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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Question for the Day

Are there beliefs about the world which are both evil (in the sense that it is evil to hold them) and accurate?

Posted by benrosen at June 24, 2009 05:30 PM | Up to blog

Do you mean an idea that is evil to hold like 'all [fill in the blank] are a useless drain on socitey and should be killed'?

I suspect accurate may be in the eyes of the beholder.

Posted by: Lisa at June 24, 2009 08:15 PM

Define evil? Define accurate?

I have recently learned, that it is at least unavoidable, that some "bad traits" exist in humanity (as in any species). It is not optimal having 100% greed, but it's not optimal if 0% are either. So, if say 5% are greedy, they will be "fit", and procreate, and greed will be in the next generation as well.

Posted by: Lise A at June 24, 2009 08:29 PM

In general, if someone considers a belief accurate, they don't consider it evil. For example, people who believe they've found evidence that blacks are innately intellectually inferior to whites usually think that this justifies discriminatory behavior.

Posted by: Ted at June 24, 2009 08:30 PM

The example that comes to mind is my question of whether misanthropy is morally wrong. If humans are made in the image of the Divine (however one wants to take that), it seems fundamentally wicked to hold the view that people are stupid, annoying and worthless troublemakers, either individually, in bunches, or globally. And yet...

I am at least somewhat serious. It does strike me that misanthropy is morally wrong in a way that has nothing to do with what people are like--a general grouchiness about people leads to more cruelty and misery, and that's bad (it seems to me) even if the grouchiness is based on accurate evidence.

There are other views that I can construct as encompassing wickedness and accuracy: it might be wicked to deny Bodily Resurrection in the endtime, even if by 'deny', you simply mean 'point out that it violates everything we know about the world'. It might, from one point of view, be wicked to hold the accurate belief that Noah and the Ark is a fiction, or that the Passion of Jesus is a fiction, or that the story of Siddartha is a fiction. I wouldn't call such a belief wicked, which might make them bad examples, or not, depending on what you were looking for. But it would be easy to imagine an internal spiritual/intellectual struggle on the evil/accurate issue. But personally, for me, I struggle with misanthropy vs. Image of the Divine.


Posted by: Vardibidian at June 24, 2009 09:18 PM

How about:

"All humans are inherently selfish. Altruism does not exist."

I remember studying Utilitarianism. Buh.

Posted by: Batshua at June 24, 2009 09:25 PM

Are there aspects of the world to which the only righteous response is willful blindness?

Posted by: David Moles at June 24, 2009 09:35 PM

Hm. I guess my way around "people are divine / people are annoying" is, that I believe, that people are as they should be - even if I don't get it. People are as God meant them to be. People are alwasy doing their best. Even if I can't see it. God has a plan, and he hasn't told me about it.

Posted by: Lise A at June 25, 2009 05:20 PM

What about believing that you are a) smarter than most other people, b) know what's good for them better than they do, and therefore c) should take whatever actions you feel are necessary for their greater good, lying or deceiving or otherwise manipulating them if necessary to achieve those goals?

Your initial beliefs may well be true, but lead to a fundamentally problematic position, I think. Immoral or evil, quite possibly.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at June 25, 2009 06:58 PM

Mary Anne, I think that if someone believed that, they wouldn't consider their actions evil. Other people might consider them evil, but they would disagree with the initial beliefs, too.

Posted by: Ted at June 25, 2009 07:48 PM

The way Ben put the question, I think it's fair to ask what a bystander thinks, or even to mix and match between the believer and a second party.

Specifically: it may be factually accurate that the world would be a better place if Ben ran it autocrat-style. Whether or not Ben believes in the factual accuracy or the morality of that proposition, it would remain accurate and, arguably, evil -- at least if acted upon, by Ben or anyone else.

This touches on at least one underlying question: are there beliefs about the world, accurate or not, which are evil merely to hold?

Posted by: Dan P at June 25, 2009 08:40 PM

If you can mix and match between people, then the question becomes trivial: virtually every belief you can name is considered true by someone, and evil by someone else. I think the question only becomes interesting if you're restricting the assessments to a single individual.

Posted by: Ted at June 25, 2009 08:48 PM

Ted, I dunno. Here's where I reveal my own arrogance, I suppose. I pretty much do believe that I know better than a lot of people what's good for them, and the only thing that stops me from acting on that belief is that I simultaneously believe that making such decisions for others is essentially immoral. So I stand by, and let them make bad decisions, and suffer for them. When I could have helped.

