back to listing index

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

[web search]
Original source (blog.jaibot.com)
Tags: ethics copenhagen-interpretation
Clipped on: 2017-12-17

Skip to content

Almost No One is Evil. Almost Everything is Broken.

"Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error." - Linus Pauling

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics says that you can have a particle spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time – until you look at it, at which point it definitely becomes one or the other. The theory claims that observing reality fundamentally changes it.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.


In 2010, New York randomly chose homeless applicants to participate in its Homebase program, and tracked those who were not allowed into the program as a control group. The program was helping as many people as it could, the only change was explicitly labeling a number of people it wasn’t helping as a “control group”. The response?

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”


On March 11th, 2012, the vast majority of people did nothing to help homeless people. They were busy doing other things, many of them good and important things, but by and large not improving the well-being of homeless humans in any way. In particular, almost no one was doing anything for the homeless of Austin, Texas. BBH Labs was an exception – they outfitted 13 homeless volunteers with WiFi hotspots and asked them to offer WiFi to SXSW attendees in exchange for donations. In return, they would be paid $20 a day plus whatever attendees gave in donations. Each of these 13 volunteers chose this over all the other things they could have done that day, and benefited from it – not a vast improvement, but significantly more than the 0 improvement that they were getting from most people.

The response?

IT SOUNDS LIKE something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

There wouldn’t be any scathing editorials if BBH Labs had just chosen to do nothing – but they did something helpful-but-not-maximally-helpful, and thus are open to judgment.


There are times when it’s almost impossible to get a taxi – when there’s inclement weather, when a large event is getting out, or when it’s just a very busy day. Uber attempts to solve this problem by introducing surge pricing – charging more when demand outstrips supply. More money means more drivers willing to make the trip, means more rides available. Now instead of having no taxis at all, people can choose between an expensive taxi or no taxi at all – a marginal improvement. Needless to say, Uber has been repeatedly lambasted for doing something instead of leaving the even-worse status quo the way it was.


Gender inequality is a persistent, if hard to quantify, problem. Last year I blogged about how amoral agents could save money and drive the wage gap down to 0 by offering slightly less-sexist wages – while including some caveats about how it was probably unrealistic and we wouldn’t see anything like that in reality. So of course less than a week after I wrote that Evan Thornley says :

“There’s a great arbitrage there, we would give [women] more responsibility and a greater share of the rewards than they were likely to get anywhere else and that was still often relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.”

While Mr Thornley said he wasn’t advocating that the gender pay gap should be perpetuated, he said it provided “an opportunity for forward thinking people”.

A number of online commentators, as well as Australian start-up blogs, have since said Mr Thornley’s comments were sexist.

Mr. Thornley improved on the status quo – but in the process he interacted the problem and was thus caught up in it. This is a strategy which, if widely embraced, would practically eliminate many forms of wage discrimination overnight simply by harnessing something we have way too much of already: greed. So of course it was denounced.


Last year the city of Detroit began to crack down on unpaid water bills, and thousands of poor people suddenly faced the prospect of having their water shut off. The vast majority of people did nothing to help them whatsoever. PETA did offer conditional help: If a family went vegan for 30 days, PETA would pay off their water bill, and throw in a basket of vegan food to boot. This was strictly more helpful than what 99.99999% of humanity was doing for Detroit residents at the time, as it didn’t make anything worse and offered a trade for anyone who valued 30 days of not-being-vegan less than however much they owed on their water bill. For marginally improving he situation instead of ignoring it, they were denounced as “the worst”.


Peter Singer has a famous thought experiment about a child drowning in a pond. I’ll let Philosophy Bro explain:

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.

…[snip]…

What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

The difference is that the drowning child has been definitively noticed, and thus her moral weight bears down on us and we have to save her. But children thousands of miles away? Not noticed!

I think this might be where a lot of the discomfort with talking about things we can do to alleviate suffering comes from. If you implicitly believe in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, then to confront the scope of suffering in the world is to make it your fault, and then if you don’t throw everything you have at the problem you’re as “bad” as PETA or Mr. Thornley or Uber or BBH Labs.

But what if – what if noticing a problem didn’t make it any worse? What if we could act on a problem and not feel horrible for making it just a little better, even if it was an action that benefited ourselves as well? What if we said that in these instances, these groups weren’t evil – it’s okay to notice a problem and only make it a little bit better. If everyone did that, the world would be a vastly better place. If everyone “exploited” opportunities where they could benefit and alleviate people’s suffering at the same time, we’d all be better off.

Related

Thoughts on Ethereum Time Capsules

Ethereum is a forthcoming cryptocurrency. Like Bitcoin, it relies on a blockchain to generate distributed consensus about transactions and account values. What makes Ethereum different is that accounts are more than a keypair and a balance: Every ethereum account is a program which can autonomously store, manipulate, and send money…

September 7, 2014

With 1 comment

Zeno's Discrimination

Pick a source of salary discrimination. For illustrative purposes, suppose that a left-handed person only makes $0.70 for every $1.00 a right-handed person makes doing the same job. In a perfect world, this problem can get fixed by selfishness. I'll premise this by saying that there are a lot of…

September 20, 2014

With 3 comments

Image (Asset 1/36) alt= Specifically: with consequentialism, when talking about whether someone is a good person, we still talk about what sort of person they are, which is something all ethical systems share. It’s just that we determine which traits- which virtues- are good or bad depending on the *probable* consequences of those actions.

