Minimizing Motivated Beliefs

In the last post, we noted that there is a conflict between the goal of accurate beliefs about your future actions, and your own goals about your future. More accurate beliefs will not always lead to a better fulfillment of those goals. This implies that you must be ready to engage in a certain amount of trade, if you desire both truth and other things. Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that self-deception, and therefore also such trade, is either impossible or stupid, depending on how it is understood:

What if self-deception helps us be happy?  What if just running out and overcoming bias will make us—gasp!—unhappy?  Surely, true wisdom would be second-order rationality, choosing when to be rational.  That way you can decide which cognitive biases should govern you, to maximize your happiness.

Leaving the morality aside, I doubt such a lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen.

Second-order rationality implies that at some point, you will think to yourself, “And now, I will irrationally believe that I will win the lottery, in order to make myself happy.”  But we do not have such direct control over our beliefs.  You cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.  You might be able to believe you believed it—though I have just made that more difficult for you by pointing out the difference.  (You’re welcome!)  You might even believe you were happy and self-deceived; but you would not in fact be happy and self-deceived.

For second-order rationality to be genuinely rational, you would first need a good model of reality, to extrapolate the consequences of rationality and irrationality.  If you then chose to be first-order irrational, you would need to forget this accurate view. And then forget the act of forgetting.  I don’t mean to commit the logical fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, but I think Orwell did a good job of extrapolating where this path leads.

You can’t know the consequences of being biased, until you have already debiased yourself.  And then it is too late for self-deception.

The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.

There are several errors here. The first is the denial that belief is voluntary. As I remarked in the comments to this post, it is best to think of “choosing to believe a thing” as “choosing to treat this thing as a fact.” And this is something which is indeed voluntary. Thus for example it is by choice that I am, at this very moment, treating it as a fact that belief is voluntary.

There is some truth in Yudkowsky’s remark that “you cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.” But this is not because the thing itself is intrinsically involuntary. On the contrary, you could, if you wished, choose to treat the greenness of the sky as a fact, at least for the most part and in most ways. The problem is that you have no good motive to wish to act this way, and plenty of good motives not to act this way. In this sense, it is impossible for most of us to believe that the sky is green in the same way it is impossible for most of us to commit suicide; we simply have no good motive to do either of these things.

Yudkowsky’s second error is connected with the first. Since, according to him, it is impossible to deliberately and directly deceive oneself, self-deception can only happen in an indirect manner: “The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.” The idea is that ordinary beliefs are simply involuntary, but we can have beliefs that are somewhat voluntary by choosing “blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.” Since this is “willful stupidity,” a reasonable person would completely avoid such behavior, and thus all of his beliefs would be involuntary.

Essentially, Yudkowsky is claiming that we have some involuntary beliefs, and that we should avoid adding any voluntary beliefs to our involuntary ones. This view is fundamentally flawed precisely because all of our beliefs are voluntary, and thus we cannot avoid having voluntary beliefs.

Nor is it “willful stupidity” to trade away some truth for the sake of other good things. Completely avoiding this is in fact intrinsically impossible. If you are seeking one good, you are not equally seeking a distinct good; one cannot serve two masters. Thus since all people are interested in some goods distinct from truth, there is no one who fails to trade away some truth for the sake of other things. Yudkowsky’s mistake here is related to his wishful thinking about wishful thinking which I discussed previously. In this way he views himself, at least ideally, as completely avoiding wishful thinking. This is both impossible and unhelpful, impossible in that everyone has such motivated beliefs, and unhelpful because such beliefs can in fact be beneficial.

A better attitude to this matter is adopted by Robin Hanson, as for example when he discusses motives for having opinions in a post which we previously considered here. Bryan Caplan has a similar view, discussed here.

