I think it was Robert P. George who once insisted, as an argument against utilitarianism, that we would not allow human sacrifice, even to prevent a huge plunge in the stock market.  (This is what I remember anyway.  It was a long time ago that I would have heard this, so if I’ve gotten it wrong or mischaracterized his words, my apologies to Professor George.)

What strikes me is not that this claim is wrong as a critique of utilitarianism, as that it is simply false.  Granted that it is true that we do not (as far as I know) engage in human sacrifices to prevent stock market crashes, but this is only because no one of any consequence believes that human sacrifice has a causal relationship to market movements. If for some reason sufficiently important and influential people were to come to believe that human sacrifice could prevent market crashes, then of course we could expect human sacrifices to begin.  It’s not just that human interests are at stake in keeping equity prices up.  The interests of rich people are at stake, and barring the occasional revolution rich people get what they want.

To be sure, we might not expect to see naked human sacrifice for the sake of rich people’s portfolios.  Perhaps the practice would be kept discreet, an the only open sign of its existence would be that every now and then some people just…vanish.

A more interesting possibility is that we would have the practice of human sacrifice, but with window dressing.  We wouldn’t call it “human sacrifice,” but rather “national service.”  There would be a draft that everyone would have to register for, you see, and some people would be called up.  This arrangement would not be so different from anything we are already used to.  Over the last century young men by the millions have been fed into the red maw of war by exactly such an institutional mechanism.  You can bet in this latter circumstance that there will be plenty of articulate people, lawyers and academics and newspaper and cable-tv pundits who present smooth, intellectually plausible-sounding justifications of the practice.  The rich can buy these people, after all.  We might even imagine state funerals for the victims, complete with honor guards in snappy uniforms, a bugler playing Taps, a folded flag handed to the victim’s morning family: “With the thanks of a grateful bourgeoisie…”

An observation on marriage

If someone were to propose that your dentist, your plumber, and your attorney all should be the exact same person, elected in early adulthood and ideally cleaved-to for the rest of your life, he’d be dismissed as a madman.  But for some reason we all live with, indeed for the most part eagerly endorse, the proposition that your most intimate friend, your bedmate, and your partner in household management should all be the exact same person, elected in early adulthood and ideally cleaved-to for the rest of your life.

Small wonder so many of us are so emotionally dysfunctional.  Small wonder also, in words attributed by Laura Kipnis to novelist Vince Passaro, “It is difficult to imagine a modern middle-class marriage not syncopated by rage.

“Consensual” sex

I’m in a long process of migrating content off social networks onto scrapbook blogs where it will continue to be kept even in the event the social network goes out of business or becomes unfriendly to the kind of content I like. The large majority of such content is “nice” adult material which I migrate to Hedonix and most of the balance is some not-so-nice stuff which I migrate to Infernal Wonders. It isn’t often that I find something I want to migrate over here, but every so often something might come up.


Justifying the Mephistopheles wager

My two previous posts on p-zombies and homunculus actors have been attempts to lay a little philosophical groundwork, imagining some possibilities in which you appear to go on into the future even though you are annihilated. The point of these is to try to provide a refined form of an argument I visited some years ago called the Mephistopheles wager. The idea behind that wager, for those of you who have never heard of it or who have quite forgivably forgotten, this Mephistopheles wager was a bet taken at some probability p such if you won the bet with probability (1-p) you would get something you wanted, needed, sought, or so forth and otherwise with probability p you would be instantly and painlessly annihilated. Since even your instant and painless annihilation would leave bereaved loved-ones behind, I conjured up some exotic possibilities called the p-zombie and the homunculus actor, which between them, make for a better mechanism of self-annihilation than just being dead, because your loved ones need never know that you lost the wager. From their perspectives, you’ll be going on as before. Call p-zombies and homonculus actors, therefore, a BATDAPE, a Best Alternative to Death as Personal Extinction. We can therefore refine the Mephistopheles wager to understand that if you win, you get what you wanted, and if you lose, BATDAPE for you.

Now we might well imagine a cumulative Mephistopheles wager, that is to say perhaps, many small wagers that add up to a larger one: for example, you’d take a Mephistopheles wager with a probability of 0.1 if the prize is a really awesome romantic partner (in place, perhaps, of a lifetime of loneliness), a probability of 0.2 of having a career that is at once well-remunerated, meaningful, and enjoyable (as opposed to a lifetime of crappy work). All these wagers could be added up to your Cumulative Lifetime Mephistopheles Wager.

