of course that’s the more straightforward reading. An even more straightforward reading is the literal one. Different readers choose different levels of indirection.


More realistically it was written by someone who once as a bored undergraduate (apparently at Princeton) sat through a philosophy course where he read Bentham and Mill (and also Hegel and Kant), thought that the differences between Bentham and Mill were a bit blown out of proportion, and had an amusing idea about how to write a satirical letter where this got taken to an extreme.


So you choose the totally literal reading. Not what I’d choose, but also an understandable choice given that this is a technology and programming-oriented website.

I won’t say that the allegorical reading is more “correct,” but if you’d like some clues leading to it, look for the breadcrumbs like this: “And, even though Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are ideologically similar, I refuse to let my son believe in Bentham’s very-slightly-different version of ethics.”


Yes, the whole thing is obviously a joke.

My point is, don’t take it too seriously.


The totally literal reading would be that someone actually got chewed out by their father for being a Benthamite.


LOL, good point.


That's a very postmodern take! I personally think that most people will read this as a criticism of religious schisms, particularly considering the obvious implication that it's a parent talking to a child, rather than peers within an ideology. Also interesting it'd supposedly be taken as a criticism of a particular political ideology when all ideologies have schisms.


> considering the obvious implication that it's a parent talking to a child

This made me wonder how many kids are switching to a different branch of religion. I've seen a bit of moving to a completely different faith / no religion, but almost changes of denomination.


I would expect it depends on personal experience. All ideologies have schisms, as you say.

The first thing that came to my mind was the local liberal and "materialist" (that is, Marxist) contingents fighting over definitions. (And that does involve a few parents!) But it's equally reminiscent of childhood Catholic versus Protestant conflicts. I only have more recent experience of one to privilege it over the other.


Sure, but the idea that texts have different readings depending on perspective is a pretty postmodern one. I was criticizing the claim that the text was likely specifically directed at American liberals.


It’s satire


A parody of how religious parents raise their children so that churches who allow adult baptism or female pastors barely even count as Christian, presenting these differences as though no good person doubts them.

I may be projecting a little bit.


Hah seems pretty spot on to me. Was raised RC and always marveled at certain family members’ ability to become irate over small differences like these.

Religion/Philosophy (really many parts of the human experience), is often like DNA - 99.9% the same but it’s the 0.01% difference that gets all the attention


Reminds me of what little I know of the split between the Salafi Muslims and the Sunni. IIRC, despite Salafi Islam developing from the teachings of Sunni cleric al-Wahhab, they view other Muslims as apostates, practicing shirk and therefore unforgivable sinners.

On the Christian side, some Seventh-Day Adventists apparently see the Catholic church as the "Whore of Babylon" and the pope as the antichrist. [0]

Maybe the closeness between two groups just means they can be really detailed and exact about why they hate each other.

0. https://www.catholic.com/tract/seventh-day-adventism


> some Seventh-Day Adventists apparently see the Catholic church as the "Whore of Babylon"

That’s probably not too far off. My impression is that the Hebrew Bible was written by nomadic shepherds who despised cosmopolitan city-dwellers who they thought had loose morals. And similarly for the authors of the New Testament, who despised the Roman Empire of the day (“Babylon” here is thought to be a stand-in for Rome).

It is quite ironic that this became the holy teaching of the state religion of the Roman Empire a few centuries later.

(Disclaimer: I am not a religious person and am by no means an expert on the Bible.)


>9.9% the same but it’s the 0.01% difference that gets all the attention

Ah the good old:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism_of_small_difference...

Also:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WboggjN_G-4


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.


To be fair, sometimes small looking differences can have a huge impact over long periods of time.


I know of no Christian denomination that prohibits adult baptism. But there are some that don't regard infant baptism as authentic. https://www.catholic.com/tract/infant-baptism


Denominations that practice infant baptism typically don't allow adults who were baptized as infants to be baptized. In fact, they imprisoned and executed many people for doing so.

Denominations that don't practice infant baptism would allow those adults to be baptized because they don't regard the first one as authentic.


Do you have a source for the claim related to imprisonment/execution in your first paragraph?

It's true that denominations that practice infant baptism usually don't allow adults who were baptized as infants to be re-baptized, because they consider the person to be already baptized, so there's no need.

But even in cases where denominations try diligently to avoid the case where they're conferring baptism on someone who may have already been baptized (as in the case of the Catholic church and conditional baptism), there are no penalties for baptizing someone who was already baptized. It's just sort of a pointless thing, unless you reject the idea that infant baptism is legitimate, in which case why belong to a denomination that practices infant baptism?

Maybe there were penalties in the past that I'm not aware of, so I'd love to learn more about the executions.


This Washington Post article gives a good overview[1]. It's true that they don't execute people for it anymore, but that's just because they have eased up on their treatment of heretics in general, not because they have started condoning the practice.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2004/06/19/aton...



A piece of period metafiction set in 2003.


Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith's dissertation advisor, originated the statement "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" in 1725.

His overall philosophy for "moral computation" is incredibly relevant today.

He advocated a common source for value in the notion of harmony, in both ethics and aesthetics. He was probably the most influential contemporary philosopher for the American founding fathers. Also, he was apparently an incredible all-around guy.

Adam Smith referred to him as "the never-to-be-forgotten Hutcheson". So go Wikipedia the dude and consider yourself smarter.


Every time I read it, I think of a scenario:

Say we can build a roman colosseum with brutal games between human, with advanced technology - that people enjoy brutal games (of course there are people like it as it was popular and people like brutal movies) can see the game on something like the internet easily.

And you can increase the size of the world and the overall population infinitely, assuming the technology will still valid to broadcast.


For the uninitiated like me, there's a funny and accessible Crash Course episode about this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a739VjqdSI


This reminds me of the "Die, heretic!" routine that Emo Philips does.

As well as putting it less kindly the "hobbyist" elements in the Libdems and Labour in the UK


This is a "cutesey-perhaps-too-cutesey" reminder of the stuff I forgot after my highschool time doing Lincoln-Douglas debate on the speech team.


What a hard read.

Recommend saying what you want, no silly fake dialog needed.


What is this? Facebook for the intelligentsia?




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