Thursday, November 10, 2005

Desiring the good of others and being crazy

Dadahead and I both find delusional child-murderer Andrea Yates more sympathetic than Iraq disinformation conduit Judy Miller. This is the result of a view that I alluded to some time ago -- what makes a person morally good is her intrinsic desire for the good of others. One can be a morally good person (or for that matter, a morally good dog) with any set of beliefs whatsoever. Evil people are particularly susceptible to some beliefs -- if you have some deep-seated desire to harm black people, this desire can get some wishful thinking going when combined with a desire to only harm people who do bad things, generating a belief that black people do lots of bad things. This is the belief with which your desires are maximally satisfied. What really makes you evil in this case is the desire to harm black people, not the resultant belief.

Nomy Arpaly has an example where aliens visit Earth, and their otherwise correct travel guide to the planet has one error in it -- it says that dark-skinned humans are genetically stupider and more predisposed to violence than others. If the aliens were simply misled by their travel guide, I wouldn't think they were morally bad for forming their racist beliefs. What makes people with racist beliefs morally bad is that these beliefs are usually irrationally caused by some desire for black people's suffering.

I offered this view to an undergraduate section here in Texas once, specifically making reference to the Yates case, and the students seemed fairly receptive to it: If the 'believing' part of somebody is completely malfunctioning, so that they believe that the best way to care for their children is to kill them, but the desiring part of them functions right and they desire whatever is best for their children, they can be morally good people even as they kill their children. (My knowledge of the Yates case isn't great, so I can't be certain on the facts of the situation here. But that's how I've been told about it.)


Brandon said...

The insanity defense in criminal law (about which everything I know I learned last week) basically only covers cases where the actor's reality was so distorted that they did not know what they were doing, but it is VERY strictly applied. I'm not sure how Andrea Yates did not satisfy this criterion, but the case was mentioned in my casebook. I'll check it out and get back to you.

Mary said...

My understanding is that although she felt compelled to do what she did, she understood it was illegal. That's why she was held responsible.

I have a question for you, Neil. In terms of morality, what about the perspective of the victim? If someone hurts me or my family or friends, but felt compelled for some "moral" reason to do so, like they thought it was for our own good, I'm not going to think they're moral people no matter what. I don't know quite how to frame this question, but I hope you'll be able to discern what I'm asking.

Julian Elson said...

Another example: before I started reading your blog, I thought of werewolves as being violent, brutal creatures (I hope you aren't offended by this, but this is in my past, you see). I never wished pain or suffering on werewolves, but I held the false factual belief that they regularly committed evil actions well beyond the scope of acceptable behavior. Now that I read your blog, I know that isn't true. However, a culpably, motivatedly, epistemically irrational type might read your blog and discount the evidence that werewolves aren't all bad, saying things like "I'm ready to believe anything about werewolves so long as it's bad."

Neil Sinhababu said...

Mary, it's certainly true that victims are likely to have an excessively negative view of insane criminals' character. In some cases, there's little more to be said here than that the victims are in error.

One thing I didn't clearly express in the post was what it was to desire someone else's good. So what do I say in a case where a very strange person thinks that pain is good, and tries to do "good" for his victim? In this case I'd want to say that the criminal is doing something morally bad. When I talk about desiring someone's good, I mean desiring greater pleasure for them, or desiring a state of affairs that necessarily includes greater pleasure for them. (For instance, if you desire that someone have a relaxing day at the beach, part of your desire involves their having a certain degree of pleasure.)

Genius said...

Not sure that you are not confusing moraly logical and morraly bad.

The root problem you seem to have here is self justification ie that person x believes blacks ae inferior because they want to believe lets say whites are superior (thus making themselves marginally more important). I dont think the root is ever "a desire to see others suffer" I dont think this is common enough to be a major cause and at it's root is created from the above anyway.

(Ie people generally hurt you because they dont empathise with you as opposed to because they do and enjoy your pain)

HOWEVER I am not sure if I would consider this the greatest / only evil even though it might be bad and is extremely common and pervasive.

I am also not sure such a reduction of morality produces the results we want -
Many of our moral positions depend upon us being illogical in a sense - for example we asert that certain groups of people are equal in all sorts of situations despite clear statistical evidence they are not (eg handicapped people or any other group you care to define).

Genius said...

anyway I am concerned with the insanity defense because I think it implies we want to feel justified in getting revenge on the person i.e. it implies we are morraly bad in just the same way as we want to punish them for.

Mary said...

Not to belabor this, but I've been thinking more about this. Someone decides to kill me for what they think is a good reason. They don't ask me what I think about it and give me no opportunity to present my case or exercise my free will in this situation. They know the foreseeable consequences of their actions will be my death, and decide to proceed knowing this is not what I want. I would't say they are moral, but would acknowledge that they genuinely lack the ability to make a (OK, let's say morally logical) decision.