Some people would say that I don't bear a moral responsibility for their suffering, given that a higher-level morality is what's holding me back. But that seems like an easy out to me, a cheap answer.

I tend to think of it more as sometimes two goods come into conflict, and you have to choose the more important good, than the way Ben framed it. But I think it's the same question in the end.

(Ben, re: our earlier conversation, in some ways kingship does give you an out from this dilemma, since as king, the job requires that you choose the peoples' good, over their own will. But that's still an easy out in some sense -- to take that out, you need to accept the fundamental (immoral?) premise that kingship trumps individual free will. The only way I can see to really reconcile that is if the king must also bear the burden for the 'wrong' of abrogating her subjects' free choice. King as sin-eater, in some sense. No one said the job was easy.)

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at June 26, 2009 12:31 AM

Mary Anne, in the terms set up in your previous comment, it sounds like you believe in a and in b, but you don't actually believe in c, because you don't act. So I'd say you consider c to be inaccurate and hence immoral/evil.

Posted by: Ted at June 26, 2009 03:34 AM

My short answer is "no." Long answer follows:

One's definition of "evil" depends on what one believes the goal of morality is, or so it would seem to me. I tend to believe pretty strongly that:

1) To the extent that humans are animals, the goal of morality depends on conditioning; consequently, time and culture determine "evil" to a very great degree. Ritual cannibalism might seem pretty evil, unless you believe it is necessary to keep the world alive, as the Aztecs seem to have (at least given some understandings of Aztecs).

2) To the extent that humans are spiritual beings inhabiting temporary physical shells, evil in one life may not be the same as evil in the next, and a great deal of what determines that depends on the form of the physical shell, as well as what karma is keeping the spirit away from oneness with Brahma. Your mileage may vary. Choose your own adventure.


Posted by: Matt at June 26, 2009 05:22 AM

Ted is right, I think, that the trivial case is uninteresting: A holds a belief, B finds it evil: yawn. The more interesting case is, can A both hold belief P, and also hold belief Q "it is evil to believe P"?

I think it is clearly possible to consistently hold both P and Q in principle. It is not however possible to consistently hold P, Q, and R where R is something like "it is never immoral to hold a true belief", or "the moral life requires a correct and unbiased assessment of the truth", or "the truth will set you free", or something like that.

Now, R is a common, or popular, belief. It's sort of the bedrock of liberal (in the European or 18th c. sense of "liberal"), rationalist ethics, the kind of thing that had people come up with freedom of the press and speech. However, I don't think it's a universally held truth. There are both traditionally conservative and postmodern framings of the question which cast doubt on R, and in addition, I expect there are more people who believe they believe R, than who really believe R if we would judge their "real beliefs" by working backwards from their actions, or even from a close examination of their actual phenomenological experience.

So: there may be a class of beliefs which are true, but lead to evil actions. (Again, we're holding the beholder constant here, or else this is nontrivial.)

It may be the case, for instance, that Zaphod believes suicide to be evil, and yet Zaphod believes the fact of the matter to be that life is unendurably bleak: in this case, for instance, as Moles suggests, perhaps the correct moral action is for Zaphod to attempt to willingly deceive himself about the nature of life. If you react to this in revulsion, then you probably strongly hold some version of R, such that the importance of truth to a moral life means that the harm of willful self-deception outweighs even the strongest value you can imagine Zaphod placing on his own life-despite-its-unendurable-bleakness.

Then, too, the humanist/rationalist commitment to R tends to rest on a confidence in human beings as total logic engines, capable of a sufficiently full understanding of the world, of holding consistent beliefs, and of acting according to these beliefs. But, in fact, there are lots of reasons to doubt this model.

If you know, for instance, that, since you're an actual human and not a Pure Rational Mind, your beliefs are in fact not purely a consequence of your impartial weighing of the evidence, but are largely influenced by things like aesthetics, socialization, tribal affiliation, rhetoric and emotion, then you have a different relationship to belief than the one classical liberalism gives you. There may then be certain things which you do not in fact believe, but which you aspire to believe, and in this context there is nothing self-deceptive about such an aspiration.

If you believe X because you hang out with the primate troop which reinforces believing X, but you would like to believe Y, you can sever your ties with the X-troop and go join the Y-troop in the confidence that there is a good chance that pretty soon you will come to believe Y. (This is, I would hazard, how the majority of religious and political conversion, in any direction, actually happens.)

