Ethics in a Multiverse

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Some people have suggested (usually to avoid the conclusion of intelligent design arguments) that our universe is just one universe among many, and in fact there's a universe for every possible way things could have gone. Whole TV shows have been based on this claim. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution discusses the ethical implications of the many-worlds thesis [hat tip: Philosophers' Carnival XXVIII] .

He argues that ethical questions would be irrelevant if this view is correct. No matter what you do, someone else just like you is doing each alternative possibility among the choices that were available to you. So if you can do the good thing or the bad thing, it doesn't matter which you pick, because your picking the bad one ensures that the good one will be done, and your picking the good one ensures that the bad one will be done. Either way the resulting multiverse is no different. Your action is simply irrelevant to what the multiverse will be like after your done. So ethics would be irrelevant. I disagree. This view doesn't have that consequence, and Tyler is just assuming something that I wouldn't grant.

The argument is that the net result wouldn't be any different if I did an action usually considered better worse, and therefore the action isn't really better or worse because the consequence of either action would be the same. If consequentialism is true, then the only morally relevant features of the action are its consequences, but anyone who denies consequentialism isn't going to buy this. Just because two actions lead to the same consequences doesn't mean they're morally equivalent. Tyler's argument rests on the consequence being the same, as if that's the only morally relevant issue. Non-consequentialists won't accept that.

But the other problem is one I think a consequentialist might even agree with. Consequentialists don't always believe that my action's moral value depends just on whatever future state of the world occurs afterward. It depends, for many consequentialists, on which aspects of the future state of the world have something to do with my action. If my action causes the bad, then I am to blame. If it causes the good, I'm to be evaluated positively. So if I'm the one who does the bad thing, and some duplicate of me in another part of the multiverse does the good thing, then I'm to blame and he is to be congratulated. So my not doing an action might logically (but not causally) entail someone else doing it, and it would lead to a result that's exactly similar to what happens if I do the other action. But that doesn't mean my action isn't bad if it's the bad one. In the world where I do the bad action, my action is bad. In the world where my duplicate does the bad action, his action is bad. The total amount of good or bad in the universe is irrelevant to whether my action right here is bad.

That means we should blame the one who does the bad thing, even if any choice leads to the same resulting future when you factor in the whole multiverse. This means that, even if this view that we have no evidence for is true, moral evaluation still makes sense.

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Multiversal Ethics from Philosophy, et cetera on April 21, 2006 9:48 AM

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3 Comments

Interesting. You say that in a multiverse, "your picking the bad [option] ensures that the good one will be done, and your picking the good one ensures that the bad one will be done." Does this mean that in a multiverse one instance of you has free will, but your counterparts are predestined to do the polar opposite?

And another thought. If God can be said to have "middle knowledge" - i.e. knowledge of what "would have happened" in differing circumstances (e.g. Matt 11:21), then does he in effect hold a multiverse in his mind?

OK, I'll stop now. I'm way out of my philosophical depth. When I saw your post title I thought a multiverse might be some new format of Bible translation.

Middle knowledge is knowledge of what free creatures would do under certain circumstances. People who believe that's a kind of knowledge God has generally think that there are possible universes where those creatures do different things. Middle knowledge just tells God what those beings will do in the actual world, not what they can do. The set of possible worlds includes all the ways it could go. It's about how God can predict ahead of time how free creatures who could do other things will do the things they will do.

This is a different issue. This is about whether that set of all possible worlds is merely an abstract set of possibilities (which God would know) or whether it all occurs within the actual world. If God knows all the possibilities, then in some sense it all exists within God's mind (or maybe just in abstract reality), but that's not what this view is saying. This view says these possible universes all exist concretely in the same way we exist, and they are in some way causally connected with our space-time universe.

Middle knowledge actually makes less sense if this view is correct. God might know what free creatures would do in each of the universes within the multiverse, but this must be because there are different facts about each free creature, facts that don't depend on anything true about that free creature (because these are exact duplicates). If all the possibilities are actualized, it makes it a little stranger to talk about God knowing what free creatures will do in the sort of ungrounded fashion that middle knowledge advocates want. Maybe this just clarifies the problem that already exists with holding to middle knowledge while being a libertarian. I'll have to think about that.

...anyone who denies consequentialism isn't going to buy this

I think in addition to the consequentialists, anyone who believes that allowing evil is morally equvalent to doing that same evil will buy this. If I am faced with the choice to do or not do an evil thing and I don't do it, then I am allowing my alternate self to do it (Note: I have the power to stop my alternate self from doing it by doing it myself). And if allowing = doing, and not-doing = allowing, then all choices are equally moral.

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