Question #5: Is It Moral To Kill Iranian Nuclear Scientists?

Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and it’s pretty clear that somebody is killing Iranian nuclear scientists in an effort to stop this. I felt this was interesting because it relates directly to Sam Harris’ remarks that it “may be ethical to kill people based on what they believe.” What do you think? Is it morally right to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists as a pre-emptive measure? Why or why not?

64 Comments

  1. Crude says:

    What do you think? Is it morally right to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists as a pre-emptive measure? Why or why not?

    I’d like to add my own spin on this one, if it’s not minded.

    Whether or not it’s moral or immoral, is it sometimes moral to kill scientists to keep them or the people they work for from acquiring scientific knowledge or engineering knowledge you don’t want them to have?

    And regardless, is blowing up a scientist to keep him from acquiring scientific or engineering knowledge an anti-science act?

    Also…

    Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and it’s pretty clear that somebody is killing Iranian nuclear scientists in an effort to stop this.

    This is going to sound incredibly naive of me, but from what I’ve read, this isn’t so cut and dry. Maybe I’m misinformed, but my understanding is that the intelligence is divided on this front.

  2. Dale says:

    Like Crude says, this isn’t such a “so cut and dry” issue in a worldly, economical and political sense. With that in mind, I’ll take a stand on this based off of my perspective as a believer in Jesus Christ.

    No, it is not moral to kill someone else because you fear they might kill you. That is murder. Murder is evil. You cannot fight evil with evil, you can only resist evil and respond with love, understanding and compassion. To be the light, that is the answer to the problem, not generating an opposing darkness.

    Otherwise, you are adding to the sum total of evil in the world, and furthering the horrible effects of collective, cosmic darkness and keeping us that much further from reaching all encompassing, life emanating, Christ love; which is our destiny, though the world has always fallen short.

    Back in this fallen short, political world, I cannot help finding irony in the fact that two of the most urgent calls to stop Iran’s nuclear development programs are coming from the USA and Israel. These two countries are hardly ones to cast the first stone in this issue.

    Side, note: No nations on earth should be using nuclear technology at all, for war or even for energy. It’s not safe.

  3. I think you’d need to know all these facts beyond a reasonable doubt, and I don’t think we currently do:

    1.) these scientists are going to successfully build a nuclear weapon

    2.) if these scientists build a nuclear weapon, the government will use it to kill more people

    3.) if they attempt to use the nuclear weapon, any attempt to stop them will be more costly than killing scientists

    4.) killing these scientists will effectively stop the building of a nuclear weapon

    5.) there is no other way that will stop the building of the nuclear weapon as effectively but with less cost

  4. Syllabus says:

    Any defence of this killing is probably going to have to bear the burden of appealing to consequentialist ethics to justify the act. The fact that any utilitarian ethical code is not really morality at all aside, it seems to me that in order to justify this one needs to know a sufficient amount of variables – whether the fissionable material is actually anywhere near a useful point, whether they have the facilities to produce such weapons, whether they have any useful delivery system, actual intent, etc. And the amount of variables is so prohibitively high and the acts so extreme that I don’t think that one could mount any sort of workable case for a pre-emptive assassination of the scientists. And that’s purely from a secular point of view. Bring Christianity into the mix and the entire affair becomes a giant clusterf**k (pardon the French).

  5. The fact that any utilitarian ethical code is not really morality at all aside

    Huh?

  6. cl says:

    Crude,

    I’d like to add my own spin on this one, if it’s not minded.

    It never is, although, I have no idea what you’re getting at by adding this spin.

    Dale,

    Thanks for a straightforward answer. I tend to agree.

    Peter,

    Before you get into a tangent with Syllabus, can you answer the question? Assume, as Syllabus did, that the necessary variables were established to your liking. Tease out a few scenarios.

    Syllabus,

    Bring Christianity into the mix and the entire affair becomes a giant clusterf**k (pardon the French).

    Thanks for highlighting the variables and giving a straight answer. Although, isn’t “clusterf**k” an English word? ;)

  7. Crude says:

    cl,

    It never is, although, I have no idea what you’re getting at by adding this spin.

    Because people tend to treat “science” and “scientists” (admittedly, usually bastardized understandings of both) as these things on a pedestal. No one ever, ever wants to be accused of being “anti-science”. Even a hardened YEC will reject the label vehemently.

    But, as you seem to pick up, plenty of people can justify blowing up scientists to keep certain knowledge out of their hands. And I think people want to get away with being able to blow up scientists or halt scientific knowledge for some or all people (the knowledge is too dangerous, etc), but don’t want the “anti-science” label. And really, I think it’s pretty hard to take a stance of “I support blowing up scientists and destroying their research to keep knowledge out of their hands” as anything but anti-science.

  8. Syllabus says:

    “Huh?”

    See, I’m of the opinion that any code of ethics that can conceivably call for the slaughtering of whatever amount of people because of the intersection of a lot of variables cannot be, in any useful sense, be called “morality”. Especially since the desired result will depend entirely upon the person using the utilitarian formula. This is, of course, my opinion, and you are welcome to disagree with it.

    “Thanks for highlighting the variables and giving a straight answer. Although, isn’t “clusterf**k” an English word? ;)”

    Interestingly enough, the only being, loosely speaking, in existence that could conceivably operate a consequentialist ethical system properly would be God – omniscience, and all that.

  9. Cl: Before you get into a tangent with Syllabus, can you answer the question? Assume, as Syllabus did, that the necessary variables were established to your liking. Tease out a few scenarios.

    I did give you an answer to the question. Assuming that those five variables were all proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then yes, my morality would endorse killing the scientists in question.

    However, currently, those five variables are not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so no killing is currently justified. We should be looking further into establishing these facts instead.

    ~

    Crude: is it sometimes moral to kill scientists to keep them or the people they work for from acquiring scientific knowledge or engineering knowledge you don’t want them to have?

    I suppose it could potentially be, though I doubt that such a scenario would ever arise or be proven with enough certainty to justify taking action.

    ~

    Crude: And regardless, is blowing up a scientist to keep him from acquiring scientific or engineering knowledge an anti-science act?

    I would say so; yes.

    ~

    Dale: That is murder. Murder is evil. You cannot fight evil with evil, you can only resist evil and respond with love, understanding and compassion. […] Otherwise, you are adding to the sum total of evil in the world, and furthering the horrible effects of collective, cosmic darkness

    “All murder is wrong, no matter what the beneficial consequences” is a consistent ethic, but it’s never made sense to me personally. What’s the point of denying evil if you wouldn’t want to take the actions necessary to prevent more evil in the future?

    ~

    Syllabus: See, I’m of the opinion that any code of ethics that can conceivably call for the slaughtering of whatever amount of people because of the intersection of a lot of variables cannot be, in any useful sense, be called “morality”.

    It’s an interesting definition of “morality” I’m sure, though I think you should be wary of smuggling connotations — because it’s not worth calling “morality”, I would guess you therefore tack on a “we ought not do this”.

    Also, slaughtering whatever amount of people is, on utilitarianism, not to be done lightly. It already is done too lightly today, with all sorts of war.

    But if you ended up preventing an even worse disaster as the result of the slaughter and there was no alternative that could avert the disaster with even less killing, then the slaughter makes intuitive sense to me. What do you think would be so bad about it?

    I’m not saying utilitarianism is The One True Morality, but I’m saying it’s sensical, workable, and can be intuitive.

  10. Syllabus says:

    “It’s an interesting definition of “morality” I’m sure, though I think you should be wary of smuggling connotations — because it’s not worth calling “morality”, I would guess you therefore tack on a “we ought not do this”.”

    What exactly do you mean? That we shouldn’t kill people? Yeah, I would most certainly tack on a “we ought not to do this”. Of course, this may not be what you mean.

    “Also, slaughtering whatever amount of people is, on utilitarianism, not to be done lightly. It already is done too lightly today, with all sorts of war.”

    Agreed, and agreed.

    “But if you ended up preventing an even worse disaster as the result of the slaughter and there was no alternative that could avert the disaster with even less killing, then the slaughter makes intuitive sense to me. What do you think would be so bad about it?”

    Erm, the killing? Look, you can say that killing x amount of people was justifiable given a certain set of circumstances and make a pretty good case for it. I might even be inclined to sympathize with such a position. Where I strongly disagree with utilitarian ethics is in the statement that I understand it to make: that killing those people, given the right circumstances and knowledge, would actually constitute a morally praiseworthy act.

    Also, I may think of this differently than you do, but I don’t think sufficient conditions and knowledge exist in the real world – not just some conceivable state of affairs – to make the killing of whatever amount of people a moral deed.

    Heck, remove the killing. Let’s substitute another example. Let’s say that a guy got marooned on an island where there lived a tribe of cannibals. The cannibals catch this benighted guy and proceed to cook him up and serve free range human to the delighted children of their tribe. Or take the Donner party, if you like. Is/was their cannibalism morally good or morally evil (or morally praiseworthy/blameworthy, if you prefer)? It seems to me that a Benthamite utilitarian would have to go with the praiseworthy route – which really seems a reductio for that position. Quibbles may abound, of course.

    “I’m not saying utilitarianism is The One True Morality, but I’m saying it’s sensical, workable, and can be intuitive.”

    In certain cases, I would agree with you. Insofar as the act only involves ones own body and life, I would say that in the majority of cases one could live fairly morally in adherence to utilitarianism (Spock from Wrath of Khan, for instance). Even in most day-to-day situations it can work fairly well. The problem is that, when you get to actions like torture or killing people because of a projected result, you run into all sorts of quagmires. For instance, I think it’s entirely possible to make a good argument that it’s impossible to know the full reaches of ones actions, which makes the whole “necessary and sufficient conditions” thing much more complicated.

    Let’s take another example, this time from film. **SPOILERS FOR TDKR**

    In The Dark Knight, Gordon and Batman do the whole cover-up thing for Harvey Dent for a variety of reasons – to keep the spirits of Gotham alive, to pass legislation, etc. Eight years later, legislation passed by virtue of the good memory of Harvey Dent has cleaned up Gotham’s crime problem. So, far, so good, by utilitarian standards. The desired result has been achieved. Enter Bane. Once he takes Gotham hostage, he uses his knowledge about Harvey Dent’s true nature – procured from the speech notes of Commissioner Gordon – to further plunge the city into anarchy and despair. So, in the end, the cover-up comes back to bite our heroes in the ass.

    **END SPOILERS**

    That, in a nutshell, is one of my problems with utilitarianism. When it comes to committing acts like murder, torture or whatever, it’s impossible to see all the results. Sure, you can wish for the city to be cleansed of crime, but even if you succeed, then you are still left wide open for an even worse catastrophe than the one you were trying to avoid. Since, utilitarianism as I understand it is a consequentialist system of ethics – that is, a system that judges actions to be moral or immoral by the results they produce only – one would need to be directing ones actions towards a desired goal. However, it’s pretty much in principle impossible to possess the necessary variables to make such a decision with the needed precision. Thus, to my mind, utilitarianism fails at its own game. Taken to its logical conclusions, it seems to land one smack in the middle of moral scepticism. You can’t be a true consequentialist unless you’re omniscient. At least, so go my thoughts.

