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2012-09-04
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?

Suppose that I am sentenced to death in three years' time and presently held in solitary confinement. One day the jailor makes me an offer. On the day of the execution, he will see that my sentence is commuted to exile to Siberia. For the rest of my life, I will work twelve hours a day on hard benches in a chilly sweatshop. I have no relatives or dependents, and nobody else's well-being will be significantly affected by whether I live or die.

It seems to me that, given this choice, I might marginally prefer the sweatshop to death, but only marginally. At first it seems there are no strings attached to the offer, but now the jailor demands to torture me for fifteen minutes each day for the next three years (he is a sadist and gets his kicks from it). Since my preference for the sweatshop over death is only marginal, I refuse the deal. The jailor, disappointed by my refusal, decides to sweeten the deal. He offers to ensure that the sweatshop has heating, padded chairs and a radio. I do not think that this would make me significantly happier about the prospect, or more inclined to accept the three years of daily torture.

Suppose now a different scenario. I am sentenced to life in Siberia and presently held in solitary confinement. Once I am sentenced in three years' time, I will work twelve hours a day on hard benches in a chilly sweatshop. The jailor now makes me an offer. In exchange for my compliance in his torturing me for fifteen minutes a day for the next three years, he will ensure that the sweatshop has heating, padded chairs, and a radio. That sounds a lot better than working in a chilly sweatshop without a radio for the rest of my life, and I accept.

If I do best for myself by maximizing my expected utility, this seems irrational. Since I would prefer the chilly sweatshop without a radio to death, it appears that this option must already have positive utility. Together with the heating, padded chairs and radio, the jailor's first offer should have greater expected utility for me than the second, which adds *only* heating, padded chairs and a radio. Yet it does not seem to me unreasonable to be more enthused about the second offer. In fact, I think that this is the way I would really feel.

What's going on here? One possible explanation that occurs to me is that this is a case analogous to Parfit's two Poets and a Novelist (*Reasons and Persons*, p. 430). One poet is better than the other--just as one set of sweatshop conditions are better than the other. But because we can make only rough comparisons between poets and novelists--or sweatshops and death--it is not possible to say that either poet is better than the novelist--or that either sweatshop life is much better than death. Alternatively, perhaps I've simply fallen victim to the way the alternatives are framed, and my preferences are irrational. Or is there another explanation? I'd welcome your thoughts.


2012-09-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi Matthew

Why would it matter if your preferences were 'irrational'?  What does 'irrational' even mean in a context like this? I could invent a dozen reasons why I should prefer rock music to Mozart. But I detest rock music and I love Mozart. I could give you a dozen reason why I should admire Fred or Mary yet I can't stand Fred or Mary. I could give you a dozen reasons why I should like picturesque scenery, but it usually bores me. What has rationality got to do with being a human being?

DA




2012-09-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi, Derek,

Thanks. I like Mozart operas, and I certainly don't find your preference ordering unreasonable (though personally I like the Velvet Underground even more). But seems to me that given your preference ordering (Mozart > rock music), you'd be irrational to go to rock concerts when you could as easily go to Mozart recitals. Even if we assume that people can rationally define their preferences any way they want (which is controversial; see section one of Parfit's new book for a critique), it may be that rationality then requires we order them in certain ways. For instance, a lot of people think it is irrational for your preferences to be intransitive: A>B>C>A.

In my example, I consider life in the chilly sweatshop better than death--i.e., it would seem to have positive value for me. I also consider adding heating, padded chairs and a radio an improvement--this also has value for me. Given *my own* valuations (which might have been different without being unreasonable, but happen to be as they are), it seems as if I should find chilly sweatshop + improvements more valuable than *only* improvements, at any rate if one thing you value plus another thing you value should be worth more to you than just the second valuable thing. 

That wouldn't be a puzzle if the two valuable things interacted in some way so as to reduce each other's value. For instance, I might value beer and I might value pistachio ice cream, but not value beer and pistachio ice cream together. But I don't think that's what's going on here. So it seems to me I do have something of a puzzle.




2012-09-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?

Hi Matthew

You write: “In my example, I consider life in the chilly sweatshop better than death--i.e., it would seem to have positive value for me. I also consider adding heating, padded chairs and a radio an improvement--this also has value for me. Given *my own* valuations (which might have been different without being unreasonable, but happen to be as they are), it seems as if I should find chilly sweatshop + improvements more valuable than *only* improvements, at any rate if one thing you value plus another thing you value should be worth more to you than just the second valuable thing.”

I really don’t follow you, I’m afraid.  How could you have improvements to your sweatshop without the sweatshop?  How could you have “only improvements?”

But just looking at the general principle, “one thing you value plus another thing you value should be worth more to you than just the second valuable thing”, surely that is generally true, isn’t it?  Unless perhaps the second thing somehow deprives the first of its value. For example, being on a date with one girlfriend is probably not going to be improved by another one turning up.

I confess I find this branch of philosophy – rational decision-making or whatever it’s called – very odd. The scenarios always seem so bizarre and divorced from real life. Things like the so-called “trolley problem”, for example, strike me as philosophy in its death throes.

