The Samovar


More on arationality and honesty
January 10, 2009, 3:38 am
Filed under: Ethics, Morality, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I got the following criticism of my previous entry on arationality and honesty. Consider the case of car drivers. On any individual drive, there is a very small chance of causing a death that is not their fault (there’s also a much larger chance of causing a death that is their fault, but let’s leave that aside). Now, according to my theory, how is a car driver supposed to behave? In the two cases where (a) their drive doesn’t end up killing anyone, and (b) it does end up killing someone. The criticism is that the theory appears to say that in case (b) the person should feel bad and personally responsible, even though it was only random that it happened to them rather than someone else.

I have various responses to this. The first thing is to point out that the theory doesn’t tell people how they should feel, it speaks more to how they should act and more importantly how they should integrate actions and their consequences into their ongoing thinking. You can’t exert the same sort of conscious control over how you feel about something as you can over how you act and think about something. (That said, you can exert a less direct form of control over feelings and I’ll get back to that at the end of this entry.)

With that in mind, let’s first consider the decision before the drive: whether or not to take the drive knowing that there is a small chance of killing someone. It seems that the decision here is a straight up cost benefit analysis of whether the importance of making this journey by car rather than another form of transport outweighs the cost of killing someone multiplied by the probability of it happening. It’s already unlikely that most people think about it as clearly as this. More likely, they just think “it’s very unlikely” and drive whenever they want to. But even this level of analysis misses the full picture. As well as the external consequences of the action, you also have to bear in mind the internal consequences. You know that if you kill someone with your car you will feel guilty about it, even if it is not your fault. Most likely, that guilt will live with you the rest of your life. So there is a selfish component to the cost benefit analysis as well, which is to take account of how it will make you feel in both cases. Alright so where does this get us? Well, it is a demonstration of the method of not modelling ourselves as rational agents. Our own emotional reactions are a particular case (and not one I wanted to focus on in the previous entry) of our arational cores. We can understand these, and take them into account in our actions. Incidentally, doing so doesn’t make us any less human; we would still feel those emotions we would just better take account of them in our planning.

The next decision to analyse is the decision about what to do in the case that you have just accidentally killed someone with your car. Your feelings about it are a given (although see the last bit of this entry): guilt. The question is: what should your actions be and how do you integrate this into your ongoing thinking about the world? One reaction would be to reorganise your way of thinking so that the unavoidable feelings of guilt you would have would be suppressed or at least not contribute to your ongoing thinking. Another reaction would be to become permanently depressed about it. The former makes it possible to go on living your life relatively normally, at least outwardly, but would most likely completely change the nature of the way you relate to the world. For example, you might reorganise your thinking so that guilt feelings generally were suppressed. But what would the consequences of that be? The latter reaction, on the other hand, makes it difficult to go on living which doesn’t appear to be a valuable thing to do for anyone. A better option would perhaps be to accept the feelings you have but channel them into a positive activity (like becoming a road safety campaigner, or public transport proponent). This option can potentially be one that doesn’t involve becoming self-delusional, but does allow you to continue living your life. It’s not delusional because you accept responsibility for the consequences and you know that you are doing the campaigning work as a way to assuage your guilt, but it still helps you to go on living and has positive social effects.

The example of the car driver came up in a conversation about fascism and integration propaganda. I was arguing that if people take responsibility for their actions more, fascism couldn’t have happened. In other words, if people didn’t allow themselves to excuse themselves from fighting fascism for various reasons, and accepted responsibility for the consequences of it, it wouldn’t have happened because dictatorships require passive consent to continue functioning. Like the case of the car driver, there are three options when a fascist or dictatorial state is taking power: go along with it and rationalise it as the right thing to do; become depressed and inactive (which is essentially going along with it too); fight it, at possibly great cost to yourself. These are somewhat analogous to the three options the car driver above who has accidentally killed someone faces, and like in that case, the third option is the best.

So that about sums up my response to this criticism. I want to finish by saying a few words about psychology. I’ve made some pretty strong assumptions in this entry about the ways in which we can or can’t exert control over ourselves. I’ve assumed that we can exert control over the way we act, the way we think, and the way we integrate knowledge and events into our ongoing thinking, but that we can’t exert control over the way we feel. None of these assumptions are likely to be completely correct. For example, an addict cannot control their actions (or at least, that is one way of looking at it). And we know that we can affect the way we feel about things (although this process can take many years). Worse, in my previous entry I was advocating a theory that said we can’t make use of this sort of grammatical construct – “we can control the way we think” – because the “we” is the same object and so the verb “control” doesn’t have the usual semantics here. Indeed so, but despite that it feels as though by reading about and trying to understand the world, our modes of thought can be affected by ideas, and these ideas have greater or lesser effect when directed at certain parts of our thinking rather than others. An idea that tries to change the way we feel about things, it seems, is less likely to be effective than an idea that tries to change the way we reason about things at a more conscious level. This consideration may provide a way out of that difficulty.

Despite it being based on assumptions which are likely false, it still seems as though they might be true enough that the conclusions derived from them might be useful. Whether or not that is so is an empirical question, but at least to me it feels like there is something there worth considering.

Now I’ll end on a question.

If there were a pill you could take that would mean you would never again do a bad thing, would you take it?

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1 Comment

no. bad things are more fun. and ocasionally they’re even good in the long run.

Comment by sean h




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