Superintelligence and moral blindness Note that ‘Computing’ couldn’t fit in my screenshot, but he basically invented the architecture of today’s computers.
  • von Neumann is one of the smartest people ever to live
  • von Neumann, per the above quotes, and from my perspective, sounds like he’s seriously wrong about morality.

An argument for anti-realism from superintelligence

We can make a very simple argument for anti-realism that goes as so:

Response 1. I’m wrong.

This is the most obvious one, at least to me. Just as I trust von Neumann more than I do myself about Byzantine history, or attic Greek, or game theory, or quantum mechanics, or the whys and wherefores of the design of the very machine you’re reading this on, I should trust him about moral matters. He is right that you don’t have to be responsible for the world you’re in. You find yourself somewhere and somewhen, and you do what you’re meant to. We could call this the Friedmanian theory of morality: just as for Milton Friedman, the aim of a firm should simply and only be to maximise profits for its shareholders regardless of social impact, so the moral aim of a scientist qua scientist should be simply to advance science, wherever that takes you. The scholarly qualification ‘qua scientist’ is doing work here: this wouldn’t be the view that no one has any social or moral responsibility (Friedman doesn’t think that, he just thought that firms weren’t the locus of that responsibility), but that when one is doing science, one should advance science, and not let morals intrude.

Response 2. I’m wrong in a different way.

One gigantic problem here is that I’ve basically picked a couple of quotations that I found arresting while reading the cited book. It doesn’t give the whole story. It doesn’t tell you that the date was during the war; doesn’t tell you that he agitated to get Goedel out of Nazi Europe; and that he hated the Nazis with a loathing that was ‘essentially boundless’ (53 of Dyson, as reported to his wife), that he disliked Europe because of his ‘memory of the total disillusionment in human decency between 1933 and September 1938’ (same book, same location).

Response 3. von Neumann is wrong

By contrast, we might think that von Neumann is wrong, and indeed that he’s wrong in a deep and interesting way, one think reveals something about the nature of moral truth and understanding. There’s a bit of philosophical literature on the notion of moral expertise (I haven’t read it, I’m afraid: this, and references therein, looks like a decent intro). One of the things that literature is concerned with is the way that moral truth and regular truth might differ. A driving intuition in that literature (I think) is that there is something markedly different between these types of truth, something that manifests, for example, in the way we respond to testimony. It’s completely reasonable for you to accept on testimony ‘moral understanding is quite a trendy topic in philosophy journals these days’; there’s (meant to be) something weird about you similarly accepting ‘you shouldn’t eat meat’ merely because I, some random blogger, say so.

Which should we go for?

Before starting writing this, I was puzzled, and thought it was a decent argument against moral realism. Now, I’m not so sure. In particular, I think looking in more detail at the harsh context von Neumann found himself in (as well as my ignorance of his life in general), we can perhaps begin to make sense of his morally blind sounding words. This is comforting: it severs the potential inference from very smart to morally worrisome, an inference alignment people think is a very important one to consider. And it makes of von Neumann not a moral monster.



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Matthew McKeever

Matthew McKeever

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books ( Academic philosophy at: