Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mailbag Monday: What is the Greater Good?

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

Mascot writes,
My bros and I believe that, regardless of an omnipresentgod, each bro should live to benefit the greater good. Butthen, that got me thinking, "What does it mean to live forthe greater good? Does it just mean to live with goodintent?" Well, if Batman's parents were never murdered,there would be no Batman. Thousands of bros wouldend up suffering at the hand of criminals who would havenormally been stopped by the fearsome superhero.So, was the murderer of Batman's parents living for thegreater good? Or was he just a jackass?
Mascot, I'm a bro who knows his audience, and I have to tell you - coming out in rousing defense of the man who murdered Batman's parents is conceptual suicide. I mean, yeah, in the end he gave us the Batman - but that's like crediting Hitler for the development of synthetic rubber. Sure, WWII necessitated research into synthetic rubber by the Allied forces, and they successfully developed it. But surely the Axis doesn't get the win there; you know who gets credit for all the good the Batman does? The goddamn Batman, that's who. He's not right behind me, is he?

Seriously though, this is an important question in utilitarianism/consequentialist thought - what exactly does it mean to act for the greater good? Let's assume we know what the 'good' actually is - maybe it's pleasure, maybe it's the pleasure/pain ratio, whatever. Should we act in whatever way we think will maximize good, or should we act in the way that will actually maximize good?

Yeah, that's a confusing question. It's okay, don't panic. I know when I first heard the question, it didn't make much sense to me - obviously I should act in whatever way I think will maximize good; that's how I know what the right act is. How can I act to maximize actual good if I don't know what actual good is? Expected good is all I've got. Besides, it would be crazy if murdering Bruce Wayne's parents accidentally turned out to be the right thing to do, right? So we apply some decision criteria, I add up the relevant 'good' in each of my options to the best of my ability, and then I fucking go for it. Easy. I've done the right thing - I've acted, to the best of my knowledge, to maximize the good. That's all anyone can ask of me... isn't it?

Not so fast, me-ten-seconds-ago. Are we seriously to be expected to calculate the expected outcomes of all of our actions? Because... that shit is ridiculous. Not to mention impossible. And how exactly should I be expected to identify the good in an outcome? Lets say I randomly roll dice for what I think are my top five possible actions, and call that the "expected utility" of each action. I probably don't get credit for doing the action with the highest roll, even if it ends up being the best option; that's not a legitimate procedure to decide what the "greatest good" is. I got lucky. But what is a legitimate procedure? Today I helped a little old lady across the street. It's just a thing I do sometimes, because bros can be good people too. I thought about the outcomes I could picture, and settled out one that I really liked: little old lady makes it safely across the street. Achievement Unlocked: "Greatest Good Calculated," amirite? So I went for it. And since I'm such a charming conversationalist, we had a delightful talk about her swimsuit model granddaughter, who just loves intellectuals and apparently I'm exactly the sort of nice guy she HOLY SHIT A RUNAWAY MONSTER TRUCK. 

If I had been paying attention at all instead of talking to this lady while I helped her, she wouldn't have been run over, which sucked. Now, I did the thing that I expected to maximize utility, but I missed a giant, green and red factor sitting on 44 inch tires. Seriously, I really should have noticed. Totally a dick move, not noticing. This outcome was foreseeable, but not foreseen. Still, did I do the right thing? Can we just blindly stumble through life, doing things that seem like they will probably result in some good? If not, how much attention do I have to pay before my expectations become legitimate? Is it enough that I use some reasonable decision procedure, calculating the outcomes I can reasonably be expected to foresee and ignoring the other, crazier ones? How much can I leave to chance? These are tough epistemological questions. Any system which considers expected outcomes as morally relevant must have a reasonable way to decide exactly how those expectations should be arrived at. 

On the other hand, philosophers who take seriously the idea that moral propositions, statements about the rightness and wrongness of acts, are objectively true, also take seriously the idea of an objectively greater good. This isn't Kantianism up in here, bro; if you want your intentions to matter, you're at the wrong kegger. The right acts are the acts which actually create the most good. Getting little old ladies across streets is a good act; getting them run over, not so much. Maybe I'm not blameworthy - I did my best and all - but for those of you keeping score at home, I fucked up. For these bros, the sort of decision procedures used to determine expected good are just helpful rubrics, guides to maximizing good that will more often than not work. So my decision procedure should help me make as many right calls as possible - sometimes I'll have to round off and hope for the best, since if I take the time to calculate every possible outcome, I'll never get anything done - and that's the best I can hope for. By picking a rule that works more often than not, I can in the long run maximize actual good.

But back to the Batman, if I may; does this mean that our murderous thief actually does gets credit for the ass-kickings that Batman hands out on the reg? Some bros are willing to bite the bullet and say "Yeah, this time he accidentally did the right thing, but it was definitely the right thing." 

Think of all the other shit that goes into those beatings -  Bruce's dad's decision to go to the opera that night, the training Batman received at the hands of Ra's a Ghul, the bro who accidentally built Wayne Manor over a fucking cave. Without any of those things, Batman can't beat criminals to a pulp night after night keeping Gotham safe. Do all these bros receive partial credit? Does only one of these factors really count? Any theory which depends on objective outcomes should provide at least some guidelines as to how far down the causal chain responsibility carries. That's not a hard thing to do, just an important one.

I have good news, Mascot. It turns out whichever of these is true - subjective consequentialism, which focuses on expected outcomes, or objective consequentialism, which focuses on actual outcomes - you're going to need some way to decide what to do. Don't let all the possibilities paralyze you; if you want to be a consequentialist one way or another, you should use the decision criteria that you think will most consistently produce actual good. That way you're covered in the long run either way. Probably.

The SEP page on Consequentialism touches on these issues and other issues related to the Greater Good.

The Wikipedia page is also very thorough, though not as technically informed.

J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism is easily the most famous consequentialist text, and he advocates a rule-based utilitarianism.



  1. I think the key here is to distinguish between good persons and good actions. An action is good to the extent that it actually promotes the greater good. A person, though, is good to the extent that they intend the greater good. If I knowingly act against the greater good, that is a moral failing - I am a bad person even if the action itself turns out to be a good one. If I attempt to act for the greater good, but fail to do so due to inadequate information, then the action may be a bad one, but I am still a good person.

    People who say things like "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" are usually just looking to excuse their own bad intentions.

  2. So @Stuart Andrew...
    I see what you are saying about good persons - they must be intending to do the right thing. But that is Kantianism.
    Are you prepared to say that someone who means well by helping old ladies cross a road which happens to be a NASCAR racetrack with a race in progress is good just because he means well?

    Here is my Grand Dual Theory of Moral Action:
    To be a good person, one must intend to do the right thing, BUT intentions must be informed by real knowledge of patterns of outcomes. Intention must be informed by empirical evidence.

    Kantian Consequentialism.
    Boom. Synthesis. I'd like my PHD now.

    Yes, there are still the possible trips down the rabbit hole when past performance doesn't predict future outcome ...or when its unclear when empirical evidence tells us.

    Hitler and Batman's Parent's Killer were bad people (even if some good things came about because of them) because their intentions were bad BECAUSE they were informed by empirical evidence that said bad things happen if you kill innocent people.

    *PS- I really haven't read much Kant and only some Mill so I probably havent said anything TOO smart or novel. I probably dont deserve that PHD

  3. Of course I'm willing to say he's good. He's doing a bad thing, but through ignorance, not moral failure. He intends good, and that makes him a good person.

    Now, the best possible situation is one where action is taken by a person who is good, competent, and informed. Such a person will take good actions. But a failure of any of these elements can result in bad actions. Only if the failure is a failure to pursue good ends is the failing moral, indicative of a bad person. Being ignorant or incompetent may annoy the shit out of the people around you, and may lead you to blunder in all manner of ways, but it doesn't make you a bad guy.

    Now, there is something to be said about people who act despite knowing themselves to be incompetent. In this case, though, there are two real possibilities - firstly, that the situation seemed desperate enough that the person felt there was nothing to be gained from waiting, or secondly that they had some other goal than achieving good when they acted (since they knew they were unlikely to actually achieve good results.)

    Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that we are largely blind to our own flaws and vices, and incompetent people are particularly inept at evaluating their own competence.

  4. What about a bad action made by an informed person intending to do good? For instance, the hypothetical in which you come upon a village and meet a band of conquistadors/pirates who have a village of 20 natives tied up and are preparing to execute them all. However upon your arrival they will allow you the honor to kill one and free the rest. The consequentialist might decide to take the bait and kill the one to save 19; he comes to that conclusion because he wants to maximize good. But he also knows that regardless of who is doing the killing, killing another human is outright wrong. By killing one to save the rest that consequentialist becomes the immoral actor himself. He ends up compromising his own moral integrity based on a situation contrived by those around him. Should we really allow our particular situation to inform our moral decisions like this? Its the metaphorical pickle all over...