It would be possible to argue that what is happening here is that you actually come to believe Y earlier, and go to the Y-troop simply in order to have the freedom to articulate your belief without censure. But I don't think that's always what's going on, and many people in the world believe precisely this (anti-classical-liberal) proposition, that you should not expose yourself to contexts in which you may come to believe the wrong things, because you should have the humility to accept your own fragile, swayable nature. And while I'm a fan of free inquiry and therefore don't believe in this conclusion entirely, I do actually think the premise is closer to the truth than the notion of us as pure logic engines.

So, with this "respecting mental fragility" model, -- if we accept that our brains are meat engines with quirks, not containers of consistent sets of logical propositions -- if we take Mary Anne's model, she might believe a) and b) strongly, and, as Ted says, not believe c). That is, she may believe she is wiser and knows what's best, but also believe that it is nonetheless immoral for her to act on this knowledge. But she may also know that her commitment to not-c) is weak -- that she is in constant danger of yielding to the temptation to control the lives of others. (Because, after all, while people do sometimes do -- from my POV -- wrong things because of wrong beliefs, they also often do things they themselves believe to be wrong; we call this "succumbing to temptation", and it seems to be a fact of human psychology).

Thus, Mary Anne may attempt, on a daily basis, to weaken her belief in a) and b) -- to convince herself that she is in fact perhaps not wiser than everyone else, that perhaps her counsel would produce bad results. Even if she has no logically admissable evidence, she can attempt to persuade herself by those non-logical means we mentioned above to influence belief: rhetoric, emotion, social pressure. She may surround herself with people who doubt her superior judgement; she may force herself to envision visceral images of the harm her judgements could lead to; she may scold herself for her arrogance, all in order to convince herself of things she in fact knows to be inaccurate -- as a bulwark against succumbing to the temptation to control the lives of others with her Mutant Leadership Powers(tm). It may be vastly psychologically easier to resist controlling others on the basis that it might not help, than on the basis that it is wrong even though it would help. And thus she may morally attempt to deceive herself about a) and b), because she holds the wrong of such self-deception to be outweighed by the good of her successful adherence to the dictates of her belief in not-c).

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 26, 2009 08:57 AM

Aw, Ben, if that's the question you were asking, you should have said so!

I'm unconvinced that the "trivial" case of multiple observers is in fact trivial. Partially because you're dancing at the edge of category error when you use "accurate" and "belief" in the same sentence; partially because in the wild, large numbers of observers are unavoidable and the practice of answering this and related questions has turned out to be far more complicated than, "A holds a belief, B finds it evil: yawn."

Posted by: Dan P at July 1, 2009 07:51 PM

Dan: Go on.

By yawn, I mean, I do not think the fact that people have irreconcilably different definitions of what is evil has much bearing on the question "are there beliefs that are evil and accurate?"

That is, the existence of beliefs that some people find evil and others find accurate seems to be obvious. In fact this set is pretty much "the set of all controversial, actually held beliefs"

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 2, 2009 12:00 PM

Oh, I don't know that I have anything rigorous to add. I do think that it's very slippery to talk about the accuracy (presumably to some objective truth measure) of a belief (a sort of qualia). If you restate your question with respect to propositions instead of beliefs, that pretty much goes away.

What we're left with, though, is the moral status of propositions. That, too, seems fraught with category error. I mean, sure, "in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone" -- but, on the other hand, "thoughtcrime." Take your pick, The Book of Common Prayer or 1984 -- but I'm not filled with confidence that either are quite on topic here.

Posted by: Dan P at July 7, 2009 01:03 AM

I started to answer "killing an innocent for some greater purpose." That provoke some flash fiction:

Henry should really be on a leash. I'm more interested in the soccer game, but Henry isn't a dog likely to leave the shade without some prodding. There isn't much strategy involved when kids this young play. The field is almost a model of Brownian motion, the ball a spec of dust bouncing off green and red 7 year old particles.

Henry returns and as I turn to acknowledge his exceptional tree circling skills I see that he's brought company.

Time travel must be involved. I stand there in front of me holding a gun. For a moment, I'm not sure which one of me I am. Henry doesn't seem to care. In any case, I'm glad I've given myself a fighting chance. This close, a gun is more useful as a tool for breaking a trigger finger than for generating high velocity lead.

One of the green particles chases the speck of dust into my field of view. I point the gun at the kid and fire a single shot. Before I disappear, dropping the gun at my feet, I say, "Reform the prison system while you're inside."

Posted by: Steven Klotz at July 10, 2009 03:58 AM
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