I Recall You Saying You Believe We Will All Be Born Again / by Bryce Hidysmith

Face of    "The Judge"  a slot machine in a small museum in Old Town of San Diego.

Face of "The Judge" a slot machine in a small museum in Old Town of San Diego.

< Soundtrack: Molly Nilsson - Ugly Girl / World Order - Permanent Revolution >

In an informal conversation in early October, D. S. and F. L. pointed out an incoherence in my framing questions of ethics in terms of the maximization of consent, rather than the maximization of choice. I had a rather strong emotional reaction, defending the idea of consent maximization in such a way that I think I was subconsciously attempting to avoid listening to their counterpoint. To criticize anything even tangentially related to the notion of consent in this day and age is one of the greatest of taboos, but it is important to note that this criticism of terminology was in service of the maximization of individual consent, not its minimization. This conversation did not change the objectives of my conception of an ethical life, rather that it changed the way that one must practice the art of living in order to aspire to those same objectives, drawing light on the critical role of exacting language in philosophical inquiry and jurisprudence. This is perhaps the most critical rectification of names in the postmodern environment, as the two terms—choice and consent—are read in a largely emotional way by most demographics. Such an emotional reading tracks tribal affiliation rather than structural argument, creating an impossibility of common ethical principles even interior to specific political aesthetics. This occurs simultaneously to a degree of extreme societal pillarization, wherein given political aesthetics are contrary enough to each other—in fact frequently leading to a disgust response—that cross-pollination is almost impossible. I don't think I would even be able to notice this problem if I had not been lived for the majority of my youth in the marches between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, a crosshatched borderland between the Social Justice Pillar and the TechnoLibertarian Pillar, each of whom has radically different and wholly incomplete insights concerning ethical subjects. I also don't think that I would be finding myself thinking in terms of specified language if I hadn't just gotten up and left, finding myself in the New Age Pillar, which seems to have an allergy to clarity of thought. As Vassar's put it recently, one wants to be on the side of truth and beauty, allied against unity.

To begin, it is clear that the principles of any ethical system that is not simply willful solipsism must be based on the recognition of the experiences of others, else the greatest good would be individualistic hedonism. Under willful solipsism, ethics would simply be a process of knowing one's own preferences and exerting them. While solipsism is a consistent proposition for resolving all contradiction, we can reject it out of hand as it is a selective interpretation of data, debased in epistemic hygiene. While it is unreasonable to apply the principle of charity to all reports in a given environment, it is equally unreasonable to apply it to the qualia of one's own experience. One must note at least a morphological similarity between the self and others; if one is to deny the potential for direct recognition of psychological similarity, one must at least note anatomical similarity and assume, as per Occam's Razor, that the other's morphological self similarity implies some degree of experiential self-similarity, and that it is likely an exceptional case if it does not. For instance, in the case of mannequins, statues, and other effigies, the lack of interior self-similarity should be obviously enough to dismiss the notion that the dead or never-alive could be deserving of the same care as the living, and indeed the construction of effigies is an exceptional event in the history of life on earth. The recognition of the experiences of others causes one to envision them as other moral patients as one would evaluate oneself. They are not simply spooks. At least limited action according to their needs and desires is a moral necessity if the consequence of action to them might be as experientially extreme as the consequence of action to yourself. Otherwise, the correct action is resource extraction or the development of an individually beneficial environment of reciprocal altruism.

This base principle is then applied in the balancing act of integrating the needs and desires of the self with others. It matters not what those needs and desires are, for the purposes of this essay they can be left entirely abstract as it is the process of resolving contradictions between them that interests us, not the specific content.  One must attempt to understand the process by which one evaluates the validity of one's own experience while also remembering that such process must be abstracted to the general category that might contain any agent evaluating their own experiential validity. This basic tenet of moral skepticism leaves one with the potentially frustratingly vague understanding that the only possible ethics is a meta-ethics of balancing individuals' ethical systems. Anything else would be inherently tyrannical, though potentially a benevolent tyranny if the tyrant in question was able to know all individuals better than they knew themselves. This, however, would have its own wicked problem of attempting to verify the asymmetric information of the tyrant, which I would conjecture would likely be framed in metaethical terms or be something akin to a cosmic con job. Provided that one is not a chauvinist taking the self's ignorance as a clue and presuming that one's personally derived ethics is somehow universalizable without any modicum of evidence of this being the case for anyone else, one comes to the swift conclusion that ethical systems local to a given agent must be checked for validity by a metaethical system to allow more than one agent to interact without disaster.