  11. Johnny Buoy says:

    It probably is moral to kill anyone who is planning to kill you, and millions of other people. Of course, their intent to do so has to have been established first.

    But, Harris, at least in how I understand it, thinks it’s moral to kill people simply for their beliefs.

    If I think you should die, or that everyone should be nuked, and so on, it still won’t be ethical to kill me for that. However, if I’m actively planning your death, or others, then it would ethical (I think so) to preempt those plans.

  12. dale says:

    Peter,

    What’s the point of denying evil if you wouldn’t want to take the actions necessary to prevent more evil in the future?

    I understand the rational behind your statement. Really, I do.

    But the point, to me, is that the odd stack on the side that violence begets violence. History is nothing but examples of this. One party/people/faction/etc is oppressed or victimized by another stronger party/people/faction/etc to the point that the retaliate with revolution/revenge/retribution/etc in order to gain freedom/equality/justice/etc. Then, as the new victors take power, there is a honeymoon period in which there is a sense of peace and balance. This is short lived, in that the new power becomes the old power, as they become corrupted by the perks of rule and authority.

    It’s the Machiavellian Prince syndrome, over and over.

    I know it’s near impossible to get everyone to willing drop their dukes and take a step back and err to the side of consideration and cooperation. There’s this bug in human nature (and logic) that urges us to fight, literally or figuratively that we’re having the worst time dropping. But, just imagine if we could. What kind of world would we have? Just saying.

    Also, in further reference to your comment, Ghandi comes to mind. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s a very “Golden” statement, but like I said, imagine the changes this way of thought could bring…

  13. cl says:

    Crude,

    Okay, now I see where you’re going. Interesting line of thought but I don’t think this sort of stuff qualifies as anti-science at all. Now, the Unabomber attacks? You might have a case there, but for these attacks—and presuming they are concerted efforts of the US and Israel—it doesn’t hold. The US and Israel both use science to accomplish their objectives. They’re not anti-science. They anti-allowing-Iran-to-develop-nuclear-science. I think there’s a difference.

    Syllabus,

    Interestingly enough, the only being, loosely speaking, in existence that could conceivably operate a consequentialist ethical system properly would be God – omniscience, and all that.

    I know. I’ve argued along these lines elsewhere on this blog. This is also one of the reasons—perhaps the main reason—that faith is the only possible mechanism to enable a working relationship between such a God and finite creations.

    To Peter, you said:

    Where I strongly disagree with utilitarian ethics is in the statement that I understand it to make: that killing those people, given the right circumstances and knowledge, would actually constitute a morally praiseworthy act.

    May I ask why that’s so? For example, let’s say Hitler’s course was fixed. Killing Hitler as a baby would have prevented everything that resulted from his actions later in life. The way I understand utilitarianism, there is no absolute morality. On a utilitarian ethic, how *WOULDN’T* it be moral to kill Hitler?

    Peter,

    I did give you an answer to the question.

    No you didn’t. At #3, you didn’t say “Assuming that those five variables were all proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then yes, my morality would endorse killing the scientists in question.” All you said was (paraphrased), “we don’t know these variables and we’d need to,” then expected readers to infer the answers you gave at #9. Nonetheless, thanks for a straight answer this time around.

  14. Syllabus says:

    “May I ask why that’s so? For example, let’s say Hitler’s course was fixed. Killing Hitler as a baby would have prevented everything that resulted from his actions later in life. The way I understand utilitarianism, there is no absolute morality. On a utilitarian ethic, how *WOULDN’T* it be moral to kill Hitler?”

    Oh, I’m sorry, I may not have made myself clear. The reason that I disagree with utilitarianism is precisely that it makes such a statement – namely, that killing baby Hitler is a morally praiseworthy act. That’s part of my disagreement with the system.

  15. cl says:

    No, you made that part perfectly clear. The part that’s unclear is the explanation of why you feel this way.

  16. Syllabus says:

    “No, you made that part perfectly clear. The part that’s unclear is the explanation of why you feel this way.”

    The Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, for starters.

  17. cl says:

    Syllabus,

    I’ve seen you around Reppert’s place, but I wasn’t sure if you were an atheist or some variant of Christian or something else. Presuming some variant of Christian, this all makes sense but then I have to ask: what’s your take on the Canaanite thing? There are two contexts we can evaluate:

    1) The Israelites literally killed everybody, men, women, children, babies, etc.

    2) They only killed the men.

    I’m curious to hear how you parse both. It would seem that if you endorse 1, God becomes potentially immoral by your standard. What about 2? Does your hesitance only apply when we’re dealing with babies? IOW, is it moral for God to kill sinful men? If so, what makes it okay for God?

    I’m not trying to catch you up or anything, I’m just genuinely interested in how different people respond to these things.

  18. Syllabus says:

    As regards the “slaughter” of the Canaanites, I’d like to make a couple of distinctions. First, I don’t think that the issue is so much that God took the life of person x or y (though I do want to go on the record as being against the position that “God does what he wants, and these things we call good”. That’s voluntarism, and it’s reprehensible). It’s more about the commanding of the Israelites to kill people, and whether this would constitute a command to do evil. Secondly, it’s important to recognize that what applied in the Old Testament may not be applicable to me as a Christian, and vice versa. Though I’m certainly not a dispensationalist, I think we need to take the life, death and resurrection of Christ extremely seriously as the turning point of history. All facts about God, regardless of where they appear, must be interpreted through the cross of Christ, through the sacrificial self-giving nature of the atonement.

    Thirdly, I think it’s important to discern between orthodoxy and adiaphora – that is, between essentials and non-essentials. For instance, I would take the fact that God’s essential nature is love to be an essential, an absolute non-negotiable. I would take something like a theory about the nature of the inspiration of Scripture to be entirely secondary. Therefore, if one were faced with a choice between retaining the idea that God is love and a specific theory about the inspiration of scripture, then I’d go with God’s nature, all the way.

    Now, with the prolegomena done, I’ll try to address the issue.

    I don’t think the typical evangelical answer of Divine Command Theory works. It’s married to a very strict definition of inerrancy that I think demonstrably disregards the context within which the books of the Bible – especially the OT – were written and does nothing to deal with the intent of the books.

    I don’t think that the more liberal response that “these things didn’t happen, period” quite works either, as it doesn’t treat the Bible in the correct way either. This response, though appealing to those of us who are of a less warlike disposition, seem to be emotionally motivated.

    So how would I answer the question? Well, I admit that I’m not an expert in this area, so any answer I give is going to be incomplete and somewhat halting. But I’ll make two points about the issue that frame my answer. First, divine accommodation. You’ll find this idea in theologians as old as Calvin, if not some older ones. The gist of the argument is that God presents Himself to people in terms that they can understand. Thus, the pictures of God we see in the OT are ones that were portrayed to the people of that culture in such a manner that they can understand (I’m not saying here that the ancients were primitive, unenlightened savages, only that they were worlds apart from us socially and culturally). A good example of this is polygamy. From the sweep of Scripture, it’s clear that monogamy is God’s ideal for marriage – that’s pretty much undisputed. However, you see God allowing for multiple wives in Scripture for reasons that may not be immediately visible. Of course, it’s obvious to any reader that polygamy, as represented in the Tanakh, was patently a disaster. Was God grieved in this accomodation? I believe so. But I think in a fallen world, pain on both sides is necessary for redemption, especially ultimate redemption. So, to draw some of these threads together, I think that a part of the answer was that God accommodated to the culture of the time and allowed certain things that, while grievous, were nonetheless necessary for the redemption of all things. This also ties into the view of inspiration of Scripture that one takes, but that’s a gigantic topic that I don’t want to get into right now.

    Second, whenever I come across anything like this in Scripture, I find it necessary to ask the question, “How does this passage make sense in light of the Cross?” We have to remember that the clearest picture we have of God is that of a man on a cross dying for His enemies. This has at least two effects on this issue. First, regardless of whatever else, we see in Scripture, we have the assurance that the nature of God is self-giving, servant love. Secondly, we also have the assurance that whatever pain and suffering we happen to encounter – whether in the pages of Scripture or in the book of Nature – is ultimately redeemed on and through the cross.

    That’s only a partial answer, of course, but it’s the best I can do on short notice. This is a huuuuuge topic, and it ties directly back into the Problem of Evil. But, for better or worse, that’s part of the way that I deal with that question.

  19. Syllabus says:

    Another interesting little tidbit that I just now remembered is a C S Lewis quote to the effect of, “Not all Scripture is inspired in precisely the same way that other parts are.” That’s a helpful and thought-provoking attitude, I think.

  20. dale says:

    Syllabus,

    C.S. Lewis is a personal favorite.

  21. Crude says:

    cl,

    Okay, now I see where you’re going. Interesting line of thought but I don’t think this sort of stuff qualifies as anti-science at all. Now, the Unabomber attacks? You might have a case there, but for these attacks—and presuming they are concerted efforts of the US and Israel—it doesn’t hold. The US and Israel both use science to accomplish their objectives. They’re not anti-science. They anti-allowing-Iran-to-develop-nuclear-science. I think there’s a difference.

    Well, I think you can abstract it out a bit. “They’re anti- people having knowledge they think will be too dangerous.” I have no doubt people can tailor the definition of being anti-science so that this sort of thing isn’t anti-science.

    How about animal activists busting up a lab because they oppose animal testing? Anti-science? Well, okay, we can say “they’re not anti-science, they’re just anti-animal-testing”. Again, alright.

    Here’s where the problem comes in: the guy who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution or common descent? The Intelligent Design proponent? Various alterations on this line? They get the anti-science label in many quarters. Now, of course HERE you could make the same move and say, “No, they’re not anti-science. They’re skeptics, for one reason or another.” And I think it becomes pretty hard to take serious the claim that blowing up scientists because some science knowledge is too dangerous, or forbidding certain kinds of research because you don’t like the methods or subject, is NOT anti-science.

  22. Syllabus says:

    “C.S. Lewis is a personal favorite.”

    The writings of C S Lewis are the closest things we non-Catholics have to Sacred Tradition.

  23. Warning: This comment contains some discussion of the plot of “Dark Knight Rises”.

    Me: I think you should be wary of smuggling connotations — because it’s not worth calling “morality”, I would guess you therefore tack on a “we ought not do this”.

    Syllabus: What exactly do you mean? That we shouldn’t kill people? Yeah, I would most certainly tack on a “we ought not to do this”. Of course, this may not be what you mean.

    What I mean is that:

    1.) you shouldn’t dismiss utilitarianism from consideration merely because it does not meet your personal definition of “morality”.

    2.) just because something meets your definition of “morality” does not make it a truth that one has an overriding reason to comply with your definition or that one has no overriding reason to comply with a different definition.

    (For what it’s worth, I don’t think overriding reasons exist, so I reject that component of moral realism.)

    ~

    Syllabus: Look, you can say that killing x amount of people was justifiable given a certain set of circumstances and make a pretty good case for it. […] Where I strongly disagree with utilitarian ethics is in the statement that I understand it to make: that killing those people, given the right circumstances and knowledge, would actually constitute a morally praiseworthy act.

    That’s fair, but I think you’ve mischaracterized utilitarianism. I think there’s a distinction between something being “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should have done it, and “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should be happy about the outcome and people should throw parties for you.

    Death always represents a huge loss in happiness, so the deaths of certain people are always regrettable for their sake and the sake of all those affected. Thus, I would think the proper reaction to killing people for the greater good is still one of regret and sadness that it had to come to this, for there was no other way.

    Thus, as a utilitarian, I’m right with you. Celebrating death comes with additional negative consequences and can bring about a culture where people shoot first and ask questions later, so no utilitarian would want such a thing.

    ~

    Syllabus: Also, I may think of this differently than you do, but I don’t think sufficient conditions and knowledge exist in the real world – not just some conceivable state of affairs – to make the killing of whatever amount of people a moral deed.

    I disagree. One need only look at the universal example of killing someone in self defense. I’d never say the utilitarian calculations are easy, but I think they can be made in certain situations beyond a reasonable doubt.

    ~

    Syllabus: Let’s say that a guy got marooned on an island where there lived a tribe of cannibals. The cannibals catch this benighted guy and proceed to cook him up and serve free range human to the delighted children of their tribe. […] Is/was their cannibalism morally good or morally evil[?]

    Morally evil. First, the joy one receives through cannibalism is extraordinarily negligible compared to the suffering one receives through death and the prospects of being eaten, all your future happiness, and all additional suffering done indirectly to all those who knew you.

    Second, allowing the institution of cannibalism of the unwilling to continue will only result in additional situations. Better future happiness could be secured by easing away from cannibalism and introducing more harmless foods for the cannibals to enjoy.

    ~

    Syllabus: Eight years later, legislation passed by virtue of the good memory of Harvey Dent has cleaned up Gotham’s crime problem. So, far, so good, by utilitarian standards. The desired result has been achieved. Enter Bane. Once he takes Gotham hostage, he uses his knowledge about Harvey Dent’s true nature – procured from the speech notes of Commissioner Gordon – to further plunge the city into anarchy and despair. So, in the end, the cover-up comes back to bite our heroes in the ass.

    Watching through the movie didn’t make it seem like revealing Dent’s true nature was really that much of a turning point, but I’ll put that aside for the sake of argument. My main point would be that deception always comes at a risk of large downside, which is why I tend to shy away from it unless it’s really necessary.

    At the time they made the decision, it seemed clear that no one would find out. And it turned out to have pretty good consequences. No one was going to see Bane coming, or guess he would have the means to figure out about Dent. So yes, a judgement call at the time even made beyond a reasonable doubt could end up having unlikely consequences, but I still think it was the right choice based on the information available at the time.

    Essentially, every time you step outside your house, there’s a nonzero chance that your actions will lead to the mass destruction of thousands of people. Yet this is so marginally unlikely that it doesn’t phase you. But suppose it does somehow happen. Were you mistaken to leave your house?

    ~

    Me: What’s the point of denying evil if you wouldn’t want to take the actions necessary to prevent more evil in the future?

    Dale: I understand the rational behind your statement. Really, I do.
    But the point, to me, is that the odd stack on the side that violence begets violence.

    I think that’s a valid argument even to make within a utilitarian framework — if violence leads to worse consequences than the evil it averts, then we shouldn’t do it. Though I wonder, do you morally endorse killing in self-defense? If so or if not, why?

  24. Syllabus says:

    “What I mean is that:
    1.) you shouldn’t dismiss utilitarianism from consideration merely because it does not meet your personal definition of “morality”.”

    Fair enough. But I think that one inevitably is going to have to make the call of judging whether a certain system or other is optimal or not. So when you say that I shouldn’t dismiss utilitarianism from the option because it doesn’t meet my personal standards for “morality”, I would respond that we inevitably do this by choosing one moral system over another, because the one that we choose seems the best or most complete one. Utilitarianism works sometimes, I already granted. But I don’t think it works in some truly important situations, so I would say that at best it’s an incomplete ethical system and at worst a fatally flawed one.

    “2.) just because something meets your definition of “morality” does not make it a truth that one has an overriding reason to comply with your definition or that one has no overriding reason to comply with a different definition.
    (For what it’s worth, I don’t think overriding reasons exist, so I reject that component of moral realism.)”

    Fair enough, again. I’m not sure whether I came across as a proselytizer for a specific ethical school, but I didn’t mean to. What I was trying to do was discuss a certain one – utilitarianism – and give reasons for why I think it’s insufficient. Do I think that utilitarianism is insufficient? Sure, and I have no problem saying so. Do I care whether you change to, say, de-ontological ethics? Not especially. While the discussion might have bearings upon what school of ethical thought one chooses, I think that would just be a by-product of the discussion, not its object.

    “That’s fair, but I think you’ve mischaracterized utilitarianism. I think there’s a distinction between something being “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should have done it, and “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should be happy about the outcome and people should throw parties for you.”

    I meant “praiseworthy” in the first sense, not the second. I used praiseworthy instead of “good” because I didn’t know whether you’d take issue with the choice of “good”. So I just meant “praiseworthy” in the sense of laudable or virtuous, to use terms from other systems – or, in your words, that you should be happy about the outcome.

    “Death always represents a huge loss in happiness, so the deaths of certain people are always regrettable for their sake and the sake of all those affected. Thus, I would think the proper reaction to killing people for the greater good is still one of regret and sadness that it had to come to this, for there was no other way.”

    Yup. The rejoicing in the streets at the killing of bin Laden was disgusting.

    “Thus, as a utilitarian, I’m right with you. Celebrating death comes with additional negative consequences and can bring about a culture where people shoot first and ask questions later, so no utilitarian would want such a thing.”

    I agree, but that’s not what I was saying. I apologize for the confusion.

    “I disagree. One need only look at the universal example of killing someone in self defense. I’d never say the utilitarian calculations are easy, but I think they can be made in certain situations beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    I think again that this is a confusion. When I object to the utilitarian system, I don’t really make it because it allows for doing deed x or y for some other goal – though in certain situations I would make such an objection. Where I object is in the statement that such a deed would be, to use your language, something you should be happy about or, to use mine, morally praiseworthy. One could say that the killing is indeed a moral misdeed but was balanced out by the good you did – a la doctrine of double effect – but that would not suffice to make the deed morally good. Which is, so far as I understand it, the statement that utilitarianism makes, and that’s where I object.

    “Morally evil. First, the joy one receives through cannibalism is extraordinarily negligible compared to the suffering one receives through death and the prospects of being eaten, all your future happiness, and all additional suffering done indirectly to all those who knew you.”

    I don’t mean to belabour a word picture past its usefulness, but the guy was marooned. No way off the island, a single shot in his pistol kind of marooned For all intents and purposes, he was already dead. All the pain and grief that his family was to experience would happen regardless of whether they ate him or not.

    Now, on to whether the cannibalism itself. The actual act of eating human flesh is not the only thing at play. For many cannibalistic tribes, the act of eating a rival or adversary or enemy was a ritual of great importance. They did all sorts of things beyond merely eating the victim. So I think that the pleasure produced by the cannibalism is greater than you represent.

    But let’s allow, for the sake of argument, that it’s only mildly pleasurable. Even in that situation, you have, say, 50 bits of mild pleasure against one bit of extreme displeasure. My question would go something like this: if you were to do the requisite math and discover that when you add up the mild bits of pleasure and compare it against the displeasure of the victim, you are left with the pleasure produced by the act exceeds the displeasure, would that make it moral? The guy is marooned, remember. All his family, friends, whatnot already think he’s dead. The likelihood of them ever discovering that he was cannibalized is next to nothing. The island is out in the middle of the Pacific, so it’s unlikely that any further maroonees (?) would disturb them again.

    “Second, allowing the institution of cannibalism of the unwilling to continue will only result in additional situations. Better future happiness could be secured by easing away from cannibalism and introducing more harmless foods for the cannibals to enjoy.”

    True, but that’s dealing with the institution of cannibalism, not an act of it. It’s related, but I’m not sure it has a good bearing on the point at hand.

    “Watching through the movie didn’t make it seem like revealing Dent’s true nature was really that much of a turning point, but I’ll put that aside for the sake of argument. My main point would be that deception always comes at a risk of large downside, which is why I tend to shy away from it unless it’s really necessary.”

    I’m not really saying it was a huge turning point of the film, only that it put another ton of straw onto the already heavily loaded camel’s back.

    “At the time they made the decision, it seemed clear that no one would find out. And it turned out to have pretty good consequences. No one was going to see Bane coming, or guess he would have the means to figure out about Dent. So yes, a judgement call at the time even made beyond a reasonable doubt could end up having unlikely consequences, but I still think it was the right choice based on the information available at the time.”

    OK, fair enough. But here’s the problem I see. The effectiveness of utilitarianism is judged exclusively by the consequences it produces, so far as I understand the system. So shouldn’t we judge the rightness or wrongness of the act by the consequences?

    Everyday occurrences can have negative consequences, sure. My point is that, when we get to such serious matters as deceit, murder or the like, the variables blow up in a way that doesn’t happen in regular, day-to-day life, and in such a way as makes them – to my mind, anyway – impossible to judge.

    “Essentially, every time you step outside your house, there’s a nonzero chance that your actions will lead to the mass destruction of thousands of people. Yet this is so marginally unlikely that it doesn’t phase you. But suppose it does somehow happen. Were you mistaken to leave your house?”

    Depending on the consequences, the utilitarian might be. But, since I’m not a utilitarian, the same strictures don’t apply to me. :-)

    For what it’s worth, though, I judge an action – one that is taken with conscious choice, as opposed to an instinct like breathing – based upon the inherent moral quality of the action, the situation into which the action is performed, and the motive behind the action. So, to take you example, if I leave the house while in a heated discussion with my wife, I would judge – if I thought to do so – the action (fairly innocuous), the situation (the heated discussion, so could go either way, and the motive. If the motive is that I need to get to work on time to keep the job that helps support us, then the act is good, or at least neutral. If the motive is that I’m really angry at my wife and want to spite her by storming out the door, then the act of walking out the door is bad. Of course, most of this I do on an intuitive level, but that’s how it looks when I parse it out.

  25. Syllabus says:

    Apologies for the misspellings and punctuation errors.

  26. Being Happy about Killing People? Utilitarianism says no.

    Me: I think you’ve mischaracterized utilitarianism. I think there’s a distinction between something being “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should have done it, and “praiseworthy” in the sense that you should be happy about the outcome and people should throw parties for you.

    Syllabus: I meant “praiseworthy” in the first sense, not the second. […] So I just meant “praiseworthy” in the sense of laudable or virtuous, to use terms from other systems – or, in your words, that you should be happy about the outcome. […] Where I object is in the statement that such a deed would be, to use your language, something you should be happy about or, to use mine, morally praiseworthy.

    I’m still a bit confused about what you mean by “praiseworthy”. For instance, I think it definitely can be the case that you ought to take an action that you should be extensively unhappy about, just because you’re in a situation where there simply is no better option. I would put the killing of people to save others in this unfortunate scenario.

    You think that utilitarianism says one must be happy about the death of others when there was no other option. I deny that this is the case — such happiness would indicate a mindset that suggests killing people in general is favorable, not a unfortunate last-ditch effort. Such a mindset would have bad consequences.

    ~

    One could say that the killing is indeed a moral misdeed but was balanced out by the good you did – a la doctrine of double effect – but that would not suffice to make the deed morally good. Which is, so far as I understand it, the statement that utilitarianism makes, and that’s where I object.

