If you don't know, can it hurt you?

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Ulc » Fri Jun 11, 2010 8:24 am UTC

meatyochre wrote:Just because you can't "get around" >0 risk of STDs doesn't mean utilitarianism can't declare that committing the infidelity would still be a permissible activity. Some STDs aren't very serious and are curable (like chlamydia or a UTI).


Keep in mind that I wasn't passing judgement on cheating, I was merely pointing out that the assumptions are not valid.

Though in the case of a non-famous person that is a excellent actor, completely unable to feel guilt and travels a lot , there is still the first assumption that is invalid. I will admit though, that in the case of our travelling friend, the assumptions is much less absurd, especially if he takes care to protect himself.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby BlackSails » Fri Jun 11, 2010 2:00 pm UTC

Ulc wrote:
meatyochre wrote:Just because you can't "get around" >0 risk of STDs doesn't mean utilitarianism can't declare that committing the infidelity would still be a permissible activity. Some STDs aren't very serious and are curable (like chlamydia or a UTI).


Keep in mind that I wasn't passing judgement on cheating, I was merely pointing out that the assumptions are not valid.


They are for a purely emotional affair.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby guenther » Fri Jun 11, 2010 2:19 pm UTC

BlackSails wrote:They are for a purely emotional affair.

Maybe you're just talking about the risk of STDs which is true, but emotional affairs will still likely affect how you behave.

It's easy to guard against any harm coming to others in the hypothetical world, but in reality we suck at it. We want to believe in a world where we can get what we want without it costing anything, but I think it's our desire driving belief, not rational analysis. That's because we have a strong emotional bias towards the self. I view morality as a way to balance self and society, so when people justify systems that allow themselves to prosper at the expense of others, it's not a moral system. And I think it's contrary to what most people consider moral as well.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Fri Jun 11, 2010 3:33 pm UTC

meatyochre wrote:A person in a relationship has a right to seek sexual satisfaction if the other party is categorically unwilling to fulfill their desires as assumed or understood when the relationship was entered into. For example, take a husband and wife pair. The wife decides after having a child that she is never ever willing to have sex, and say this goes on for about a year (temporary asexuality), though she's unwilling to give her husband permission to sleep with another woman. The husband is justified in having a discreet affair to meet his sexual needs from a utilitarian standpoint, given that the alternative is his sexual frustration and eventual divorce, upheaval in the child's life, "abandoning" a new young mother to her own financial devices... etc.

I would argue that the highest-utility solution would be the wife allowing the husband to engage in extramarital relations for that reason. Depending on her obstinance v. the risks involved in cheating, the husband could easily find his most optimal actions in simply trying to convince her wife to let him get his fix elsewhere.

Ditto the medical reason scenario.

Zcorp wrote:Except that you defecting will have a systemic effect that threatens trust of the whole group, you maximize yourself in the short run but in the long run you decrease the utility of yourself and of the group as everyone starts defecting in response to your defect.


I think this provokes an interesting line of questioning: Among a group of utilitarians, how does the realization that the other members are utilitarian effect their behavior? If a group of utilitarians know they will cheat on each other under certain circumstances, wouldn't that change things such that the cheating is no longer the most optimal solution?
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Crius » Fri Jun 11, 2010 4:56 pm UTC

Ulc wrote:Keep in mind that I wasn't passing judgement on cheating, I was merely pointing out that the assumptions are not valid.

Though in the case of a non-famous person that is a excellent actor, completely unable to feel guilt and travels a lot , there is still the first assumption that is invalid. I will admit though, that in the case of our travelling friend, the assumptions is much less absurd, especially if he takes care to protect himself.


I agree that it's impossible to get the chance of STDs (as well as the other assumption) to 0, but I don't think it necessarily needs to be 0 to make the act justifiable in a utilitarian sense. Rather, the act needs to have a positive expected utility value, i.e., the utility gained by the cheater and the temporary partner is greater than the utility lost by the spouse times the probability of finding out.

Of course, that runs into one of the major problems of utilitarianism, which is how do you come up with these values?

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Fri Jun 11, 2010 8:02 pm UTC

I think this provokes an interesting line of questioning: Among a group of utilitarians, how does the realization that the other members are utilitarian effect their behavior? If a group of utilitarians know they will cheat on each other under certain circumstances, wouldn't that change things such that the cheating is no longer the most optimal solution?

