Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tinkerbell Ethics Part I

This is the third post in a series exploring the moral and practical importance of pleasure and meaning; the first is Enhanced Running, the second is The Pleasure You Have Been Denied.

Her wings would scarcely carry her now, but in reply she alighted on his shoulder and gave his nose a loving bite. She whispered in his ear "You silly ass," and then, tottering to her chamber, lay down on the bed.

His head almost filled the fourth wall of her little room as he knelt near her in distress. Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more. She liked his tears so much that she put out her beautiful finger and let them run over it.

Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.

Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.

"Do you believe?" he cried.

Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.

She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn't sure.

"What do you think?" she asked Peter.

"If you believe," he shouted to them, "clap your hands; don't let Tink die."

Many clapped.

Some didn't.

A few beasts hissed.

J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, 1911

1. Peter Singer's Drowning Child

You walk past a shallow pond on your way to work, and notice a child drowning in the pond. You could easily rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but you'd get your clothes muddy. Do you have a moral duty to rescue the child?

Peter Singer reports that his students unanimously think there is such a duty - muddy clothes are no excuse to fail to rescue the child. Indeed, few argue that there is not such a duty. Perhaps more importantly, even those who argue that there is not such a duty (as I will, in part, do) would not hesitate for a second to rescue the child if faced with the situation in real life, and would harshly judge others who failed to do so. As Sharon Olds puts it, "Don't speak to me about/politics. I've got eyes, man."

"Having eyes," in Olds' words, is equivalent to being aware of, and moved by, the immediate, serious consequences of our actions. We are moved by pity for the child, for whom we presume continued existence would be a good thing and for whom drowning would be undoubtedly painful, and by pity for its family, which we presume exists. We are very moved by the near suffering of near others. We can't get around it.

The drowning child is an artificial situation in this way: one can take a single action and permanently improve the conditions for another. As I will argue, this is rarely the case in actual ethical dilemmas faced by people.

A consequentialist objection to saving a drowning child is that everyone will assume you're the lifeguard from now on, and adjust parenting accordingly.

2. Risk Compensation and Other Remote Causes

Do improved automobile safety features save lives? Not necessarily. Keeping all variables constant, a safety measure (such as anti-lock brakes) will reduce risk.

But the problem with reality is its tendency to respond to changes, rather than staying tractably constant. Risk compensation refers to the observed tendency of people to adjust their behavior toward more risk-taking when they perceive a reduction of risk - such as when a safety feature is salient. A number of studies have demonstrated that anti-lock brakes, for instance, do not decrease fatalities, because drivers adjust their driving styles toward more risk-taking behaviors.

Behavioral adaptation in the form of risk compensation is an example of an opponent process. The proximate effect of introducing a safety feature (or, really, doing anything to improve someone's life) is the near, tangible improvement; the more remote effect, entirely predictable, is that the effected folks will respond to the feature or improvement, often in perverse ways.

The risk compensation treadmill is a similar opponent process to the hedonic treadmill, otherwise known as adaptation level theory. Brickman et al. in 1978 found that lottery winners were no happier a year after winning the lottery than non-winners, and took less pleasure in "mundane events." As Baumeister et al. put it in the paper "Bad is Stronger than Good" (2000), "The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners' happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, perhaps, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures."

It feels nice to help people, but when we consider the long-term and not just immediate effects of our help, the seemingly innocent idea of help becomes much murkier.

This focus on remote, but foreseeable, consequences is not so far removed from common sense. Once I fed a kielbasa to a hungry coyote that was wandering around my neighborhood. This certainly pleased the coyote, but most moderns agree on a strict policy of non-interference when it comes to wild animals. When chiding me for this action (as I chided myself), you might point out that the kielbasa might encourage the coyote to come back for more, putting its life at greater risk; that the coyote would be less motivated to seek more species-appropriate food, like insects and opossums; that the gift of calories might translate into more baby coyotes, putting even more pressure on wild resources; etc. We take this policy so seriously that when camping in the Sierras, we not only avoid intentionally feeding bears, but hide our food away in bear hangs or bear vaults - not for our own direct safety, but to protect the bears from our food that they very much would like to sample. "A fed bear is a dead bear," we say - bears who get a taste for human food tend to pursue it vigorously, and hence to interact with humans in a way that makes humans feel entitled to shoot them.

The "fed bear is a dead bear" slogan's very existence is evidence that we need to be reminded of far consequences, which without such mnemonics are generally overwhelmed by near feelings. This is nowhere more true than with humans as both near and far victims of our decisions.