  5. Part of the problem is with hypothetical situations. Besides that it is all fiction anyway, if we wade into "what if" as in "what if Batman's parents weren't murdered"... well, then we're making up a new story. I might as well say that he still would decide to be Batman but would be even more well-adjusted and so even more effective. Why not? We're already deciding our own story, so I can make it whatever I want. And that's why we can't use fiction to determine morality.

  6. Geoff - I'd say that if you killed the person because you wanted to save 19 lives, that makes you a good person. If you killed him because finally, you have an excuse to kill someone and blame other people, then you're a bad person.

    If you refused to kill the man because you feel that action is morally different from inaction, and killing one to save many is never justified, then I would say you are irrational (which speaks to your competence) but moral. If you decided not to kill the man because you just didn't care about saving lives, then that would make you a bad person.

    As to the morality of any specific action, I remain purely utilitarian. The best action is to kill one and save nineteen, particularly if the alternative is that all twenty die, because it has the best consequences. However, it is possible for a good person to arrive at a different conclusion, if he lacks one of the other two elements - competence or information.

    Of course, it is possible that I myself am missing some critical information here which would allow me to see otherwise - I make no particular claim that I am either the best informed or the most competent person out there, and so it is quite possible that my evaluation of specific actions might be incorrect. If so, I would say that speaks only to me, not to my basic position.

    In other words, it may be that the right action is actually to refuse to participate. I could be wrong on that. But regardless, as long as I proceeded in good faith, seeking to do the best I could to produce good outcomes, that would be enough to make me a good person.

  7. I believe that the problem with this question is the belief that people do things for different reasons. They don't. We all do everything we do for exactly one reason. We do everything we do because we perceive it to be best for us individually. Snidley Whiplash, Dudley Doright, Mother Theresa, The Joker, Batman, and Sadam Hussein all do (or did) what they do for the same reason. Their relative goodness/badness, Morality/immorality is a judgement made by the rest of us. For the individual the only concern EVER considered for their own actions is "what is good for me."

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  9. So I guess my thesis (as stated earlier) is that to be morally good, one must be: good (intentioned), competent, and informed. To lack ANY ONE* of these is to be some degree of morally bad.

    I hold that its morally bad to NOT be competent and informed in the things relating to life and actions you might take.

    Consider the good intentioned driver: even with the best intent, he is still morally bad for being the cause of a deadly accident caused by his driving incompetence. It is not good enough to WANT to be a morally good automobile operator.

    Also, consider the reverse: even if someone has good intent ("I want to disarm this bomb"), if they cut a wire randomly and the ticking stops, we dont honestly praise them as a hero or think they are morally good, we just call them lucky.

    *This last example avails itself to a counter to my thesis: what if he had cut the wrong wire? Would he be bad because he wasn't competent or informed? The answer to this is no. Morality may depend of whether you SHOULD be informed and competent in the matter. For a normal citizen, bomb disarmament is not one of those things. For a normal car driver, how to safely operate a car IS one thing you should be competent in. (The bomb-squad technichan who has not studied bomb making and just gets by on luck each time so far is morally bad, he SHOULD be competent.)

    TLDR: Intent, Competency and Being Informed are all interrelated. Intended action without sufficient knowledge of predicted outcome is:
    a)Lucky if the action returned is positive,
    b)Unlucky if the information would have been impossible to access beforehand or
    c) Morally wrong if the information had been accessible to a normal, responsible, rational person.

    Kant said that we can never truly know the consequences of our actions, so all we should base morality on is intent. I say poppycocks to that, we know, by in large, what the effects are going to be of our actions. Enough written and remembered and chronicled history has occurred since Kant that we should take the other view on predicting outcome. I say that its IMPOSSIBLE to have good intentions without the empirical evidence that the result of your intended action will be good.

  10. Morality, right and wrong, good and bad, intentions, these are all ideas that have spwaned from humans no longer living life only to survive. Life for humans is no longer about survival, but about petty things such as worrying about what others find acceptable.

    Morality, right and wrong, good and bad, and intentions are all thoughts brought about by the lack of needing to survive.

    Early man didn't care if killing someone or stealing something was moral or worng or whatever, he just wanted to live to see tomorrow.

    Humans are just big apes with big brains and tiny ideas.