Circumstantial Causes

March 26, 2010 § 24 Comments

There is a ridiculous objection which often comes up when discussing voting or other sorites-building contests like the rocket race in the last post.

The objection goes something like this:

If we accept that our own personal act of voting has negligible influence over the outcome of the contest it must follow that the outcome of the contest has no cause, since everyone’s individual vote has negligible influence over the outcome. Obviously the outcome has a cause; therefore our individual vote has non-negligible influence over the outcome.

A moment’s reflection reveals the silliness of this objection.

The outcome of the contest is caused by all of the votes taken together. These votes are separated into two categories. All but one of the votes are votes cast by other people, not you. Therefore they form part of the circumstances of your vote. The remaining vote is, of course, your vote itself.

The outcome of the contest is determined by your action in combination with the circumstances of your action. The influence of your action on that outcome is literally negligible compared to the influence of the circumstances: the outcome is going to be the same whether or not you even exist, let alone whether or not you vote in a certain way.

Therefore it is simultaneously true that the outcome is caused by all the votes taken in aggregate, and that your vote’s influence on the outcome is literally negligible.

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§ 24 Responses to Circumstantial Causes

  • Robert says:

    Moreover, by casting your vote, you make everyone else's vote (each taken individually) slightly more negligible.

    Likewise, by not casting your vote, you make everyone else's vote slightly more influential on the final outcome.

    So, for example, there is the vote for pirate king in PotC3, in which each, by voting for him/herself, negates his/her own vote and thereby gives Sparrow's vote total deciding force.

    But given the huge pool of voters in most elections, we still would need to develop a substantial coalition all voting together to affect the outcome.

  • zippy says:

    Moreover, by casting your vote, you make everyone else's vote (each taken individually) slightly more negligible.

    Negligibly so, yes.

  • Robert says:

    I think I've figured out why I have difficulty with your argument. I'm inclined to keep the statistics and the morality distinct.

    In a comment on the rocket race, you (Zippy) said:
    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.

    Now, statistics doesn't care whose vote it is that is cast. But morality does.

    Yet, morally, there is more to the decision about how to vote than the statistical impact of one's vote on the outcome.

    So, statistically, one's vote has an infinitesimal effect on the outcome, and is thereby negligible.

    But, morally, one's vote has effects the development of one's character as well as a direct – even if infinitesimal – impact on the outcome of the contest. By voting, one is claiming a kind of responsibility for the outcome. One does not vote as if one's vote affected the outcome; one votes in order to affect the outcome to the extent one is able.

    Infinitesimal is not morally negligible; I cannot neglect the decision to vote.

    In other words, if I step into the ring with Rocky and Muhammed Ali and the whole cast of WWE, I do not fight as if I wanted to win; I fight to win, even knowing that it would require miraculous intervention.

  • zippy says:

    I fight to win, even knowing that it would require miraculous intervention.

    I agree, which is one way of expressing (part of) why – and this is where folks typically start to resist the force of the argument – as my power to actually affect the outcome becomes infinitesimally small, my justification for voting 'tactically' – for holding my nose and voting for a “less bad but viable” candidate, as opposed to voting for a good candidate or for nobody at all – also vanishes.

    To put it differently, proportionate reason for remote material cooperation with evil requires effectiveness in achieving the better outcome which putatively justifies that cooperation.

  • Tony says:

    The influence of your action on that outcome is literally negligible compared to the influence of the circumstances

    Why do you choose to use “negligible” instead of “very, very small”? There are lots of times when it makes sense to ignore, or “neglect” a very small proportionate part of a larger whole, but mere smallness doesn't dictate that conclusion. For example, a very, very small proportion of cyanide in my ice-cream is not negligible. Some of the contaminants in water are required to be less than 5 parts per million, and some others are measured in parts per billion.

    What matters for something to be negligible is not merely how small a proportion it is, but also how large a proportion it needs to be to base a different decision on. And that's a judgment call that differs for each type of situation. In order to move from “very small proportion” (which is easy to establish by math alone) to “negligible” you have to also identify what size proportion would be required to come to a different choice.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I've understood this argument of Zippy's for quite a while, and it often means that he and I are both seen as purists for saying that we shouldn't vote for some (IMO dreadful) candidate for tactical reasons.

    My difficulty with the particular argument, though, is that it seems to have the following consequence: If you really could make a big difference in favor of Monster A's election chances (say, in a very small pool of electors), and if Monster A is somewhat less monstrous than Monster B, then your vote could be justified, but not if your vote has only an infinitesimal effect. If your vote has only an infinitesimal effect, then the moral danger to yourself in the act of supporting Monster A isn't worth the good you might do by electing him (in preventing the election of Monster B). Now, to me that seems really strange. It's only if I can _really help_ to elect Monster A that I might be justified in voting for him? That really strikes me oddly.