3. Treadmill World

The treadmill nature of the world has important consequences for morality. Generally, we want to help, and not hurt, others. If the hedonic treadmill means that our temporary help won't have much long-term effect on happiness and might even be damaging, doesn't that also mean that hurting people won't have much long-term effect, or might be helpful?

The "hedonic treadmill" is often misrepresented as being symmetric for good and bad events, but as demonstrated by the Brickman research on accident victims and lottery winners, it is not. We recover from bad events much more slowly and less completely than from good events. From the Baumeister 2000 paper:

In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate, Brickman et al. (1978) found. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the "nostalgia effect" (p. 921). [Emphasis mine.]

Singer presents a moving example of a victim of the hedonic treadmill in the body of the drowning child essay:

Consider the life of Ivan Boesky, the multimillionaire Wall Street dealer who in 1986 pleaded guilty to insider trading. Why did Boesky get involved in criminal activities when he already had more money than he could ever spend? Six years after the insider-trading scandal broke, Boesky’s estranged wife Seema spoke about her husband’s motives in an interview with Barbara Walters for the American ABC Network’s 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Boesky was a man who craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that when in 1982 Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he disliked the publicity and made some remark to that effect. Boesky replied: ‘That’s not what’s upsetting me. We’re no-one. We’re nowhere. We’re at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won’t shame you like that again. We will not remain at the bottom of that list.’

What Boesky discovers is yet another treadmill: the treadmill of social status. Rising in status means changing comparison groups; we are wired to care about our position within the group we interact with, not about our absolute position among humans on Earth.

Singer imagines we could stop caring so much about the competitive side of comparative welfare and care more about the welfare of others: "Not only does it fail to bring happiness even to those who, like Boesky, do extraordinarily well in the competitive struggle; it also sets a social standard that is a recipe for global injustice and environmental disaster," he says. "We cannot continue to see our goal as acquiring more and more wealth, or as consuming more and more goodies, and leaving behind us an even larger heap of waste."

The main problem with this (aside from the problem of altering basic human nature, which I'm sure will prove quite simple to do) is that it offloads one's own narrative, self-interested conception of the Meaning Of Life onto the meaning-sense of those we would help.

But if our own native meaning-sense is suspect, what about the meaning-sense of other human beings?

4. One Fewer Meaning

I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Stephen F. Roberts

What is consistent among institutions that have been passed down for many generations is that they all assign life-justifying meaning to specific stories, beliefs, or struggles. The Christian is certain that his God is the true God, and that he is on the right side of his religion's struggles, whether against atheists, Muslims, or fellow Christians of rival sects. It is to this worldview that he runs when he is reminded that he is mortal; his connection with eternal things is what makes him able to psychologically handle the knowledge that he will die.

Every tribe (however broadly defined) stands for a separate worldview, a separate story of eternal connection and meaning, and each member of a tribe imagines victory (perhaps posthumous) over his tribe's enemies. This is a very conservative, even provincial, worldview; it has the drawback of being false in each individual case. Each tribe member believes in his own tribe's story of meaning, to the exclusion of others.

Unfortunately, the pluralistic response to meaning (what I take Singer to be offering, and what I also take liberalism broadly to be offering) is no more true than each conservative, tribal worldview.

Liberalism imagines that all the meaning-stories can be true, at least for each believer; this is its own kind of meaning story. But the pluralistic idea that all meaning-stories can be true includes an implicit recognition that none of the stories have much truth value, at least in the objective sense.


  1. It is demonstrably easier to lower any given person's happiness set point than to increase it. It may even be close to impossible to increase it for most people. What I don't understand is HOW on EARTH this could be the case. If it's better for genetic fitness to be unhappy than happy (as the set point inertia shows, see previous sentences), why don't humans just start out at the lowest possible happiness set p-


    1. Hahahaha, I like this one. This is probably why drugs work so well - we can be way happier than we are now, but simply aren't because happiness in some way might decrease genetic fitness. I think this could be because we tend to get too content to do anything to make us more likely to pass on our genes (if we are unhappy, we are driven to do things to make us less unhappy - which may lead to more children (more sex) or better conditions for children to be raised in, and so our genes make us their slaves once again.)

  2. "Liberalism imagines that all the meaning-stories can be true, at least for each believer; this is its own kind of meaning story. But the pluralistic idea that all meaning-stories can be true includes an implicit recognition that none of the stories have much truth value, at least in the objective sense."

    Somewhat off the point of the post, but this puts me in mind of John Gray's criticism of Isaiah Berlin's value-pluralism form of Liberalism. If all values are contingent, and some non-compossible, then liberalism itself is just one more contingent, non-objective form of value and belief.

  3. You caution against the possible, vague, hypothetical unintended consequences of saving a child---who would otherwise live to middle age with high probability---from disease, but you bemoan that we do not consider giving the Ecstasy pill over the peanut?

