Saturday, March 26, 2005

On being good

Dennis wonders about how much one can ignore the sufferings of faraway people and still be a good person. This, as it's widely known, is a salient question for hedonic utilitarians. Our theory of moral action instructs you to allow x amount of pain to your best friend in order to prevent 1.1x pain to somebody you'll never know. But this is wildly at odds with common intuitions and sentiments. Does utilitarianism really say you're a bad person if you buy your friend lots of good scotch on his birthday instead of sending the money to sufferers in a faraway land?

First, a comment that won't solve the problem: My close relationships with others are probably the greatest source of pleasure in my life, and I suppose this is true of happy people everywhere. So a big bonus accrues to acts that bring you closer to others. But often this won't be enough -- more happiness will still be created by helping the poor than by doing things that foster friendship.

My view about the moral goodness of a person is as follows: the goodness of a person is measurable in terms of the intensity of her total intrinsic (noninstrumental) desire to bring about pleasure, minus her total intrinsic desire to cause displeasure. In measuring desire here we count latent and occurrent desires the same way. If we just counted occurrent desires, morally good people would suddenly become morally worthless when they fell asleep. We include all the ways that pleasure comes up in one's desires -- the desire to give good massages gets counted in, even though its content includes stuff other than the mere existence of pleasure. We don't score this desire as highly as you would an equal-strength desire for the happiness of all beings -- we score it proportionally to the role that pleasure plays in it.

I'd like to have a view about how high you need to be on this scale to be a morally good person, and how low you have to fall to be a bad person. Maybe I can just go contextualist (or perhaps subject-sensitive) and say that "good" is like "big." Whether it applies depends on the context of assertion (or maybe the kind of thing being talked about). "Big" in astronomical contexts works differently from "big" in biological contexts, and "good" when talking about philanthropists works different from "good" when talking about people who are seized by an impulse to vengeance.

In any case, utilitarians need not say that you're a good person only if you're motivated to do the optimal action some or all of the time. Utilitarians can just say that being a good person just requires some high level of motivation to bring about happiness. You'd have done a better action and been a better person if you optimized, but you're still good for satisficing.

This still could leave us with the conclusion that helping faraway sufferers while ignoring those near you is the mark of the best people. To blunt this conclusion, let's consider some facts about desire and vivid images. Suppose I desire a sweet dessert, and I can choose between pie and ice cream. If I suddenly see a picture of pie in all its luscious pie glory while the ice cream is hidden from view, this image may cause me to choose the pie, even though I believe that ice cream is likely to be a little tastier. Now consider how much more vivid our images of our friends' happiness are than our images of faraway people's happiness. Even if a person desired nothing but the maximization of aggregate happiness, the power of vivid images might cause her to focus disproportionately on the happiness of those close to her. While the morally best event will always be the one that maximizes, the peculiarities of human motivation may cause the morally best person to fall somewhat short of maximizing. Perhaps such a person would be irrational, but I see no reason why a perfectly moral person might not occasionally be irrational.

Certainly, utilitarianism is still going to push us towards expending a lot of effort on helping those far away, even at the expense of our relationships with those we're close to. And when we consider actions as events, rather than as reflections of agents' moral worth, the best action will be the one that maximizes total pleasure, no matter whose pleasure it is. But one can be a good person even if one shows extra favor to friends, and the best person -- if affected by images as we are -- would tilt slightly toward increasing her friends' happiness.


Blue said...

Uhh… it’s easy to think of lots of reason people apply “moral duty” to those close to them. Your vivid-ness is one of them (and an interesting argument can be made about that and abortion). Or you could think about how a lot of morality is rules for maintaining a stable society (the reason “not murdering someone” is better than “saving the life of an African through donations” is because then everyone around you doesn’t have to worry about you murdering them). Also, people tend to think about immorality much more in terms of actions, than non-actions. And your analysis that someone can be good (or well-intentioned as you see it) without being rational is fine.

But the point being that none of these are particularly interesting. They’re useful if you’re trying to believe your friends are good people and you don’t want to judge them. But if you are truly trying to find the best course of action, then none of these distractions exculpate you. Once we look at morality trying to be as objective and rationale as we can, are we not left with “giving all your money to Oxfam” as almost necessity?

Blue said...
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Neil Sinhababu said...

There's a lot of moral concepts we care about. Sometimes we're trying to do the best action, and you're right that many of my reflections above don't help with that. Other times we're trying to figure out what makes someone a good person. That's what Dennis asked about, so I posted some things about how the concept of a good person works.

Blue said...

Is that analysis of irrationality really useful? I mean, letting people off the hook for irrational actions and assuming they mean best makes using this in the world very hard. For instance, what about evangelicals who try with all their might to save your soul and impose their cultural rules on the country? It’s too easy to argue that they are similarly “very altruistic”, but just have different beliefs about how to enact good. Except the next problem is that we know much of those beliefs are “self-serving rationalizations”, particularly when these cultural principles also grant a great deal of power and stability to their group. (The same can be said for academics, are they selflessly trying to better humanity, or are they just doing what they receive intellectual pleasure from.)

Which is fine for them, but without any objective way to correlate “good intentions” and “real world results”, moral judgement enter really solipsistic areas.

Your own presentation of what is “good” in a person is interesting, but I’m kinda fuzzy on what it means. Do you think anyone outright wants to cause displeasure? Or at least, enough people that it allows differentiation throughout society?

Over on rousseau, I ramble on about my own judgement theory.