Over the last month I seemed to have stumbled upon a deeply worrying philosophical issue that I now call the reparator paradox. I’ve already explained reparationism (previously called compensationism) in the post “Four posthuman ethical frameworks”, and also mentioned it in the post “Principles of the Aonian Exaltation”, where it’s briefly described as this, with the words in [brackets] being optional:
If you cause suffering to other sentient beings, you are obliged to
compensate for that by causing an at least equal amount of positive
feelings for exactly the affected beings. More concretely, the
compensation must at least be [twice] as high in its total amount as the
inflicted suffering. Of course this implies that suffering and happiness
can be measured meaningfully. [This is a basis assumption that is
affirmed in the Aonian Exaltation universe.]
In the “posthuman ethical frameworks” post I mainly discussed the issue of “simulation ethics”, meaning the ethical principles that guide simulations of worlds that actually contain sentient beings (by using some kind of super-simulation device (or mind)). I call the beings who do those simulations simply simulators.
Now I want to define a special class of simulators which I will call reparators. A reparator is a being that:
- Has the ability to simulate a world containing sentient beings in full detail.
- Can store the mental states of each of those sentient beings at each single point in time.
- Can use the thus accumulated data to restore the minds of these sentient beings after their death in the simulation.
- Has the resources to create a kind of “heaven” for those restored beings, which is sufficiently good that it outweighs all the suffering the being in question has experienced within her lifetime in the simulation.
- Actually does all of the above.
I call a being who meets the criteria 1-4, but not 5, a potential reparator.
All of this is already extremely far out stuff that probably only the most hardcore transhumanists feel inclined to think about. Theologians would be inclined to think about this, too, if their doctrines and ideologies weren’t so inflexible and mind-numbing. So, what is this philosophical issue that worried me? It’s the following, which I call the reparator paradox:
A reparator can justify each and every action regarding sentient beings in her simulation with the argument that those will be more than compensated by “heaven” for their suffering. Since “heaven” is comparatively eternal (compared to the lifetime within the simulation), and the quality of life in heaven is extremely positive, every amount of suffering can be repaired and even overcompensated. The longer the duration of life in heaven compared to the lifetime in the primary simulation, the less does the primary suffering count. In the limit of infinity all finite suffering eventually becomes irrelevant. Even temporary “hells” can be ethically justified with that line of reasoning. After all, a being that eventually ends up in a virtually eternal heaven, but has suffered any finite amount of suffering, is better off with that deal than not having existed in the first place.
The reparator paradox consists in the apparent conclusion that reparators have an ethical blank cheque for doing anything they want with the sentient beings they simulate. This is very weird, because ethics usually prohibits certain actions, while allowing, or even prescribing others. The situation that any kind of action is justified under the condition of subsequent “reparation” is hugely counter-intuitive. It feels like the whole ground of ethics is torn apart by the reparator paradox, at least when it comes to consequentialist ethics (see Wikipedia link below). However, I am quite convinced that any ethical framework that is supposed to have any reasonable basis needs to at least invoke consequentialist components, unless it degenerates into naivety or profound arbitrariness (which one might call nihilism).
Nevertheless, the word “paradox” typically describes an only apparent contradiction, not a true contradiction (which is called antinomy in that case). So, how can the reparator paradox be resolved? There seem to be multiple possibilities:
- Ditch ethics, period. This doesn’t sound very wise.
- Relinquish all kinds of consequentialist ethics. This may sound more reasonable, but the consequences of that would be pretty close to “1” in my opinion.
- Argue that even the finite and temporary suffering in those simulations is ethically prohibited. This seems to be a very reasonable route. For example it would be a rather obvious solution to say: Hey, why allow for suffering in simulations, if reparators can create “heavens” in the first place? Only creating heavens seems to be ethically superior to creating primary simulations containing suffering, and then “repairing” that suffering, by putting the sufferers in heavens. Luckily, this line of reasoning is totally intuitively plausible. Unfortunately, intuitive clarity is a far cry from a real conclusive proof. It may well be that some forms of suffering enable larger overall utility in the end.
- Accept that reparators have the privilege to do what they want, if they make use of their reparator powers! This seems quite radical, but it avoids the problems that solutions 1, 2, and 3 suffer from. It implies a radical shift from “conventional morality” by accepting that there is a class of beings for which “conventional morality” does not hold. Instead, reparators only need to follow “reparator ethics”, which consists in making sufficient (optimal) use of their reparator powers.
I tend to favour solution 4. It’s certainly a hard and bitter pill to swallow, but it’s not riddled with fundamental problems – it’s merely a huge insult of human moral sensibilities, rather than a proof that no kinds of ethics can make any sense ever.
Honestly, I actually want solution 4 to be true, because it makes it actually plausible that we live in some kind of simulation, and that we actually will eventually be compensated for our suffering with an incredibly blissful existence in a heavenly afterlife provided by reparators that have some form of ethical sensibility. By the way, it’s also a plausible solution to the theodicy problem:
This post is of course no stringent analysis of the whole reparator paradox. It more a reflection of my current lines of philosophical reasoning than anything else. What the reparator paradox does, however, is humble me by demonstrating my amount of ignorance and confusion even in spite of having thought about such kinds of philosophical problems for many years. It motivates me to seek for more wisdom – in the hope that I will eventually reach some kind of robust philosophical clarity. Until then, I will probably still attach myself quite a bit to “conventional” intuitive/reflected utilitarian reasoning.
So, the question that intrigues me most at this point is: How does reading all of this make you feel?