DA


2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Perhaps it is an issue with utility curves? The solitary confinement conditions are better than the sweatshop, so are more worsened by the addition of torture. Let's say we modify the scenario to one where the torture only starts in the sweatshop. Now, if you still insist you prefer death, perhaps it could be modeled as some interaction between utility curves and time discounting...
Regards,
Łukasz

2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
I think the preferences are not properly framed. the choice between sweatshop and the death on one hand and the choice one sweatshop(without any facilities) and the sweatshop (with certain facilities) can be avoided by new alternatives

2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi, Piotr,
In my original example, I have to serve the three years in solitary confinement before sentencing regardless of what I choose, and the different options--death, working in a chilly sweatshop for the rest of my life, working in a heated sweatshop for the rest of my life with a radio--ensue only after the sentence is rendered. So even if I prefer solitary confinement to working in a sweatshop, or discount the future, it's not clear to me why it should affect my preferences. Or have I misunderstood you?

Thanks, Matthew

2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi, Narayrn,
In my example, I've simply stipulated that these are the alternatives. Are you suggesting altering the example?

Thanks, Matthew

2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi Matthew and others on this thread.

Don't you honestly feel there is something terribly contrived about this kind of discussion? It's as if the human and emotional elements have been completely removed from what, in reality, would be an extremely human and emotional decision.

It reminds me of that silly 'trolley problem" on which some philosophers have spent so much time. Try putting a case like that into real life and you will quickly see that there is no "rational" answer. Take, for example, the case of the Gestapo who sometimes told a mother to choose which of her two children should be killed - or else lose them both. There is no answer to that question - only unbearable anguish - which was precisely the Gestapo's aim.

Don't you feel that philosophy of this kind loses touch with human reality? And what is the point of philosophy when it does that?

DA

2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?


2012-09-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek's comment raises two related, though distinct issues: (a) is there a right answer to problems such as those depicted in the trolley problem or my story; and (b) are stylized examples of this sort useful for thinking about moral problems? If you think the answer to either is 'no', then stories of this kind are likely to strike you as pointless.

I'm inclined to give a qualifed 'yes' to the second question. While it's dangerous to rely simply on your gut reaction to outlandish examples--as R. M. Hare argues, our intuitions are geared to situations we are likely to encounter, rather than ones we are not--I nevertheless think that the ability to vary one particular feature of a problem while holding other factors constant can be helpful for analysis.

As for the first--well, my working assumption is that the answer is also 'yes', but that's simply an assumption; I don't pretend to be able to demonstrate it. I am confident, however, that in the Gestapo case you should choose to save one of your kids, even if you have to flip a coin to do it. And sometimes we actually do get confronted with this sort of choice.

2012-09-25
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?

Hi Matthew

There is surely a “right” to ask and answer virtually any sort of question. That is hardly an issue.

The point I’m raising is whether questions of this kind can be answered “rationally” – which seems to be the underlying issue in this “trolley problem” area of philosophy.

Let’s suppose, in my Gestapo case, that the mother knows that one child (Tom) is cleverer and better-looking than the other (Fred). Let’s even suppose – to make my case worse – that Fred has been getting into trouble and attracting the attention of the local police. So on “rational” grounds, the mother should choose to have Fred executed, shouldn’t she? And since this is the rational thing to do, she can then sleep with an easy conscience, telling herself that she handled a difficult situation well because she decided “rationally”.

But in the real world – not philosophy’s fantasy world – is this what would happen? I suspect that most mothers (if not fathers as well) would simply go to pieces faced with a choice of this kind. And if someone presented them with the “rational” argument about Fred's lesser worth, they would simply want to shout obscenities at them, telling them that to think like that is hardly better than the Gestapo. And far from sleeping easily, any mother who did decide to have one her children executed would probably never sleep peacefully again, and quite possibly go mad.

Do you see my point?  This part of modern philosophy – like a number of others, I think – has simply lost touch with the real world. In a very real sense, it has become inhuman.

DA


2012-09-25
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi, Derek,
If it's a matter of saving one of your kids or letting them both die, then I think what you should do is clear. It's also clear that any normal person would be haunted till the end of her life by her decision. But then the question arises: How should I choose? I suspect most philosophers who have written about such cases wouldn't tell you to weigh Tom's and George's merits. They'd tell you simply to choose one or the other, or--though this is less realistic if you were choosing between your children as opposed to strangers--to flip a coin. (See, for example, Frances Kamm's paper 'Aggregation and Two Moral Methods', starting on p. 12.) But the case is useful precisely because it forces you to think about when it's appropriate to use differences between parties as a 'tiebreaker', and when you should resort to random selection, and--most important--*why*. Since in real life people do make such decisions--such as who will get a kidney--that sort of analysis seems worthwhile.

2012-09-25
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?

Hi Matthew

What is “clear”? What should you do?  Ask yourself: Could you seriously sit down in a case like this and “weigh your children’s merits”?  Would you then perhaps tell the one who was to be killed why you chose him/her? What would you say? “You see my dear, Fred is just better at his maths than you. And he’s better looking too.  So I’ve decided that you're the one to be shot”. And what about Fred? What would he say?  Any Fred worth his salt would protest, wouldn’t he? If he didn’t, what sort of person would Fred be? Would he even be worth saving?