This leads us cleanly into the recognition that (meta)ethical problems always bottom out on communication dynamics. The derivation of that metaethical system must be based on a protocol ensuring mutual intelligibility. There are of course such individuals who are fully amoral, but the ethical problem would never be framed from their perspective, and the only necessary ethical question concerning them is how their malice can be contained or eliminated without cruelty. The problem of ethics is not the existence of evil, but confusion among those who aspire to good. The most common (if insufficient) formulation of such a confusion-reducing communication protocol is Hillel's Golden Rule, commonly incorrectly attributed (by Christians) to Jesus of Nazareth, wherein one attempts to simulate the other as the self and count wounds against the other as wounds against the self.

The Golden Rule is a framing of trust as self-similarity, rather than trust as symmetric communication, and fails in light of any non-obvious diversity of moral patients, even if that diversity is simply the existence of multiple individuals of a similar demographic, all possessing opaque minds. Assumption of self-similarity fails with any level of diversity that cannot be immediately simulated. One cannot discern proper conduct to an alien from proper conduct to the self. Such conduct must be discerned either from accurate simulation or empirical observation. Without an ethical system that is able to respond and indeed love the alien, one reduces society to an illiberal hive of atomized individuals, bereft of all potentially meaningful—that is to say surprising—interactions.

There is, of course, some set of similar desires between moral patients. Obvious similarities are easily intuited, such as the fact that one should not damage the bodies of others as one would hope that one's body was left intact, but something ambiguous like informational violence is a far thornier issue. If one says a word that inspires violence by the listener against themself, who is the cause to blame? From a purely causal point of view, the speaker is. One could respond to this ethical problem through the prohibition of speech, for the transit of information can always lead to unforeseen consequences, and the infinite pileup of unknown unknowns results in a blanket prohibition against all action that might have an externalizing effect, leading either to obligate solipsism or suicide. This is madness. Yet, this is madness that exists in less extreme forms in the discourse concerning violence both physical and informational, which trends towards absurdity as it does not seem to question its central assumptions. The Golden Rule position perhaps most clearly stated as a potentially viable relational structure by Rawls in his statements about the Veil of Ignorance, simply by taking away anything that might make the individuals in the system distinctive. While I disagree with some of his conclusions about the optimal structure of a society in the modern context—for instance he and I have very different opinions about representative democracy—his formulation of the problem in abstract is coherent and provides a good example of what a context-free metaethics looks like. It seems necessary then to focus on a specific section of the hypothetical and ahistorical problem of the design of social contracts. But, first it is necessary to debunk the supposed potential of Rawls' hypothetical design to produce a wholly symmetric power dynamic inside of a population.

Rawls, being a political philosopher, does not focus on the psychologies of the individuals he is describing so much as the constraints that a theoretically infinitely malicious individual might be tempered by. Political philosophy is often blinded by its inability to see individuals, except as expressions of ideologies even when the ideology and the individual are impossible to disentangle. The psychology of M. K. Ghandi is far less amenable to the assumption that he was an averge example of his contingent than the psychology of Napoleon Bonaparte, man of the world. Rawls, like almost all political philosophy since the Second World War, frames the task of political philosophy as an attempt to have good ideologies win out over bad ones, without ever really questioning whether or not the ideology is the proper medium for installing a virtuous society.

