Commentary on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Metaethics – Fairness

I am interested in Christian Apologetics, philosophy, as well as atheist equivalents for Christian frameworks. In particular, Atheist moral frameworks are a lot of fun to read through, if just to criticize them. One of my Atheist friends suggested that I look at this series by Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Lesswrong Wiki. Lesswrong seems to have a vibrant community very willing to call out mistakes on a post and would do a decent job of peer review.

This Ethics series is called the Metaethics series and focuses on what ethics could be developed in a naturalistic universe (without a God or other Supernatural beings) or by a “friendly AI” interested in acting morally. If the premise was properly constructed and analyzed, it might even be interesting within a Christian ethical framework. Unfortunately, he seems to make a bunch of logical mistakes, all of which the commenters point out I believe. I will focus first on the low hanging fruit of logical mistakes and develop some more complex responses when I get some feedback and understand the sequence better.

For this post, I am going to focus on his concept of fairness, The Bedrock of Fairness. He frames his concept of fairness within a popular situation of dividing up a pie. Each of the participants should receive a fair slice of the pie, but they disagree over what would be a fair way to divide it up. For situations where the pie can be divided into pieces of any size (at least any size less than or equal too) the whole pie and where all the participants have equal shares in the pie, there are known solutions for handling this to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

Unfortunately, in real world circumstances, those conditions are not guaranteed. Indeed, in the example, it is not even clear what their shares in the pie are. Also, since their valuation is subjective, they run into plenty of other problems in deciding fairness in other situations.

The real problem that I see, however, is that Eliezer’s foundation of fairness is based on the wrong principles. I propose that fairness should instead be based on free exchange between parties. If both parties agree to an exchange of goods and / or services without being forced, blackmailed, or extorted, then the exchange is fair. But how does this help with the pie example?

The reason that the shares and distribution of the pie was so uncertain was that they waited until they wanted to split it before deciding how to split it. If they had agreed on a means of distribution when they acquired the pie, then they would have considered that when offering their equivalent goods in exchange. If the pie was a gift, then the party giving the gift would have probably either specified a means of distribution or assumed a common popular means would be used.

What about situations where we deal with other people without an obvious prior establishment of ownership? For instance, services are not acquired formally as property and neither is time. However, services usually are acquired through some training and most people go through some level of training throughout our lives, even if that is childhood discipline. Under my property rights fairness framework, the fair use of our time and exchange of goods and services would depend on the intent of how they were to be used when they were given to us.

This would quickly become a very complex framework if not for two principles. The first is that the parties in many of these exchanges do not care that the goods will be used fairly after the exchange. Secondly and perhaps more importantly is that higher authorities prescription for fairness override lower authorities. For instance, if a martial artist received different moral instruction from a junior student and a senior student, he should prefer the moral instruction from the senior student, unless of course an even higher authority supercedes him. This would prevent parties to an exchange from having to honor prescriptions from an exchange made with an enemy or prescriptions which were clearly bad.

From a Christian perspective, God is both the ultimate authority and everything comes from him in some way. Therefore, in any exchange, we would need to consider his prescriptions for using what he has given us so that we take care of it and act fairly with other people.


About Bryan Rosander

I am a Reformed Baptist Christian who likes critical thinking and analysis, especially of things that have been ignored or under-analyzed.
This entry was posted in Eliezer Yudkowsky, fairness, morality, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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