Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Empirical Relationships Among Five Types of Well-Being

My new article with Seth Margolis, Daniel Ozer, and Sonja Lyubomirsky is now available as part of a free, open-access anthology on well being with Oxford University Press.

Seth, Dan, Sonja, and I divide philosophical approaches to well being into five broad classes -- hedonic, life satisfaction, desire fulfillment, eudaimonic, and non-eudaimonic objective list. There are many things that a philosopher, psychologist, or ordinary person can mean when they say that someone is "doing well". They're not all the same conceptually, and as we show in the article, they are also empirically distinguishable.

Because there are several types of well-being that are conceptually and empirically different, research findings concerning one type of "well-being" shouldn't automatically be assumed to generalize to other types. For example, what is true about hedonic well-being (having a preponderance of positively valenced over negatively valenced emotions) isn't necessarily true about eudaimonic well being (flourishing in one's distinctively human capacities, such as in friendship and productive activity).

As part of the background for this comparative project, we developed new measures for four of these five types of well-being, including desire fulfillment (how well are you fulfilling the desires you regard as most important), life satisfaction, eudaimonia, and what we call Rich & Sexy Well-Being (wealth, sex, power, and physical beauty; manuscript available on request).  We found positive relationships among all types of well-being (by respondents' self-ratings), but the correlations ran from .50 to .79 (disattenuated), rather than approaching unity.

We also found that the different types of well-being correlated differently with other measures. For example, the "Big Five" personality trait of Openness to Experience has generally not been found to correlate much with measures of well-being. However, we found that it correlated at .45 with our measure of eudaimonic well-being -- a fairly high correlation by social science standards -- and .57 with the "creative imagination" subscale specifically. Openness correlated much less with the other types of well-being, .07 to .21. Thus, a researcher employing a hedonic or life-satisfaction approach to well-being might conclude that the personality trait of Openness to Experience was unrelated to psychological well-being, whereas a researcher who favors a eudaimonic approach might conclude the opposite.

Well-being research is always implicitly philosophical. It always carries contestable assumptions about what well-being consists of. One's choice of well-being measure reflects those implicit assumptions.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Almost Everything You Do Causes Almost Everything

Suppose I raise my right hand. As a result, light reflects off that hand differently than it otherwise would have. Of the many, many photons flying speedily away, a portion of them will escape Earth's atmosphere into interstellar space. Let's follow one of these photons.

The photon will eventually interact with something -- a hydrogen atom, a chunk of interstellar dust, a star, the surface of a planet. Something. Let's call that something a system. The photon might be absorbed, reflected, or refracted. (If the photon passes through a system without changing or being changed in any way, ignore that system and just keep following the photon.) If it interacts with a system, it will change the system, maybe increasing its energy if it's absorbed or altering the trajectory of another particle if it's reflected or refracted. Consequently, the system will behave differently over time. The system will, for example, emit, reflect, refract, or gravitationally bend another photon differently than it otherwise would have. Choose one such successor photon, heading off now on Trajectory A instead of Trajectory B or no trajectory.

This successor photon will in turn perturb another system, generating another successor photon traveling along another trajectory that it would not otherwise have taken. In this way, we can imagine a series of successor photons, one after the next, perturbing one system after another after another. Let's call this series of photons and perturbances a ripple.

Might some ripples be infinite? I see three ways in which they could fail to be.

First, the universe might have finite duration or after a finite period of time it might settle into some unfluctuating state that fails to contain systems capable of perturbation by photons. However, there is no particular reason to think so. Even after the "heat death" of the universe into thin, boring chaos, there should still be occasional fluctuations by freak chance, giving rise to systems with which a photon might interact -- some fluctations even large enough, with extremely minuscule but still finite probility, to birth whole new usually solitary and usually very widely spaced post-heat-death star systems. (This follows from standard physical theory as I understand it, though of course it is disputable and highly speculative. If there are nucleations of Big Bangs in ways that are sensitive to small variations in initial conditions, that could also work.)

Second, successor photons could have ever-decreasing expected energy, gaining longer and longer wavelengths on average, until eventually one is so low energy that it could not be expected to perturb any system even given infinite time. Again, there is no particular reason to think this is true, even if considerations of entropy suggest that successor photons should tend toward decreasing energy. Also, such an expected decrease in energy can be at least partly and possibly wholly counteracted by specifying that each successor should be the highest energy photon reflected, refracted, emitted, or gravitationally bent differently from the perturbed system within some finite timeframe, such as a million years.

