30 – Of Specks and Omlettes

We discuss a famously controversial post, despite our better judgement. With Sean and Matt.

The Post: Torture Vs Dust Specks

Rationality: From AI to Zombies – The Podcast

Shut Up And Multiply is actually taken from two posts: Circular Altruism and The “Intuitions” Behind “Utilitarianism”

Three Worlds Collide (also in audio)

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (pdf)

Ashton Kutcher’s Thorn program

“…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes” – short story by Scott Alexander featuring pills of many colors

SMBC Comics is the best!

Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross radio shows

Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell

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9 Responses to 30 – Of Specks and Omlettes

  1. skalatyra says:

    Hello guys, what I wish you had talked about in this podcast, is the argument that convinced me of the dust-speck position. I was kind of surprised even that it didn’t come up.

    The whole time you were talking about the thought-experiment, it was always just a one-off decision that had to be made. What I think about though, is whether or not that position is generalizable.

    So what happens if you had to make that decision multiple times? What if someone tried to exploit the way you make these decisions?

    Imagine that you’re Odin in charge of 3^^^3 people across the multiverse and Loki tries to exploit your position.
    Loki really hates people and also you, but he has a lot less power and can only affect a tiny percentage of people on his own. So what he does, is he kidnaps one person each from 1 trillion different parallel universes and tells you that he will torture them for 50 years, if you don’t comply with his wishes. (Loki is powerful enough to do this and hidden well enough that you can’t just free all of them.)

    His offer is that he will set one free if you put a dust-speck (or equivalent.) into the eye of all 3^^^3 of your subjects sometime within the next 50 years.
    The same offer for the next person. And the next. And the next…

    Now if you follow your rule that dust-specks are less bad, you’re going to agree to all those offers. The end-result though is, that each of your 3^^^3 subjects gets 1 trillion dust-specks or small itches or tiny paper-cuts (or whatever you chose). That is the same as hundreds per second for 50 years, which is equivalent to torture.

    So the decision is now really between 1 trillion people getting tortured for 50 years, or 3^^^3 people (which is unimaginably more people) getting tortured for 50 years.

    • quantum cat says:

      Surely if the question gets reiterated many times the situation changes, but if you have to make the choice only few times then you still have to decide what is worst between one unbearable thing, or 3^^^3 bearable things. I prefer the latter because I could stand 3^^^3 bearable things but not one unbearable thing, which is quite obvious when you consider the definition of unbearable.

  2. Senjiu says:

    There is a doctor who episode on the topic of “Those who walk away from Omelas”.

    Uhm, I guess if I point out which episode it is it’s a bit of a spoiler because The Doctor and his compagnion aren’t aware of the situation at the time. And the situation is also a bit different. But not having heard about the original story when you described it this was the first thing I thought of when I heard it being described.
    Oh, and an interesting spin on it is, that if you decide to stay in Omelas, so to speak, you forget about the kid being tortured in the doctor who scenario. So you just go visit the kid every ten years or so I think, decide wether or not you are okay with the situation and then, if you are okay with it, forget about it for the next ten years.
    On the other hand, if enough people (I think 10%) aren’t okay with the situation, the torturing and the utopia (and, well, possibly life, they aren’t that clear about it) would stop for everyone.

    I think I should mention the episode in which this happens, in case someone just wants to see that one and see how it plays out: It’s the second episode with the eleventh doctor, “the beast below”.

  3. The Mike says:

    The dust speck comparison is total bullshit. That is not a real comparison. It’s like asking people if they’d rather receive mean looks vs saving someone else’s life, these things are not on the same level of comparison!!!

    Now, I don’t get this which of these two would you choose either we do horrible things to a single guy vs doing something shitty to a whole bunch of people. I don’t think there’s a clear answer on any case. What if the person being considered to be harmed is you, would you still realistically chose the be harmed for the good of humanity? I doubt it. Not only that, but if this is your line of thinking then you should be very clear on what your thoughts of human sacrifice are because it seems inevitable to me that that’s the ultimate position to what you were discussing.

    • Steven Zuber says:

      We talked at length during the episodes about the weakness of the comparison and spent a fair amount of time generating alternative comparisons.

      I’m not sure what your position is on human sacrifice, or what you think ours is. I’m not a fan of the idea, but if we needed to kill one random human to stop the earth from being thrown into the sun, it seems like a no brainer.

  4. /r/sorryamhigh says:

    I know this is old but I’m just now catching up and I wonder if the guy that said the Omelas story is about americans exploiting third world economies was intentionally anchoring us. I have no doubt that it worked on some level but I wonder if it was deliberate. I’m not on patreon so maybe you guys talked about it after the show? I came looking for the comments but nobody mentioned it.

  5. Swindle says:

    This seemed like a kind of easy problem. I need an itemized receipt for this torture.
    *Broken finger = 1 x 10^3 dust motes
    *25mm x 25mm of flayed skin = 1 x 10^8 dust motes
    *1 cigarette burn = 1 x 10^12 dust motes
    Nothing is really that bad on it’s own we just freak out that it is all happening to 1 person for basically their whole life.

    Obvious counter being “1 guy gaining the memories of you being tortured for a life time vs. everyone gaining the memory of having a dust speck in your eye.” when you put it that way you automatically go with the dust specs because you actually did do away with all of the other consequences.

    That being said I don’t really buy into the whole happiness utilitarianism thing so maybe I’m just refusing to participate in the thought experiment (you seemed to de-bunk utilitarianism in one of the early episodes with the whole orgasmium concept).

  6. Pingback: 148 – Decisions, Decisions | The Bayesian Conspiracy

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