    The doctrine of double effect is weird, because the killing would have to be an unintended side-effect. In the case of killing in self-defense, the killing is definitely intended but usually justified because deontology only says killing is wrong when done to *innocent* people. Is that your understanding?

    Utilitarianism says we morally ought to do that which has the best overall consequences. The killing of this person has the best overall consequences because it saves the lives of others. The killing itself is bad (death has bad consequences) but is *outweighed* by the benefit of saving others (good consequences). Thus the killing in and of itself is morally regrettable, but morally necessary because of the outweighing (but not compensating) benefit. Does that make sense?

    ~

    Could cannibalism be the best outcome? Perhaps, but unlikely.

    if you were to do the requisite math and discover that when you add up the mild bits of pleasure and compare it against the displeasure of the victim, you are left with the pleasure produced by the act exceeds the displeasure, would that make it moral? The guy is marooned, remember. All his family, friends, whatnot already think he’s dead. The likelihood of them ever discovering that he was cannibalized is next to nothing. The island is out in the middle of the Pacific, so it’s unlikely that any further maroonees (?) would disturb them again.

    If you were to add up all the mild bits of pleasure from the cannibalism and add it up against the displeasure of the marooned guy, plus all the indirect benefits/harms of the cannibalistic act, and found that overall the scale tilts in favor of cannibalism, then yes, this particular act of cannibalism would be endorsed by utilitarianism.

    It’s a very rare scenario that we have a guy who is marooned with no hope of rescue. If anything, it seemed like he would soon kill himself to put himself out of his misery. If so, what would be intuitively displeasing about waiting for him to kill himself and then eating him after he’s dead, or killing him painlessly and then eating him?

    I’d still like to point out that cannibalism of the unwilling is an institution that will generally produce bad consequences in the long-run, so steps should be taken to ensure that it is removed from all societies. Any act of cannibalism would perpetuate the institution further. …So perhaps it still would lead to more suffering for them to cannibalize this marooned guy.

    ~

    Expected Utility vs. Actual Utility, and the Gambler’s Regret

    The effectiveness of utilitarianism is judged exclusively by the consequences it produces, so far as I understand the system. So shouldn’t we judge the rightness or wrongness of the act by the consequences?

    Here’s a better example. Suppose for some reason you have two choices — you can either take the a guaranteed shot at saving a lifeboat with ten people, or you can attempt to save a lifeboat with 100 people, but you’ll only have a 90% chance of success. What should you do?

    Expected utility would tell you to take the 90% shot, since you’ll save an expected 90 from that lifeboat (and minus the 10 from the other, that’s an expected -20 lives, compared to an expected -90 lives from the other choice) — it’s a good gamble.

    However, let’s say that it just so happened that your gamble didn’t turn out right, and you lost the lifeboat, thus losing 110 total lives. You made the right choice in the moment, but it turned out to have overall bad consequences, and in this case you can regret your choice and think you *should’ve* gone for the sure bet, since that *would have* in fact lead to better consequences.

    But you didn’t know that at the time, and you can only do the best with what you know. Thus you’ll still be morally obligated to go for the good gambles, even if you don’t succeed. Doing nothing would mean an automatic loss of 110 lives (expected utility of -110 lives, the worst possible choice!).

  27. Syllabus says:

    “You think that utilitarianism says one must be happy about the death of others when there was no other option. I deny that this is the case — such happiness would indicate a mindset that suggests killing people in general is favorable, not a unfortunate last-ditch effort. Such a mindset would have bad consequences.”

    OK, point taken. I think the equivocation that happened between “happy about” and “praiseworthy” may have caused some crossed wires. To distil the choices down, then, I’ll just go ahead and phrase it this way: it is a deed that, given the requisite calculations, factors, etc., would be considered morally good. Is that phrasing satisfactory?

    The doctrine of double effect is weird, because the killing would have to be an unintended side-effect. In the case of killing in self-defense, the killing is definitely intended but usually justified because deontology only says killing is wrong when done to *innocent* people. Is that your understanding?

    Well, there are two different things there, so I’ll respond to them in turn.

    First, the DDE. The situation I had in mind was something like this: suppose you say a guy assaulting another guy. You go on over to assist the guy being assaulted by pushing the guy doing the assaulting real hard. As a result of your pushing, he falls down and breaks his neck on the pavement. So the death was obviously both a result of your action and an unintended consequence. In that situation, the DDE would come into play. That’s my understanding.

    Second, the killing in self-defence/deontology. In that situation, the killing, like you say, is most certainly intended. According to deontological ethics, it would also be justified. But I don’t follow deontological ethics, as such. (When I used that as an example, I was just putting up a hypothetical ethical system and not my actual one.) As I understand deontological ethics, the duty you have to the innocent would supersede your duty to not be violent towards others, or your duty to not kill them. Thus, the killing of a person, given the right circumstances, could be justified because you have a higher duty towards the innocent than towards the aggressor. So yeah, that’s how I would understand that ethical system. In many ways, we all act this way at times.

    .Utilitarianism says we morally ought to do that which has the best overall consequences. The killing of this person has the best overall consequences because it saves the lives of others. The killing itself is bad (death has bad consequences) but is *outweighed* by the benefit of saving others (good consequences). Thus the killing in and of itself is morally regrettable, but morally necessary because of the outweighing (but not compensating) benefit. Does that make sense?

    There are things there that are new to me. So far as I always understood utilitarianism, the killing itself was to be considered good if it had better consequences than other situations. So yeah, if that’s actually utilitarianism, it’s a bit clearer. I still don’t agree with it, you understand, but it’s clearer.

    If you were to add up all the mild bits of pleasure from the cannibalism and add it up against the displeasure of the marooned guy, plus all the indirect benefits/harms of the cannibalistic act, and found that overall the scale tilts in favor of cannibalism, then yes, this particular act of cannibalism would be endorsed by utilitarianism.

    It’s a very rare scenario that we have a guy who is marooned with no hope of rescue. If anything, it seemed like he would soon kill himself to put himself out of his misery. If so, what would be intuitively displeasing about waiting for him to kill himself and then eating him after he’s dead, or killing him painlessly and then eating him?

    OK. I was curious as to how you’d respond. Thanks for doing so.

    I’d still like to point out that cannibalism of the unwilling is an institution that will generally produce bad consequences in the long-run, so steps should be taken to ensure that it is removed from all societies. Any act of cannibalism would perpetuate the institution further. …So perhaps it still would lead to more suffering for them to cannibalize this marooned guy.

    Point taken, and agreed with.

    Here’s a better example. Suppose for some reason you have two choices — you can either take the a guaranteed shot at saving a lifeboat with ten people, or you can attempt to save a lifeboat with 100 people, but you’ll only have a 90% chance of success. What should you do?

    Expected utility would tell you to take the 90% shot, since you’ll save an expected 90 from that lifeboat (and minus the 10 from the other, that’s an expected -20 lives, compared to an expected -90 lives from the other choice) — it’s a good gamble.

    However, let’s say that it just so happened that your gamble didn’t turn out right, and you lost the lifeboat, thus losing 110 total lives. You made the right choice in the moment, but it turned out to have overall bad consequences, and in this case you can regret your choice and think you *should’ve* gone for the sure bet, since that *would have* in fact lead to better consequences.

    But you didn’t know that at the time, and you can only do the best with what you know. Thus you’ll still be morally obligated to go for the good gambles, even if you don’t succeed. Doing nothing would mean an automatic loss of 110 lives (expected utility of -110 lives, the worst possible choice!).

    I more or less agree with the direction taken in the example, but I think there are key differences to, say, the killing example. For instance, saving one lifeboat and not the other is, at most, passively causing the deaths of the other lifeboat. The perishing of the people on the other lifeboat is an unintended consequence, rather than an intended consequence. And I think a great deal hangs upon that distinction.

    If I understand what you’re saying – and please, correct me if I’m wrong – then actions are not just judged on their consequences, but also by the information available at the time. But if I’m understanding this case correctly, whether the deed is morally good or bad – to use simple terms – depends not upon the consequences but upon the information on hand – which seems a very odd sort of utilitarianism, since it looks like it denies that acts should always be judged by their consequences. That’s my reading, anyway, and you’re welcome to point out any misrepresentations or whatever.

  28. dale says:

    Peter,

    Me: What’s the point of denying evil if you wouldn’t want to take the actions necessary to prevent more evil in the future?

    Dale: I understand the rational behind your statement. Really, I do.
    But the point, to me, is that the odd stack on the side that violence begets violence.

    Me: I think that’s a valid argument even to make within a utilitarian framework — if violence leads to worse consequences than the evil it averts, then we shouldn’t do it. Though I wonder, do you morally endorse killing in self-defense? If so or if not, why?

    I admit that this is not a simple cut and dry question or scenario in general as the context makes a lot of difference as to what the answer is.

    For the first scenario, I will assume it is I who is being attacked and risk losing their life, and the only way I can save my life is that I kill my attacker.

    I am a peaceful person. I live my day to day life, which is comprised of: brushing my teeth and having a cup of coffee, riding my bike or the train to work, doing my job, enjoying my lunch with co-workers, going home to my wife and cats, doing a little art and bike riding to wind down, drinking a beer and then calling a night. The next day is usually the same. I am not a criminal or violent person. I try to live a good life and I try as hard as I can to avoid conflict and aim to add towards positivity and understanding in any way possible. I wish the best for the world. Maybe I sound like a hippy…maybe I am? :-)

    Anyways, I would have to ask, who is this person who is trying to kill me and why are they doing it? Assuming that what I said about myself is true, this would be flat out attempted murder. Though I know that the context in which the said assailant is trying to kill me needs to be taken into consideration, say mental illness or dire financial desperation, there would not be much justification for their actions in a court of law. I on the other hand, would have justification to kill this person, as long as it was provable that I did all that I possibly could have done to avoid the situation.

    Would I kill this person? I would not want to, and I can only say what I would do if that did happen. But, to be honest to your question, yes, I probably would, though I need to stress my genuine nature to not murder or kill anyone. I shot some birds and a rabbit with a bb gun when I was a kid and that was all it took for me to learn my lesson that I don’t like killing, let alone murder.

    Scenario Two, I will use the blowing up of Iranian Nuclear Scientist. And for this argument, let’s hypothesize that the perpetrators of these attacks are either the United States and/or Israeli intelligence and military agencies, or affiliates of these groups in general. When I name these countries, I am not making general statements about the general public citizens of these countries (Iran included), I am talking about the military governments.

    Given the colonial capitalist history of the United States, including the fact that the U.S. was the first nation to proactively use nuclear weapons on another nation; and combining that with the severely confrontational nature of Israel, including their perpetual breaking of territory treaties with Palestine, and their subsequent, continuing occupation of places within the Gaza Strip…I don’t think either of these nations can honestly state that they are either fair, kind or peaceful. I think if you asked around the world, many nations (as long as they didn’t fear financial strong-arming) would say that both nations are aggressive, greedy and murderous. I’m not saying that Iran is a saint. They are violent as well.