I just thought this needed seconding because I’ve seen this critique before and… to be honest, it’s possibly the strangest critique of (or more accurately, confusion about) consequentialism I”ve seen. I think maybe it’s the result of approaching ethics from a different direction; I have a feeling most consequentialists think about “how should I act in edge cases where my moral intuitions are unclear?”, whereas it sounds like this results from coming at it from a discussion of different systems of moral philosophy where you’re trying to figure out what each moral philosophy system says.

  • Image (Asset 2/36) alt= – private prisons are way cheaper than state prisons (why?)
    – the prison can reliably extract more than $20,000 of labor from prisoners (how?)
    – person(s) who makes decisions about paying private prisons is corrupt/easy-to-manipulate
    – state is overflowing with prisoners already (this actually seems likely)

    1. Image (Asset 3/36) alt= Paying a free person $10/hour for a year of labor is $20,000

      The actual cost to the employer is somewhere around 50% to 100% higher, so the maximum value you can be expected to extract is closer to $30,000 to $40,000.

      However, that said, the cost of lobbying for harsher criminal penalties isn’t very high, as there’s already a substantial segment of the population who support that already.

      Influencing politicians generally does not involve a cost-benefit tradeoff for the state – a politician listening to a lobbyist doesn’t care if the proposal costs the state money, he cares if the proposal will help him be re-elected. There comes a point where “getting criminals off the street” will conflict with “don’t raise taxes too much” (and that tradeoff point will vary a lot depending on who votes for the particular politician), but that’s the tradeoff the politician makes when listening to the lobbyist.

  • Image (Asset 4/36) alt= Based that, I reason that my prior intuition is wrong in cases where exploitation doesn’t actually hurt anyone. Although at this point I’ve gotten used to that reasoning to the point that I don’t find it such a mental strain anymore with examples like this, although I still do feel conflicted about, for example, Souperism, which is technically the same thing.

  • Image (Asset 5/36) alt= It’s clearest in the first example, I think- the city wasn’t in any way profiting off of the people and was in fact providing them with assistance. I think that’s very clearly not an example of a Chesterton’s fence (a moral law which guards against some non-obvious consequence); it’s just an example of people’s moral reasoning going haywire in weird says.

    To be fair, the article *does* leave out mention of Chesterton’s fences, which are a genuine concern, and *that* is the difference between naive utilitarianism and rule-based utilitarianism. But it’s not actually arguing against utilitarianism; it’s arguing against a non-consequentialist intuition.

    1. Image (Asset 6/36) alt= I can honestly still see where there’d be a reasonable moral position against giving people that option, and forcing them to die instead- with the extreme examples of these types, I’m not comfortable with taking either side- but I think that’s a reasonable expression of the distinction.

  • Image (Asset 7/36) alt= More importantly, only one of of the real-life cases you mentioned (NY Homebase) hinged on noticing while the rest hinged on action taken. The thing about Copenhagen was … well, I’m not sure. It certainly serves several unseemly purposes, but perhaps that was not your intent.

    What you seem to be actually arguing against is people with a different notion of what is and isn’t a bad effect. Reading only what you provide, I side with Uber, PETA, and NY, against BHH, and would need to read Mr. Thornley’s comments in their entirety to form an opinion on them, but based on what is provided and my experience with people who make such controversial statements I would guess I would oppose him. Again, NY is the only case where observation is what is happening (also presumably some small use of resources for data collection and evaluation, but I doubt the thrust of the objection was that those resources were being used poorly) while the rest are all based on other ethical points.
    PETA is taking advantage of coercive circumstances, but aren’t violating what I consider norms of good taste, other than by being PETA
    I see nothing wrong with surge pricing, per se. Especially not since standard taxi companies do exist. I don’t like the business model based on attempting to evade as many regulations as possible, and now that I think of it there may be some standardization of fares thing being evaded, but I don’t object to surge pricing per se. I suppose whether or not I side with them depends on whether or not I think they are, in this case, breaking the law.
    BHH is blatantly violating the law. [mostly standard argument for minimum wage]
    Mr Thornley I need to make some guesses about. In short, where both the law and most ethics accepted in the West seem to suggest a far better standard than what is being suggested, but what is being suggested is an improvement over what exists, the operative question seems to become what the suggestion is being weighed against, both implicitly and explicitly. Again, this has nothing to do with observation and everything to do with messy details.

    We could rehash the argument about minimum wage to argue the object level BBH labs case. We could argue the ethical position that PETA is so bad that denouncing them out of sheer reflex is a valid and good thing (or we could argue about coercive circumstances). This has very little to do with observation or you attributing a misapprehension of QM to your philosophical opposition, and doesn’t seem particularly novel or helpful.

  • Image (Asset 8/36) alt=