“Tossing a coin” is even worse, is it not? “My children, I shall toss a coin. In this little contest (for your lives!) the coin shall be the 'tiebreaker’. That way my conscience is clear. It’s got nothing to do with me.” Horrible, isn’t it? The Gestapo would be delighted!

My basic point is that is that so much of human life – especially the bits that matter – are not subject to reason at all. Any mother worth her salt loves her children unconditionally; she doesn’t love them for “reasons”. There have been lots of mothers who’ve stuck by their children even when they’ve been convicted of crimes like murder. And that’s perfectly understandable - perhaps even admirable...

Ditto for love between a man and a woman. Does Arthur love Mary for “reasons” – e.g. because she has lots of money, knows lots of clever people, and looks OK. Some Arthurs do, no doubt, and we would despise them for it, wouldn’t we?  In other words, love of this kind is just as “irrational” as maternal love – if it’s genuine anyway.

This is why I say the “trolley problem” way of looking at human life is inhuman. It lives in a shrunken fantasy world where human beings behave, and should behave,“rationally” – which of course rules out their feelings. But a human being – a mother, a son, a father, a husband, a wife – without feelings would not be a human being at all. He or she would be a monster.

DA

 


2012-10-04
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Dear Matthew,
      For what it's worth, my reaction is that your preferences are irrational and that you are subject to framing effects.  This case you bring up is very similar to certain real-life situations in bioethics.

    In your first scenario, you are comparing (A) death vs. (B) bad sweatshop conditions, and then this comparison is changed to (A) death vs. (C) better sweatshop conditions + 3 years of daily torture.  Under this mode of presentation, your stated preferences are first B>A and then A>C.  But you report that you are inclined to deny that B>C.  Your preferences are intransitive (B>A, A>C, but C>B), which is irrational.

    In the second scenario, you are comparing (B) bad sweatshop conditions vs. (C) better sweat conditions + 3 years of daily torture.  Your preference is B>C, but death doesn't enter the picture. In the first scenario, the order of presentation seems to influence your irrational preference for C over B because your irrational preferences in the first scenario can be made rational with a different way of framing the choices in the second scenario.

    Peter Ubel has studied how medical patients are prone to this kind of mistake.  Suppose I have the BRCA1 mutation, and I need prophylactic therapy for breast cancer.  In scenario 1, my best two treatment options are (A) surgery (bilateral mastectomy) or (B) tamoxifen (a drug).  In scenario 2, I am offered (A) surgery, (B) tamoxifen, or (C) raloxifene, another drug which has similar efficacy to tamoxifen but a slightly different side-effect profile.  In experimental scenarios of this kind, the rate of people who choose B>A in scenario 2 goes down from the rate in scenario 1, which suggests that people are "switching" their preferences to an irrational ordering when more options are added.  One plausible explanation for this that Ubel describes is that in the second scenario patients feel overwhelmed by choices, and so are more likely to plunk for what they see as the "simplest" solution -- i.e. surgery.  This seems to have a pretty straightforward explanation in terms of framing effects.  It's not that people have trouble comparing surgery to drugs the way that they have trouble comparing poetry to novels.

      But maybe that's wrong, or maybe there's more at work in your example.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Chris Langston



2012-10-04
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
I certainly think there is great moral value in asking questions with very contrived circumstances. It is usually fairly easy to answer moral dilemmas that are uncontentious. It is the moral dilemmas that do NOT have an obvious answer that make for interesting conversation and add to the bulk of knowledge.

Now, the question about whether the answers to these dilemmas are rational or not might be up for debate, but I pointedly believe that the question does need to be asked. Also, I find that very specific examples in moral dilemmas tend to be the target of attack. I think this is uncharitable since the very essence of the dilemma is usually tied into the specifics of the example. To change those specifics is to change the question entirely. If the specifics are changed into a question with a more obvious answer, then we come full circle and accomplish very little.

To answer the question, I wonder if utility is served by allowing another to commit evil acts weighed against your own pleasures. If allowing evil has more negative utility than living horribly (even if less horribly than some other condition) has positive utility, then denying the jailor his sadism may be a more utility-maximizing choice.

Furthermore, if by allowing the jailor to torture you, you save someone else from being tortured (that is 15 minutes of every day that you may be bearing another's pain), then you seem to have a moral obligation to accept the deal, especially if there is some positive utility for you already (life over death, or creature comforts over hellish environment).

I also find that "hope" has a sentimental positive utility, so the hope that your life in a sweatshop might someday be remedied would give that a great deal more positive utility than death (which is, by default, hopeless).

2012-10-04
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
Matthew and Derek, may I jump into your discussion?

Scenarios presenting the subject with a near impossible choice, such as a mother having to choose which of her children shall live, are it seems to me suspect precisely because they attempt to prompt the formulation of criteria for choices that would  normally never be forced upon us, and in areas in which most of us would consider beyond any such fine moral distinctions. But they are suspect at a deeper level because they assume that there can be one right answer in such situations, when our intuitions would more likely indicate that such matters are largely indeterminate. (The one-right-answer fallacy is fostered by both doxastic and utilitarian approaches to ethical reasoning and therefore often assumes a rule-like status in ethical discourse.)