    So, you have two allied, violent nations who do not believe a third violent “enemy” nation when they say they are developing nuclear technology for peaceful energy purposes. So, the U.S./Israeli axis bypasses an impartial court of law and strike with vigilant “justice.” Violence begets violence in this situation, regardless of who feels justified in their violence. It’s a downwards spiral, in which this specific instance was not the beginning, and does not appear to be the end either.

    Is Iran building nuclear bombs to kill Americans and Israelis? They say they aren’t, but are they lying? Maybe yes, maybe no. America and Israel said that Iraq was doing the same thing, but the funny thing is…all that “top secret intelligence” that we had that said they were was fabricated by our “Intelligence”. With prior evidence like this, it’s not out of the question to be as much or more suspicious of the U.S./Israel than Iran, and their justification for blowing up their scientists is weak and smells like murder to me…which will most likely only beget more murder.

  29. Hugh says:

    Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and it’s pretty clear that somebody is killing Iranian nuclear scientists in an effort to stop this. I felt this was interesting because it relates directly to Sam Harris’ remarks that it “may be ethical to kill people based on what they believe.” What do you think? Is it morally right to kill Iran’s nuclear scientists as a pre-emptive measure? Why or why not?

    Belief and knowledge are distinguishable. There is nothing in the hypothetical about what the scientists believe or how their beliefs might relate to intent, only a suggestion about what they might know, physics, engineering, matters of design, etc. Isn’t any hypothetical which requires us to make presumptions of our own defective?

  30. cl says:

    Hi Hugh.

    Sorry for the delay in approving your response. When I originally devised the “commenter must have a previously approved comment” metric, it was a workaround for spam. Lately I’ve realized it doesn’t do much good, so I’ll probably change that because every time I take a blogging break (and I take them often!), somebody new comments, and is forced to wait. So, I apologize.

    I think there is some truth to the statement that “belief and knowledge are distinguishable” but I don’t agree in any absolute sense, and I believe there are definitely instances where belief and knowledge are not indistinguishable.

    That said, you asked,

    Isn’t any hypothetical which requires us to make presumptions of our own defective?

    By “hypothetical” are referring to the words of mine you quoted? If so, what presumption does my hypothetical require us to make? I take it as a given that any people developing nuclear weapons are committed to potentially using them.

  31. cl says:

    Syllabus,

    Thank you for the time you took explaining yourself at #18. I’ll probably be mulling it over for some time. I just didn’t want you to think my lack of response signified disinterest or lack of appreciation.

  32. Syllabus says:

    It’s all good. People have stuff to attend to that’s not on the internet.

  33. Hi again. I’ve decided it a good time to come back here and tackle this discussion again. Hope people don’t mind the late re-entry.

    Syllabus: I think the equivocation that happened between “happy about” and “praiseworthy” may have caused some crossed wires. To distil the choices down, then, I’ll just go ahead and phrase it this way: it is a deed that, given the requisite calculations, factors, etc., would be considered morally good. Is that phrasing satisfactory?

    Killing someone can indeed be morally good, as in it has the property “should have been done” as judged by utilitarianism. At the same time, it does not have the property “should be celebrated”. Instead, it should be regretted and should have been avoided if possible. (It just turned out that avoiding it happened to not be possible…)

    I think what happens here is that the word “good” has two senses — “good” as in “Hurrah, I’m glad that happened!” and “good” as in “this is the best course of action”. Sometimes the best course of action happens to still be regrettably shitty, and the two different senses of “good” come apart, and cause confusion.

    ~

    Syllabus: As I understand deontological ethics, the duty you have to the innocent would supersede your duty to not be violent towards others, or your duty to not kill them.

    I totally get what you said about the Doctrine of Double Effect vs. not killing “innocent” people, and agree. What I don’t understand is how deontological ethics accounts for one duty superseding another.

    ~

    Syllabus: For instance, saving one lifeboat and not the other is, at most, passively causing the deaths of the other lifeboat. The perishing of the people on the other lifeboat is an unintended consequence, rather than an intended consequence. And I think a great deal hangs upon that distinction.

    I personally don’t find much relevance in the distinction (the classic doing vs. allowing distinction), but do understand why deontologists would find it important.

    ~

    Syllabus: If I understand what you’re saying – and please, correct me if I’m wrong – then actions are not just judged on their consequences, but also by the information available at the time.

    The question of “Was this the best possible action to take?” is judged on consequences alone. However, questions about whether the agent should be blamed for having taken the wrong action can be deflected with “Well, the agent couldn’t have done any better given the circumstances — there’s no way they could have known the unlikely bet was the right one!” Additionally, we could even blame someone by saying “Though that person got the best possible outcome, it was at unnecessary risk, and such hasty actions should never be repeated!”

    What this means is that the evaluation of actions are entirely consequence-driven, but the evaluation of characters (blameworthiness) can take into account things more indirect to consequences. The goal, however, is still to come up with blame assessments that, themselves, have good consequences. Blaming someone for doing the best they could doesn’t have good consequences! Does that make sense?

  34. cl says:

    Peter,

    Not sure if you saw it, but I finally got back to you.

    Killing someone can indeed be morally good, as in it has the property “should have been done” as judged by utilitarianism. At the same time, it does not have the property “should be celebrated”. Instead, it should be regretted and should have been avoided if possible. (It just turned out that avoiding it happened to not be possible…)

    That’s interesting. When should an action that has the property “should have been done” NOT also have the property “should have been celebrated?” Shouldn’t we always celebrate the “right” course of action?

    Also, when is it “not possible” to avoid killing somebody? Since that seems incoherent, I suspect you meant to say something different, perhaps more clarified and/or qualified.

  35. When should an action that has the property “should have been done” NOT also have the property “should have been celebrated?” Shouldn’t we always celebrate the “right” course of action?

    If celebrating the right course of action would produce bad consequences, it should not be celebrated.

    ~

    Also, when is it “not possible” to avoid killing somebody? Since that seems incoherent, I suspect you meant to say something different, perhaps more clarified and/or qualified.

    By “if possible”, I mean, if avoiding it would be the utilitarian thing to do. Whenever a situation arises where killing someone is the utilitarian course of action, it may be the case that such a situation could have been avoided had past actions been different…

    ~

    Not sure if you saw it, but I finally got back to you.

    I had seen it, but haven’t gotten around to replying yet. Thanks. Also, thanks for all the commenting on my site. I hope to get back to you on all of this, but of course my current academic load only allows for slow trickles of blogging/commenting.

  36. cl says:

    Hi Peter.

    I suspect you misunderstood the question. What I want to know is, if killing somebody is the “right” according to “utilitarian course of action” (whatever that means), why should it be regretted?

  37. Indeed I must have misunderstood the question, for I was certain that was the question I had answered!

    It can be the case that not regretting the course of action (or rather, lamenting the fact that the situation required such an action to be taken) would have better consequences (creating a world where killing is not taken lightly; ensuring people take more precautions to ensure kill scenarios are avoided, etc.), could it not?

  38. cl says:

    You’re losing me. Let’s back it up a bit. You wrote,

    Killing someone can indeed be morally good, as in it has the property “should have been done” as judged by utilitarianism. At the same time, it does not have the property “should be celebrated”.

    Why not?

  39. Now I’m confused. I thought I just answered your question twice. What do you find inadequate with my answer?

  40. That’s interesting. When should an action that has the property “should have been done” NOT also have the property “should have been celebrated?” Shouldn’t we always celebrate the “right” course of action?

    cl, think of cases like shooting the dog/I did what I had to do.

    Sometimes there is no good solution to a problem.

  41. cl says:

    Your original statement was categorical and made no “could possibly” or “if/then” distinctions. You simply wrote:

    [killing someone] does not have the property “should be celebrated”.

    …and I’m asking you, why not?

    Your answer: “it can be the case that not regretting the course of action would have better consequences.”

    Okay, sure, but then two points arise: it can also be the case that not regretting the course of action would have worse consequences (creating a world where people are afraid to kill someone who should be killed, for fear of guilt and/or condemnation). Also, since there’s no way you can know, you’re just preaching Hurfordian folk morality.

    So, given these points, why shouldn’t killing someone who should be killed be celebrated, if it is the “right” course of action?

  42. cl says:

    Hi TE. Hope all’s been well. I agree that sometimes there is no good solution to a problem, but unfortunately, that doesn’t answer my question.

  43. it can also be the case that not regretting the course of action would have worse consequences (creating a world where people are afraid to kill someone who should be killed, for fear of guilt and/or condemnation).

    Definitely. When I said “killing someone can indeed be morally good [but] does not have the property ‘should be celebrated'”, it could be more accurately stated “killing someone can indeed be morally good [but] does not always have the property ‘should be celebrated'”.

    Does that make sense now?

    Also, since there’s no way you can know, you’re just preaching Hurfordian folk morality.

    No way I can know, like, ever, or just that I don’t know now? I think one could study the effect of celebrating killing, more or less, on society. Maybe that’s already been done. For now, we have to rely on intuition.

  44. cl says:

    Does that make sense now?

    It’s an improvement on what you originally wrote, in that you’ve gone back and added the precision that was lacking, and yes, it makes sense, but unfortunately, it’s just a statement of the obvious and doesn’t support your claim in any way, shape or form.

    No way I can know, like, ever, or just that I don’t know now?

    Both.

    For now, we have to rely on intuition.

    a.k.a., Hurfordian speculative folk morality. Doesn’t it worry you that you base your moral claims on intuition while elsewhere arguing that intuition is a horrible means of establishing truth?

  45. Cl: it’s just a statement of the obvious and doesn’t support your claim in any way, shape or form.

    Going way back to the beginning, Syllabus was worried that utilitarianism mandated that we celebrate the killing of others whenever the action of killing was the right thing to do. I pointed out that this isn’t necessarily the case, and then furthermore speculated that it often isn’t the case.

    So it’s not like I’ve been completely vacuous here — I gave Syllabus a relevant answer in the context of the questions he was asking.

    ~

    Peter: No way I can know, like, ever, or just that I don’t know now?
    Cl: Both.

    Asserting that the knowledge will be forever impossible (at least, for me) strikes me as a strong and implausible claim. What makes you think that?

    ~

    Doesn’t it worry you that you base your moral claims on intuition while elsewhere arguing that intuition is a horrible means of establishing truth?

    That doesn’t worry me, and furthermore, it’s not even an inconsistency. Intuition is indeed a horrible means of establishing truth; our intuitions about things are often wrong. That being said, in many cases, intuition is the best that we have to go on.

    I think it’s important to recognize when intuition is used, be upfront about its speculative nature, seek out more accurate methods, and defer to their results.

    (Also, for what it’s worth, my moral conclusions indeed are “speculative”, but they’re not “folk” — they’re made from within a utilitarian framework.)

  46. Syllabus says:

    Sometimes there is no good solution to a problem.

    Yeah, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from that that the “solution” is morally praiseworthy.

    I totally get what you said about the Doctrine of Double Effect vs. not killing “innocent” people, and agree. What I don’t understand is how deontological ethics accounts for one duty superseding another.

    Most deontologists have an implicit or explicit hierarchy of duties – as evidenced by the distinction Kant draws between perfect and imperfect duty.

    I personally don’t find much relevance in the distinction (the classic doing vs. allowing distinction), but do understand why deontologists would find it important.

    OK, fair enough, but it seems to me that you should find it important, given the rationale you give for not judging character based upon consequences.

