What I Want

There’s a selfish component to what I want, and an altruistic component. I won’t describe the selfish component, but you can probably imagine the sort of thing that’s in there.

The altruistic component is defined as an aggregate of what every other person else wants. But there are some caveats:

  • It’s biased towards people that are closest to me. I’ll explain why in another post – this is a more complicated issue than you might think.
  • This definition is only valid if a relatively small fraction of the world’s population is employing it. If everyone in the world is motivated to helping each other and don’t want anything for themselves, then it doesn’t make any sense. No-one would end up wanting anything at all.
  • This system isn’t completely consequentialist. People might want my help, but might not want that help if I have to behave unethically in order to provide it. So I’m separating “ethics” (which set constraints on behaviour) from “altruism” (which specifies one of my goals).
  • I’m leaving it vague as to exactly how other people’s preferences should be aggregated (especially when they come into conflict with each other)
  • I’m leaving it vague as to exactly what counts as a “person”
  • I’m leaving it vague as to exactly what it means to “want” something

This vagueness is a problem – it means that in a lot of cases, I’m unsure about what the correct moral decision is. But it might also be a strength as it avoids locking myself into a system which I discover has flaws (in fact, at this point I’m still leaving open the possibility that I’ve got the definition of altruism entirely wrong here. The fact I’m still leaving that open worries me somewhat, in case I’m just being cowardly).

Examples of vagueness in action:

  • Any moral dilemma which comes down to a dispute between different interested parties, is essentially a preference aggregation problem.
  • Abortion and animal rights issues (plus quite a few transhumanist topics) come down to the problem of what counts as a person.
  • Some of the problems of what it means to “want” something are about balancing short and long term preferences. For example, euthanasia: someone might want to die (short term preference) but not want to live in a culture that considers suicide an acceptable way out (long term preference).

The other deliberate vagueness in my preference system is the balance between the selfish goal and the altruistic one. If these are expressed as utility functions, and the overall utility function is set as a weighted sum of these, what would happen?

U = a Ualtruistic + b Uselfish

This would obviously depend on what the weights are and whether I have more leverage when it comes to the selfish function or the altruistic one. Right now it looks like altruistic wins by some orders of magnitude – while I have more direct and visible control of my own life, there’s only one of me and there’s a lot of other people, and in some circumstances their lives can be saved or improved drastically for apparently little cost. So I’d need to be pretty stingy with my coefficients for the selfish function to have much impact at all. In other words, we pretty much get

U ≈ Ualtruistic

But that doesn’t mean I have to punish myself. In order to optimise my altruism, I need to protect my own health, mental health, financial security and relationship with my community. That takes care of quite a lot of the selfish goals for free.

But is it enough? Is there some minimum standard of selfishness that I demand, beyond what is required to maintain my effectiveness at helping other people? It doesn’t seem likely that it would be possible for me to do that if I was miserable all the time. But what about if it was possible? Would that be what I want to do? I’m not sure.


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