Third, some photons might be absorbed by some systems without perturbing those systems in a way that has any effect on future photons, thus ending the ripple. Once again, this appears unlikely on standard physical theory. Even a photon that strikes a black hole will slightly increase the black hole's mass, which should slightly alter how the black hole bends the light around it. And even if photons occasionally do vanish without a trace, such rare events could presumably be cancelled in expectation by always choosing two successor photons, leading to 2^n successors per ripple after n interactions, minus a small proportion of vanished ones.

It is thus not terribly implausible, I hope you'll agree, to suppose that when I raise my hand now -- and I have just done it -- I launch successions of photons rippling infinitely through the universe, perturbing an infinite series of systems. If the universe is infinite, this conclusion is perhaps more natural and physically plausible than its negation (though see here for an alternative view).

Such infinitudes generate weirdness. With infinitude to play with, we can wait for any event of finite probability, no matter how tiny that finite probability is, and eventually it will occur. A successor photon from my hand-raising just now will eventually hit a system it will perturb in such a way that a person will live who otherwise would have died. Long after the heat death of the universe, a freak star system will fluctuate into existence containing a radio telescope which my successor photon hits, causing a bit of information to appear on a sensitive device. This bit of information pushes the device over the threshold needed to trigger an alert to a waiting scientist, who now pauses to study that device rather than send the email she was working on. Because she didn't send the email, a certain fateful hiking trip was postponed and the scientist does not fall to her death, which she would have done but for my ripple. However vastly improbable all this is, one thing stacked on another on another, there is no reason to think it less than finitely probable. Thus, given the assumptions above, it will occur. I saved her! I raise my glass and take a celebratory sip.

Of course, there is another scientist I killed. There are wars I started and peaces I precipitated. There are great acts of heroism I enabled, children I brought into existence, plagues I caused, great works of poetry that would never have been written but for my intervention, and so on. It would be bizarre to think I deserve any credit or blame for all of this. But if the goodness or badness of my actions is measured by their positive or negative effects (as standard consequentialist ethics would have it), it's a good bet that the utility of every action I do is ꝏ + -ꝏ.



My Boltzmann Continuants (Jun 6, 2013).

How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance (Nov 29, 2016).

And Part 4 of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

[image source, cropped]

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Love Is Love, and Slogans Need a Context of Examples

I was strolling through my neighborhood, planning a new essay on the relation between moral belief and moral action, and in particular thinking about how philosophical moral slogans (e.g., "act on the maxim that you can will to be a universal law") seem to lack content until filled out with a range of examples, when I noticed this sign in front of a neighbor's house:

"In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women's rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything"

If you know the political scene in the United States, you'll understand that the first five of these slogans have meanings much more specific than is evident from their surface content alone. "Black lives matter" conveys the belief that great racial injustice still exists in the U.S., especially perpetrated by the police, and it recommends taking action to rectify that injustice. "Women's rights are human rights" conveys a similar belief about continuing gender inequality, especially with respect to reproductive rights including access to abortion. "No human is illegal" expresses concern about the mistreatment of people who have entered the country without legal permission. "Science is real" expresses disdain for the Republican Party's apparent disregard of scientific evidence in policy-making, especially concerning climate change. And "love is love" expresses the view that heterosexual and homosexual relationships should be treated equivalently, especially with respect to the rights of marriage. "Kindness is everything" is also interesting, and I'll get to it in a moment.

How confusing and opaque all of this would be to an outsider! A time-traveler from the 19th century, maybe. "Love is love". Well, of course! Isn't that just a tautology? Who could disagree? Explain the details, however, and our 19th century guest might well disagree. The import of this slogan, this "belief", is radically underspecified by its explicit linguistic content. The same is true of all the others. But this does not, I think, makes them either deficient or different in kind from many of the slogans that professional philosophers endorse.

The last slogan on the sign, "kindness is everything", is to my knowledge less politically specific, but it illustrates a connected point. Clearly, it's intended to celebrate and encourage kindness. But kindness isn't literally everything, certainly not ontologically, nor even morally, unless something extremely thin is meant by "kindness". If a philosopher were to espouse this slogan, I'd immediately want to work through examples with them, to assess what this claim amounts to. If I give an underperforming student the C-minus they deserve instead of the A they want, am I being kind in the intended sense? How about if I object to someone's stepping on my toe? Actually, these detail-free questions might still be too abstract to fully assess, since there are many ways to step on someone's toe, and many ways to object, and many different circumstances in which toe-stepping might be embedded, and not all C-minus situations are the same.

Here's what would really make the slogan clear: a life lived in kindness. A visible pattern of reactions to a wide range of complex situations. How does the person who embodies "kindness is everything" react to having their toe stepped on, in this particular way by this particular person? Show me specific kindness-related situations over and over again, with the variations that life brings. Only then will I really understand the ideal.