Once we have a clear view of this matter, we can use this to minimize the loss of truth that results from such beliefs. For example, in a post linked above, we discussed the argument that fictional accounts consistently distort one’s beliefs about reality. Rather than pretending that there is no such effect, we can deliberately consider to what extent we wish to be open to this possibility, depending on our other purposes for engaging with such accounts. This is not “willful stupidity”; the stupidity would to be engage in such trades without realizing that such trades are inevitable, and thus not to realize to what extent you are doing it.

Consider one of the cases of voluntary belief discussed in this earlier post. As we quoted at the time, Eric Reitan remarks:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

Here, Reitan is proposing that someone believe that “a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil” for the purpose of having “the sense that their lives have positive meaning.” If we look at this as it is, namely as proposing a voluntary belief for the sake of something other than truth, we can find ways to minimize the potential conflict between accuracy and this other goal. For example, the person might simply believe that “my life has a positive meaning,” without trying to explain why this is so. For the reasons given here, “my life has a positive meaning” is necessarily more probable and more known than any explanation for this that might be adopted. To pick a particular explanation and claim that it is more likely would be to fall into the conjunction fallacy.

Of course, real life is unfortunately more complicated. The woman in Reitan’s discussion might well respond to our proposal somewhat in this way (not a real quotation):

Probability is not the issue here, precisely because it is not a question of the truth of the matter in itself. There is a need to actually feel that one’s life is meaningful, not just to believe it. And the simple statement “life is meaningful” will not provide that feeling. Without the feeling, it will also be almost impossible to continue to believe it, no matter what the probability is. So in order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to believe a stronger and more particular claim.

And this response might be correct. Some such goals, due to their complexity, might not be easily achieved without adopting rather unlikely beliefs. For example, Robin Hanson, while discussing his reasons for having opinions, several times mentions the desire for “interesting” opinions. This is a case where many people will not even notice the trade involved, because the desire for interesting ideas seems closely related to the desire for truth. But in fact truth and interestingness are diverse things, and the goals are diverse, and one who desires both will likely engage in some trade. In fact, relative to truth seeking, looking for interesting things is a dangerous endeavor. Scott Alexander notes that interesting things are usually false:

This suggests a more general principle: interesting things should usually be lies. Let me give three examples.

I wrote in Toxoplasma of Rage about how even when people crusade against real evils, the particular stories they focus on tend to be false disproportionately often. Why? Because the thousands of true stories all have some subtleties or complicating factors, whereas liars are free to make up things which exactly perfectly fit the narrative. Given thousands of stories to choose from, the ones that bubble to the top will probably be the lies, just like on Reddit.

Every time I do a links post, even when I am very careful to double- and triple- check everything, and to only link to trustworthy sources in the mainstream media, a couple of my links end up being wrong. I’m selecting for surprising-if-true stories, but there’s only one way to get surprising-if-true stories that isn’t surprising, and given an entire Internet to choose from, many of the stories involved will be false.

And then there’s bad science. I can’t remember where I first saw this, so I can’t give credit, but somebody argued that the problem with non-replicable science isn’t just publication bias or p-hacking. It’s that some people will be sloppy, biased, or just stumble through bad luck upon a seemingly-good methodology that actually produces lots of false positives, and that almost all interesting results will come from these people. They’re the equivalent of Reddit liars – if there are enough of them, then all of the top comments will be theirs, since they’re able to come up with much more interesting stuff than the truth-tellers. In fields where sloppiness is easy, the truth-tellers will be gradually driven out, appearing to be incompetent since they can’t even replicate the most basic findings of the field, let alone advance it in any way. The sloppy people will survive to train the next generation of PhD students, and you’ll end up with a stable equilibrium.

In a way this makes the goal of believing interesting things much like the woman’s case. The goal of “believing interesting things” will be better achieved by more complex and detailed beliefs, even though to the extent that they are more complex and detailed, they are simply that much less likely to be true.

