Optimal Evil

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Optimal Evil

Postby Carleas » Wed Dec 05, 2018 11:22 pm

There are things that are generally accepted as wrong, but for which, in practice, the optimal incidence over time is not zero.

A very simple example is disease. In general, we agree that disease is bad, but there are many diseases which it is better that people get over their life time. Chicken pox was a clear case, where getting the disease in childhood was good enough that parents would intentionally expose their kids to the disease. I say "was a clear case" because now we have a vaccine for chicken pox, but vaccines use the same mechanism: we intentionally expose ourselves to small harms. We can also see this in the rate of diseases like asthma in 1st children, where it's likely that too-clean childhoods lead to health problems later in life.

A similar idea can be seen in something as straightforward as pain, where it is better to experience non-zero amounts of pain over the course of one's life. Here, there is a difference, in that not-pain is defined in relation to pain, so that experiencing the evil helps to define the good, as well as to make us aware of it.

Finally, we can look at something broader like the homicide rate. One might think that zero homicides would be the ideal, but in fact a homicide rate of zero is more likely an indicator that we are over-policing, population homogeneity, low population, etc. It remains true that, all else equal, zero murders is better than not zero murders, but in practice all else is not equal: the observation that zero murders are taking place is not necessarily a good observation, and choosing between realistically achievable societies, we will choose one with a non-zero murder rate. More striking, a low-but-non-zero murder rate is likely to be predictive of a better society, i.e. if all you have to go on is murder rate, you should choose a society with a non-zero rate.

These are strange and seemingly difficult cases for consequentialist moral systems. They seem to point to a class of phenomenon which is understood to be negative in every individual case, but when summed across society shows that, though every case is bad, eliminating all cases is worse in practice.
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Jakob » Thu Dec 06, 2018 1:00 am

If you put it sharply like this I think moral systems are moot entirely.

If it is all about response patterns, which it is, then every system is a distraction from the eminent fact of it, suggesting that wherever there is a system in place, more evil acts can slip through h cracks of humanity than when there is just pure natural vigilance as in the not so noble not so savage state of frontiers and such.
A moral system offers systemic licence to interpreters of it. You can throw any handful of pertinent terms into a sack and juggle it and you can believe in upholding any of the outcomes on the table, and morality is just that. We know things are important, and we know wed like for these things to go the way we want. Sometimes another wants them to go another way, sometimes another hopes the same as we do, in any case, we would like there to be rules so that things go our way. But what if that is just stupid? What if the case turns out to be that we just need to pay attention?

the whole idea that there are "conflicting goods" is a misconception of the word "good". Who said that if two things are in conflict, they are good?
Who says that the people who wasn't these things deem them "good"? I think no one deems an abortion "good". Except whats that girls name who made the show Girls, who said she hadn't had an abortion but would like one. She thinks they're good for you. But most things that people want are lesser evils.
Conflicting lesser evils isn't any intellectual problem at all, you first try to derive the even lesser evil from the two, and ultimately the least evil. You can call that "best", but that doesn't mean its what anyone would consider to be good.

Goods can also mean resources, in a raw groceries kind of way. Conflicting goods there would mean leaking bottles of water and precious salt-sculptures, or any bad chemistry.

What to do in a world where there are occurrences of bad chemistry?
If we answer his question we are beyond evil, and perhaps a little bit closer to good.
I don't think there is any sense in going beyond good, except as in great or perfect or magnificent.

"Beyond magnificent and disgraceful"
"beyond perfect and flawed"

No one wants to go there. Its where old people go when they're boring or have evil children.
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Mad Man P » Thu Dec 06, 2018 2:50 am

Carleas wrote:There are things that are generally accepted as wrong, but for which, in practice, the optimal incidence over time is not zero.


I believe that's because we make use of shorthand in the espousal of our moral or ethical convictions.

For example we would say violence is bad... but if you, or better yet a child, is being assaulted, well then the use of violence in defense is not only good but "heroic" even.
One could argue that what was wrong in this telling was to suppose "violence" was ever the problem... that this notion was merely a shorthand for saying try other options first, that violence is among the less preferable methods of resolving conflicts.

Disease is a perfect example of this shorthand... because it is clearly the consequences of certain diseases that we find alarming, consequences that vaccines do not share and in fact help prevent.
Which bleeds into why it's better to experience a non-zero amount of pain...

Often the world forces you to choose the lesser of its many evils... there's not enough food for everyone, someone WILL starve... no one wished this to be the reality, but here it is. What now?
Because of the nature of the world we find ourselves in, learning to endure pain and developing discipline, not only helps us be better prepared but also to better relate to our fellow human beings...
In a different world, under different conditions... this might not be true. We might wish for such a world and even agree that it would be better...
But in our current world, we could get hit hard at any time, so we need to toughen up to minimize the damage it will cause us... a vaccine, if you will.