One further point: about rationality, which is at the heart of the question posed in this thread. It appears to me to be too easy to over extend this concept. The Humean  conception in which rationality is limited to ascertaining the facts and in the application of logic to these, sensibly stops short of consideration of the value of ends. On this basis, our practical and ethical reasoning in the dilemmas presented to us should proceed in its deliberations based on other sorts of criteria.

Thanks, Romney

2012-10-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?

Hi Romney

You object to my example (a mother having to choose which of her children will be executed) on the very grounds that I objected the “trolley” scenario: it is a highly artificial situation and, as you say, “beyond fine moral distinctions”. The difference, surely, is that at least my example is a real one – it apparently occurred a number of times.

But I certainly did not argue that “there can be one right answer”. One the contrary, my point was that extreme situations like this admit of no right answer, and my objection to the “trolley” debate – with its endless, absurd refinements – was precisely that it seems to assume that there could be a right answer. 

My point was that in the real world inhabited by real people – not in a fantasy “trolley” world inhabited by detached, “rational” philosophers – emotions would play such a huge role that the person required to make the decision (e.g. the mother) would probably simply break down, and sooner or later go mad. (Imagine, as I said, telling one of your children that you had weighed up his or her merits and decided he/she should be executed – effectively also becoming complicit in the Nazi monstrosity.)

In short, I think this whole area of debate is (like a lot of analytic philosophy unfortunately) sadly divorced from reality.

DA


2012-10-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari

I’d just like to pick up on this point:

…if by allowing the jailor to torture you, you save someone else from being tortured (that is 15 minutes of every day that you may be bearing another's pain), then you seem to have a moral obligation to accept the deal”.

This raises another issue that underlies this kind of discussion. Where does the moral obligation we’re talking about here come from?  Supposing I can spare another prisoner 10 hours torture by undergoing 5 minutes of it myself, why should I?

Moral obligation is not like a profit and loss balance sheet. So where does my obligation come from? Don't you need to establish that first?

DA  


2012-10-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi, Chris,
You raise a good point that my preferences could be subject to framing effects. However, are my preferences *within* the first scenario* intransitive? It seems to me that in the first scenario I am choosing among four possible outcomes:

A: death
B: working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life
C: daily torture for the next three years and then working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life
D: daily torture for the next three years, and then working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life with heating, padded chairs and a radio

As I've stated the first scenario, it appears to me that my preferences are B>A>D>C.

In the second scenario,however, I am comparing

B: working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life
D: daily torture for the next three years, and then working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life with heating, padded chairs and a radio

My preferences are D>B. And *this* preference ordering is inconsistent with my ordering in the first scenario. 

Unless I'm missing something, then, it doesn't seem to me that my preferences in the first scenario, taken by itself, are themselves intransitive. But they seem intransitive in light of my set of preferences over both scenarios. Would framing effects, on Ubel's account, also explain that?

Thanks, Matthew




2012-10-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari
Hi, John,
Some people, as I think you're arguing, could see the jailer's sadistic pleasure to be bad in itself, and thus to make the overall outcome worse. (Fred Feldman, for example, might take this view.) But it seems to me that I am holding that consideration constant across the two examples; if this gives me an additional reason to reject torture in the first scenario, then it also gives me an additional reason in the second scenario.

As for what you should do if accepting the deal will also spare someone else from torture--I think you might be right, but doesn't that involve a new set of moral considerations?

Thanks, Matthew


2012-10-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi, Romney,
This raises the issue of what the role of intuitions should be. My own view is that James Griffin hits the nail on the head when he says that: 'The role that intuitions can play in moral philosophy is the role that we are content to let them play in other departments of thought....In mathematics, the natural sciences, and other branches of philosophy, finding a conclusion intuitively repugnant does not close an argument; it is a reason to start looking for a good argument'.

It would, of course, be extremely repugnant to even think of having to choose between your two children. Nevertheless, if the consequence of refusing to choose would be to let them both die, it seems to me a responsible consequentialist agent would have to choose. If one finds that intuitively implausible, then that might be a reason to look for another compelling theory that could explain one's intuition. Me, I'm content to stick with consequentialism and accept this judgement.

Regards, Matthew

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Matthew,
       Thanks for the clarification.  (I think it was a little unclear what choices you were faced with because of the way you said "but now..." in your original description of the first scenario).  This way of constructing the scenario implies that your preferences are inconsistent only across the scenarios.

        I suppose there are a variety of explanations available for why your preferences change from one scenario to the other.  The poets vs. novels explanation is available, but so is framing effects.  In this case, "anchoring" leaps out at me as an explanation: when A and C are available in the first scenario, one or the other may be acting as a standard for comparison that affects how you evaluate the utility of B and D.  This is hard to establish, however, because there are four choices in the first scenario, and so which choices are anchoring your comparisons to other choices would have to be teased out.  It might be easier to tease these effects out if you isolated the four options in permutations of three (viz. ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD).  Unfortunately, this makes for a pretty complex analysis.