That's the point. In prisoner's dilemma it doesn't matter the other prisoners do. Regardless of whether other people defect (cheat), you will be better off defecting than not defecting - even if everyone would be better off NOT defecting. So no, it wouldn't change the optimal solution.


guenther wrote:It's easy to guard against any harm coming to others in the hypothetical world, but in reality we suck at it. We want to believe in a world where we can get what we want without it costing anything, but I think it's our desire driving belief, not rational analysis. That's because we have a strong emotional bias towards the self.

But there ARE people who could cheat and do "bad" things and not feel guilty about it. Society calls them sociopaths. So by your line of reasoning, it would not be immoral for a sociopath to cheat because they can emotionally guard against harming others?

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby guenther » Fri Jun 11, 2010 9:10 pm UTC

thc wrote:But there ARE people who could cheat and do "bad" things and not feel guilty about it. Society calls them sociopaths. So by your line of reasoning, it would not be immoral for a sociopath to cheat because they can emotionally guard against harming others?

Sociopaths might be better protected personally from guilt, but how does that make them better at protecting their partner? They're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain. And they're capitalizing on their partner's misplaced trust. It's not moral, and being immune from guilt doesn't change that.

I don't know how a utilitarian squares this. But as has been pointed out, the utility of all this is so poorly defined that one can basically make up whatever metric, and thus whatever rules, they want.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Fri Jun 11, 2010 10:09 pm UTC

It makes them better at protecting their partner because they won't have a change in behavior.

To me, your argument seems to be that cheating is bad because of the risk of adverse effects it brings to your partner. (I.e., "they're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain.") So if we eliminate risk of STDs by only considering "emotional" affairs and eliminate risk of behavior change by considering people who can cheat and not feel guilty, then it seems to me by that by your argument, cheating would not be immoral in this case.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Fri Jun 11, 2010 10:11 pm UTC

thc wrote:It makes them better at protecting their partner because they won't have a change in behavior.

To me, your argument seems to be that cheating is bad because of the risk of adverse effects it brings to your partner. (I.e., "they're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain.") So if we eliminate risk of STDs by only considering "emotional" affairs and eliminate risk of behavior change by considering people who can cheat and not feel guilty, then it seems to me by that by your argument, cheating would not be immoral in this case.

Pretty much. Utilitarianism doesn't add a negative value to lying by itself. So yeah. You're right!
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby ++$_ » Fri Jun 11, 2010 10:23 pm UTC

thc wrote:It makes them better at protecting their partner because they won't have a change in behavior.

To me, your argument seems to be that cheating is bad because of the risk of adverse effects it brings to your partner. (I.e., "they're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain.") So if we eliminate risk of STDs by only considering "emotional" affairs and eliminate risk of behavior change by considering people who can cheat and not feel guilty, then it seems to me by that by your argument, cheating would not be immoral in this case.
But what if the partner finds out anyway? There is no guaranteed way to prevent the partner from finding out.

Besides, the sociopath must have spent some time cheating. During that time he/she could have been doing other things, such as working (thereby providing the partner with financial resources), studying something (thereby providing a more pleasant conversational experience for the partner), cleaning the attic, etc. By cheating instead, the cheater is depriving his/her partner of these things, and it doesn't matter whether the partner realizes it or not.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Fri Jun 11, 2010 10:33 pm UTC

++$_ wrote:
thc wrote:It makes them better at protecting their partner because they won't have a change in behavior.

To me, your argument seems to be that cheating is bad because of the risk of adverse effects it brings to your partner. (I.e., "they're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain.") So if we eliminate risk of STDs by only considering "emotional" affairs and eliminate risk of behavior change by considering people who can cheat and not feel guilty, then it seems to me by that by your argument, cheating would not be immoral in this case.
But what if the partner finds out anyway? There is no guaranteed way to prevent the partner from finding out.

Besides, the sociopath must have spent some time cheating. During that time he/she could have been doing other things, such as working (thereby providing the partner with financial resources), studying something (thereby providing a more pleasant conversational experience for the partner), cleaning the attic, etc. By cheating instead, the cheater is depriving his/her partner of these things, and it doesn't matter whether the partner realizes it or not.

That's true, but EVERYTHING has risk and EVERYTHING has opportunity cost. Take for example, just driving to the stadium to see a game while your wife stays at home. You have a risk of getting into a car crash and dying - obviously a big negative for your wife.

So is going to the stadium to watch baseball immoral? We've established that in specific cases of cheating, we can all but eliminate any risk of your partner finding out. But we still consider cheating immoral and watching baseball neutral. Why? It obviously can't just be a matter of the degree of gain/risk.