  • Tommy says:

    To put it differently, proportionate reason for remote material cooperation with evil requires effectiveness in achieving the better outcome which putatively justifies that cooperation.

    To be more precise: of the effects that come about apart from who wins the election, the cooperation with evil effects need to be balanced by the proportionate good effects that also come about apart from who wins the election. Not all of the “cooperation with evil” foreseeable effects are effects that come about apart from who wins the election. (And those that would come about only if my guy wins DON'T need to be balanced by the good effects if my guy loses, since they won't exist.) Indeed, the primary cooperation with evil effects are those which come about when the guy I vote for wins. So, whichever secondary evil effects, apart from who wins, in which cooperation with evil will be a component, need to be proportionate to the good effects one expects apart from who wins (and counting in the extraneous good effects that will come about with your voting for the losing candidate).

  • zippy says:

    It's only if I can _really help_ to elect Monster A that I might be justified in voting for him? That really strikes me oddly.

    The same sort of principle applies in a just war, or in any other act of remote material cooperation with evil: there must be a reasonable chance for my act to succeed in achieving its good ends in order for me to be justified in doing it at all.

    I think people don't like this – in the case of the just war doctrine as well – because it seems to reflect an undemocratic bias in favor of the powerful. The powerful can be justified in acts of remote material cooperation with evil in cases where the powerless cannot. An otherwise perfectly just war would be unjust if undertaken by the powerless, with no chance of success barring a miracle. (And if appeal to a miracle is required there is no need to engage in remote material cooperation with evil in order to conjure one).

    This seems unfair to modern democratic sensibilities; but that seeming doesn't make it any less true.

    In any case, though, in my recent posts I've been attempting to make what ought to be a less controversial claim: that the effect of the actual act of voting on the outcome is negligible in large-scale contests; that outcome-independent effects are non-negligible; and that therefore any legitimate evaluation of proportionate reason rests on outcome-independent effects, not outcome-dependent effects.

    The concomitants of me voting for Bob are, in terms of evaluating my own act, and counterintuitively to many, vastly more important than Bob actually winning or losing. What goes along with me voting for Bob is everything in terms of morally evaluating my own act; whether Bob wins or loses is nothing in terms of morally evaluating my own act, since my own act isn't what makes Bob win or lose, or even contributes to making Bob win or lose in a meaningful way.

    Right now people tend to treat the act of voting as if it were nothing but its effects on the outcome. All the focus is on comparing the net desirability of one outcome to another. In actual fact though my vote's effects on the outcome are negligible, and its other effects are nonnegligible. If folks can start evaluating their acts of voting in those terms that will be a step forward for the truth, independent of whether there is agreement on just where right reason leads from there.

  • zippy says:

    … the primary cooperation with evil effects are those which come about when the guy I vote for wins.

    Well, I don't think that is true. I think when we make our stand with a certain candidate there are kinds of cases where making that stand seriously undermines any legitimate reason we might have to make that stand in the first place.

    In particular, I've argued (citing Evangelium Vitae) that when a candidate actively agitates for a legal right to murder the innocent, that is directly and per se opposed to the legitimacy of the public authority itself. Standing with that candidate by voting for him has as concomitants – independent of how the election turns out – a serious undermining of the source of legitimacy of authority. I proceeded from there to make the rest of my argument.

    But again, my goal at the moment is more modest, though the more modest conclusion should – because of this more modest goal – be that much more unassailable in terms of compelling the assent of reason.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I've got no problem (I think) with the democratic bias issue. I think it seems to me that evils that occur as a result of war can be more plausibly regarded as accidental than the evils Bob does, which I knew he would do, if I voted to elect Bob. I mean, I presumably wanted him to win. If we're talking about Adolf “Bob” Hitler, then likening my support for him to my engaging in a just war seems hard for me to wrap my mind around, under almost any circumstances.

  • zippy says:

    Why do you choose to use “negligible” instead of “very, very small”?

    I use the term “negligible” because that reflects the reality of the relationship between my personal act and the outcome better than “very, very small”.

    In thermodynamics, to take an example, a large-scale effect – say how hot a liquid happens to be – is a net effect of a vast number of interactions of molecules. On the other hand, no motion of any particular molecule in itself will have any effect on the discrete outcome of whether the liquid is greater or less than 50 degrees C. Heat, like a national election outcome, is simultaneously composed of the motions of all the constituent molecules and independent of any particular one of them taken in itself. The motion of that one particular molecule right there is negligible.

  • zippy says:

    Lydia:

    I think we agree.

    Suppose it were an electorate of one: I am given the power to choose Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or abstain. I think it would be wrong for me to do anything but abstain, even though an argument might be possible that one could result in a less evil outcome than the other.

