Monday 27 January 2014

Seeming to Care

In Playing a Long Term Game, I wrote that sometimes people rage about their values to signal how much they care about them. But, I said, if they really cared, they would be able to summon up the presence of mind to use more effective strategies. Calling people murderers for eating meat sure makes it seem like you care about animal suffering. But if you really cared, you would try to frame your position in a way that it can actually persuade someone that doesn't already agree with you.

I think seeming to care is one of the reasons for the unpopularity of the word "utilitarianism." Utilitarianism just sounds like something cold and ruthless, where sacred things are exchanged for their weight in non-sacred things. In rejecting utilitarianism for whatever "more empathetic" ethical system you support, you seem to care about suffering, but if your chosen ethical system actually leads to more suffering, then you don't really care. You really care about something else (fairness, hanging on to your intuitions, feeling good about yourself, sacred values) but it isn't suffering.

"You would let 3 people get tortured in order to prevent 1000 rapes? How heartless of you to be quantifying and trivializing the value of human suffering!"

That sure makes you seem to care about human suffering. But if you really cared, you would support the option that, you know, actually reduces human suffering, rather than the option that makes you seem to care more.

1 comment:

  1. One hypothesis for these "uncompromising" stances that people take is that they help achieve the upper hand when bargaining. By being "unreasonable," you can sometimes force the other person to give in, just like throwing out your steering wheel in a game of chicken. So, for instance, claiming that meat is murder is like saying "I'm not going to let you only eat less meat; you must do everything I want."

    Of course, like in chicken, there can be disastrous consequences if the other side refuses to swerve. In practice it seems that being uncompromising leads other people to flip the bird and ignore you entirely. So the emotions are probably misfiring here.

    These emotions may also sometimes reflect norms that are rational from a long-term perspective. For instance, refusing to allow torture "for the greater good" can help guard against Big Brother gradually doing more and more torture for supposedly good purposes. The ends don't justify the means among humans.