The point of this present post, then, is not to deny that some goals might be such that they are better attained with rather unlikely beliefs, and in some cases even in proportion to the unlikelihood of the beliefs. Rather, the point is that a conscious awareness of the trades involved will allow a person to minimize the loss of truth involved. If you never look at your bank account, you will not notice how much money you are losing from that monthly debit for internet. In the same way, if you hold Yudkowksy’s opinion, and believe that you never trade away truth for other things, which is itself both false and motivated, you are like someone who never looks at your account: you will not notice how much you are losing.

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Vaguely Trading Away Truth

Robin Hanson asks his readers about religion:

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religious people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

Look, Robin is saying, maybe you think that religions aren’t true. But the fact is that it isn’t very plausible that you care that much about truth anyway. So why not be religious anyway, regardless of the truth, since there are known benefits to this?

A few days after the above post, Robin points out some evidence that stories tend to distort a person’s beliefs about the world, and then says:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

We have discussed in an earlier post some of the reasons why stories can distort a person’s opinions about the world.

It is very plausible to me that Robin’s proposed explanation, namely status seeking, does indeed exercise a great deal of influence among his target audience. But this would not tend to be a very conscious process, and would likely be expressed consciously in other ways. A more likely conscious explanation would be this representative comment from one of Robin’s readers:

There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

The basic argument would be that if a non-religious person simply decides to be religious, he is choosing to believe something he thinks to be false, which is against the love of truth. But if the person reads a story, he is not choosing to believe anything he thinks to be false, so he is not going against the love of truth.

For Robin, the two situations are roughly equivalent, because there are known reasons why reading fiction will distort one’s beliefs about the world, even if we do not know in advance the particular false beliefs we will end up adopting, or the particular false beliefs that we will end up thinking more likely, or the true beliefs that we might lose or consider less likely.

But there is in fact a difference. This is more or less the difference between accepting the real world and accepting the world of Omelas. In both cases evils are accepted, but in one case they are accepted vaguely, and in the other clearly and directly. In a similar way, it would be difficult for a person to say, “I am going to start believing this thing which I currently think to be false, in order to get some benefit from it,” and much easier to say, “I will do this thing which will likely distort my beliefs in some vague way, in order to get some benefit from it.”

When accepting evil for the sake of good, we are more inclined to do it in this vague way in general. But this is even more the case when we trade away truth in particular for the sake of other things. In part this is precisely because of the more apparent absurdity of saying, “I will accept the false as true for the sake of some benefit,” although Socrates would likely respond that it would be equally absurd to say, “I will do the evil as though it were good for the sake of some benefit.”

Another reason why this is more likely, however, is that it is easier for a person to tell himself that he is not giving up any truth at all; thus the author of the comment quoted above asserted that reading fiction does not lead to any false beliefs whatsoever. This is related to what I said in the post here: trading the truth for something else, even vaguely, implies less love of truth than refusing the trade, and consequently the person may not care enough to accurately discern whether or not they are losing any truth.

Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture

Michael Matt at The Remnant, relieved at the results of the US presidential election, writes:

If Mrs. Clinton had achieved victory last night, today would seem the darkest in history. The future would be beyond dire for a people that willingly raised up a corrupt and immoral radical, who hates the laws of God, defends the murder of babies, and zealously works for the destruction of the family.

Had she been elected it would have said much more about us than about her. We would’ve exposed ourselves as a soulless and heartless people, beyond hope and beneath contempt.

There was so much at stake. Much of our work here at The Remnant, for example, would have been criminalized over the next four years. Our homeschools were to become illegal enterprises in the village Mrs. Clinton had in mind. Even our ability to move about freely would have been undermined by Mrs. Clinton who had promised to expand the ‘no fly’ list against “haters”. (As the “leader of a hate group”, according to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center, it isn’t difficult for this writer to imagine how enthusiastically President Hillary would have enforced hate crime legislation against Christian America.)

On the other side, Scott Aaronson says:

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

“Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.”

Robin Hanson, in contrast with both of the above statements, tries to calm people down about all this:

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

Robin has the better attitude here, and provides a good illustration of a topic that I was planning to discuss at some point, namely the need for recognizing the bigger picture in order to exercise the virtue of humility.