       Another complicating factor is that the sweatshop work is offset by three years.  (Now that I'm thinking about it, shouldn't option (A) be 'death in three years' and option (b) be 'working in a sweatshop for the rest of my life starting in three years'?)  This raises problems of "hyperbolic discounting" (i.e. over-discounting choices whose effects are in the future).  Framing effects may have complex interactions with hyperbolic discounting, which makes the analysis even more complex.

       For these reasons, could I suggest that you try to simplify the first scenario?  Sometimes the problem with asking questions about situations that are too complex is that they don't have answers.  For example, suppose you drop a piece of paper to the floor, and it turns this way, and then that way.  If you ask a physicist, "why did the paper fall like *that*"?  the physicist won't be able to answer the question, simply because the initial conditions are too hard to characterize, even though the physicist can give complex explanations of gravity, air flow over the piece of paper, etc.  Something similar may be at work in your example insofar as the first scenario has so many moving parts that the role of individual parts in the larger explanation is hard to isolate.

Chris

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi Matthew,

I acknowledge the force of your point regarding intuitions but would add that if one finds something morally repugnant then such an intuition needs to be taken seriously. Consequentialism famously has little room for integrity because as an ethical system it's aim is to render all values and goods calculable so that no moral dilemma is thereby beyond resolution however intractable. But perhaps a moral or virtuous individual in the mother's position might feel that there are lengths to which she could not go to secure her childrens' safety in the face of such blackmail and to do so would in any case be to play into the hands of the sadistic jailor. (After all, he may well not stick to his word.) As I said earlier, I believe - against the consequentialist - that there can be no right answer in such a situation. And I find an ethical 'system' that seems to offer this assurance in all circumstances somewhat suspect.

Regards, Romney

(As I do not have pro-status this post may take some time to appear in the thread. Sorry.)

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
I think, Derek, that we need to assume certain moral obligations if we are going to accept morality at all, similar to the understanding that if we live under a particular law, we have a certain obligation to live accordingly.

My point is that if we are in a position to "break the moral tie-score", that there are certain rules we can follow that give us something to work with. One of those rules is one of general utility. While not my first choice for an ethical system, it at least provides us with tools to use in morally ambiguous situations, especially when discussed academically.

So, in the case of utility, there is a sort of "balance sheet" that we can work with. It is one of many systems, but I think one that works well for this particular question. One that would be much more difficult under a duty system or virtue system.

With that premise as part of my assumption (the premise that utility is the best system for answering this question and that the question is that we could possibly reduce the amount of suffering in the world through some personal sacrifice), then by offering ourselves up as the subject of torture, we take on a burden by choice that someone else would have to suffer presumably unwillingly. Since the alternative is to die (an entry of "0" on our balance sheet, assuming it was a deserved death or at least unavoidable), then we have a sum total positive on the moral balance sheet and the "greater good" consequence is achieved in some small way.

Without a rule of some sort, then all our morally ambiguous decisions are equal, and the choice becomes arbitrary. While this is perfectly possible, it does seem to stall the conversation unless offered as the ultimate conclusion (that all moral decisions are ambiguous and therefore in error)

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Matthew, absolutely, I do think a modification of our considerations might be needed in order to make a call. I think that as given, your example is an interesting dilemma that requires that we introduce something systematic to our decision-making process (therefore not altering the particulars of the example). By introducing a heavy dose of utility, we can at least feel like we have accomplished some good with our decision, even if it is only a feeling.

I think a case could be made for virtue in this dilemma as well, but it would require a great deal more thought on my part. I would be interested on other's views.

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi Matthew,

I acknowledge the force of your point regarding intuitions but would add that if one finds something morally repugnant then such an intuition needs to be taken seriously. Consequentialism famously has little room for integrity because as an ethical system it's aim is to render all values and goods comensurable so that no moral dilemma is thereby beyond resolution however intractable. But perhaps a moral or virtuous individual in the mother's position might feel that there are lengths to which she could not go to secure her childrens' safety in the face of such blackmail and to do so would in any case be to play into the hands of the sadistic jailor. (After all, he may well not stick to his word.) As I said earlier, I believe - against the consequentialist - that there can be no right answer in such a situation. And I find an ethical 'system' that seems to offer this assurance in all circumstances, somewhat suspect.

Regards, Romney

2012-11-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Hi Mathew,

Considering the chosen option as irrational looks to me a case of conflicting thinking environments. 


Here solitary confinement of three years looks quite obvious in both the cases. In first case, a 15 minute torture will be added additionally to solitary confinement when agreed to a hope that death sentence is converted to exile but that is after 3 years. Where as in the second case the worst possible thing that can happen is life sentence and not death. Therefore thinking environments are different in both the cases.  In the first case the prime value of the thinking environment for evaluation is fear of death and all options are weighed accordingly and in the second case the prime value is maximizing utility.  

Given the same choices, it is worth noting that different people adapt different thinking to arrive at one of the available choices. Though it appears irrational, mind makes it's choices based on some logic that is decided by its native thinking environment.