(Just for the record, I don't think Andrea Yates belongs in prison, but rather in a high security hospital where she can be properly cared for. Under the circumstances that were known at that time, her circumstances didn't fit the legal precedent for the insanity defense because she understood the foreseeable consequences of her actions, and knew how they would be regarded by society.)

Anonymous said...

I'm confused why you want to say that Yates is morally good. According to you, someone is morally good just in case they desire the good of others, i.e. "desiring greater pleasure for them, or desiring a state of affairs that necessarily includes greater pleasure for them." How exactly does killing her children involve greater pleasure for them? I would think the children's capacity to experience pleasure ceases when they are dead. Perhaps she did indeed desire for them what was in her mind a better state of affairs. But it is not the better state of affairs as you define it. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Anonymous, I've heard that she had a religious view according to which if she didn't kill them, Satan would most likely get them and take them to Hell. Killing them was necessary in order to move them upstairs to heaven. This is completely insane, but if it were true, a lot of killing would be justified.

Adam said...

I generally find these discussions to be uncomfortable because we (humans) seem to have this intuitive but vague notion of morality.

I'm sure philosophers have talked this over ad nauseum, but I never hear a person say why a "bad person" is different from a "person who committs bad acts," and without a rationale for such a distinction, the distinction itself is pretty meaningless.

I generally figure that it has something to do with the potential for reform--if a person committs evil acts for one reason (factual mistake), they may be reformed by correcting that mistaken belief, while committing evil acts for another reason (intent to harm) makes reform difficult or impossible.

Along the lines of what genius wrote, it seems that real evil is generally derived from a person's lack of respect/empathy for others, rather than a lack of concern for their welfare. For example, a religious zealot could believe that I would benefit if I were forced to attend his church every evening and prohibited from reading anything that would potentially "shake my faith", yet I would consider him just as evil as the guy who mugged me.

Also, the rule that we are only evil when we intend to do harm seems to break down when we have to choose between two options--each of which will result in someone being harmed.

Rousseau said...

Pobre-chupacabra. Your audience isn't willing to accept the underlying tenets of your belief system, and so you get in this tangle where you are arguing about the results that come from a foundation of utilitarianism, with people who do not share that foundation.

Given Neil's belief system (utilitarianism) this all makes sense. Of course many readers here don't share that belief system. But then, critiquing his logic from outside that foundation is going to be broken. For instance, would you say he's wrong because clearly Allah said we should do otherwise in the Qu'Ran?

Of course our moral intuitions don't like Yates. And of course as a victim we think we should have a say in whether the actions of our persecutor are moral. But such beliefs stem from foundations outside utilitarianism.

Adam said...

So the description of a person being "morally good" means nothing more than "there is no reason to believe that they disagree with my own moral beliefs"?

I guess there isn't much to talk about then.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Adam, I'd summarize my position in this post as follows: no matter what you think is good, what you care about in evaluating agents is that the agents desire good things to happen. If false beliefs lead them to act in destructive ways, this doesn't change the fact that their good desires make them morally good people. They're just mistaken or tragically misguided.

Unsane said...

What if youre desire to harm black people is couple with the sentiment that it is for the good of everybody else to see them vanquished. Hohum. Becomes confusing then? The difference between good and evil is not as simple as you suggest.

Julian Elson said...

Arpaly -- and I believe Neil -- are not saying that all that's necessary to be morally admirable person is to honestly think that you're doing the right thing. If you hold false moral views (inflicting pain on others is morally good), then you're a bad person. If you hold false empirical views, which, when combined with true moral views, lead to morally wrong actions (for example, preventing pain in others is morally good (right), and eliminating gay people will prevent a lot of pain (wrong)), then you are, prima facie, a misguided but basically good person. However, that's only prima facie: your belief that the existence of gays causes immense pain probably doesn't come from epistemically rational processes. It probably is formed under the influence of a morally culpable hatred of gay people.

So to review, here are things that Arpaly (I think) finds morally blameworthy:
-Holding false moral beliefs, such as that causing pain is moral.
-Irrational hatred of people.

Here are things taht Arpaly doesn't find morally blameworthy:
-Holding false empirical beliefs.
-Holding true moral beliefs.

I recommend Unprincipled Virtue to everyone. I know, I know, you can't have every book that everyone recommends, but if the inevitable stack of books that you "need to get around to reading eventully" ever diminishes to the point where you can afford to toss in a less-than 200 page, fairly readable moral philosophy philosophy book, I recommend it.