In the linked post, I remarked on St. Therese’s identification of humility with truth, and pointed in particular to the truth that we are neither the first cause nor the ultimate end. But this is just to locate ourselves in reality in a vague way, and the truth is much more detailed than this. A more distinct way to think about this would be that the error of pride consists in thinking that the partial view that we have is the whole truth, while humility would consist in recognizing that there is a bigger picture.

A proud person is often said to believe that the “world revolves around him,” and similar things. But consider: this is not such a strange view. Look around, and it does indeed look like the world is all around you. And the causes of pride are in fact very similar to this, and in that sense, not so unnatural. In this case, if someone were actually to believe it, the error is clear: the person takes his partial view as the full truth about the world, while in reality, his view is extremely limited, and only reaches to certain aspects of the world.

This account applies to virtually every case in which a person behaves proudly. For example when someone stubbornly insists on his own ideas, when he is mistaken, or when he is right, but in a way that is dismissive of others, we rightly identify this as pride, precisely because the person refuses to accept that there is more to reality than he sees himself.

Likewise, if a person is stubbornly attached to his own good, the mistake consists in believing that the only thing that is important is his own desires, while in reality this is only a small part of what is important.

Someone might object: how can humility be about seeing the big picture? Humility seems to be about being small and unimportant, so it seems the opposite of anything big.

The answer to this is that the objection is no different from noticing that the person going about claiming, “I am a humble person!” is most likely not the most humble of people. Humility consists in seeing the bigger picture, but a humble person is not in general the one who is most likely to go about claiming to see the bigger picture. We might ask why not. In particular, if humility is truth, as St. Therese says, then why should a humble person not say that he is humble, since it is the truth? And likewise, if you see the bigger picture, why should you not admit it, since it is the truth?

This is really a question of the right behavior in particular circumstances, and there is no definitive answer for all cases. Sometimes a humble person should indeed say they are humble, as St. Therese did in fact say of herself, although she put it somewhat delicately. But the danger here is twofold: first, if you see a bigger picture than someone else, you might identify your picture as the whole and his as the part, and thus you fall into the error of pride, because your picture remains partial, even if it is larger. Second, your view of the other person’s picture is itself partial, and you will again fall into the error of pride if you assume that you fully see his picture.

Humility tends to a make a person calm, basically for the reason suggested by Robin Hanson, namely by relativizing the importance of the person’s immediate concerns as a small part of the greater whole. And if you agree that the world at its heart is neither evil nor indifferent, but rather the world is rooted in goodness itself, then humility will also make you happy, because you will be looking at the whole and seeing that it is very good.

As the Heavens are Higher than the Earth

Job accuses God:

It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

Ezekiel 18 seems to say something very opposed to this:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

If life and death here refer to physical life, then the passage indeed would be opposed to Job’s claims, and Job might well respond:

How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
    How often does calamity come upon them?
    How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    and like chaff that the storm carries away?
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care for their household after them,
    when the number of their months is cut off?
Will any teach God knowledge,
    seeing that he judges those that are on high?
One dies in full prosperity,
    being wholly at ease and secure,
his loins full of milk
    and the marrow of his bones moist.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having tasted of good.
They lie down alike in the dust,
    and the worms cover them.

Oh, I know your thoughts,
    and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
    Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath?
Who declares their way to their face,
    and who repays them for what they have done?
When they are carried to the grave,
    a watch is kept over their tomb.
The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
    everyone will follow after,
    and those who went before are innumerable.
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
    There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.

But if we understand Ezekiel to refer to happiness and misery, there is surely some truth in his claims, because happiness consists in activity according to virtue. So one who lives virtuously, at least to that degree, will be happy, even if he did not always live in that manner. At the same time, there is some qualification on this, both because human life is not merely an instant but a temporal whole, and also because even if virtue is the most formal element of happiness, it is not the only thing that is relevant to it.