So I think the utilitarian arguments fall short. Either that or in keeping with utilitarianism, you're forced to conclude that cheating is not always an undesired action by society.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby guenther » Fri Jun 11, 2010 11:12 pm UTC

thc wrote:It makes them better at protecting their partner because they won't have a change in behavior.

To me, your argument seems to be that cheating is bad because of the risk of adverse effects it brings to your partner. (I.e., "they're still risking their relationship and their partner's feelings all for personal gain.") So if we eliminate risk of STDs by only considering "emotional" affairs and eliminate risk of behavior change by considering people who can cheat and not feel guilty, then it seems to me by that by your argument, cheating would not be immoral in this case.

But guilt may not be the only factor. If the cheater finds himself smitten by the other person, he might unintentionally devote more time to them and less time to his partner. Even though this wouldn't be outright detectable as evidence of cheating, the partner is still paying the price with a less devoted spouse. We can invent a hypothetical person who can cheat with zero impact on the rest of the world, but then we are coming up with morality for an invented person in a false reality. It's not very insightful.

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thc wrote:So I think the utilitarian arguments fall short. Either that or in keeping with utilitarianism, you're forced to conclude that cheating is not always an undesired action by society.

Allow me to clarify that I'm not making a utilitarian argument. I believe we need to invoke certain levels of responsibility that are beyond our own personal desires. If we violate those responsibilities to further selfish goals, that's pretty much the essence of doing something immoral. I believe we have an irrational impulse to see the world in a way that produces better benefit to us, and having moral rules are a way to keep that bias in check. We are circumventing that safeguard if we invent utility metrics to make it more reasonable to break rules and get what we want.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby ++$_ » Sat Jun 12, 2010 12:33 am UTC

thc wrote:That's true, but EVERYTHING has risk and EVERYTHING has opportunity cost. Take for example, just driving to the stadium to see a game while your wife stays at home. You have a risk of getting into a car crash and dying - obviously a big negative for your wife.
This goes to the heart of the point I'm trying to make, which is basically that utilitarianism, whatever its worth in theory, is not a viable guide to morality in practice. This is because the costs and benefits of a particular action are generally very difficult to calculate objectively and correctly.

In the example you gave, you have a very low probability of something occurring (a crash) and a very high cost if it does (death of the partner). It's extremely difficult to compare the utility of that with the utility of seeing the football game, which has a very high probability of occurring and a relatively small benefit. It's very clear which decision people make in practice (nearly everyone would go to the game), but people are notoriously bad at understanding rare events, so common practice cannot be considered evidence in this case.

Applied to the case of the cheating sociopath, we have the same problem but in the opposite direction. The utilitarian sociopath, when making his/her decision of whether or not to cheat, considers the rare event (detection, which may not be so rare, but let's say he/she is really good at cheating) and ignores the day-to-day effects (not being as attentive to his/her partner). This time, it's because the effect is really hard to quantify, being small and nonlinear in the amount of time spent cheating.

As guenther mentions above, there is also a natural cognitive bias towards seeing things the way we want to see them; i.e. people will cheat too often, because the benefits accrue to the cheater directly, while many of the costs are pawned off on someone else.

I think we have deontological rules because they work most of the time and when they fail, they generally err in the direction of hurting the actor rather than society at large. Utilitarianism tends to fail in the other direction.* This is a case where it's hard to tell which rule is failing. I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that I would prefer if everyone acted in accordance with the deontological principle in this case.

*This is due to the cognitive bias I mentioned above, amplified by the fact that people are generally more risk-averse when it comes to things that affect them directly than when dealing with things that don't affect them directly, and so many moral dilemmas include an element of risk.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Sat Jun 12, 2010 3:53 am UTC

++$_ wrote:This goes to the heart of the point I'm trying to make, which is basically that utilitarianism, whatever its worth in theory, is not a viable guide to morality in practice. This is because the costs and benefits of a particular action are generally very difficult to calculate objectively and correctly.

That's a good point. I am perfectly willing to accept that using a utilitarian argument in order to cheat is usually not good in practice, but ultimately, I think this is just a distraction. I am really more interested in "theory". I think too much effort in this thread has been put into questioning the assumptions in an effort to dispute the conclusion based on consequences, which does nothing to dispute utilitarianism in general. However, it is easy to think of very plausible cases where the assumptions hold true, and so I don't think skeptical's question is as ridiculous as people think. Perhaps we should focus on a more general question (to get away from the fact that cheating rarely works in practice):

Is it unethical to abuse someone's trust if that person will never find out?