    So this isn't a pure license to choose if one wields enough power personally. It is just that those kinds of hypotheticals are on the radical opposite of the power scale from these mass-scale sorites-building contests which we call “elections”.

  • Tony says:

    The same sort of principle applies in a just war, or in any other act of remote material cooperation with evil: there must be a reasonable chance for my act to succeed in achieving its good ends in order for me to be justified in doing it at all.

    You know, I just went to about 10 sites on material cooperation with evil, and on the principle of double effect, and I could not find any which cite this – having a reasonable chance of success – as a condition. One of them gave the Catholic Encyclopedia's conditions, and it wasn't there. Where do you get this?

    I believe that even it's place in just war theory is limited: in cases where the enemy is fought not merely for political goods or bodily security, but even to protect the souls of those whom the enemy intends to destroy spiritually, the required expectation of success is diminished or even removed. If the enemy's primary goal is your spiritual destruction, it would appear that choosing to STOP fighting could fall under material cooperation with evil and require justification.

  • Zippy says:

    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309 includes:

    – there must be serious prospects of success;

    – the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

    These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

    Note that the Catechism elaborates on the proportionate requirement in two ways: in the weighing of the effects, and in the capacity to achieve the good effects.

    What the Church means in general by “proportionate means” and cognate phrases, as far as I can tell, is that the means is capable of achieving its good end without causing worse evils than those which are prevented.

  • Tony says:

    Yes, I know it is there with just war theory, I was asking about where it comes from the GENERAL double effect or GENERAL cooperation with evil discussions, as you indicated.

  • zippy says:

    The just war doctrine is an application of the principle of double-effect; a “fleshing out” of the principle of double-effect within a particular domain, the domain of acts of war.

    Some folks argue over whether Aquinas actually articulated the principle of double-effect as a full-blown moral theory, or if it was developed by the Church from his discussion of self-defense. But in any event Aquinas uses the term “proportion” in that seminal discussion to refer to the “proportionate” power of an act to achieve its end:

    And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, …

    That “proportionate” refers at least in part to the power of an act to achieve its end is in the “DNA” of the double-effect tradition.

  • zippy says:

    Lydia wrote:
    If we're talking about Adolf “Bob” Hitler, then likening my support for him to my engaging in a just war seems hard for me to wrap my mind around, under almost any circumstances.

    I suppose, upon further reflection, that a couple of things must obtain.

    First, if it is the case that I can appoint Bob Hitler into power, I must be rather powerful myself.

    Second, since I am powerful myself appointing Bob Hitler into power is analogous to making alliance with Bob Hitler in a war. So it seems to me that whatever principles apply to justly making alliances in war – and I don't claim to know what those principles are in detail – would apply. While I don't know what those principles are in detail, I am pretty sure that they don't imply that it is always OK to make alliance with anyone if that is what you need to do to win.

  • Tony says:

    You say

    That “proportionate” refers at least in part to the power of an act to achieve its end is in the “DNA” of the double-effect tradition.

    But the Church says

    – there must be serious prospects of success;

    The Church does not identify taking into account the specific chance of success as solely those chances coming from your own acts alone: acts expected from allies would also be part of “serious prospects of success”. The fact that you are measuring the morality of your own actions does not mean you weight them solely by the expected outcome of their own force without considering those of allies. If, with allies (which you have a serious prospect of achieving), you have a serious chance of success, then the war can be just war.

  • zippy says:

    If, with allies (which you have a serious prospect of achieving), you have a serious chance of success, then the war can be just war.

    Great minds think alike — see my last comment to Lydia.

    In the case of mass-market sorites building contests, though, your actual vote, again, is (as a material matter) nothing.

    A very famous and powerful person might be able to convince a lot of people to vote a certain way. In such a case he might out of personal integrity vote that way himself, and in aggregate he might actually affect the outcome.

    Yet all of the individuals he convinces are still responsible for the actual effects of their own acts, not the effects of other peoples' acts. We are those insignificant individuals, not the famous and powerful person. The war analogy more to the point is whether it would be OK to volunteer as a private in Stalin's army in order to defeat Hitler. (Though as a private in Stalin's army you have a better chance of actually materially affecting the outcome).

    (One of several bad effects I see proceeding from modern mass market elections in general, independent of who one votes for, is a kind of 'delusions of grandeur' effect upon which modern democracies seem to depend for their self-understanding as legitimate).

  • Tony says:

    I suspect, Zippy, that you have missed the point of the criteria for just war: they all go into determining whether there is proportionate reason.

    [1]- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
    [2] – all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    [3] – there must be serious prospects of success;
    [4] – the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

    The first because the harm from war will be lasting, grave, and certain also. To offset, the evil you want to stop, i.e. the good you want to promote, has to be proportionate.