    .What this means is that the evaluation of actions are entirely consequence-driven, but the evaluation of characters (blameworthiness) can take into account things more indirect to consequences. The goal, however, is still to come up with blame assessments that, themselves, have good consequences. Blaming someone for doing the best they could doesn’t have good consequences! Does that make sense?

    It makes sense on the face of things, but it still strikes me as less than wholly consequentialist. But I’ll leave that be.

    There’s another interesting ramification of the utilitarian system: there is a possible world in which the Holocaust is morally good (sorry Godwin, I tried).

    If I understand it correctly, what makes the pleasure principle – or human flourishing principle, if you like – the thing that actions must be directed towards is majority consensus – that is, people agree that they like to feel pleasure, and therefore they agree to make the pursuit of optimal pleasure their summum bonum against which all actions must be measured (a sort of categorical imperative, that is. What irony). Now, if morality is reduced to consensus or majority agreement, then all it takes is a suitably effective propaganda machine to make something right or wrong. Had the National Socialists won the war and succeeded in their goal of world rule, then that would have made the Holocaust justified. That is, if the majority of the world agreed that the extermination of the Jewish race was a good thing, that would make it a “good” thing. Thus, there is a possible world in which the Holocaust was a morally good thing.

    Let’s do another thought experiment: suppose – I will have to return to an analogy similar to the one I expressed a while back – you (Peter) and I were shipwrecked on a desert island. The island has enough resources to keep one of us alive in time for rescue, but I’m the only one of us that knows that. You’re stooping down to do something or other, and I creep up behind you and bash your head in with a rock. You die relatively painlessly. Is my murder of you morally wrong, per utilitarianism?

    The primary reason I can’t really accept that utilitarianism is a moral system has less to do with reductios than it does with its apparent inability to get an ought from an is, or even get an ought at all. If I don’t give a rip about society, then I have no moral obligation, under utilitarianism, to comply with its dictates, it seems.

  47. cl says:

    Technically, no, yours isn’t “folk morality,” you just take a folkish, intuitive approach to your morality.

    Going way back to the beginning, Syllabus was worried that utilitarianism mandated that we celebrate the killing of others whenever the action of killing was the right thing to do.

    That’s incorrect, and you know it. Here’s what Syllabus actually said:

    Where I strongly disagree with utilitarian ethics is in the statement that I understand it to make: that killing those people, given the right circumstances and knowledge, would actually constitute a morally praiseworthy act.

    …and further, here’s where Syllabus clarified that “celebration” was NOT the intended meaning:

    I meant “praiseworthy” in the first sense, not the second.

    …then you said you were confused, so Syllabus clarified even further:

    OK, point taken. I think the equivocation that happened between “happy about” and “praiseworthy” may have caused some crossed wires. To distill the choices down, then, I’ll just go ahead and phrase it this way: it is a deed that, given the requisite calculations, factors, etc., would be considered morally good. Is that phrasing satisfactory?

    Yet, here you are, still pressing the “celebrated” angle, when that was never what Syllabus meant in the first place. Why? I’m confused.

    That doesn’t worry me,

    So, it worries you when theists do it, or, we should be skeptical when theists do it, but, not when you do it? Can you explain this apparent discrepancy?

    Asserting that the knowledge will be forever impossible (at least, for me) strikes me as a strong and implausible claim.

    As Syllabus already pointed out, only a being with omniscience could reliably assess the situation:

    However, it’s pretty much in principle impossible to possess the necessary variables to make such a decision with the needed precision. Thus, to my mind, utilitarianism fails at its own game. Taken to its logical conclusions, it seems to land one smack in the middle of moral scepticism.

    It seems the same problem that you claim plagues the skeptical theist also plagues the utilitarian, wouldn’t you say?

  48. cl says:

    Syllabus,

    That is, if the majority of the world agreed that the extermination of the Jewish race was a good thing, that would make it a “good” thing. Thus, there is a possible world in which the Holocaust was a morally good thing.

    Have you read any critiques of desirism? In particular, I’d suggest Cartesian’s Nazi Example, which parallels the one you mentioned here. Of course, desirism itself is a nutshell, since Fyfe denies that it simply utilitarianism renamed, but yours is essentially the same point many have made. However, if I were you, I’d rephrase the point. The utilitarian (or desirist) can reject your statement on the grounds that majority consensus doesn’t make the Holocaust good. Rather, the deciding factor in whether or not the Holocaust was “good” is whether it increased net suffering or pleasure (on utilitarianism), or whether it fulfilled more desires than it thwarted (desirism).

    The fact remains: neither Peter nor any other utilitarian (or desirist) is in any position to say whether or not the Holocaust was good, because of the reasons you already mentioned (variables, etc.) Quite literally, the utilitarian and the desirist would just be guessing or feeling their way towards truth—which, ironically, is what they often accuse other moralists of.

    You’re stooping down to do something or other, and I creep up behind you and bash your head in with a rock. You die relatively painlessly. Is my murder of you morally wrong, per utilitarianism?

    Just for fun, allow me to beef it up a little. First, assume that Peter has no living relatives or friends to mourn him, then, instead of bashing him with a rock, you inject him with heroin and he feels GREAT until he dies absolutely painlessly. It seems to me such an act is at least permissible on utilitarianism, if not morally good outright. After all, there’s no categorical imperative or intrinsic value that one could invoke to condemn you, and your act didn’t increase net harm.

    If I don’t give a rip about society, then I have no moral obligation, under utilitarianism, to comply with its dictates, it seems.

    Exactly.

  49. Syllabus says:

    Have you read any critiques of desirism? In particular, I’d suggest Cartesian’s Nazi Example, which parallels the one you mentioned here. Of course, desirism itself is a nutshell, since Fyfe denies that it simply utilitarianism renamed, but yours is essentially the same point many have made. However, if I were you, I’d rephrase the point. The utilitarian (or desirist) can reject your statement on the grounds that majority consensus doesn’t make the Holocaust good. Rather, the deciding factor in whether or not the Holocaust was “good” is whether it increased net suffering or pleasure (on utilitarianism), or whether it fulfilled more desires than it thwarted (desirism).

    Point. There’s probably a better way to phrase it, and I’ll see if I can get to it. Got to finish a paper on Thoreau first, though.

    But still, the ought/is problem is important to the whole thing, because when a utilitarian is asked to justify why maximized pleasure is good, he has to essentially say, “Because most people like it.” And even conceding the point, if the Nazis had successfully mobilized their propaganda machine towards their thousand-year Reich, then summing up the immense swell of patriotic pride and righteous contempt and hatred that arises during some two-minute-hate-esque thing in the trillions of people that exist during that thousand year period would in all likelihood, because of the comparative number of people we’re talking about and their lifespan and the lifespan of the Third Reich, outweigh the suffering of the six million or so Jews that perished in the Holocaust. You can say that tortuous death produces extreme amounts of suffering, and you’d be right, but the numbers would still be stacked waaaaay against you.

    And, interestingly enough, one could use the sort of intentionalism applied to character that Peter mentions and apply it to Hitler: “Oh, he couldn’t have foreseen that his actions would actually turn out to contribute to net suffering, but he was trying to make the world a better place, so…” Granted, it’s an odd tack, but still worth consideration.

    Just for fun, allow me to beef it up a little. First, assume that Peter has no living relatives or friends to mourn him, then, instead of bashing him with a rock, you inject him with heroin and he feels GREAT until he dies absolutely painlessly. It seems to me such an act is at least permissible on utilitarianism, if not morally good outright. After all, there’s no categorical imperative or intrinsic value that one could invoke to condemn you, and your act didn’t increase net harm.

    No need to pile it on, man… but go on ahead.

  50. I know it’s been a long time, but I did want to get back to you guys here on this issue:

    First, Fighting Over What Syllabus Really Meant

    Peter: Going way back to the beginning, Syllabus was worried that utilitarianism mandated that we celebrate the killing of others whenever the action of killing was the right thing to do.

    Cl: That’s incorrect, and you know it. Here’s what Syllabus actually said: […]

    While ultimately I’d rather have Syllabus clarify personally, here are some quotes that show why I understood him the way I did:

    Syllabus 8/10/12: I meant “praiseworthy” in the first sense, not the second. I used praiseworthy instead of “good” because I didn’t know whether you’d take issue with the choice of “good”. So I just meant “praiseworthy” in the sense of laudable or virtuous, to use terms from other systems – or, in your words, that you should be happy about the outcome.

    Syllabus 8/10/12: When I object to the utilitarian system, I don’t really make it because it allows for doing deed x or y for some other goal – though in certain situations I would make such an objection. Where I object is in the statement that such a deed would be, to use your language, something you should be happy about or, to use mine, morally praiseworthy.

    Syllabus and I then realize how we were talking past each other in our 8/14/12 and 9/14/12 exchange.

    That’s the whole reason why I brought up the question of whether we should be happy about something that’s a utilitarian good in the first place. And no, it’s not always the case that good = something to be happy about.

    To me, this has been a settled issue. Do you disagree?

  51. Utilitarianism and Character/Intention Judgment

    Syllabus: OK, fair enough, but it seems to me that you should find [the doing vs. allowing distinction] important, given the rationale you give for not judging character based upon consequences.

    I don’t think the doing vs. allowing distinction is relevant, but I do think character evaluation is separate from act evaluation. This is pretty good timing, because I just happen to be in the middle of writing some essays for Greatplay.net about how this all works out.

    Basically, I think that utilitarianism should not be a battle between good vs. evil or right vs. wrong where you have to be absolutely perfect of your moral monster. Rather, it should be a battle of worse vs. better, where getting closer to the ideal is preferred, not because you are a monster if you don’t, but because it’s just worthy of attaining.

    Thus, following Richard Chappell’s quality of will evaluation, people are moral monsters worthy of being deemed “evil” if they show a poor quality of will — maliciousness or negligence, based on how psychologically salient the situation is and what kind of person would be needed to act badly in this case.

    Why might we want to do this? As Michael Dickens points out, it’s part of utilitarianism — we want to evaluate people in the manner that is most conducive to convincing them to maximize utility, and calling people evil for failing the standards of perfectionism isn’t conducive to this goal. A quality-of-will evaluation is.

    ~

    Utilitarianism Under Uncertainty

    Cl: However, it’s pretty much in principle impossible to possess the necessary variables to make such a decision with the needed precision. Thus, to my mind, utilitarianism fails at its own game. Taken to its logical conclusions, it seems to land one smack in the middle of moral scepticism. It seems the same problem that you claim plagues the skeptical theist also plagues the utilitarian, wouldn’t you say?

    No, because you can act on incomplete information. Indeed, we do it all the time, utilitarianism or not. I have a very strong guess that donating to charity is more effective at maximizing utility than going around and shooting people in their kneecaps, even if there is a small probability that I’m wrong. It’s not paralyzing.

    Indeed, staying at home stuck in some sort of moral paralysis is pretty bad for utility anyway, because nothing will get done. You don’t need absolute information to act upon what you got. At the same time, however, you should strive to at least get some information — you don’t want to act blind either, of course.

  52. Could the Holocaust Be Utilitarian Approved?

    Syllabus: Now, if morality is reduced to consensus or majority agreement, then all it takes is a suitably effective propaganda machine to make something right or wrong. Had the National Socialists won the war and succeeded in their goal of world rule, then that would have made the Holocaust justified.