These are strange and seemingly difficult cases for consequentialist moral systems. They seem to point to a class of phenomenon which is understood to be negative in every individual case, but when summed across society shows that, though every case is bad, eliminating all cases is worse in practice.


You seem to have missed the mark... like with diseases and pain, the vaccine is meant to be the lesser of evils, but if the cure is worse than the disease, it's better to suffer the disease.
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Carleas » Thu Dec 06, 2018 7:47 pm

Jakob wrote:wherever there is a system in place, more evil acts can slip through h cracks

I suspect that this isn't true. Even bad moral systems tend to make things better. Studies have found that putting up the 10 Commandments up in a class where people are taking a test will decrease the rate of cheating. This remains true when the 10 Commandments are replaced by other, novel and non-religious statements of ethical principle. The mere priming of a moral system tends to get everyone to act more morally.

And we should expect this, since moral systems are a coordination game that helps large groups cooperate. Priming for morality is priming for group cooperation. But one takeaway seems to be that almost any system is better than no system (despite that, as you note, systems can also provide clever scoundrels with ways to justify defection as morally permissible).

Jakob wrote:Conflicting lesser evils isn't any intellectual problem at all

I think you're basically right here, if I'm understanding you correctly. But it is weird where the conflict is between a good and itself. So, in the case of abortion, if we should prefer a society with non-zero abortions, we have the evil of abortion conflicting with the evil of the absence of abortion. That strikes me as an intellectual problem.

Mad Man P wrote:For example we would say violence is bad... but if you, or better yet a child, is being assaulted, well then the use of violence in defense is not only good but "heroic" even.

I think this case is more local than I intend. I agree that local trade-offs are straightforward, e.g. using violence to prevent violence. But in the case of murder, we aren't talking about local murder-to-prevent-murder, but about the global issue that non-zero murders across a population is better than zero murders. These murders aren't specifically in exchange for anything, although you may be right that it is ultimately just a trade-off of values, e.g. freedom for murder.

Perhaps mine is just an epistemic point: we can't know everything about a society, so we go off of imperfect proxies (the "shorthand" you note), and that leads to weird outcomes. So, high murder rates can be an indication of social unrest, inequality, distrust, desperation, and very low murder rates can indicate over-policing, low or aging population, or lack of valuable social diversity.

And I also think I may be lumping separate phenomena together. The murder rate point does seem distinct from the pain point; while murder is good as a fuzzy proxy for other good things, pain can be a good in itself (e.g. by giving definition to not-pain).
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Mad Man P » Fri Dec 07, 2018 7:07 am

Carleas wrote:Perhaps mine is just an epistemic point: we can't know everything about a society, so we go off of imperfect proxies (the "shorthand" you note), and that leads to weird outcomes.


I would agree that the big problem that faces consequentialists is when you can't predict the consequences of an action or inaction... how then do you determine the moral act?
But alternatively, if you subscribe to one of the shorthands like "violence is bad" and take it to be a moral edict, you would no longer be a consequentialist... but an idealist.

I would say I'm a utilitarian in my convictions, in that I take human well being and thriving to be the sole concern of morality...
We lack the information and possibly intellect to perfectly determine how best to conduct ourselves to maximise our well-being and minimize suffering... I would agree this is a problem, but the solution can't be to change the objective.

And I also think I may be lumping separate phenomena together. The murder rate point does seem distinct from the pain point; while murder is good as a fuzzy proxy for other good things, pain can be a good in itself (e.g. by giving definition to not-pain).


I don't buy it. The only thing we need to define anything is an alternative... pain need not be part of the equation for us to have a "normal" and "non-normal" state.
Pain is merely how a biological survival instinct manifests... so we don't burn ourselves by sticking our hand into a fire, for example... especially when we're young and stupid.

If you take pain to mean something more broad as say "dislike" well then yes it is a necessary consequence of having any preference... but the extreme discomfort of pain is NOT necessary for preference.
Even if you take pain out of the equation it would not change our preference for bliss over non-bliss.

When people use the term "1st world problems" they are referring to this very phenomenon...
Where in the absence of hardship and pain the things we concern ourselves with and care deeply about have shifted.
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Carleas » Sat Dec 08, 2018 6:03 pm

Mad Man P wrote:I would agree that the big problem that faces consequentialists is when you can't predict the consequences of an action or inaction... how then do you determine the moral act?

I think the problem is even worse than that: I think we're fundamentally unable not only to predict the future, but to judge the present. We can't fully know the present state of the world, so we're limited in our ability to say how good or bad it is. On top of that, we don't know the full space of alternatives, so we may have a desirable present that is still less desirable than some alternative that we've thwarted through our actions.

To the latter, compare it to investing money. If we invest money and some time later we have 5% returns, we might think, "Hey great, 5% returns!" But if alternative investments would have gotten 10% returns, and particularly if some straightforward strategy like a fund that tracks the S&P would have gotten 10% returns, we should score our investments as a failure. Despite ending in the black, we've missed an opportunity, and are worse off relative to that alternative.