    The second because the evils of warfare so easily outstrip the evils of other means, so if other means can succeed, the proportionate reason for war almost has to fail.

    The third because you cannot normally succeed in achieving any proportionate offset of the evil of the warfare itself in proportionate degree with success that is only slightly likely, because the evil of the war is certain. But the proportionate aspect is there. The greater the evil to be stopped, (and, for good measure, the lesser the material evils you must use to wage the war) the lesser the prospect of success is needed for justification.

    The fourth is self-evident.

    ALL of the parts go into determining the proportionate evil vs good.

  • zippy says:

    ALL of the parts go into determining the proportionate evil vs good.

    You say that as if someone disagreed with it. Yes, all of the parts must be satisfied, each in itself and independently, in order for there to be a proportionate reason to go to war.

    The greater the evil to be stopped, … the lesser the prospect of success is needed for justification.

    I'd be wary of constructing a formula for ignoring the part of the criteria that we don't like. The catechism seems to directly contradict that, in fact, where it says that all of the criteria must apply “at one and the same time.”

    But even if that were true, it wouldn't help in the case of mass-scale sorites contests, since there is no prospect of 'success' when success is defined as my own act of voting electing the guy I want to win. And no matter how fast we run the centrifuge, 'no chance' isn't a reasonable chance.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    “[S]ince I am powerful myself appointing Bob Hitler into power is analogous to making alliance with Bob Hitler in a war…”

    Well, first of all, I would like it if there were a way to be “co-belligerents” without being “allies.” The former term–and perhaps some aspects of the former reality–set a greater distance between oneself and one's co-belligerents.

    But second, I don't actually agree with the analogy between making someone president of one's own country and making an alliance in a war. Making someone president of one's own country gives him, by an orderly and presumptively politically legitimate process, domestic authority over one's country. “President” is a name of a real, authoritative position over a group of people in a sense that “ally in war” just is not. So I think there's a big difference there and that you are associating yourself with the things Bob Hitler is going to do with his political legitimacy and the power you have conferred upon him as president in ways that you are not associating yourself with things that your allies do–most especially, things they do within their own countries.

  • Tony says:

    I'd be wary of constructing a formula for ignoring the part of the criteria that we don't like. The catechism seems to directly contradict that, in fact, where it says that all of the criteria must apply “at one and the same time.”

    Me too. I don't have any intention of ignoring any of the criteria. I don't mean that the 4 are to be applied other than “at one and the same time.” I merely mean that confidence of success is itself part of the proportionality, and therefore an acceptable degree of probability varies with other aspects of the proportion. A serious chance in one context might mean 80%, and in another it might mean 65%, and in each case (depending on other degrees of the proportion's goods and evils) that might just the sort of assurance needed to be sufficient for just war.

    But even if that were true, it wouldn't help in the case of mass-scale sorites contests, since there is no prospect of 'success' when success is defined as my own act of voting electing the guy I want to win.

    Redefining “success” isn't part of the proportion for just war, so why should it be for voting (since you brought in the analogy)? In just war, success is determined not by the result of our own effort alone, but by that of us and all our allies reasonably expected to work together (as France rightly could have said in WWII). If that jointly worked outcome is a “serious prospect of success” then one of the requirements for just war is met. Earlier you identify to the “outcome” as your candidate winning, not your candidate winning on account of your vote.

  • zippy says:

    Redefining “success” isn't part of the proportion for just war, so why should it be for voting (since you brought in the analogy)?

    I have no idea what you mean, here. I'm not “redefining” success.

    In just war, success is determined not by the result of our own effort alone, but by that of us and all our allies reasonably expected to work together (as France rightly could have said in WWII).

    That is true of all acts, all the time: the outcome is determined by our own acts and by the circumstances. We don't create the world ex nihilo, so everything we do combines our own causal powers with the circumstances in the world.

    In the case of the mass-scale sorites-building contest though the outcome is determined entirely by the circumstances, independent of whether or not I even exist.

    It isn't clarifying to the argument to shift to a different kind of scenario where all of a sudden my contribution to the sorites suddenly matters. All that does is ignore precisely what is at issue, which is the case when I am literally powerless to achieve X either with or without co-belligerents – everyone else is going to do what they do whether or not I participate.

    I've had this discussion enough times now to see that we've reached the point of going in circles though. In your view, apparently, the 'proportionate' requirement when attempting X doesn't require any actual capacity to achieve X. In my view it does. I think my view is backed up by the Tradition, and the just war doctrine makes a good example with its requirement of a reasonable chance of success. You don't think so.

    I'm content for people to do their own follow-up and their own thinking on the subject at this point.

    Lydia:
    I agree that there is something more formal about voting for Bob than in being Bob's co-belligerent in some struggle or other, FWIW.

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