CU & extreme suffering

post by Milton · 2020-05-21T11:44:36.170Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW · No comments

This is a question post.


    3 saulius
    1 willbradshaw
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What's the maximum amount of the worst suffering a classical utilitarian should accept for 50 years of the best well-being?


answer by saulius · 2020-05-22T12:34:07.012Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure there is an objective answer to your question because (to my knowledge) we don't have good definitions of suffering and well-being and no objective way to compare their intensity. It also depends on whether by "worst suffering" you mean the worst suffering current humans can experience, or the worst theoretically possible suffering (and the best theoretically possible well-being). Some speculations related to the latter can be read here. You can probably find more such speculations by going through these search results.

If you are asking about current humans, it may be informative to ask people who have experienced both extreme suffering and extreme happiness for their opinion. However, in my experience different people answer such questions very differently. Also, I imagine that even the same person may answer the question differently depending on whether you are asking them while they are experiencing intense suffering or after it has already happened. And it's unclear what to do with that.

comment by Milton · 2020-05-26T11:03:07.068Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hm, interesting. I was more pointing to the current human, as you write. What I was trying to get at was that I would think it would be absurd for someone to accept, say, 50 years of burning of alive before the nerves die off, for any sort of well-being "within one current human" for 50 years. If this is true for the CU as well, it seems she have to account for such an asymmetry by 'extrinsic' means.

Your answer (and the links) definitely made me a lot more uncertain about a bunch of things though!

answer by willbradshaw · 2020-05-22T15:28:04.369Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm broadly with Saulius on this one: it depends entirely on what you mean by "the best well-being", what kinds of agents are experiencing it, how many of them there are, whether all the numbers involved are even finite, etc.

But for a thoroughgoing classical utilitarian (who believes you can in principle measure happiness and suffering objectively), there is an answer: , where is the total counterfactual happiness gained across all agents during those 50 years, and is an infinitesimal number.

(This is assuming there's no utility cost to taking/implementing the deal other than what's "on the label", as it were. If there are transaction costs then you need to take those into account as well.)

comment by Milton · 2020-05-26T11:04:49.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the answer! I'll have to think some more about this. I meant "within one current human".

comment by willbradshaw · 2020-05-29T13:15:26.120Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Assuming "within one current human" also implies that maximum suffering and happiness are defined as something like "the most unhappy/happy a human has ever been in history up to this point", I would guess that the correct amount of time to spend at the worst suffering in exchange for 50 years of the best wellbeing would probably be much less than 50 years. Maybe 1-5 years? But my confidence intervals are very wide here.

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