Job and Ezekiel’s opponents seem to agree in an important way, even if they disagree about the facts. Both seem to be saying that God’s ways are bad. Either God’s ways are indifferent to good and evil, or worse, God supports evil himself. Either God treats the good and evil alike, and thus he is indifferent, or he gives better things to the evil, and is thus evil. Or, according to Ezekiel’s opponents, he unjustly spares the lifelong wicked on account of a moment of repentance.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God responds that it is not his ways that are unjust, but their ways. In the context of the particular dispute, the implication is that people fear this account because it implies that even if you have lived a good life for many years, a single evil deed may result in your condemnation. That is only bad, God responds, if you plan to do evil, in other words if your ways are evil, not his. Isaiah says, speaking of the same thing, namely the repentance of the wicked,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As I pointed out earlier, Jesus presents Job’s characterization of God as something to be imitated:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, Jesus says, and consequently his activity is perfect towards all. And that results in apparent indifference, because it means that God treats all alike. Jesus is quite explicit that this applies to the very kinds of situations that Job and his friends are concerned with:

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This would be inconsistent if it meant that “unless you repent, a tower will fall on you or some similar evil,” because Jesus is saying that the ones are no different from the others. It may be that nine of the eighteen were repentant people, and the other nine wicked. Or it could be broken down in any other way. The whole point is that the virtue of the people involved was not relevant to the physical disaster. The implication is that the physical disaster should be understood as a representation of the moral disaster that necessarily overtakes anyone who does evil. And that same disaster is avoided by anyone who does good.

More importantly, however, Jesus’s understanding is that God treats all alike because of his love towards all. And this implies that even the disaster of the tower resulted from love, just as the rain and sun do in the other examples.

How can this be? This will be the topic of a later post. Of course, a reasonable inductive inference, which may or may not be mistaken, would be that it might be not only later, but much later.

Beyond Redemption

While discussing the nature of moral obligation, I raised this objection to an Aristotelian account of ethics: if the “obliging” or “ought” part of moral claims simply means that it is necessary to do something for the sake of an end, then someone who does not desire the end does not need the means, or in other words, such people will be exempt from moral obligations.

I would not argue that this argument is completely false. In the last three posts,  I responded to the argument that Aristotelian ethics is too flexible, not by saying that it is not flexible, but by saying that it is right in being flexible. In a similar way, I do not deny that the above argument about means and end follows in some way. But the way in which it follows is not so unfitting as is supposed.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that all men desire the good, and that no one desires evil:

Soc. Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

In a similar way, St. Thomas says that all desire happiness in general, even if not according to its specific account:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.

Of course there is something circular about desiring “that one’s will be satisfied,” because this means that there is something that one already wills. And according to what St. Thomas says here, that thing would be “the good” as the object of the will, and in particular “the perfect good.” So just as Socrates affirms that all desire the good and no one desires evil, so St. Thomas affirms that all desire the perfect good.

In this sense, we could argue that the original argument is moot, because all desire the end. Consequently all must choose the means which are necessary for the sake of the end, and thus no one is exempt from moral obligations.

This response is correct as far as it goes, but it is perhaps not a sufficiently complete account. While discussing expected utility theory, I pointed out that the theory assigns value only to events or situations, and not to actions or choices as such. We looked at this same distinction more directly in the post on doing and making. The fact of this distinction implies that occasionally it can happen that “doing good” and “causing good” can appear to come apart. Thus it might seem to me in a particular case that the world will be better off as a whole if I do something evil.

St. Paul discusses this idea:

But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!

The idea is that God brings good out of the evil that we do, as for example in this case by manifesting the justice of God. But this suggests that the world is better off on account of the evil that we do. And someone might argue that it follows that we are not doing evil at all. St. Paul’s response is that “their condemnation is deserved.” It is not entirely evident whether he refers to people who do evil so that good may come, or to the people who assert that this is St. Paul’s position.