    I don’t think this is the case. Remember, utilitarianism is not a game of counting up the number of people alive who prefer the Holocaust to happen versus the number of people alive who wish it didn’t. Rather, you’re weighing the strengths of all preferences for or against the Holocaust, past, present, and future.

    Clearly, those who endured the Holocaust suffered per person *far* *far* more than those who perpetrated the Holocaust got out of it in gain, per person. And then, of course, far more people suffered than people who benefitted. So even if the Holocaust was the tool needed to win the war, it still was not a utilitarian blessing.

    ~

    Cl: The fact remains: neither Peter nor any other utilitarian (or desirist) is in any position to say whether or not the Holocaust was good, because of the reasons you already mentioned (variables, etc.) Quite literally, the utilitarian and the desirist would just be guessing or feeling their way towards truth—which, ironically, is what they often accuse other moralists of.

    I think the “it must be absolute 100% knowledge or it’s a lousy intuitive guess that counts for nothing” is a fallacy of false dichotomy. Obviously, we don’t quite know everything about what the world would be like right now should there have been no Holocaust, but we’re not totally clueless. We can say that Holocausts in the abstract are bad for utility all else being equal and there is no plausible connection between the Holocaust that actually happened and beneficial outcomes today.

  53. A Thought Experiment In Which I Am Killed

    Syllabus: Let’s do another thought experiment: suppose – I will have to return to an analogy similar to the one I expressed a while back – you (Peter) and I were shipwrecked on a desert island. The island has enough resources to keep one of us alive in time for rescue, but I’m the only one of us that knows that. You’re stooping down to do something or other, and I creep up behind you and bash your head in with a rock. You die relatively painlessly. Is my murder of you morally wrong, per utilitarianism?

    If you’re on an island scenario where there’s only enough resources to sustain one of us, then one of us needs to die in order to maximize the number of people left alive. The alternative is that both of us die, which is strictly worse. Thus, I have little problem, at least intellectually, with your scenario — though it might be better if we drew lots or considered which one of us stands to maximize happiness the most by being left alive, rather than just kill me outright because you thought of it first.

    Do you think I should have a problem with your scenario?

    ~

    Utilitarianism and the Is/Ought Gap

    Syllabus: The primary reason I can’t really accept that utilitarianism is a moral system has less to do with reductios than it does with its apparent inability to get an ought from an is, or even get an ought at all. If I don’t give a rip about society, then I have no moral obligation, under utilitarianism, to comply with its dictates, it seems.

    Utilitarianism condemns you for breaking its dictates whether you like it or not, because it’s a standard of evaluation that acts independently of your desires. Of course, utilitarianism itself is an inert philosophy that I’ve merely personified, so it can’t enforce itself upon you in any binding way.

    I don’t think this is a problem, because I don’t think any moral system can be binding — it has to have some sort of enforcer, like a police system or a god, or else it’s going to be possible to not follow it. This isn’t a problem unique to utilitarianism, and if you think you found an automatically binding moral system, then I’m all ears.

    I do think you can have a system of *hypothetical imperatives*, however — of the form “If you want X, you ought to do Y”. For instance, “if you want to avoid torture in Hell, you ought to follow God” or “if you want to maximize happiness, you ought to be a utilitarian” or “if you want to avoid jail, you ought to follow the law”, etc. I think this gets past the Is-Ought Gap.

    So in the end, I’m not quite sure what to make of your complaint. I talk about all this and more in my essay “The Is-Ought Gap”.

  54. cl says:

    Like skeptical theism, utilitarianism is also for the birds :)

    And no, it’s not always the case that good = something to be happy about.

    Why not? Explain the special circumstances.

    Clearly, those who endured the Holocaust suffered per person *far* *far* more than those who perpetrated the Holocaust got out of it in gain, per person. And then, of course, far more people suffered than people who benefitted. So even if the Holocaust was the tool needed to win the war, it still was not a utilitarian blessing.

    That’s just your gut feeling. For all we know, every person in the Holocaust may have participated in a rebellion against Hitler that would have led to greater casualties in the war. There is not a single lick of empiricism or science grounding your claims here, Peter. It’s just “touchy feely” morality, through and through.

    We can say that Holocausts in the abstract are bad for utility all else being equal and there is no plausible connection between the Holocaust that actually happened and beneficial outcomes today.

    People can *SAY* anything. As a moralist, your job is to provide reasons for us to believe that your moralist statement are true. So far, you haven’t done that. You’re just going, “pain, ick, pleasure, yay!”, or, “Holocaust bad, hippie free love good!”, and then making reality conform to *YOUR* emotional reactions about various human states of being. The problem is, at every other turn, you champion “empiricism” and “objectivity” and “science,” yet, when it comes to your own moral claims, you eschew those values.

  55. Peter: We can say that Holocausts in the abstract are bad for utility all else being equal

    Cl: People can *SAY* anything. As a moralist, your job is to provide reasons for us to believe that your moralist statement are true. So far, you haven’t done that. You’re just going, “pain, ick, pleasure, yay!”, or, “Holocaust bad, hippie free love good!”, and then making reality conform to *YOUR* emotional reactions about various human states of being.

    I think my position on meta-ethics is quite clear, ultimately it is going to come down to your preferred standard of evaluating action. So I do think subjectively pain is bad and pleasure is good and I further decide to extend that equally to all entities capable of feeling pain and pleasure, and arrive at utilitarianism.

    Maybe you don’t value the pleasure of others. If so, there is no logical argument that possibly can convince you otherwise. That’s just how meta-ethics works.

    But when I say holocausts are bad, I mean to point to the empirical fact that “All else being equal, Holocausts create more suffering than happiness”. It’s a further fact that I consider this to make Holocausts immoral.

    ~

    Cl: For all we know, every person in the Holocaust may have participated in a rebellion against Hitler that would have led to greater casualties in the war.

    This response is getting to be pedantic. I hope you’d agree with me that Holocausts, all else being equal, create more suffering than happiness. However, you might suggest, as you did, that something about the Holocaust taking place leads to better events down the road than would have otherwise happened or prevented potentially even worse events.

    I’d agree that should this be demonstrated, the Holocaust would then become an extremely terrible but necessary evil. However, such appears unlikely. Per your example, nothing in history suggests that the mass rebellion would have taken place, and even if it did, nothing suggests that it would have created as much suffering.

    Furthermore, you have to take into account all alternatives. Imagine, for a second, that this rebellion was inevitable. Were there other ways of stopping it besides a Holocaust? Did any of those ways involve less suffering than the Holocaust? If so, the Holocaust was not the best alternative.

    The “for all we know” response works in the Problem of Evil because we have absolutely zero epistemic access to the mind of God. We do, however, have epistemic access to history. We can predict the future with some reliability, and use this to make plans.

    For example, why pursue a college degree? For all we know, the world will end in December 2012, and all my work will be for nothing. However, I can put low probability on the world ending then (simply because the prior probability of the world ending on any given day is low, and there isn’t enough evidence raising that probability for Dec 2012 to overcome this low prior) and justify my continued college education (at least on this front).

    Likewise, in utilitarianism under uncertainty, we do the best we can with the information we have. This is actually where the whole notion of “expected utility” comes from. If we couldn’t do utilitarian decisions under uncertainty, it would mean all rational decisions are impossible under uncertainty, because they come from the same source.

    ~

    Cl: The problem is, at every other turn, you champion “empiricism” and “objectivity” and “science,” yet, when it comes to your own moral claims, you eschew those values.

    “Empiricism”, “objectivity”, and “science” are laudable because of my utilitarian beliefs, not the other way around. I don’t think these three values are the end-all-be-all like some other atheists appear, and I do think there is a huge role for intuition.

    However, I think science allows us to draw conclusions, frees us from errors, and gives us great practical results that no other form of thinking ever has. Empiricism and objectivity are just two of the reasons science works.

    ~

    Peter: it’s not always the case that good = something to be happy about.
    Cl: Why not? Explain the special circumstances.

    As I’ve described before, there are scenarios in which all possible options left open are unattractive, and thus the best choice is the lesser evil. However, it would be bad to celebrate a lesser evil, because that would make it appear not to be an evil.

    More simply, there is a difference between “best of all open options from a utilitarian perspective” and “worthy of celebration from a utilitarian perspective”. Often these two join together, but not always.

    For a “full circle” example, if the Holocaust turned out to have prevented suffering of an even larger scale better than all other alternatives, I would consider it necessary, but certainly wouldn’t celebrate it.

  56. cl says:

    Maybe you don’t value the pleasure of others.

    It’s not that. It’s that I reject your naive version of morality which says, “pain bad, pleasure good.” *THAT* is what I don’t value, because it’s totally naive.

    But when I say holocausts are bad, I mean to point to the empirical fact that “All else being equal, Holocausts create more suffering than happiness”.

    Sure, but if you want to cut off the future, as this comment implies, then, we’re not talking about “weighing the strengths of all preferences for or against the Holocaust, past, present, and future,” which means you’ve contradicted what you said at #52.

    I’d agree that should this be demonstrated, the Holocaust would then become an extremely terrible but necessary evil. However, such appears unlikely. Per your example, nothing in history suggests that the mass rebellion would have taken place, and even if it did, nothing suggests that it would have created as much suffering.

    Broaden your scope beyond the simple example I gave and challenge your own ideas. Be skeptical of yourself! Hasn’t the Holocaust done arguably immeasurable good in the form of consciousness-raising? After all, it, along with slavery, are the penultimate states of affairs civil rights leaders and organizations use to leverage human consciousness towards equality. That’s why your little “theory” strikes me as incredibly naive. You’re just “feeling” your way towards truth. What about all those ways in which a surfeit of pleasure leads directly to pain, and vice-versa?

    For example, why pursue a college degree? For all we know, the world will end in December 2012, and all my work will be for nothing. However, I can put low probability on the world ending then (simply because the prior probability of the world ending on any given day is low, and there isn’t enough evidence raising that probability for Dec 2012 to overcome this low prior) and justify my continued college education (at least on this front).

    See? More naivete. To hell with December 21st, there are better reasons not to pursue a college degree, and plenty of them. Some sources claim half of college grads can’t find jobs. You can’t just sit there and say, “degree good, no degree bad,” it all depends on personal values. Now, if you want to add up the pros and cons and surmise that pursuing a college degree is the best course of action *FOR YOU* given your goals, that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s not morality.

    I don’t think these three values are the end-all-be-all like some other atheists appear, and I do think there is a huge role for intuition.

    Fair enough, that puts you ahead of the rest, but you still need to explain precisely when and where we should use these, vs. when and where we should “feel” our way towards truth. At least then I can stop questioning your consistency :)

    However, it would be bad to celebrate a lesser evil, because that would make it appear not to be an evil.

    That’s the part I need you to explain, vis-a-vis…

    For a “full circle” example, if the Holocaust turned out to have prevented suffering of an even larger scale better than all other alternatives, I would consider it necessary, but certainly wouldn’t celebrate it.

    Why not? Let me ask you this: if we were in class together, and some fool came in shooting with a gun, and I ran up behind him and broke his neck, would you not celebrate me as a hero? If not, I say there’s something wrong with *YOU* not me.

