To the moon, Alice!

March 25, 2010 § 14 Comments

Suppose there is a big rocket race. Several teams compete to win, but only two of those teams are actually viable as winners. It takes about a million pounds of rocket fuel to win, and only those two teams have a practical hope of getting that much fuel.

The way teams get rocket fuel is by soliciting it from individuals. Every individual in the country gets one-tenth of an ounce of rocket fuel – and only one tenth of an ounce. We each get to decide which team gets our tenth-ounce of fuel.

Can I meaningfully influence the outcome of the race with my tenth-ounce of fuel? No.

Does the process of choosing who gets my tenth-ounce of fuel have meaningful effects on me, and on those people who I interact with in doing the choosing? Absolutely.

With that background, if giving my fuel to a team involves remote material cooperation with evil, which effects are most important for me to consider when evaluating whether or not I have a proportionate reason: effects which flow from the outcome of the race, or effects which flow from my own act of giving fuel to a team?

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§ 14 Responses to To the moon, Alice!

  • Sorry if this is pedantic, but I assume that one of the teams is evil like Team Rocket. That is, they have in the past done evil things with their victories and intend to continue to do so. I ask because racing a rocket isn't evil in and of itself. Or to put it another way: Can I root for a football team or buy their merchandise if the owner gives money to Planned Parenthood?

  • zippy says:

    We can presume for the sake of discussion that no matter which team wins the effects of that outcome will be a mix of good and evil, so that giving fuel to any team is remote material cooperation with evil.

    (That is a less condensed version of the condition “…if giving my fuel to a team involves remote material cooperation with evil…” in the post).

  • “…if giving my fuel to a team involves remote material cooperation with evil…”

    Ok I'm caught up now. 🙂

  • Robert says:

    Ah, but if a large number of people withhold their tithe of an ounce, then no rockets will fly.

    However, if a large number of people withhold their votes in an election, they simply give up even their miniscule influence over the outcome.

  • zippy says:

    Ah, but if a large number of people withhold their tithe of an ounce, then no rockets will fly.

    If nobody showed up on election day, etc.

    Anyway, since it is my rocket race I get to set the rules, and if there isn't enough fuel for any rocket to fly the team with the most fuel wins. As practical matter, though, the winner will need a million-ish pounds of fuel.

  • William Luse says:

    effects which flow from the outcome of the race, or effects which flow from my own act of giving fuel to a team?

    Well, only after calculating the former effects will I decide whether to give fuel at all. The latter effects will have the most immediate impact upon me (the state of my soul) and those around me, but those effects will not be deplorable in themselves unless I decide badly. So, I'll hypothesize that the two are not strictly separable.

  • zippy says:

    Interesting. Let me see if I can unpack it a bit.

    The proposal seems to be that how I go about deciding which team gets my tenth ounce of fuel is the thing which gives rise to the most important outcome-independent effects of my act. Furthermore, how I go about deciding is influenced in large part by my understanding of the relative desirability of various outcomes. Therefore the relative desirability of various outcomes is, perhaps almost paradoxically, a significant factor in the outcome-independent effects of my act.

    I think that is all true, with the caveat that there may be other outcome-independent effects in addition to those which arise from how I go about deciding on a particular team. For example, there may be effects which depend on the difference between choosing to give my fuel to a team at all versus not doing so, etc. — in fact I think that is pretty clearly the case. We can set that aside for right now though.

    My understanding of the relative desirability of various outcomes is independent of the actual outcome: the actual outcome over which I in fact have no influence.

    If Pious Joe is running for office, yet is not a “viable” candidate, and all other candidates are wicked, it is in fact the case that if Pious Joe won that would be a better outcome. His viability as a candidate is irrelevant to that determination, particularly in light of the fact that nothing I can do (at the time of the actual vote – part of the point to all this is that what we do at the actual vote is essentially irrelevant compared to everything else we do) is capable of changing the viability of any candidate. In some cases it is clear that it would be better if neither candidate won. So in those kinds of cases, if I choose someone other than Pious Joe or None of the Above as my favored winner despite the fact that I have no real influence over the outcome, I have chosen evil over good.

  • Tony says:

    His viability as a candidate is irrelevant to that determination, particularly in light of the fact that nothing I can do (at the time of the actual vote – part of the point to all this is that what we do at the actual vote is essentially irrelevant compared to everything else we do) is capable of changing the viability of any candidate.

    Haven't you just assumed that which was to be proven? You can't analyze the impact of William Luse's correction by assuming that “what we do at the actual vote is essentially irrelevant compared to everything else we do “. That is part of what is at issue, isn't it? Or did I misunderstand Mr. Luse's thought?

  • zippy says:

    … “what we do at the actual vote is essentially irrelevant compared to everything else we do “. That is part of what is at issue, isn't it?

    Not at all. That part is a fact.

  • zippy says:

    Though I suppose I should say “materially irrelevant” — one might vote a certain way because one spent a lot of time campaigning for a candidate, say, and saw voting for him as a matter of personal integrity. In that kind of case it wouldn't be essentially irrelevant, but it would still be materially irrelevant: that is, it would have no meaningful influence on the outcome.

  • Robert says:

    … it would still be materially irrelevant: that is, it would have no meaningful influence on the outcome.

    By which I take you to mean that a single vote, taken by itself, has so small an effect that it is statistically irrelevant.

    Whereas campaigning for a particular candidate could develop a coalition which, taken together, has a chance of affecting the outcome? (And likewise, most other actions we take would have more statistical effect than my single vote taken by itself.)

    Am I reading you correctly?

  • zippy says:

    By which I take you to mean that a single vote, taken by itself, has so small an effect that it is statistically irrelevant.

    Not “a single vote” but my vote, the vote of the person considering his own act morally. Other people's votes are circumstances; my vote is my own act.

    But otherwise yes. As Tom K put it, the act of voting is the stone in the stone soup of political responsibility for Catholic citizens of democratic countries.

  • William Luse says:

    My understanding of the relative desirability of various outcomes is independent of the actual outcome: the actual outcome over which I in fact have no influence.

    Isn't this so obvious that it hardly needs stating? I'm not interested in disputing the fact that my vote, except in very rare circumstances, is unlikely to have any effect on the outcome. The post's original question was: “which effects are most important for me to consider when evaluating whether or not I have a proportionate reason…effects which flow from the outcome or…?”

    The importance of my vote is that in casting it I join it to what Zippy calls the “circumstance” of others casting theirs. My infinitesimally tiny circumstance becomes an essential part of a huge circumstance that will in fact determine the outcome. I'm morally obligated to cast that vote (or to refrain from doing so) as if it would have a likely effect on the outcome or I will not be taking seriously the more immediate effect that vote will have on me; for in the instant I cast it, I “take my oath”, so to speak, cast my lot with the cause of others, proclaim to the world “Here stand I,” and if this involves remote material cooperation with evil, I'd better be able to defend it, because my calculation of the likelihood of any evils coming to pass is embodied in that vote. And that's all I meant by “not separable.”

  • […] is negligible: you can only assert meaningful influence as part of a group effort. The more influence you hope to have on an election outcome, the more you must first ignore, and then embrace and […]

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