Even though instinctually I feel it is unethical, in keeping with utilitarian "theory" I'm forced to conclude it is ethical. Of course, conversely, guenther would say it is unethical. How about you?

I think we have deontological rules because they work most of the time and when they fail, they generally err in the direction of hurting the actor rather than society at large. Utilitarianism tends to fail in the other direction.* This is a case where it's hard to tell which rule is failing. I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that I would prefer if everyone acted in accordance with the deontological principle in this case.
First, thanks for introducing me to that word ("deontological"). That's exactly relevant my own reasoning for sticking with utilitarianism, which is this: if ethics is not utilitarian (or more generally, consequentalist) than it seems like it is basically just about following pre-defined rules (such as "it is always wrong to abuse someone's trust"). However, I'd wager that there are far more problems with deontological ethics than there are with utilitarianism. For example, I could never accept rules stating things like "don't eat pork on tuesday" or "don't be homosexual" as ethical.

Furthermore, it seems to me that "rules" are sort of like memes in that they go through selection and evolve. Rules which have the biggest benefit to society (e.g. utility) propagate, while rules that are terrible die out. So ultimately, if you accept this line of reasoning, you're still forced to conclude that ethics are essentially utilitarian anyway.

I'm interested in how you and geunther would respond to this.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby skeptical scientist » Sat Jun 12, 2010 4:04 am UTC

greengiant wrote:For those asking why this would be a problem for utilitarianism, I would guess that skeptical scientist's problem is that for (some version of) utilitarianism, the only thing that would make cheating wrong is its negative side affects. Presumably he thinks (as I do) that this is not what makes cheating wrong; it's wrong in and of itself rather than as a result of whether it causes unhappiness.

Yes, that's exactly how I feel. Which is why I started having serious problems with utilitarianism after I came to this realization.

Vaniver wrote:Any moral system which tells you that you can lie to other people about deeply important things, and it's okay because they won't know about it, is a profoundly weak moral system.

This is also how I feel.

The reason I wanted to make all the assumptions I made in the OP was not that I thought they were very plausible (they're not) and not that I wanted to use utilitarianism to justify cheating (I don't). Rather, what I suppose I'm getting at is that on the basis of this hypothetical, utilitarianism seems to me to be a bad ethical philosophy, because it seems to give the wrong conclusion in this hypothetical scenario, saying that cheating in moral when in fact I believe it isn't. I would really prefer to focus on this question rather than continuing to discuss the plausibility of the assumptions; I'm more interested in discussing the theory of ethics than its practical application, since it is the theory that is giving me troubles. I think thc's suggestion in the previous post was a good one: rather than continue to discuss the cheating hypothetical, it might better focus the discussion to think about the more abstract question,
thc wrote:Is it unethical to abuse someone's trust if that person will never find out?


As I said before, I'm completely uneducated in ethical philosophy, and I'm sure that I'm not the first person to come up with this objection. So I'm not about to come right out and say, "Utilitarianism is a bad philosophy of ethics." Rather, I'm more interested in learning how people who subscribe to utilitarianism deal with this objection, and what alternative theories are out there which may be superior.

The two responses that I can think of to my objection tend to be of the following forms:

Response A: Utilitarianism is flawed, and this hypothetical points out one of the flaws. (A better philosophy would be...)

Response B: The belief that cheating is always wrong is flawed. Utilitarianism is valid, and therefore the conclusion is that cheating can be justified in the right circumstances.

I suppose there's also a possibility of a response C: utilitarianism is valid, but I'm using it incorrectly somehow and therefore the conclusion I'm coming to by applying it is not the conclusion I should be coming to. However, I would tend to discount this since I'm pretty sure that (under the assumptions I gave), utilitarianism really does come to the conclusion that cheating can be justified, as I explained in the OP. And of course I also can't rule out the possibly of responses D-Z, although I'm not sure what they might be.

My instinct is to reject response B in favor of response A, although I'm not sure what to put after the ellipsis. However, to be perfectly honest, I can't really justify the conclusion that cheating is always wrong, even though I strongly feel that that is the right conclusion. So I don't really have a strong argument against response B, other than gut instinct.)
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Vaniver » Sat Jun 12, 2010 6:22 am UTC

Rather, what I suppose I'm getting at is that on the basis of this hypothetical, utilitarianism seems to me to be a bad ethical philosophy, because it seems to give the wrong conclusion in this hypothetical scenario, saying that cheating in moral when in fact I believe it isn't.
To expand on my earlier post: I'm not sure it's right to call utilitarianism an ethical system. Ethics is primary focused on personal behavior- utilitarianism is a methodology useful for measuring end products. Utilitarianism can't tell you that you should be an honest person: what it can do is evaluate whether honesty is better than dishonesty in any particular situation.