Best Regards

Ravi Singh

 



2012-11-14
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari

Hi John

I confess I’ve lost the thread of all this a bit (the delays in replies appearing tends to have that effect) but one part of what you said did rather catch my eye. You say:

“With that premise as part of my assumption (the premise that utility is the best system for answering this question and that the question is that we could possibly reduce the amount of suffering in the world through some personal sacrifice), then by offering ourselves up as the subject of torture, we take on a burden by choice that someone else would have to suffer presumably unwillingly.

The bit that interested me in particular is “that we could possibly reduce the amount of suffering in the world through some personal sacrifice..”

It seems to me that the suffering in this case is not in fact “in the world”. It is either in me if I choose to make the sacrifice, or in the other guy if I don’t. Doesn’t that mean that I need some underlying belief in the worth of others – something like “greater love has no man" etc or at least some belief in “our common humanity”. Otherwise I might simply say: “Better him than me”. Or “life is about winners and losers” etc. Or perhaps, like Sade, I might even argue that the universe is constituted in such a way that suffering is a necessary part of it and conclude that the other guy’s suffering is a good thing, seen in this larger context.

In short, I don’t think one can make decisions like this that require self-sacrifice without a belief in the worth of the other person - either as an individual (friend etc) or simply as a human being. And I don’t see how utility thinking gets us to that point.

DA


2013-01-11
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
I agree, I had to go back and reread most of the thread myself.

To answer your concern, I would say that part of the Utilitarian concept requires the use of the "greater good principle." This idea that there is a quantitative (and qualitative for some) amount of happiness/pleasure/goodness in the world and that ethical actions should steer in the direction of maximizing that goodness is central to any Utilitarian guidance on action.

I think it is fairly reasonable to assume that if there is a "greatest happiness", then there should be a "least suffering". I suppose I could reword the sentence in question to read "that we could possibly increase the amount of happiness in the world through some personal sacrifice..." to better align it with the Utilitarian principle. This inherently implies that one is interested in the greater happiness of others, meaning that one does have a belief in their worth (along with the worth of all other rational agents).

2013-01-11
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Very well put

2013-01-11
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Gene Bennett
I agree--excellent point. If I've understood Ravi's post above, I think he is getting at something similar. Thanks.

2013-01-12
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari

Hi John

Thanks for your reply.

Your write: “…This inherently implies that one is interested in the greater happiness of others, meaning that one does have a belief in their worth…

Yes, this is what I was getting at. Utilitarian arguments often seem to assume this. But what is the basis of the assumption? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t come from utilitarianism itself. So there seems to be an appeal to – a reliance on – some other, deeper moral principle. (Because, after all, there seem to be many people who care very little about “the greater happiness of others” or about their worth, so it’s not something we can just take for granted.)

So my point in essence is that utility thinking seems to rely on some deeper moral principle without acknowledging that it’s doing so.

DA



2013-01-17
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari
Hi John,

I am wondering about the implications of treating the 'greatest happiness' principle as the central ethical principle, as opposed to treating it as good advice to be followed on some occasions but not all. As the central ethical principle it implies that the happiness/pleasure/goodness of any one person is no more important that that of any other. This means that one can never prioritise the needs of ones children over those of anyone else's children, which, it seem, would run counter to important intuitions. A further implication is the one that causes problems for Jeremy Bentham's conception: how is happiness etc to be measured, and different happinesses to be compared. Yet another is the implication that in its purest form, it really doesn't matter how the happiness etc is distributed so long as it is maximised - it could all be concentrated among very few people as opposed to being shared more equally.

In views of this do you think this principle is still worthy of a central position in our ethical deliberating?

Romney

2013-02-01
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Due to the rather extended review time required for my posts, I do hope that you will forgive me if this shows up quite a bit later than the time of this response (Jan 17, 2013). It is my pleasure to continue this discussion, but I fully understand the tedium of it being necessary to re-familiarize with the entire thread prior to being able to continue. Regardless, I carry on...

I do believe the happiness/pleasure is a viable central ethic (though I admit to not holding the belief myself). I commend the principle on its empiricism and I think that it is interesting to see how dilemmas play out under its guise. For instance, I would answer the child problem not with Betham-like utility, but with a more Millian utility. Two (or ten, doesn't matter) children of approximately equal moral worth are in danger and I must decide between them. I have no reasonable knowledge of the future and must decide quickly or all will be lost. If either child dies, there will be an influx of evil in the world in relatively equal measure. The single variable is my own happiness. The quality of my happiness will be much greater if I save my own child, and the synergy of my continued contact with my child will result in a measurable overall increase in happiness. The gratitude of the other parent's child would not be as great due to the loss of synergy (you would not necessarily be in contact with them, and even if so, the emotional attachment would be greatly reduced).

So by saving my own child, the world is improved by the continued contributions of the child as well as the quality of the happiness after the fact.

What is a specific utilitarian action for one need not necessarily be true for everyone, since the happiness of the agent may also be taken into consideration.