Now my intuition, way back when, was that if you would take a Cumulative Lifetime Mephistopheles wager of 0.5 or greater, then in some important sense your life is a misfortune. There are various informal ways to try to justify this intuition — think, for example, how desperate and miserable you would have to be to play a single round of Russian roulette, with say, a prize of ten million dollars offered if you survive — and that’s a just a wager with probability of 0.17 (assuming a fair six-chambered revolver). But here is a way in which I think that the intuition might be justified more formally.

Everyone’s life is a combination of satisfactions and frustrations. Satisfactions are things that make you happy (good food, time with friends, good sex, etc.) or which make your life seem to mean something to you (you teach inner-city children to read, visit and provide company for lonely old people, make scientific discoveries, adopt puppies and kittens otherwise fated for destruction). It take it every life has at least some satisfactions, and some have many. The satisfactions of your life have a magnitude, which is to say some measure of their overall size. The magnitude is probably best characterized as an ordinal measure of sorts: while only the most aggressive utilitarians would be willing to attach a number to each individual satisfaction and then treat the magnitude as an arithmetic sum of those, most of the rest of us would still be able to say that adding a certain condition to our lives either makes our satisfactions greater or less, and to compare adding one or the other and seeing whether their addition to our life’s satisfactions be greater or less for one or the other, or equal for both.

Life is also characterized by frustrations. These have both a positive an a negative character. Life’s positive frustrations are bad things we wish we could remove but can’t. They might be personal forms of unhappiness like persistent physical pain or debility or loneliness, Or there are negative frustrations, things we desire or need but can’t achieve: real success in a career that matters to us, or a happy relationship with someone. There might even be global meaning frustrations to our lives: we really want to get rid of war or poverty or political oppression but just can’t and feel helpless and angry as a result of these. Like satisfactions our life’s frustrations have a magnitude, again probably of an ordinal character: add this frustration to life and our lives are worse, add another one and our lives are worse still even if the first frustration is not added, and so on.

Magnitudes of satisfactions and frustrations matter. Imagine a hypothetical life that had in it only satisfactions. Would we say that life is a misfortune? I would concede that it is not. Indeed, I would concede that we could add some minor frustrations to that life and it would still not be a misfortune. But surely we cannot add on frustrations to that life without end without at some point deeming that life to be a misfortune. The contrary position is subject to a straightforward reductio: if you believe that no amount of frustrations make a life a misfortune, then you’re committed to a view that life could have infinite frustrations — infinite suffering — and that’s absurd.

At what point might someone say that a life is a misfortune? It is clearly at some point between null and infinite magnitudes of frustration. While I suppose that there might be other possible answers, the only one that seems intuitively plausible to me would be the point at which the magnitude of one’s frustrations becomes greater than than of one’s satisfactions.

If the magnitude of your frustrations exceeds that of your satisfactions, then your life is a misfortune. And that, I think, is about intuitive rock-bottom for me.

Well and good, but that just seems to bring up the question of how one compares magnitudes of things like satisfactions and frustrations. The answer to that question would seem to be “what bet would you take?”

If it seems absurd to talk about what bets one would take in a context where what is at stake is your future existence, reflect: in a small way we are taking bets that resemble the Mephistopheles wager all the time. Have you ever crossed a busy street to buy a cup of coffee and a newspaper? Well, then you’ve taken a bet that you won’t be run down by a car. Maybe in most circumstances that’s a pretty good bet, but it’s still a bet. In taking that action you are accepting a (very small, one hopes) probability of having no future in order to turn a frustration (lack of coffee and news) into a satisfaction. You might not want to think about it as a bet, but a bet it is, and in some situations the risk will become sufficiently salient that the bet-like character of the action will become apparent. You might cross a busy street to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper, but you would be unlikely to want to cross an active minefield for the same. Then again, if what’s on the other side of that minefield is sufficiently important to you, you might very well cross it: if what’s on the other side isn’t just coffee and a newspaper but your badly-wounded, will-die-if-she-doesn’t-receive-medical-attention child, then you might very well plunge forward and take the risk. The risks we take are the mechanism for revealing what it is that matters to us.