  57. Gabe Ruth says:

    A little while back I recommended George MacDonald, but didn’t make any specific recommendations. A story he wrote, Lilith, was a world transformer for me, but for the topic at hand I recommend this.

    On the specific question in this post, I believe it is wrong to kill the Iranian scientists. In the real world the unknowns make this an easy question. If you knew they were working on a bomb, would use it as soon as it was complete, and killing them would end the threat the answer is equally easy: they should be killed. This question would be interesting if the reality were somewhere between these scenarios, because there is a point where the answer changes. But even if we assume the first relevant unknown is true, the last is false, and the second is almost certainly so.

    A more morally interesting question is whether it is morally wrong for them to be working on a bomb. I would say yes, but it is much easier for me to imagine that I am wrong there than to imagine a scenario where these killings are right.

    Is the lack of new posts due to time or are you getting interested in Eastern Orthodoxy?

  58. cl says:

    Gabe Ruth,

    Thanks, I’ll check the Lilith link.

    Why is killing them okay if we had certainty?

    Also, if you’re against killing them, how is it that you’re for their right to build a bomb? That seems weird to me. I don’t think people should build bombs.

    Is the lack of new posts due to time or are you getting interested in Eastern Orthodoxy?

    Both, and the fact that every few months I burn out blog-wise for a few weeks. Plus I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in “real life” right now. I also created a new site that will be launching soon, nothing major, just a repository of articles against the New Atheists. All those factors have led to less posts here, but, things will pick up soon. I have a post or two I want to get out by the end of this month, one of them relates to Dec. 21st.

  59. Cl: I reject your naive version of morality which says, “pain bad, pleasure good.” *THAT* is what I don’t value, because it’s totally naive.

    Totally naive? How so? You’d have to elaborate here.

    If you’re thinking that some pain might be good because it leads to future outweighing pleasure (such as surgery or exercise), then we’re talking past each other, because I agree to that.

    If you’re thinking that some pleasure might be bad because it leads to outweighing pain (such as drugs), then we’re talking past each other, because I agree to that.

    If you’re thinking things like serial killers don’t deserve to be happy or there’s something intrinsically wrong about killing even if it leads to outweighing pleasure or something I haven’t even thought of, then we’re on a good page for further discussion.

    Lastly, I’d clarify that I don’t think there is a core moral truth, so it is possible that we might disagree in fundamental values. I just want to present my values because I think they’re compelling and intuitive, and because I want to make sure they’re not misunderstood.

    ~

    Me: But when I say holocausts are bad, I mean to point to the empirical fact that “All else being equal, Holocausts create more suffering than happiness”.

    Cl: Sure, but if you want to cut off the future, as this comment implies, then, we’re not talking about “weighing the strengths of all preferences for or against the Holocaust, past, present, and future,” which means you’ve contradicted what you said at #52.

    “All else being equal” means that you separate the event itself from the future causes. You can have an event that, all else being equal, causes suffering but ends up alleviating more net suffering in the future — for one example, most killing in self-defense. I think it’s important and uncontroversial to note that Holocausts create a lot of suffering.

    ~

    Hasn’t the Holocaust done arguably immeasurable good in the form of consciousness-raising?

    Has it? Sure, probably. But has this consciousness-raising led to the prevention of more suffering than what happened in the Holocaust? I doubt it. And more importantly, could this consciousness have been raised without the Holocaust? There are plenty of appeals that don’t depend on it. Indeed, the most effective “empathy training” used today doesn’t depend on the Holocaust…

    A good test is to consider a order-reversal. Say your friend is thinking of starting a Holocaust because he thinks that after he is inevitably defeated, people will be able to use his Holocaust for consciousness raising. Would you endorse this? Do you think a consistent utilitarian would?

    And again, if it were demonstrated that the Holocaust was worth it for the consciousness raising (and it would be very risky to make this case without having strong evidence), then fine — it was a great necessary evil. So what?

    ~

    Me: For example, why pursue a college degree? For all we know, the world will end in December 2012

    Cl: See? More naivete. To hell with December 21st, there are better reasons not to pursue a college degree, and plenty of them. Some sources claim half of college grads can’t find jobs. You can’t just sit there and say, “degree good, no degree bad,” it all depends on personal values.

    That wasn’t the point of my hypothetical. I never was saying degrees are good for everyone, regardless of their circumstances. I’m saying it’s very silly to make decisions based on what could be possible.

    ~

    Me: However, it would be bad to celebrate a lesser evil, because that would make it appear not to be an evil.

    Cl: Why not? Let me ask you this: if we were in class together, and some fool came in shooting with a gun, and I ran up behind him and broke his neck, would you not celebrate me as a hero? If not, I say there’s something wrong with *YOU* not me.

    I’m not sure I’d celebrate; I think it is a shame that this fool’s life came to the point where they felt they needed to come in shooting with a gun, and there still is a hit of sadness that our world came to this scenario. However, I do want to re-enforce your bravery, so I’d be proud of you for that.

    I’ll grant you a backpedal here, though — I was wrong to say that all lesser evils aren’t worth celebrating. I don’t want to endorse a hard-and-fast “what’s worth celebrating” rule, but for me it’s mostly a function of risk. Do I want more actions of that type?

    I do want more bravery, but I don’t want more Holocausts done by people who think they are acting in the greater good. People are notoriously bad at forecasting the grater good. (That doesn’t mean it’s impossible and utilitarianism is a farce, it just means we have to be extra careful.)

  60. Gabe Ruth says:

    Certainty of their intention to build and use a bomb means there’s some really bad stuff in store, the kind that allows one to select the lesser of two evils IFF that lesser evil is certainly lesser (a certainty we can derive from our other newly discovered certainties), and certainly able to prevent the greater evil. (If we had this kind of certainty about any of these many ifs, we’d probably not be subject to human limitations.)

    I’m not sure how you take what I wrote as a belief in the Iranian government’s right (one of a host of words that has no meaning anymore, and that I try to avoid even implying) to build a bomb. I said I think they are wrong to build a nuke, but I’m less certain of that than I am that it’s wrong for the USG to execute the scientists working on it. I don’t think people should build bombs either, but we’re not talking about a dispute with the neighbors.

  61. cl says:

    Peter,

    Totally naive? How so? You’d have to elaborate here.

    Because it leads to (what I take to be) naive moral claims, such as “Plague / Holocaust bad.” As you said, people are notoriously bad at forecasting the greater good. As an aside, this is why divine command theory is—undeniably—the best possible form of morality: if a truly omniscient, omnibenevolent God exists, then submission is the best way to maximize happiness. This is undeniable logic. It can only be doubted, or rejected, but it is not open for dispute.

    “All else being equal” means that you separate the event itself from the future causes.

    That doesn’t absolve the contradiction. It’s unimportant and trivial to remind me that Holocausts create suffering. Do we evaluate on the basis of “all else equal” or do we evaluate on the basis you described in #52?

    Has it? Sure, probably. But has this consciousness-raising led to the prevention of more suffering than what happened in the Holocaust? I doubt it.

    This, right here, cuts to the essence of the problem: you simply say you “doubt it,” but there is no empirical, objective research taking place. This is what I mean by “feeling your way towards truth,” and this is why I think it’s naive.

    There are plenty of appeals that don’t depend on it. Indeed, the most effective “empathy training” used today doesn’t depend on the Holocaust…

    Would empathy training be impossible without suffering?

    And again, if it were demonstrated that the Holocaust was worth it for the consciousness raising (and it would be very risky to make this case without having strong evidence), then fine — it was a great necessary evil. So what?

    So what? So, if the Holocaust was a necessary evil, your entire method of analysis is naive and undependable. That’s the whole point.

    I’m saying it’s very silly to make decisions based on what could be possible.

    And yet, risk-takers paved the roads we walk on, precisely because they made decisions based on what could be possible!

    I’ll grant you a backpedal here, though — I was wrong to say that all lesser evils aren’t worth celebrating.

    Cool. We’re one step closer to understanding, but, why is my action a “necessary evil” on your view? That’s what I don’t get. On the one hand, you seem to eschew intrinsic moral claims. On the other, you seem to embrace them: since my neck-breaking led to a net increase in well-being, why should it be deemed “evil” at all?

  62. cl says:

    Gabe,

    Certainty of their intention to build and use a bomb means there’s some really bad stuff in store, the kind that allows one to select the lesser of two evils IFF that lesser evil is certainly lesser…

    I guess I’m just trying to understand the connection between certainty and the action. Let’s say I didn’t have certainty, but it turned out I was correct: the scientists in question were in fact planning to nuke the whole world. Would killing them still be evil just because I didn’t have certainty? Wouldn’t the net result be the same whether I had certainty or not?

    In another scenario, say I had zero knowledge of these men’s roles or intent. Say I was just a crazed psychopath that happened to kill some scientists who were planning to nuke the whole world. Again, the net result would be the same. Is my action evil?

    These are the sort of seemingly-unanswerable-even-in-principle questions that make me very skeptical of utilitarianism.

    I’m not sure how you take what I wrote as a belief in the Iranian government’s right …

    I misread your post. You said “wrong,” I heard “right.” My mistake entirely.

  63. Because it leads to (what I take to be) naive moral claims, such as “Plague / Holocaust bad.” As you said, people are notoriously bad at forecasting the greater good.

    I’m not trying to hide the uncertainty in these conclusions.

    ~

    As an aside, this is why divine command theory is—undeniably—the best possible form of morality: if a truly omniscient, omnibenevolent God exists, then submission is the best way to maximize happiness.

    “Omnibenevolent” is a word itself that needs unpacking, for it implies adherence to a specific moral standard. Which one?

    Obviously, any utilitarian would do better if they were better informed; especially if they were perfectly informed. You could invoke any sort of fully informed agent to take advantage of this fact.

    ~

    Do we evaluate on the basis of “all else equal” or do we evaluate on the basis you described in #52?

    Evaluate on the basis I described in #52.

    ~

    Me: Has it? Sure, probably. But has this consciousness-raising led to the prevention of more suffering than what happened in the Holocaust? I doubt it.

    Cl: This, right here, cuts to the essence of the problem: you simply say you “doubt it,” but there is no empirical, objective research taking place. This is what I mean by “feeling your way towards truth,” and this is why I think it’s naive.

    Believe me, I’d love some empirical research to take place here. But we don’t have that, though we could start looking to do that research. However, we sometimes have to take action before the studies can be done. In this case, we have to rely on intuition and emphasize carefulness because of how often intuition can lead us astray.

    A carefulness criterion would lead us to avoid Holocausts for consciousness raising — Holocausts is very certain and very large suffering, whereas consicousness raising is very uncertain for unknown benefit.

    What would you suggest we do instead?

    ~

    So what? So, if the Holocaust was a necessary evil, your entire method of analysis is naive and undependable. That’s the whole point.

    Why would that make it naive and undependable? In this obscure hypothetical scenario, we had a good guess, but it was overturned with later evidence. Hurray, right?

    ~

    We’re one step closer to understanding, but, why is my action a “necessary evil” on your view?

    It would be even more preferable to have not had someone become a crazy shooter, and it would be even more preferable for them to be disarmed / killed painlessly. These better options not open to us, however, we go with what we have, introducing some suffering in order to prevent a greater amount down the road.

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