So too with moral consequences. If we increase policing and prevent a murder, it looks like a good outcome. But if we divert money from health care or education to policing, or if policing itself stifles some type of positive interactions (say, it breaks up gangs, and in doing so it also destroys youth social support networks), we may well make the world worse off than a naive alternative. So even if some act makes the world better at \(t_2\) than it was at \(t_1\), it should be scored as a loss if a different would have made the world at \(t_2\) better still.

Mad Man P wrote:We lack the information and possibly intellect to perfectly determine how best to conduct ourselves to maximise our well-being and minimize suffering... I would agree this is a problem, but the solution can't be to change the objective.

I think I agree, but if I might play devil's advocate: what meaning does a moral system have if it commands us to maximize some unknowable quantity? What would be the difference between a system that says "Maximize happiness" when the quantity of happiness is unknowable, and one that just says, "Maximize X", and doesn't define X? Is a system that seeks to maximize a known and immeasurable thing more prescriptive than one that seeks to maximize an unknown?

Mad Man P wrote:When people use the term "1st world problems" they are referring to this very phenomenon...
Where in the absence of hardship and pain the things we concern ourselves with and care deeply about have shifted.

I think this is a good example of my point. It would be better that people suffer a bit in childhood and become tougher adults who recognize their blessings, than that they have idyllic childhoods free from real suffering, and as adults experience minor inconveniences as world-shattering tragedies.

I will also say that, since having a kid, my perspective on how valuable pain is has changed. Kids are super dumb, it's remarkable how little common sense they have. It's really important to let them hurt themselves to help them understand how the world works. They'll happily crawl of the edge of a couch with no regard for how high it is, but once they've fallen they start to take heights seriously. Since babies are build to be pretty resilient, it's very good to let them experience these small, non-catastrophic falls.

And, further to my previous point, it does give them some perspective. Kids experience silly things as absolutely tragic, and unless they have something to contrast against the comfort of their lives, they'll keep seeing them as tragic.

I take your point that the difference between bliss and 'normal' is real and informative, but if we think of experience of a spectrum between good and bad, only experiencing bliss and normal makes normal seem like it's on the 'bad' end of the spectrum. If we add bad experiences, normal seems like the middle of the spectrum, between good and bad. (This is a bit folk-psychology, but true as a rough model. Too much or too frequent suffering, though, will train the brain to experience suffering.)
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Mad Man P » Sat Dec 08, 2018 8:58 pm

Carleas wrote:I think we're fundamentally unable not only to predict the future, but to judge the present. We can't fully know the present state of the world, so we're limited in our ability to say how good or bad it is. On top of that, we don't know the full space of alternatives, so we may have a desirable present that is still less desirable than some alternative that we've thwarted through our actions.


We don't need to "fully" know the present state of the world to judge what we DO know... We don't need an exhaustive list of alternatives to make value judgements between the alternatives we DO know.
Omniscience is not necessary, though it'd be real useful.

Is a system that seeks to maximize a known and immeasurable thing more prescriptive than one that seeks to maximize an unknown?


I'd agree that would make little difference, but I disagree that it applies to our conversation. Well-being is not “immeasurable” it is at worst just measured imprecisely.

Mad Man P wrote:When people use the term "1st world problems" they are referring to this very phenomenon...
Where in the absence of hardship and pain the things we concern ourselves with and care deeply about have shifted.

I think this is a good example of my point. It would be better that people suffer a bit in childhood and become tougher adults who recognize their blessings, than that they have idyllic childhoods free from real suffering, and as adults experience minor inconveniences as world-shattering tragedies.


You seem to have lost sight of my objection... pain cannot be said to be "good in itself" as it's value is contingent.
I agree that we DO happen to live in a world where it has the value of a vaccine, but it's easy to imagine a world where it has no value...
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Meno_ » Sat Dec 08, 2018 9:06 pm

Hello Mad Man P. I'm glad You can imagine a world without. a value for pain , because I can not, having never the pleasure of experiencing but a mixture of both.
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Re: Optimal Evil

Postby Mad Man P » Sat Dec 08, 2018 9:29 pm

Meno_ wrote:Hello Mad Man P. I'm glad You can imagine a world without. a value for pain , because I can not, having never the pleasure of experiencing but a mixture of both.


Are you in constant pain?
Do you constantly compare every experience in your life to the worst pain in order to measure your response to it?
I mean this could be true of you... but for me the baseline that I measure my response from is my "normal" state that has nothing to do with pain.

Normal is the state I'm in most of the time... when I experience something NOT normal, I measure it by comparison to normal... that's how I measure pain too.
I can easily imagine a life in which someone only experiences "normal" and "better than normal"...

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to have NEVER known pain... but it's equally hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have never known my father.
That has more to do with my inability to perfectly imagine being someone other than myself...
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