    1. I don't go around feeding ecstasy to strangers, in part because I think they have the right to refuse it. What I'm pushing in that article is the very real fact that in ordinary decisions affecting strangers, we DON'T consider their pleasure, only their possible pain - it's only when we shift to the question of birth that pleasure is suddenly relevant, more relevant than pain, even.

      I don't actually think it's wrong to rescue a drowning child (unless it's me <3). I simply think it's a morally ambiguous exercise.

    2. Sister Y, the "unless it's me" part is hard for me to understand. What is your real reason not to kill yourself? For me, it's partially that I don't have a 100% reliable suicide method, but with some research and preparation, I'd say I've accomplished a maybe 90% reliable painless method. If I really hated my life, that would certainly be worth a shot. I woke up today, asked myself, "Do I want to live today?" and the answer was yes. So I made coffee instead of killing myself.

      It is inconceivable to me that I would hope for someone else to kill me, or to fail to save me while I'm drowning. This would only make sense if I thought that my suicide, as compared to my death in general, would affect friends and family so much worse that I hope for death but at the same time don't try my very best to cause it. I think this is false, and even if it were true, I wouldn't be that kind of altruist.

      Another reason may be that you have some kind of psychological barrier that prevents you from trying suicide, but at least for me, I can't relate to it that much. It's clearly there, but not insurmountable. Or are you so afraid of hospitalization in a mental health facility if you survive in the 5-10% probability outcome?

      We have cached beliefs about ourselfs on a cognitive level, and they may sometimes be outdated in relation to the actual distribution of our affective experiences. If you wake up, day after day, and the answer to the question "Do I want to live this day?" is mostly yes, there's no reason to keep the cognitive belief you'd be better off drowning. If that's not the case, at some point, you'd be better off figuring out exactly what it is that keeps you from re-approaching suicide as a very practical problem-solving mechanism.

    3. "Unless it's me" is mostly about me as a child - my life would have gone much better if I had died as a fetus, infant, child, teenager, or young adult. If I could go back in time and strangle my three-year-old self to death, I would. I have been "rescued" from death multiple times, and have narrowly avoided it many more - I look on these incidents with regret, and wish I had died.

      It is more difficult to choose to die oneself, with no help (as the law requires), than to die from outside causes. I am offended that I am still required to have cancer screenings in order to get birth control, when I actively hope I do get cancer. I have written about this in response to J. David Velleman's argument against the right to die - Velleman thinks people should be able to live without choosing specifically to live, hence no right to assisted suicide. I think I should be able to not exist without choosing explicitly to not exist - it's a huge burden to have to acquire and eat poison, shoot oneself in the head, etc.

      I am very afraid of another hospitalization/imprisonment.

      There has not been a single day when I have said, "I want to live," in the eight years since my forced hospitalization and "rescue." But it's hard for a large animal to die. Somebody finally sent Chantal Sebire the necessary barbiturates; no one has been so kind to me.

    4. I see. Thanks for the explanation. May you successfully palliate yourself, then. :)

  4. Sister Y, I'm sure you've read Benatar's "No Life Is Good". There he says that a road accident could take just split-second and ruin you for life. He also says that by quickly turning your step, you can AVOID a road accident in a split second -- but the GAIN IS NOT PERMANENT: maybe even a few minutes later, you will again be faced with the possibility of another accident.

    It's just an imagination that saving a drowning child will "permanently improve the conditions". For all we know, the child might fall down a flight of stairs the very next day.

    Ultimately, death will happen, and we are saving someone from may not be the worst way to die.

    1. Yes! I frequently see "saving a life" used as an example of the Ultimate Good, but (a) I don't think it is as well-defined as people think, and (b) once you carefully define it, it's not clear that it's so great.

      If lots of people die young from disease, and you cure the disease, you get lots of humanitarian cred for "saving lives" - but saving them for what? So they can die a little later of something else? If we focus on saving lives simpliciter, this is likely to lead to focusing on folks who die of something easy to cure (hence have sad lives). "Saving a life" is really "shifting a death." That's not necessarily a great thing.

    2. Yes, but you seem to be forgetting Benatar's distinction between lives worth starting and lives worth continuing. Those children who died young had interests in continuing to live. "Shifting a death" may only be delaying the inevitable, but in that extra they may have experienced pleasure and so on. We also apply the same rule to ourselves at every moment we choose not to commit suicide. We are "shifting our own deaths" further along the timeline in the hope of experiencing more pleasure before we're shown the door. If we choose that for ourselves, then we have no right to deny it to others.

