Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Mirror Dance Dilemma

[Mild Vorkosigan spoilers]

In the Vorkosigan saga, wealthy people can buy clones into which they transplant their brains when their original body is about to die of old age. The clone's brain, which stays with the body for the first 14 or so years, is destroyed at the time of transplant. There are no alternatives for indefinite age extension. In the novels, this is portrayed as terribly evil, and some of the plot involves saving the clones.

This business model gives me the willies, as it's meant to.

But upon reflection, I'm not sure my reaction makes much sense. Let's assume the clones spend their 14 years having a pretty good time. That assumption isn't quite in line with the book. But for the thought experiment, assume everybody's having fun.

Here are the possibilities.

  1. If we don't create the clone in the first place, some old man who would otherwise have paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 80 life years.

  2. If we do create the clone but then someone rescues them, taking them to a different planet to live their own life, then the old man that paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies, and the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

  3. If we create the clone and everything goes as planned, an old man lives 80 years in body number 1, a clone lives 14 years in body number 2 and then dies, and the old man lives another 66 years in body number 2 and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

Preferring 1 to (2 or 3) is pretty straightforwardly silly, unless the wealthy old man uses his money to support a brand new human non-clone that would not otherwise have existed. (This looks straightforward to my reasoning parts, not my emotion parts.)

There are two obvious-to-me reasons to prefer 2 over 3.

The first is probably the one that's responsible for most of the willies: "Someone who only lived 14 years didn't live long enough, and a life cut short is worse than no life at all". I don't buy that objection. Dying after 80 years is also cutting a life short. The only reason it seems sort of ok is that as things stand, people lose quality of life just before dying because their bodies wear out. If I wouldn't prefer a lack of life to a healthy life cut short at 80, I don't think there's a principled way for me to prefer a lack of life to a life cut short at 14.

The other reason to favor 2 over 3 is "I value multiple experiences of the 80 year version of the human life process more than I value the 146 year version". And I don't buy that one either. I think people get better at using life years as they accumulate experience. In fact, I think I heard in a psychology class once that there's strong evidence that older people are happier, that people keep getting happier as they get older until they start having big problems with their aged bodies. Brief Googling supports that. So actually, I think someone who's had 80 years to figure out how to do awesome things with human experience, and who had to go through a whole 80 years of life to get things as figured out as they've got them now, is going to turn the next 66 healthy years into more awesomeness than a person starting the same 66 healthy years at age 14 could. The person starting the 66 years at age 14 begins with the same total lack of having-figured-things-out-ness we all remember from age 14, and doesn't reach the wealthy old guy's level of proficiency at life until the end of the 66 years.

I feel a little bit of pull from "but there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 14 to 80, and preferring 3 to 2 means that process happens once instead of twice", to which I respond "I becha there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 80 to 146, and preferring 2 to 3 means that process happens zero times instead of one".

The main problem with the clone business, then, is not that it exists, but that it isn't designed to maximize the children's enjoyment of life. They don't torture the children, but they do lie to them and focus mainly on keeping their bodies in spectacular health, paying fairly little attention to their minds. I think I'd fight for reform in the clone business, rather than fighting to shut it down.

Facebook discussion here.


Joshua said...

This is actually a comment for a post last year, "" I couldn't find a way to comment on that post or an email/contact information.

I was reading about "mental postures" from LessisWrong, someone linked your blog, I found your article on postures, and then found the mnemonic techniques. I've been studying them for about six months now. What you describe with your technique is similar to what mnemonic artists/champions call a "memory palace item." If you google "memory palace," you'll get all sorts of information on the subject. I would also highly recommend a book by Frances Yates, "The Art of Memory." In the text, Yates researches how memory techniques throughout the years (from ancient to modern) have evolved. It's a fascinating read/area of study that isn't too well known.

Again, sorry for the non-sequitur comment. I'm going to go back to perusing your blog.

TR said...

I don't believe you've adequately replied to David Sloan's objection on Facebook.

You wrote, "However, I don't yet feel particularly compelled by the proposed ethical injunction. If an FAI gives me rules, I'll follow them. In the mean time, if the future 146 year old is correct that the world will be better off, and I think he has good reason to think so, I stand by my claims."

"if the future 146 year old is correct" is not an alternative ethical reason. It is a hope that someone smarter than we are can come up with an alternative ethical reason, sometime in the future.

In other words, David looked at the scenario you described, and pointed out this system does not actually allow both parties to decide the world is better as a result of this "deal", which casts substantial doubt on whether the world actually is better off. You respond that the 146 year old might know that the world is indeed better off, and you would defer to that person's judgment. This theodicy does not adequately explain why the 14 year old's judgment should not be weighted equally.

In addition, this usage of QALY seems to overwhelm individual lives in our utilitarian calculus. In this reckoning, a Highlander-Utility-Monster of immortal life span has moral standing to murder a potential infinity of persons, despite their objections, so long as the HUM lives longer and better. It isn't completely clear to me why we should prefer QALY to individual lives so strongly.

Unknown said...

I've always been pretty uncomfortable with the idea that creating new life is equal to preserving existing life, as long as the qualities of life are equal. Maybe it's that I feel like the utility of a life (these days) is net negative, but death is even worse, so I want to help those who exist but not make more.
Where would you say is the boundary between situation that you would want a child born into, or wouldn't? How privileged do they need to be, or what time in human history would it have to be?

Muga said...

I think the central "thing" missing from this analysis is fairness.

Humans instinctively want situations which are fair.

I'm not sure whether this should be considered a "moral" concern, an instinctive social norm from which the immortal bodysnatcher appears to be defecting - incidentally, you've read Alicorn's short story on this, right? - or even some kind of heuristic or bias.

Regardless of how ethics work, you are arguing here that the pie is equally valuable to both of us, so from an outside perspective it is equally "fair" to give yourself 100% of the pie (100 utilons) as to give both of us 50% each (50 + 50 utilons). And I think this is why people (including yourself) react badly to the argument.

Also, your logic for why the marginal year is better spent by someone older is sufficiently flimsy that I don't buy it should make you certain enough to impose your judgement by force. (If anything, the disutility of forcibly imprisoning and murdering the 14-year-old probably outweighs the sliiiightly more valuable years of life the 146-year-old gets out of it.)

I'd have to agree with whatshisname from Facebook that this is exactly the sort of argument that Ethical Injunctions are supposed to protect against; it's something that should work in theory, but in practice it's just too easy for our political hindbrains to subvert into arguing we should be king and get all the cake.