Now there’s a special sort of bet that becomes rational when the magnitude of what we win matches the magnitude of what we stand to lose, the so-called double-or-nothing bet, that is, the bet that we might take when the odds of losing are 0.5. Consider a very simple kind of person, Homo economicus, who is only interested in maximizing how much money he has. If you offer Homo economicus an opportunity to spend his $4 in wealth that wins lottery ticket that wins with a probability of 0.5, how much would the jackpot have to be to induce him to buy? Answer: at least $8.01, because the expected value of the ticket for Homo economicus can be calculated simply as p(win)*jackpot, so 0.5*$8.01 = $4.005 > $4. For that value, Homo economicus would give up the satisfaction that matters to him (possession of $2) to get rid of the frustration he has (of $2.01 that isn’t his but might be).

Few people would be so simple as Homo economicus. Consider a cousin of Homo economicus, Homo prudens, who doesn’t value only money, but cares about what money can get him — about money’s utility, in other words. The more money Homo prudens has, the less valuable it is to him, though more is always better. Homo prudens might have a utility function like this:

Note, however, that there is still a double-or-nothing bet that Homo prudens might take if his wealth is $4, which is to say one which pays off $16 if it wins. The magnitude of the utility of $8 isn’t enough, but whatever frustrations Homo prudens could make go away with $16.01 in wealth would make it worth it to him to take the bet. That would thus seem to be the point at which the magnitude of his frustrations equals that of his satisfactions.

That’s enough for one post on the matter. On a post shortly to come, I’ll try to address the question of whether it’s just crazy to use examples like this to evaluate actual human lives.

An alternative for those who don’t like p-zombies

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.—
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

King Lear, V,iii, 369-75

In his fictional world, Lear no doubt suffers terribly from the death of his daughter Cordelia, but what we really see on the stage is not an actual king but an actor. The actor is himself a conscious human being (presumably), but even if the actor is using the Method we needn’t really believe that the actor is suffering from terrible bereavement.

In my previous post I suggested as a thought experiment for eliciting our values about existence and non-existence we consider the possibility of becoming a p-zombie rather than committing suicide. In the p-zombie thought experiment a non-conscious simulactrum of ourselves would go forward into the future leaving all the people in our lives none-the-wiser about our status. Becoming a p-zombie would thus have the advantage of allowing us to terminate our own suffering without causing bereavement and misery among our surviving friends and family. A commenter objected that he found the idea of a p-zombie so deeply implausible that the thought the entire thought experiment made no sense. I’m not sure I agree with that, but in the interest of moving forward I’ll offer here an alternative thought experiment.

Suppose that there is a being that we could call a Consummate Homunculus Actor, for short, “Cohom.” Knows you in excruciating detail, has access to all your memories, knows all your likes and dislikes, appetites and aversions, phobias and kinks, and can there act the part of you with such fantastic fidelity that external observers can’t tell the difference between you and a kind of high-fidelity puppet whose strings are pulled by Cohom. Cohom is not a zombie. Cohom is conscious, but conscious in the sense that our actor playing Lear is conscious. He’s very much aware of what he’s doing when he’s playing Lear, but he isn’t actually suffering in anything like the sense that Lear is suffering.

Now suppose you had this alternative. Cohom could crawl inside your head, wipe your own consciousness, pick up the reins of your behavior, and act out the complicated part that is you living out your life. Because Cohom knows everything that’s relevant about you, the people around you will never know that it’s Cohom discoursing with or reacting to them, rather than “you.” Cohom will see through “your” eyes and feel with “your” hands, but will not feel pain or love or anything like that directly. Rather, “your” burning your hand on a stove will be an event in a script to which Cohom must respond with an appropriate yowl of pain. The same for “your” falling in love. For Cohom it’s a part to be acted. The balance of your life might be something like The Truman Show except inverted. Instead of “you” being “real” and everyone around you being an actor hired to play a part, “you” will be an actor and everyone else around you will be “real.” The “real” you will have long since departed into the blessed calm of eternal unconsciousness. Cohom, meanwhile, will stay on the job until “your” death, at which point he collects a handsome check from whatever mad or demonic employer engaged his services in playing the part of you, and possibly an acting award as well.