The central blindspot of this ideological model of the world is the variance of individuals. I have believed (similarly to Robert Michels) for quite some time in a fundamental character of positional strategic asymmetry in any diverse multi-agent system that cannot be diffused by even the best-designed social contract. A brief summary of the reason for this is worth transmitting, even without confidence that it will be clear except in an (as yet forthcoming) longform piece: Take the notion that evolutionary strategic capacity is the ability to adapt under potentially adversarial uncertainty. If a system of agents that contains agents that are sufficiently different to be only probabilistically simulated in the minds of other agents rather than deterministically simulated, then it is possible to artificially create an asymmetry of predictive capacity and thus adaptive capacity between two agents by acting contrary to a correct estimate of a collectively calculated Schelling Point. While the Schelling Point may itself be a Nash Equilibrium, the lack of organic transparency between agents leaves a situation where it is still possible to gain a strategic advantage by defecting and being unpredictable as one's own unpredictability allows the individual to exploit the predictability of the other. While it may not be advantageous for the powerful to use power differentials, that does not mean that the power differentials in question simply cease to exist even if they are this most basic instantiation of a Prisoner's Dilemma.

Rawls presumes that the right way to gain a properly functional community is to position them behind the veil of ignorance and get them to agree on a set of constraints that they would be comfortable conforming to from any given position within the territory governed by the constraint set. There is a flaw, however. The veil of ignorance thought experiment is—intentionally or not—propagandistically malformed by stating itself as a thought experiment, and in doing so deflecting some of the responsibility that would be contained in it if it was written by a culture that believed in randomly assigned (rather than dharmically dispositional) reincarnation, where the self does indeed live behind a veil of ignorance in the next generation. By circumventing real circumstances, it allows one to assume that the social contract and the population are not an interdependent whole, and in Rawls' case largely proliferated uninspired temporally and geographically local norms rather than attempting a serious discussion of utopian potential. The position of the veil of ignorance—a council of spirits in a waiting room before reincarnation—is useful only as a way to draw attention to the traits of identities and social contracts that would be advantageous to instantiate in any environment whatsoever, for the objective of general betterment is the same in all environments as the inconceivably vast majority of general betterment is locked behind the transcendence of local constraints. Even if one does not prescribe to a Singulatarian perspective, the recognition of technological potential shows this to be the case, provided one does not believe in a fundamental toxicity of technology, wherein the primitive communism of a hunter-gatherer society seems to be the optimal state of affairs. Even within the hunter-gatherer context, technology of social relation rather than material reconfiguration is still a method of improving the psychological and physical condition of the tribe without long-term cost. Furthermore, if fundamental strategic asymmetry in the form of defection by Schelling Point reversal, as described above, is immutably a part of social organizations that are not hive minds, it is then required for us to figure out how it is possible to avoid the asymmetric power being used in such a way as to result in a total breakdown of trust. This is akin to ensuring that nobody is placed in a position so intolerable that defection in prisoners dilemmas and the subsequent proliferation of zero-sum strategies is the only viable lifestyle. If power cannot be removed from play, the system of social relations must simply position asymmetric power in such a location in its hierarchy that said asymmetric power is always coupled with equally metaethical decision-making. The key is simply figuring out how this can be accomplished.

The practical considerations of engineering environments of justice—distributive or otherwise—must be assumed to instead be questions of continuous artificial population selection and organization, rather than purely constitutional design. While a constitution can be agreed upon by a set of agents as more valuable to collaborate with than to defect against, one must still be maintaining the necessary selection pressures that cause one to accurately interpret and good-faith accept such a constitution in the first place. Thus, the practical variant of Rawls' theoretical problem is more related to searching for or cultivating a culture that can then be used to instantiate the behavioral program of a given constitution, treating the text of the social contract itself as only one method of attempting to produce the desired environment. However, the existence of a symmetrically interpretable text is the only way that one can produce homogenous norms of deontological or consequentialist ethics, both of which are necessary adaptations to do good in a wide variety of circumstances that cannot be accounted for under other circumstances. Yet, such literate paradigms are downstream from the virtue of literacy, and thus downstream from virtue ethics itself. All behaviors are deterministically bounded as to the vices and virtuous traits of the agent in question. At the most basic level, this determinism is caused by the ontology of the individuals before any judgments are made, as such judgments must be specified using the vocabulary admissible to the ontology. This is where we return to the point where F. and D. corrected my model from consent optimization to choice maximization, as there is a meaningful difference in effect when one implements a metaethical system based on consent, versus when one implements one based on choice.