  5. Srikant, it seems highly counter-intuitive that we should let someone drown/burn/be shot merely because there may be worse for them ahead down the road. The no-harm principle in such a scenario would demand we save the person in distress. I don't think we're likely to do a rational calculation in such circumstances and nor do we possess any data that would allow us to speculate about that person's future in anything but the most general sense (ie one day they will inevitably die).

    1. True, Karl, but like Sister Y said, the "Ultimate Good" label for saving a life is overrated. In many works of fiction, Harry Potter immediately comes to mind, it seems to make you some sort of an angel, and lets you do anything after that ... whatever.

      In this respect, we can say that if this pill becomes available, saving a person from other (non-voluntary and painful) causes of death will be much more truly -- and universally -- valuable.

    2. True, Srikant, but as I said above, I'm not talking about an "ultimate good", merely the fact that we have no right to deny others their continued interest in living if a hypothetical life-saving scenario arises. Such a refusal also sounds highly counter-intuitive. Imagine being trapped on the top floor of a burning building and the person below with a ladder shouts up "I'm not going to rescue you because I believe there's a possibility a worse fate may await you later in life":-)

    3. =)

      Reminds me of some anti-jokes (one of my favourite forms of humour).

  6. I read the whole entry waiting for your justification against the samaritan duty. But I didn't see it... Did you just drop the subject?

    1. Part I...promising a Part II!

      What do we mean when we talk about saving a life?

      Is saving a life good in itself? Can saving a life do more harm than refusing to save that life?

      Does "saving a life" always trump other interests? Does anything weigh against it?

      It's a complicated issue, yes?

    2. Also: I think our moral intuitions about life killing/life saving will end up being more about the (Jonathan Haidt) sacredness/purity foundation than about genuine concern for others. (It may be that harm/care is actually not a very good moral foundation in terms of how it is used by humans.)

      People seem disgusted when some identifiable person seems to have had a "last clear chance" to "save" the life of a suicide (e.g. the Facebook suicide in Taiwan) but failed to do so.

      I'm against animal suffering (four-legged or two-legged) and sympathize with vegetarians (I go back and forth, and my mom's a vegan), but I'm not at all sure that being vegetarian actually reduces suffering. It seems to me like voting - symbolic, keeping oneself pure, but of no real-world effect. It's a similar instinct toward poor workers in other countries: we are disgusted with how, say, Foxconn treats its workers - we don't want anyone in our moral universe treated that way. But of course sad jobs in Chinese factories are much coveted - better than the status quo before for the workers. Like vegetarians, we might boycott the "icky" factories - separating ourselves off from the system, keeping ourselves pure - but we don't thereby do anyone any good. "Either Western standard or nothing" is not what's best for workers, necessarily.

    3. Sister Y,

      I'm guessing you do 'keep yourself pure' as a philanthropic antinatalist, while the rest of the world continues to breed all the time.

      I think we should try to make a difference, however small it is (I'm sounding like some dumb 'charity' organization).

      Vegetarianism/veganism don't reduce slaughter alone. That wouldn't be a substantial good: Shadow has argued that in an old post (this very blog post deals 'saving lives' not being an Ultimate Good). It will reduce breeding of animals (for slaughter).

      If we manage it, staying away from the Corporate world will also set an example (if it's worth anything) for others.

    4. Srikant - yes! That's the scariest part! Keeping oneself pure by not having genetic offspring certainly doesn't guarantee even that there will be numerically fewer people in the future. My conviction that it is wrong is primarily concerned with the nearness of my own (never-to-exist) offspring - their genetic relation to me, their causal relation to me, perhaps their similarity in terms of mind, although that's speculative. I agree - it seems heavily motivated by moral concerns I usually dismiss as bullshit, such as purity and in-group loyalty, on the way to some personalized conception of harm/care and fairness/consent.

      Will fewer animals be bred because a single person decides to go veg? I'm not at all sure. A single vote doesn't count at all; I'm not sure a single vegetarian makes a real-world difference. Drop-in-the-bucket kind of thing. Removing one's demand for meat (or even all products of animal torture) might not even be as good a way to prevent animal torture than, say, buying meat from animals that aren't tortured too much.

      Is doing good only in the aggregate (kind of the way victimless crimes do harm) a genuine, important form of doing good?

      Is refusing to harm a particular victim oneself a genuine, important form of doing good?

      It may be that they are. But I think it is important to be cognizant that our moral foundations for actions we deem good might be sneakily tied to those nasty ones (sacredness, loyalty) that motivate those we deem to do evil.

  7. Be that as it may, we are eventually obliged to make a perosnal, existential decision based on the data we have and the our moral position. The "It doesn't matter what I do because it's just a drop-in-the-bucket" attitude easily becomes as a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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