Cohom or p-zombie, either way you get an out.

A philosopher’s though-experimental alternative to suicide

There’s a sort of creature invented by philosophers called philosopher’s zombie or a p-zombie for short. The p-zombie, unlike say the movies featured in movies by George Romero (may he rest in peace), are not shambling, stupid, re-animated corpses. Rather, they’re people just like you or me except in one respect: they are completely unconscious. They have no inner life, no feelings, no memories, no imaginations, none of that. But in spite of not having an inner life, they are behaviorally identical to people who do have inner lives. Poke one with a pin and it will say “ouch” and act indignant with you, as if it were really feeling pain. Ask a p-zombie about a sad incident in its childhood and it may be able to do so, perhaps with tears in its eyes. But it is not “remembering” its childhood anymore than a record player is “remembering” the contents of a disk it is playing, and it is not sad any more than a classically-trained actor playing Lear is actually mourning Cordelia.

You can’t tell a p-zombie from a “real” person by observing what it does, because what it does is the same thing a as “real” person. More unsettling than that, you can’t somehow peer inside someone and tell whether or not they are a “real” person or a p-zombie. Look inside a “real” person’s brain, and all you will see are a bunch of cells squirting electrochemical signals at one another. A p-zombie’s brain is just the same way. In neither case can you observe a “mind,” see a “person,” or observe “feelings.” To be sure, you might come to confident that certain brain-states correlate reliably with states of mind. You might, for example, come to believe based on evidence from a long series of tests that a certain neuronal firing pattern is someone thinking of a white bear. But this again is only correlations of observed behaviors: when the state is observed, the subject reports thinking of a white bear. The problem is that p-zombies just as readily as “real” people can report thinking of a white bear. It’s just that the p-zombie is not really thinking of anything at all, while the “real” person is. In neither case do you actually see something inside the head that looks like a white bear, or directly observe the White Bear State of Mind.

Most philosophers think that p-zombies are physically impossible and can’t exist in our world, and at least some think that they are metaphysically impossible, that is, that they can’t exist in any possible world. One has to admit that the p-zombie is a pretty unsettling concept. Anyone you know could (in theory, anyway) be not a person, but a p-zombie. Your boss. Your parents. Your spouse. Your adorable toddler daughter who says “I wuv you” as she drifts off to sleep in your arms might not love you at all, but just be a piece of machinery carrying out its programming, unfeeling as any rock.

The concept of the p-zombie makes an interesting thought experiment possible. Suppose there were a drug that could turn you, permanently, instantly, and irrevocably into a p-zombie. Upon taking a does of the drug your consciousness would be instantly annihilated and gone for good. But no one would ever actually be able to tell that you had taken the drug. Future history will be exactly the same as if you had not done so, because the p-zombie that was you will behave exactly as you would have behaved. It will continue to get up in the morning, catch the train to work, stand around the watercooler with colleagues griping about the boss, come home in the evenings, help its children with their homework, have increasingly dutiful and diminishingly frequent sex with your spouse, age, retire, move to the Sunbelt, collect various government benefits, and die, just like you would have. Through all of this, “you” will be gone, together with all the joys and sufferings the balance of your life might contain. The p-zombie will act happy or sad or angry, happy at your daughter’s wedding or angry during its periodic quarrels with your spouse. But it just as much as you will live in the blessed calm of complete consciousness.

Thus p-zombification might be thought of not so much as a kind as an alternative to suicide, and leads me to wonder whether if it were somehow available, it wouldn’t cut off a slice both of suicides and non-suicides. I should think it would do both, and my reason for thinking so is at least in part autobiographical. At the closest I ever personally came to suicide, around the age of thirty or so, the thought that stayed my hand more than any other was that of the suffering that my killing myself would inflict on people I loved, most particularly on my parents (ironic for an antinatalist to feel that way perhaps, but emotional life is messy). I can’t really guarantee that things would have been the same had there been a way out of suffering that they and no one else need ever have known about.


A life is a stone dropped into a pond and its meaning the ripples heading out therefrom.

Heave a brick into the Mississippi at Minneapolis. Have a friend in New Orleans try to distinguish its ripples from everything else in the river. Her report back to you should tell you much about a human life inside human history.