Think about the concept of responsibility- if your job includes double-checking the numbers on every design you make, it would be irresponsible to not do that for a design, even if the design will not actually be used for anything (and thus, under a utilitarian measurement, double-checking is actually a negative act since it costs you but has no real benefit).

Alternatively, utilitarianism is useful but requires an input you weren't considering. Rather than just measuring satisfaction or some other variable, you also have to include moral costs to you- while your partner might never know about or be hurt by your cheating, you will be, making it an overall negative act. This seems like a weak response at best- those moral costs are what we turn to ethical systems for, and if utilitarianism can't produce them, why turn to it?
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Hedonic Treader » Sat Jun 12, 2010 8:55 am UTC

Vaniver, you treat utilitarianism as a quantitative metric for observer-based value maximization, but if we're talking about the ethical framework originating from Bentham's work, it doesn't constitute an observer-based goal system - it cares about the well-being of the many rather than the well-being of the decision-maker.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Sat Jun 12, 2010 12:27 pm UTC

If Utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number then for cheating to be acceptable you would have to show that as a behavior it provides a greater good or greater happiness. Since cheating is a selfish behavior I find it difficult to state a condition where it serves a possible positive purpose.

If on the other hand if any behavior is moral if there are no negative outcomes then for your scenario to be plausible it must identify all negative outcomes. The initial conditions that you set up seek to isolate the behavior from its consequences assume they the only negative outcomes and that the the absence of the outcomes would imply the behavior was moral. However the behavior is actually lying, the manifestation of the lie is cheating. So measure your assumptions against that.

The problem lies in ambiguity. Since there is no possibility of giving a precise, unambiguous definition of Utilitarianism, then it is possible manipulate the definition to assure the outcome you desire or to define an outcome which disagrees with your definition. However any philosophy complex enough to provide guidance in a complex environment is subject to manipulation this way. At some point in time you have to rely on the internalized conception of your philosophy to deal with the ambiguity. Therefore if you feel it's wrong, then it's wrong. Adjust your definition. Or dump it. Just realize that where your going is no different than where you've been.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby skeptical scientist » Sat Jun 12, 2010 1:37 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:The problem lies in ambiguity. Since there is no possibility of giving a precise, unambiguous definition of Utilitarianism, then it is possible manipulate the definition to assure the outcome you desire or to define an outcome which disagrees with your definition.

I don't think this is true at all. It's not that classifying cheating as moral is the outcome I desire—in fact, the opposite is true: I am being led by utilitarianism to the conclusion that it is okay to abuse trust if the victim will never find out, despite my better judgment. And yet I can't find a flaw in my reasoning. This is leading me to mistrust my axioms, in particular the axiom that if every individual is subjectively (from their own point of view) no worse off as the result of a behavior, then that behavior is ethically justified.

However any philosophy complex enough to provide guidance in a complex environment is subject to manipulation this way. At some point in time you have to rely on the internalized conception of your philosophy to deal with the ambiguity. Therefore if you feel it's wrong, then it's wrong. Adjust your definition. Or dump it. Just realize that where your going is no different than where you've been.

Well, now you seem to be telling me that any reasonable philosophy of ethics is simply untenable, and I'm better off just going with my gut. As philosophies go, that seems to me to be a pretty poor one—my gut has, over the years, given me some very bad advice, and I generally prefer to trust my brain over my breakfast.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Sat Jun 12, 2010 2:53 pm UTC

Ambiguity is a function of the language not the philosophy. The problem is one of information. Language represents incomplete information. English has a poor signal to noise ratio because of ambiguity of meaning(I don't believe any language is much better). How do you state the philosophy in an unambiguous manner? This is true of all philosophies because it is true of the language. A mathematician faces a similar problem when talking about the outcome of calculations. The calculations can be no more precise the the numbers used to make the calculation. Thus inexperienced people who use calculators don't always realize that because the calculator give you ten digits to the right of the decimal point, that is not the same as ten digits of precision. In the absence of unambiguous information the best method for finding a solution is using context , thus if it feels wrong you should not do it. The does not imply that you will always come to the "correct" conclusion. It just means that sometimes you have to guess. This is often a problem for leaders. Good leaders make decisions, because they have to, not because they are sure they are right.