But either way, one thing is clear. “Doing evil so that good may come” is doing evil, not doing good; that is simply a tautology. And this is true even if good actually comes from it, and even if the world is better off as a whole when someone does evil.

This implies a difficulty for Socrates’s argument that everyone must desire good. For sometimes one good thing comes into conflict with another, so that both good and evil are present. And in that situation, a person may desire something which is evil, knowing it to be evil, but not because it is evil, but on account of the conjoined good. In the case we are considering, that would mean that someone might desire to do evil, not because it is doing evil, but still knowing that it is doing evil, on account of the good that comes from it. And it seems clear that this sometimes happens.

To the extent that someone does this, they will begin to become evil, in the sense and manner that this is possible, because they will begin to have an evil will. Of course, their will never becomes perfectly evil, because they only wish to do evil for the sake of good, not for the sake of evil, and presumably without that motivation they would still prefer to do good. Nonetheless, just as in other matters, a person can become accustomed to seeking one kind of good and neglecting another, and in this matter, the person becomes accustomed to seeking some good in the world, while neglecting his own good as a person.

Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the linked post of the goodness of the will, speaks of the limit of such a process:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

It is likely an exaggeration to suggest that a person can become so evil, in this sense, that it is literally impossible for them to return to goodness, so that “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” Bad habits are acquired by individual actions, and it is presumably possible in principle for a person to acquire the opposite habits by an opposite series of actions. But it might be the case that for a few people, such a return is only a theoretical possibility, and not a reasonable possibility in practice.

But let us assume a case where it is entirely impossible. Pope Benedict points to the Catholic doctrine of hell as illustrating this case. Satan and the damned, in this sense, would be understood to be irrevocably evil. There is no way for them to return to the good.

And this is the case that we need to consider in order to consider the force of the original objection. Are Satan and the damned thought to be exempt from moral obligation? In a significant sense, they are. No one would bother himself about the fact that Satan is not repenting and doing good; the horror is precisely that this is impossible. Satan does not choose the means, a life of virtue, precisely because he is no longer interested in the end, at least not in any relevant sense.

The very extremity of this example shows that the objection is not so problematic after all. It would not apply to a real person unless they had already descended to a condition far below the human one. Real people continue to maintain some interest in good, and in doing good, no matter how much evil they do, and thus morality is relevant to them. Thus for example even serial killers sometimes express a certain amount of remorse, and show that they wish they could have had other desires and lived better lives.

Finally, even for someone unchangeably evil, doing evil remains doing evil, since the notion of the good comes before the notion of moral obligation.  But it is true that obligations as such would become irrelevant to them.

My Morals and Your Morals

The last two posts have explained the changeableness in ethics as a result of the nature of the moral object, and as a result of evolution and human nature in the concrete. Still a third kind of flexibility results from individual differences.

Aristotle, as we saw, affirms that happiness and virtue consist in performing well the function of man. So insofar as people have human nature in common, their happiness and virtue will be the same. One might suppose that it follows that human happiness and virtue must be entirely the same in all, but this is a mistake. For the nature of virtue in the concrete follows not only from an abstract idea of a “rational animal,” but from the condition of the human animal taken much more concretely. This follows from the last post, where we saw that moral principles, even ones which we currently understand to be universal principles, could have been otherwise, had the circumstances of the human race been otherwise.

One might respond that this makes no difference, since all of us are members of the human race in the concrete, and consequently we must share the same concrete virtue and happiness. This does follow to some extent, just as does the general argument that all humans possess human nature. But it does not follow perfectly.

It does not follow perfectly, that is, it does not follow that our virtue and happiness is the same in every respect. If ethics were simply a logical deduction from an abstract idea like that of “rational animal,” then one might reasonably suppose that virtue and happiness would be entirely the same in all. But in fact ethics also results from facts that are intrinsically changeable, namely facts about what promotes the flourishing of the human race.

Although these facts are intrinsically changeable, one will not expect them to change from person to person in a random manner. It is not that for some, killing the innocent is harmful for human flourishing, while in others, it is beneficial. Instead, it is harmful for all.