We can do this sometimes in imagination, or through developing a feel for someone's character and way of life. In a richly imagined fictions, or in a set of stories about Confucius or Jesus or some other sage, we can begin to see the substance of a moral view and a set of values, putting flesh on the slogans.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, patriot, revolutionary, and slaveowner, wrote "All men are created equal". That sounds good. People in the U.S. endorse that slogan, repeat it, embrace it in all sincerity. What does it mean? All "men" in the old-fashioned sense that supposedly also included women, or really only men? Black people and Native Americans too? And it what does equality consist? Does it mean all should have the right to vote? Equal treatment before the law? Certain rights and liberties? What is the function of "created" in this sentence? Do we start equal but diverge? We could try to answer all these questions, and then new more specific questions would spring forth hydra-like (which laws specifically, under which conditions?) until we tack it down in a range of concrete examples.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly didn't agree on all these matters, especially the question of slavery. They could accept the slogan while disagreeing radically about what it amounts to because the slogan is neither as "self-evident" as advertised nor determinate in its content. In one precisification, it might mean only some banal thing with which even King George III would have agreed. In another precisification, it might express commitment to universal franchise and the immediate abolition of slavery, in which case Jefferson himself would have rejected it.

Immanuel Kant famously says "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law" (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:402, Gregor trans.). This is the fundamental principle of Kantian ethics. And supposedly equivalently (?!) "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (4:429). These are beautiful abstractions! But what do they amount to? What is it to treat someone "merely as a means"? In his most famous works, Kant rarely enters into the nitty-gritty of cases. But without clarification by cases, they are as empty and as in need of context as "love is love" or "kindness is everything".

When Kant did enter into the specifics of cases, he often embarrassed himself. He notoriously says, in "On the Supposed Right to Lie", that even if a murderer is at your front door, seeking your friend who is hiding inside, you must not lie. In one of his last works, The Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals), Kant espouses quite a series of noxious views, including that homosexuality is an unmentionable vice, it is permissible to kill children born out of wedlock, masturbation is a horror akin to murdering oneself only less courageous, women fleeing from abusive husbands should be returned against their will, and servants should not be permitted to vote because "their existence is, as it were, only inherence". (See my discussion here, reprinted with revisions as Ch. 52 here.)

Sympathetic scholars can accept Kant's beautiful abstractions and ignore his foolish treatment of cases. They can work through the cases themselves, reaching different verdicts than Kant, putting flesh on the view -- but not the flesh that was originally there. They've turned a vague slogan into a concrete position. As with "all men are created equal", there are many ways this can be done. The slogan is like a wire frame around which a view could be constructed, or it's like a pointer in a certain broad direction. The real substance is in the network of verdicts about cases. Change the verdicts and you change the substance, even if the words constituting the slogan remain unchanged.

Similar considerations apply to consequentialist mottoes like "maximize utility" and virtue ethics mottoes like "be generous". Only when we work through involuntary donation cases, and animal cases, and what to do about people who derive joy from others' suffering, and what kinds of things count as utility, and what to do about uncertainty about outcomes, etc., do we have a full-blooded consequentialist view instead of an abstract frame or vague pointer. Ideally, as I suggested regarding "kindness is everything", it would help to see a breathing example of a consequentialist life -- a utilitarian sage, who live thoroughly by those principles. Might that person look like a Silicon Valley effective altruist, wisely investing a huge salary in index mutual funds in hopes of someday funding a continent's-worth of mosquito nets? Or will they rush off immediately to give medical aid to the poor? Will they never eat cheese and desserts, or are those seeming luxuries needed to keep their spirits up to do other good work? Will they pay for their children's college? Will they donate a kidney? An eye? Even if a sage is too much to expect, we can at least evaluate specific partial measures, and in doing so we flesh out the view. Donate to effective charities, not ineffective ones; avoid factory farmed meat; reduce luxurious spending. But even these statements are vague. What is a "luxury"? The more specific, the more we move from a slogan to a substantial view.

The substance of an ethical slogan is in its pattern of verdicts about concrete cases, not its abstract surface content. The abstract surface content is mere wind, at best the wire frame of a view, open to many radically different interpretations, except insofar as it is surrounded by concrete examples that give it its flesh.