I admit to preferring the Millian hand waving to the more absolute Benthamite concept. For instance, I think it is not maximizing to consider the good of animals over the good of human beings. Second-order considerations may be given, but we are incapable of escaping our own human perspective. While it may be an interesting conversation to include animal happiness, I think that any practical use of utility must regard humans first and highest.

Using that, I think that Millian "quality" of happiness must be bracketed by the folk understanding of what happiness/pleasure is (otherwise we are just talking amongst ourselves and may as well invent a new word for the concept). So a strong and well-informed look at how and what people feel when they are happy should be a good step in the right direction (not necessarily "buying a new car" happy, but a more sustained contentment or something like it). I don't think it must be necessarily embodied to be empirical, but that would certainly make things easier. Just for the purpose of conversation, let us say that it is embodied, and that feeling of well-deserved happiness has a corresponding range of chemical levels in the brain (this is contentious, but I will use it as an example). If this was so, we could empirically measure the levels of those chemicals and have a near-perfect indicator.

Of course we don't have that capability (if chemicals can even do that or not)

So I ask an undergrad "what is happiness?" The answers are universally not universals, but particular instances of happiness ("new car" "got accepted to college" "had a baby"). So I try to ask them to be more specific, "what is it you feel in these moments that are like all the other times you have been happy?" stunned silence... I conducted this same line of questioning with my wife, who similarly answered in particulars and ended up stumped when asked to universalize.

Therefore the answer seems to be that happiness is measured introspectively. So our folk answer is that happiness is... well... when I feel happy. Not a lot to work with, but it gives us a bracket.

Therefore, maximum happiness must be when the most people feel the most happy. How do we get anything empirical out of this. My vision is that we can assign a numerical value to this kind of "emotivistic" idea. Someone who feels happy gets a "1", someone who does not exist or is insensate would receive a "0", and someone who is unhappy receives a "-1." (the obvious math joke is that we can extremely large and extremely small values of 1, but that doesn't matter since we are using a very small set).

Now we have to count on the concepts that Mills introduces regarding a good upbringing and education. If properly trained to recognize utility, then these kinds of calculations become very easy (much in the same way we don't really think of how far away the door is, but can judge the distance if required, sometimes more accurately than others).

In conclusion, I see something like the trolley problem going like this.
Standard setup, I am at the controls where I can sacrifice one or many...

My calculations begin with the external world. I can save many lives (several +1s) and lose one (-0), or save one life (+1) and lose many (lots of -0s). That calculation seems fairly easy, so I don't have to take into consideration my introspected sense of happiness. The end result is that I have a good common idea of how to measure happiness from an external perspective and utility is available and could be used for a central (perhaps a better word for this method my be "primary") ethic, or, if one were so inclined, they could take the empirical data and then factor in their own happiness (as the agent, allowing them to make decisions in which the empirical data is equivalent or inconclusive), or they could ignore the data and simply do as they wish (in which they choose not to be ethical agents). NOTE: we could use the same +1 through -1 method to record pleasure and pain for a similar metric.

Caveat: this is my first time exploring some of these ideas "out loud," so I am interested in comments but ask that you forgive some of the unpolished properties.

2013-02-01
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
I agree that "wanting to be good" must be an existing motivation for someone prior to them being able to make utility matter (in fact, I explored this concept quite deeply in regard to virtue in some of my previous research).

I suppose, then, I would say that I concede that your concern is troublesome if we require that ethics not be occurrent. On the other hand, I think this is less problematic if one wishes to say that one's occurrent ethics (those ethics which they actively consider, as opposed to those virtuous traits they have the good fortune to have as habit) require a system for one to follow.

To put it another way.

I am motivated to be good because I have a deep-seeded value for human life or whatever (this is grossly simplified, since it would take a very special kind of mind to have only a single motivation, simply put, I want to be good)

As I go about my day, I don't think about my actions, but still seem to do things in a way that preserves my motivation (I'm nice to the neighbor lady, I work hard, I pay for my lunch rather than skip the check, etc etc).

But then I am faced with a dilemma of some kind in which my motivation, of which I am not particularly aware, must be examined (I must either work hard or spend extra time with my family). It is at this point that I use an ethical system to inform my occurrent morality. In such a case, utility is a perfectly reasonable choice.

The take-away is that no ethical system of any kind is of any value to anyone if they do not want to be good in the first place. But if they do want to be good, then I think it is my obligation as a philosopher to examine methodology that will allow that person to fulfill their motivation in the face of dilemmas.

2013-02-05
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari

Hi John

Thanks for your interesting post. You say at the end:

“The take-away is that no ethical system of any kind is of any value to anyone if they do not want to be good in the first place. But if they do want to be good, then I think it is my obligation as a philosopher to examine methodology that will allow that person to fulfill their motivation in the face of dilemmas.”