Edit:

I decided to clarify, I don't speak to the idea of justification, rather it's about interpretation. Because of ambiguity you may well be judging the behavior based on an erroneous understanding of what your philosophy asks of you. If language was unambiguous then the question would never arise.

Edit 2: Corrected spelling
Last edited by morriswalters on Mon Jun 14, 2010 1:42 pm UTC, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Vaniver » Sat Jun 12, 2010 3:44 pm UTC

Hedonic Treader wrote:Vaniver, you treat utilitarianism as a quantitative metric for observer-based value maximization, but if we're talking about the ethical framework originating from Bentham's work, it doesn't constitute an observer-based goal system - it cares about the well-being of the many rather than the well-being of the decision-maker.
I'm assuming an equal weighting for everyone, not only weighting the decision-maker's utility. The specific cases we're talking about are edge cases where the action "doesn't matter"- that is, it's an irresponsible action which doesn't harm anyone. Under utilitarianism, the end product is what matters; under other ethical systems, the actions are what matter.

morriswalters wrote:Since cheating is a selfish behavior I find it difficult to state a condition where it serves a possible positive purpose.
Can't selfish behaviors make you happier?
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Sat Jun 12, 2010 3:54 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
Hedonic Treader wrote:Vaniver, you treat utilitarianism as a quantitative metric for observer-based value maximization, but if we're talking about the ethical framework originating from Bentham's work, it doesn't constitute an observer-based goal system - it cares about the well-being of the many rather than the well-being of the decision-maker.
I'm assuming an equal weighting for everyone, not only weighting the decision-maker's utility. The specific cases we're talking about are edge cases where the action "doesn't matter"- that is, it's an irresponsible action which doesn't harm anyone. Under utilitarianism, the end product is what matters; under other ethical systems, the actions are what matter.


Isn't that the debate between deontology and consequentialism(of which there are more forms of than just utilitarianism)? Clearly this hasn't been resolved either way yet, and philosophers will probably continue to debate it for centuries to come.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby guenther » Sat Jun 12, 2010 4:22 pm UTC

thc wrote:Furthermore, it seems to me that "rules" are sort of like memes in that they go through selection and evolve. Rules which have the biggest benefit to society (e.g. utility) propagate, while rules that are terrible die out. So ultimately, if you accept this line of reasoning, you're still forced to conclude that ethics are essentially utilitarian anyway.

I definitely feel we have every reason to believe that there's a natural selection process for morality. In the big picture it works off of utility, and I spent a long time relating that to religion in the Utility of Religion thread.

But I see a few problems with trying to tap into this utility metric to help make better day-to-day decisions. (By the way, I don't have citations for this stuff, I'm just making what I feel are reasonable assertions.)

1) The system that shapes our morals is very complicated, and it operates with a very long time constant. I suspect that reshaping our morals based on analysis of the system would be about as hard as reshaping our climate (which I think draws an interesting parallel between conservatives and conservationists).

2) Morality benefits from a belief in truth. We often try to convince people in the rightness of something, not the usefulness. So it might be hard to sell morals overtly derived from utility.

3) Metrics are purely subjective, which means we are free to choose any we want. And with that freedom, people will be unable to overcome their own biases when they select which metrics are the best to use. People will raise to a high importance the ideals that are intuitively easy for them, and they'll discount the importance of ideals that come hard. Or people will agree on an ideal, but will reject applications of that ideal when the outcome is undesirable (e.g. fairness).

skeptical scientist wrote:It's not that classifying cheating as moral is the outcome I desire—in fact, the opposite is true

What if that was the outcome you desired? The application of utilitarianism is so poorly defined that it's not hard to shape the outcome to match what we want, even unintentionally. People in an unhappy marriage will give different answers on cheating than people in a happy marriage. And those will be completely different from people who've never been in a long-term committed relationship. So what's the right answer if different people can't agree? Science says the right one is the one that matches objective measurement, but here the truth is poorly defined.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Sat Jun 12, 2010 7:15 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
morriswalters wrote:Since cheating is a selfish behavior I find it difficult to state a condition where it serves a possible positive purpose.
Can't selfish behaviors make you happier?