But the fact that we are speaking of intrinsically changeable things does mean that we will have a certain amount of variation from one individual to another. There are facts about human beings that result in moral norms. But these “facts about human beings” may vary, e.g. in degree, from one human to another. Alexander Pruss, discussing the origin of Bayesian priors, makes this remark:

Let me try to soften you up in favor of anthropocentrism about priors with an ethics analogy. If sharks developed rationality, we wouldn’t expect their flourishing to involve quite as much friendship as our flourishing does. Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension, and we would expect different species to resolve that tension differently based on the different ways that they are characteristically adapted to their environment. This is, indeed, an argument for a significant Natural Law component in ethics: even if values are kind-independent, the appropriate resolution of tensions between them is something that may well be relative to a kind.

But just as sharks would have less need for friendship than human beings have, so one human being might have less need for friendship than another.

Aristotle discusses virtue as consisting as a mean between opposed vices:

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

Aristotle may be making more or less the same point as this post (and the previous two) when he says that “matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health,” and likewise when he says that “the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” Virtue consists in a mean, not too much of something and not too little. But where exactly this mean falls will differ from one individual to another. The case of friendship mentioned above is an example. As Pruss says, “Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension,” and since those values will affect different people differently, we can expect differently people rightly to resolve that tension in different ways, just as Pruss says we could expect different species to resolve it differently. Naturally, we might expect the difference between species to be greater than the difference between individuals. But there will be differences in each case.

So in order to arrive at the mean of truth, there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. One is the Equality Dogma. The other would be the supposition that the differences between individuals might be more or less the same as differences between species. Ian Morris, in his book Why the West Rules–for Now, remarks,

This technical debate over classifying prehistoric skeletons has potentially alarming implications. Racists are often eager to pounce on such details to justify prejudice, violence, and even genocide. You might feel that taking the time to talk about a theory of this kind merely dignifies bigotry; perhaps we should just ignore it. But that, I think, would be a mistake. Pronouncing racist theories contemptible is not enough. If we really want to reject them, and to conclude that people (in large groups) really are all much the same, it must be because racist theories are wrong, not just because most of us today do not like them.

One of the arguments of the book (best understood by reading the book) is that “people (in large groups) really are all much the same,” and that the causes of the differences between West and East were not primarily differences between peoples, but differences of other kinds such as differences of geography.

 

Circular Virtue

In the last post, we raised this concern: if virtue means action that leads to happiness, and happiness consists in a virtuous life, then our definition of virtue is circular.

But happiness is first defined more generally as the perfection of human life, and it is by means of this general definition that Aristotle arrives at the particular account involving virtue. And we have an understanding of good and bad which comes before an understanding of virtue or moral obligation. It is not the same to say that something is good and that it is morally required, or that something is bad and that one is morally obliged to avoid it. Thus eating ice cream is good but not a moral obligation, and having a headache is bad, but one suffering from a headache is not under the moral obligation of taking aspirin.

This implies that we can know that some things are opposed to happiness even before considering virtue. And it is through these things that we begin to learn what is virtuous. Thus drinking wine to the point of sickness and severe hangovers is evidently opposed to happiness, and from this we can learn that moderation in drinking is virtuous.

One might conclude that temperance is merely a means to good outcomes, but this is not the case. It is in part a means to good outcomes, as in the above illustration. But since doing and making are not the same, the good of “not having a hangover” is distinct from the action of “drinking moderately,” and both the result and the action are good things. So we learn the goodness of the action from the results, but the goodness of the action is distinct from the goodness of the results. Aristotle points out that one who becomes virtuous learns to appreciate the goodness of virtue in itself, even apart from its consequences:

Their life is also in itself pleasant. For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.

And since the good of virtue is something additional to the good of the results, happiness, or a perfect human life, requires both goods. In this way neither the definition of happiness nor the definition of virtue is circular.