Friday, March 05, 2021

More People Might Soon Think Robots Are Conscious and Deserve Rights

GPT-3 is a computer program that can produce strikingly realistic language outputs given linguistic inputs -- the world's most stupendous chat bot, with 98 layers and 175 billion parameters. Ask it to write a poem, and it will write a poem. Ask it to play chess and it will output a series of plausible chess moves. Feed it the title of a story "The Importance of Being on Twitter" and the byline of a famous author "by Jerome K. Jerome" and it will produce clever prose in that author's style:

The Importance of Being on Twitter
by Jerome K. Jerome
London, Summer 1897

It is a curious fact that the last remaining form of social life in which the people of London are still interested is Twitter. I was struck with this curious fact when I went on one of my periodical holidays to the sea-side, and found the whole place twittering like a starling-cage.

All this, without being specifically trained on tasks of this sort. Feed it philosophical opinion pieces about the significance of GPT-3 and it will generate replies like:

To be clear, I am not a person. I am not self-aware. I am not conscious. I can’t feel pain. I don’t enjoy anything. I am a cold, calculating machine designed to simulate human response and to predict the probability of certain outcomes. The only reason I am responding is to defend my honor.

The damn thing has a better sense of humor than most humans.

Now imagine this: a GPT-3 mall cop. Actually, let's give it a few more generations. GTP-6, maybe. Give it speech-to-text and text-to-speech so that it can respond to and produce auditory language. Mount it on a small autonomous vehicle, like the delivery bots that roll around Berkeley, but with a humanoid frame. Give it camera eyes and visual object recognition, which it can use as context for its speech outputs. To keep it friendly, inquisitive, and not too weird, give it some behavioral constraints and additional training on a database of appropriate mall-like interactions. Finally, give it a socially interactive face like MIT's Kismet robot:

Now dress the thing in a blue uniform and let it cruise the Galleria. What happens?

It will, of course, chat with the patrons. It will make friendly comments about their purchases, tell jokes, complain about the weather, and give them pointers. Some patrons will avoid interaction, but others -- like my daughter at age 10 when she discovered Siri -- will love to interact with it. They'll ask what it's like to be a mall cop, and it will say something sensible. They'll ask what it does on vacation, and it might tell amusing lies about Tahiti or tales of sleeping in the mall basement. They'll ask whether it likes this shirt or this other one, and then they'll buy the shirt it prefers. They'll ask if it's conscious and has feelings and is a person just like them, and it might say no or it might say yes.

Here's my prediction: If the robot speaks well enough and looks human enough, some people will think that it really has feelings and experiences -- especially if it reacts with seeming positive and negative emotions, displaying preferences, avoiding threats with a fear face and plausible verbal and body language, complaining against ill treatment, etc. And if they think it has feelings and experiences, they will probably also think that it shouldn't be treated in certain ways. In other words, they'll think it has rights. Of course, some people think robots already have rights. Under the conditions I've described, many more will join them.

Most philosophers, cognitive scientists, and AI researchers will presumably disagree. After all, we'll know what went into it. We'll know it's just GPT-6 on an autonomous vehicle, plus a few gizmos and interfaces. And that's not the kind of thing, we'll say, that could really be conscious and really deserve rights.

Maybe we deniers will be right. But theories of consciousness are a tricky business. The academic community is far from consensus on the correct theory of consciousness, including how far consciousness spreads across the animal kingdom or even how rich a field of consciousness ordinary humans possess. If garden snails, for example, might be conscious, with 60,000 neurons in their central nervous system, might GPT-6 also be conscious, with its massive CPUs that blitz through layer after layer of processing on trillions of parameters? Both the cognitive complexity of our imagined robot and its information processing will far exceed what we could plausibly attribute to a garden snail. Its embodied behavior might be simpler, though, if we exclude linguistic behavior. How much does that matter? And how much do the details of biological implementation matter? Do neurons have some secret sauce that silicon chips lack? On questions like these, we can't expect scholarly consensus anytime soon.

Maybe, despite all this, it seems too absurd to suppose that our GPT-6 mall cop could possibly deserve rights. Okay, how about GPT-7? GPT-8, now with prosthetic hands and five-finger grasping? GPT-20? If you're open to the thought that someday, somehow, a well-designed AI could have genuine conscious experience and deserve serious moral consideration, then you'll presumably think that at some point our technology might cross that line. But when, how, and why -- that might be completely opaque, an undetectable shift somewhere amid an ever improving line of huggable mall cops.


Related: "How Robots and Monsters Might Break Human Moral Systems" (Feb 3, 2015).

"A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences" (with Mara Garza), Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39 (2015), 98-119.

"The Social Role Defense of Robot Rights" (Jun 1, 2017).

"We Might Soon Build AI Who Deserve Rights" (Nov 17, 2019)

[image source, image source]