Which interpretation are we talking about. The greatest good for the greatest number or if I don't get caught it didn't happen? I'll stand on either bank and make either argument. My ability to use english is sufficient to the task.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Sat Jun 12, 2010 8:48 pm UTC

Skeptical wrote:Well, now you seem to be telling me that any reasonable philosophy of ethics is simply untenable, and I'm better off just going with my gut. As philosophies go, that seems to me to be a pretty poor one—my gut has, over the years, given me some very bad advice, and I generally prefer to trust my brain over my breakfast.

Not as poor as you might think: there is one meta-ethical school of thought (emotivism) that says (paraphrasing wikipedia), ethical statements are not propositional (e.g., don't convey truth or non-truth), but convey emotional attitudes. In other words a statement like "cheating is wrong" actually means "Boo! Cheating :("

From this perspective, I think you can make a strong case for deontological ethics where the "rules" manifest as instinctual emotions. Going back to guenther's post, rules undergo natural selection and so the internal rule giving rise to your instinctual, emotional response (that cheating is wrong), exists within you because it has proven beneficial to society.

Going further, while deontological ethics may not be 100% game theory optimal (contrasted to perfect utilitarianism), we all know perfection doesn't happen in real life. And so I think the true point guenther and others are making against utilitarianism is that it is impossible to separate theory from practice, for all the reasons given, and that deontological ethics errs on the side of caution. Corollary: if everyone abandoned deontological ethics and applied game theory to cheating, the world would definitely be worse off - if that were not the case, the propagation of the internal rule would not be beneficial to society and so would not exist. In other words to apply a utilitarian argument to your own particular case of cheating, where your internal rule strongly states the opposite conclusion, is to abandon 2000 years of natural selection and assume you can remain logical in the case of extreme bias, when clearly, most people would fail miserably at it; a sort of arrogance.

Anyway that's my resolution, at least at current. Yes: under perfect theoretical conditions, cheating is sometimes ethical. From the perspective of normative ethics, I have a strong feeling that this conclusion is ultimately inevitable no matter which school of thought you choose (both consequentalism, obviously, but also deontological ethics, in admitting that the rules are not completely optimal). That is from an abstract descriptive perspective. But it is not contradictory to say, as far as a prescriptive tool, it is beneficial to society if you just assumed cheating is always wrong.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Mon Jun 14, 2010 5:36 pm UTC

thc wrote:That's the point. In prisoner's dilemma it doesn't matter the other prisoners do. Regardless of whether other people defect (cheat), you will be better off defecting than not defecting - even if everyone would be better off NOT defecting. So no, it wouldn't change the optimal solution.

But without trust, what's the utility of marriage in the first place?

Utilitarians might be better off never marrying in the first place for that reason, for instance.

It would be fairly significant if the answer to, "Is it good for a utilitarian to cheat?" is "Utilitarians don't get married".
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Mon Jun 14, 2010 10:34 pm UTC

The problem with any ethical system or any proposition is that it's intended meaning is best understood by the person who develops it. The problem is in trying to explain a complex idea using a mechanism with a poor signal to noise ratio. Mathematics has good signal to noise ratio because 1+1=2 is unambiguous. However language is not. In real time you would use context to resolve this. Any ethical system of behavior that was ever devised came into being in the context of the person who thought it up. Without that context it is impossible to fully understand it. Instead what happens is that the text of the Philosophy is interpreted in your own context. For instance the Wikipedia article on the subject says that Utilitarianism can be described as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, then says that it is a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. This definition is ambiguous. Which is it? And there is no way to make it less so.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Mon Jun 14, 2010 10:56 pm UTC

Its not ambiguous, its both. The moral worth is evaluated by finding outcome, and the best outcome is that which yields the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Last edited by Dark567 on Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:16 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Mon Jun 14, 2010 11:41 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
thc wrote:That's the point. In prisoner's dilemma it doesn't matter the other prisoners do. Regardless of whether other people defect (cheat), you will be better off defecting than not defecting - even if everyone would be better off NOT defecting. So no, it wouldn't change the optimal solution.

But without trust, what's the utility of marriage in the first place?

Utilitarians might be better off never marrying in the first place for that reason, for instance.

It would be fairly significant if the answer to, "Is it good for a utilitarian to cheat?" is "Utilitarians don't get married".

Well, you still have trust, because no one is game theory rational, when it comes to real life.

As an aside, I don't really think prisoner's dilemma is all that relevant. The scenario is from the perspective of trying to maximize personal utility, whereas utilitarianism is trying to maximize society's utility.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Vaniver » Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:07 am UTC

Indon wrote:But without trust, what's the utility of marriage in the first place?