Re the second sentence: Personally, I doubt that any methodology – any system – can solve acute moral dilemmas like the one in the trolley problem. (Personally I prefer real-life examples like the Gestapo goon telling a mother to choose which of her sons to have killed, or lose them both.) There is no solution to a problem such as this, in my view – that is, nothing that will leave the chooser with an easy conscience, consoled by the thought that they have done the “right thing”. I think that in real life (not in the pallid world of philosophical thought experiments) many mothers – and perhaps fathers – would, in the end, simply go mad if forced to make a choice of this kind, no matter what they decided to do. I feel fairly certain I would. (And that, no doubt, is part of what the Gestapo goon would be hoping for: he basically wants to humiliate.)

Re the first point: I agree. But I’m always slightly bemused by the phrase “to be good”. What does it actually mean? It tends to make one think of New Year resolutions to be generous to charities, not drink too much, etc. Any ethics with genuine human force, in my view, has to mean a lot more than that, and spring from what you rightly call a deep-seated value for human life. And that in turn, I think, will always involve a powerful emotional component – something like the Christian belief that God is love (which of course is not available to most of us today), not just an intellectual argument or the kind of cold moral calculus Mill wants us to engage in. (I think there’s a dim realization of this in some continental thinking about ethics – in Levinas for example – although I confess I don’t find any of it persuasive.)

Where does that leave us ethically? Not in a very good place, I suspect. With the death of religious belief and the failure of historical teleologies (fascism, Marxism, etc), we basically just drift, I think, living on remnants of the past, and perhaps on borrowed time. But this is beginning to sound a bit apocalyptic so I’ll stop there.

DA

 


2013-02-24
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to John Baldari

Hi John,

I'm afraid I've been a little late in gathering my thoughts so this may be somewhat delayed.

Thanks for your very full answer to my question. Can I start off my response by sketching out what I think utilitarianism is - which I hope will help here, and in any future discussion.

First, an important distinction. This is between utilitarianism and something else which can be mistaken for it. The latter is comprised of an eclectic ethical outlook which includes, when appropriate, deliberations about consequences. We all know that we need to pay attention to how things are likely to turn out, and this was known and thought about long before Bentham and Mill. But it is not in any sense utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism (at least in its hedonistic guise) starts with the belief that the only ethical good is happiness, and there is no other. Kindness for instance is only of ethical interest if it conduces to the maximization of happiness. I think that you and Derek must be right in thinking that something like a belief in human worth underpins a utilitarian commitment, but this can be no more than an intuition. If it were erected into some kind of principle alongside the happiness principle, then there is the potential for conflict and a dilution of the all important central principle.

Therefore for the utilitarian all (ethical) thought and intention is directed to increasing the sum of happiness - however that is defined (and as you make clear, one would want that concept to include much more than instant gratification). Of course this does not include a guarantee that in an emergency (which child to pull from the raging torrent?) one would be motivated purely by utilitarian principles. All the same, as a utilitarian I would want to hone my habitual responses so that they became consistently utilitarian in the majority of situations.

This has an important consequence: the good utilitarian needn't always think like a utilitarian. Sidgwick, and I think Hare, reckoned that one could have motivations that weren't utilitarian as long as ones actions produced an increase in happiness. For in the end motivations and intentions don't matter, only the increase of happiness, however that is to be achieved.

If you can buy this account as plausible and (I hope) convincing then the questions I put to you previously assume some importance. There's first the general problem of how any normal human being with very imperfect knowledge can hope to accurately decide which of a number of potential actions can bring about the maximal general happiness. But of much more importance I think is the problem of integrity: the achievement of increased general happiness must take precedence over every finer feeling - care of our loved ones etc. All other considerations must be disregarded in the light of the utilitarian imperative. Of course in the light of the previous paragraph, such finer feelings might conduce to the general happiness, but then again, they may not, and if not then they should be suppressed. Thus utilitarianism in its suppression of integrity and conscience comes to lack true humanity.

In the light of all this I can see little to recommend this kind of ethical approach. Happiness will of course go on being regarded as important and so it should. But we should see it as only one of a number of things which we should be pursuing as ethical agents rather than the only thing.

I thought your comments suggested that you would want to make room for much more in ethics than is allowed for in utilitarianism. If that is so, then you aren't really a utilitarian, or rather you aren't really representing a utilitarian position. Do you think I've got it right here or have I simply misunderstood you?

Romney


2013-03-10
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan

Here’s an interesting little real-life case for those who follow the “rational decision” approach to ethics favoured on this thread.

I learnt from a documentary last night on the sinking of the Titanic that towards the end, when everyone knew the ship was going down and there was a scramble for the remaining boats, one woman was offered a seat as long as she left her two sons behind because they were old enough to be deemed adults. She refused and chose to drown with them. (I don’t know if this episode made it into any of the film versions.)

How does this fit with the “rational decision-making” view of the world? If the mother had saved herself, that would have been “rational”, wouldn’t it? Two dead and one living must be better than three dead?

(Of course, one might say that her seat could go to someone else. But that was obviously not her motivation. And anyway, the someone else might have turned out to be a swindler or a murderer, not a noble soul such as herself.)

DA


2013-03-17
Sweatshop or death--are my preferences irrational?
Reply to Derek Allan
No comment on this?  Trolleyism doesn't throw any light on the situation?

Yet it's not just a "thought experiment". It really happened - and similar sacrifices have no doubt occurred many, many times.

DA