Consent is a concept that must be assessed by comparison to a counterfactual of the potential event not having occurred. Dependant on the temporal perspective of the assessment, consent is one of two concepts: a proactive and a retroactive form. One may desire or not desire for something to happen, and one may consider it desirable that something did or did not happen after the fact. This produces a contradiction: one might proactively consent to the description of an event, but not retroactively consent to the same event. Or, the inverse: one might experience something good but unpredictable, and have hoped that one's past self had consented to an action that could not have been described accurately. Additionally, the communication process around describing either proactive or retroactive models falls to the same problem—should an event be dependent on the actions of another, they are themselves prey to the same paradox, and additionally prey to all sorts of faults in communication increasing error. Consent—the sense of individuals determining in hindsight that the various components of lives were worth experiencing or, from foresight, could be worth experiencing—is obviously a good thing. Yet, the design of a formal ethical system cannot be based on optimizing for consent alone as it is a second order effect to the decision-making of the individuals involved in any given event that could or could not be consented to, regardless of temporal perspective on the event itself. The question is whether or not the individuals whose behaviors locally effect the event in question constrain the ability of others local to the event to make choices, either through direct, forceful prohibition or subtle obfuscation. The decision itself determines the circumstance that the individual then experiences and assesses. Thus, an argument of efficiency has already been formed as it makes sense to invest all effort in the effectiveness of such decisions to promote proactively or retroactively benevolent states in individuals as justified by the individuals themselves.

Yet, it is not efficiency alone that justifies the reformulation of ethics around choice-optimization rather than consent-optimization. There is also a negative justification: the direct optimization for either proactive or retroactive consent by an outside actor leads to an attempt to predict and constrain the action of that individual, which constitutes a potential consent violation all its own as it denies them access to the potential breadth of consensual states that they might traverse of their own volition. It is impossible to know the other as well as the other knows themself. Even if the outside actor is the past-self of the future-individual who could assess consent retroactively, state-traversal is similarly constrained as if it was a different individual altogether. The only viable solution to take us out of this problem of contradiction is to simply focus all efforts on improving the decisionmaking of individuals in a Pareto Optimal fashion, so that the free choice of individuals does not externalize violence or deception that constrains the potential set of choices of the individual, either by artificially limiting their options or interfering with their mental process of evaluation so as to reflexively control them. The amputation of individual choice kills the potential for either future joy, or potentially informative mistakes, themselves a road for future joy. From this abstract of a perspective, it is the only crime in existence. From this abstract perspective, the only political virtue is the use of power to increase the number of meaningful choices that the given individuals in a political order can make during their lifespan, a perspective that one might consider to be relatively similar to the infinite Game position taken by James P. Carse in Finite and Infinite Games.

So, one must optimize for consent indirectly, by attempting to track the consequences of personal action, and enable others to track the consequences of their actions as well. One primary clue presents itself for how to do this: a hygiene of communication, the same basic norm that formed the initial correction from F. and D that spawned this essay. Such communication hygiene can be understood to comprise three components: an intention of precision and accuracy, a rejection of silencing, and an insistence on symmetrically intelligible communication. (These principles may, potentially, be upended in cases where it is necessary to contain malicious actors.) Those three principles constitute the ethical obligation of individuals to increase the amount of useful information that others can use to navigate the process of making choices. Provided that these principles are embraced, I would conjecture that given sufficient time, the disembodied spirits behind Rawls' veil would by definition design the full variance of potential lives worth living that their minds could envision. Potentially, it is also necessary to allow for the potential of precommitment, as one might want to develop bounded adversarial environments such as GANs or kink, for various reasons, but that is open for debate.