Utilitarians might be better off never marrying in the first place for that reason, for instance.

It would be fairly significant if the answer to, "Is it good for a utilitarian to cheat?" is "Utilitarians don't get married".
Eh, I'm not sure it goes that way. Marriage can clearly increase the utility of everyone involved, and the problem with expanding prisoner's dilemmas to life is that you repeat the decision, and can choose to change partners.

morriswalters wrote:For instance the Wikipedia article on the subject says that Utilitarianism can be described as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, then says that it is a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. This definition is ambiguous. Which is it? And there is no way to make it less so.
Those two are consistent. Utilitarianism is consequentialist because it measures consequences, and the way it does so is by looking for the consequence that provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. That is, what Dark567 said.

The main ambiguities come in with "how do you add 'good' between people?"
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:25 am UTC

Then I state a question. What if I detonate a bomb in a crowd and I do it without being caught or suspected? There are then no consequences for me but neither is there a greater good served. So who's consequences have primacy? If you say the individual, then the concept of the greater good is meaningless. If society, then the outcome for the individual is meaningless. Therein lies the ambiguity. And more language makes it worse not better.
I now argue that for the OP that for his original question there are at least two valid but contrary arguments.

In the first case you argue that he removes trust from the group and therefore has reduced something that is valuable to the group. The loss to the group is not known to them but they will act based their assumption that it is there. Therefore they will trust him even though he is not trustworthy.

In the second case I argue that because that there is no possibility of exposure, and since I am otherwise trustworthy, that the greater good is not harmed.

Each argument is equally valid if you accept the modifier, which is a secondary judgment you must make irregardless, is he/she trustworthy, which is implicit, but unspoken. Then how you answer the question of trust has to be an emotional decision since there is not enough data. Again ambiguity and context.

Edited for spelling
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Last edited by morriswalters on Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:53 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:29 am UTC

Again there isn't ambiguity there. Utilitarianism says the greatest good for the greatest number. Individuals don't matter.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:49 am UTC

I have decided to slink off to my doghouse since any response I could make would be pettifogging. :oops:

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Tue Jun 15, 2010 12:55 pm UTC

thc wrote:Well, you still have trust, because no one is game theory rational, when it comes to real life.

Well, does utilitarianism require game theory rationality? And does this problem still exist if we're dealing with people who aren't game theory rational?

Vaniver wrote:Eh, I'm not sure it goes that way. Marriage can clearly increase the utility of everyone involved, and the problem with expanding prisoner's dilemmas to life is that you repeat the decision, and can choose to change partners.

Well, the options aren't necessarily between "marriage" and "nothing". A marriage-like social construct that accomadates for utilitarian exceptions might be optimal.

I suppose a close approximation in our culture of such an example would be... friends with benefits, tax and otherwise - i.e. it might be moot to cheat on a utilitarian because they would understand a situation in which it would be optimal and, pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, permit you to go bang someone else.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Tue Jun 15, 2010 11:40 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
thc wrote:Well, you still have trust, because no one is game theory rational, when it comes to real life.

Well, does utilitarianism require game theory rationality? And does this problem still exist if we're dealing with people who aren't game theory rational?

I think you are confusing terms. A utilitarian is NOT game-theory rational.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Wed Jun 16, 2010 12:42 pm UTC

thc wrote:I think you are confusing terms. A utilitarian is NOT game-theory rational.


Oh, they could be, they'd just have a different objective to their rational behavior - optimizing group utility rather than an individual metric.

Rationality is an approach to behavior, not an objective. Rational =/= Exclusively Self-Interested.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby thc » Wed Jun 16, 2010 7:48 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
thc wrote:I think you are confusing terms. A utilitarian is NOT game-theory rational.


Oh, they could be, they'd just have a different objective to their rational behavior - optimizing group utility rather than an individual metric.

Rationality is an approach to behavior, not an objective. Rational =/= Exclusively Self-Interested.

Indon, if they are maximizing their personal utility, then that is no longer utilitarianism. There is another term for it called ethical egoism*, which states that rational self-interest is ethical.

I suppose you're right that the definition of rational is not exclusively self-interested, but game-theory rational is self-interested. And it's usually meant such when talking about things related to objectivism and Ayn Rand (which prisoner's dilemma is). I think the distinction is pretty clear. In prisoner's dilemma, a game-theory rational person will always defect since he is trying to minimize his own prison sentence. A utilitarian will always collude, since he is trying to minimize the group's prison sentence (and colluding is weakly dominant).

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_egoism


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