Evil always has more utilitarian options than good

July 10, 2014 § 95 Comments

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating since the same mistake keeps popping up everywhere.

If we attempt to make what “works” – what most effectively or efficiently achieves proximate or this-worldly goals – into a fundamental criteria of politics, we always and necessarily embrace evil.

We exist right now at a particular point in the phase space of all possibilities. The choices we make determine in part, constrained by reality, where we go next. An amoral man (which is the same as an immoral man) has all materially possible choices available in his permutation space of options. A moral man has a more constrained set of choices available to him. The immoral man can as a material matter choose anything the moral man chooses; he can also choose things that the moral man will not choose. In terms of reaching proximate goals – any goal other than Heaven – the immoral man has every option that the moral man has, and many more options besides.

So an immoral man can achieve proximate goals more effectively and efficiently than a moral man in virtually every case.

In short, for an equivalently intelligent and capable person, crime does pay.

So if you are part of a political or economic movement which emphasizes “what works,” or what is practical, or what maximizes material prosperity over what is Good, True, and Beautiful — if you deliberately downplay the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in order to make alliances and get things done — you are the bad guy.

§ 95 Responses to Evil always has more utilitarian options than good

  • peppermint says:

    So much for Dirty Harry.

    But what could he have done differently?

  • jf12 says:

    True.

    But, if some people (the “some people” equivocation is nicely antipositivist, I think) utilize the fact that the elevation of utilitarianism is inherently evil (to some extent) to promote the idea that the Good, True, and/or Beautiful necessarily “works better” since then you don’t have to deal with all the eternal fallout, then that would be Untrue.

  • Zippy says:

    peppermint:

    But what could he have done differently?

    The Magisterium (along with St. Paul) provide an answer:

    Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

  • caethan says:

    I remember the last time you talked about this, I thought the mathematical description you used was very interesting. So let me see if I can restate this in those mathematical terms, which I think clarifies the point.

    We exist in a phase space of possible states, and at each point in time we choose from some large number of possible actions that will transition us to a new state. If we have some objective function over states that we’re trying to maximize (say, personal wealth, political power, or anything else), then we can define a maximum value of that objective function that is reachable from our current state. Morality constrains our actions from the set of all possible actions to the much smaller subset of moral actions, and thus limits the search space for the maximum, and thus lowers the expected maximum achievable value from our current state. This holds for any objective function that 1) doesn’t explicitly include moral constraints and 2) can potentially prefer actions that are not morally allowed.

    I think it’s obvious when stated in these terms (and also obvious when stated in English), but it made me think about a couple of related points. First, is the phase space of states continuous? Maybe there are whole segments of phase space that are disconnected from each other. Even if there weren’t normally, removing immoral transitions from the network would almost certainly make the resulting space disjoint. E.g., we could be in a morally-connected region, and we might want to get into another morally-connected region where our local maximum is, meaning that someone else who was already in that region would be justified in seeking that maximum, but there is no moral path between the two regions.

    The other thought was that this description pretty firmly describes morality as a path function rather than a state function on this phase space. Aside from trivially distinguishing states as “reached morally” or “not reached morally”, states themselves aren’t evaluated morally, paths between states are. That means that when we say a state is immoral, what we mean is that there is no moral path to get there from where we are.

  • Zippy says:

    caethan:

    Maybe there are whole segments of phase space that are disconnected from each other.

    I imagine Heaven as a phase space where all actually available options are moral options. The fact that it is disconnected means that no choices of ours can get us from here to there, which is consistent with Christian theology. Put differently this is an inherently non-Pelagian understanding of moral space.

    That means that when we say a state is immoral, what we mean is that there is no moral path to get there from where we are.

    Yes, precisely. What we evaluate morally is choices, not states.

  • Am I missing something here? Prayer seems like it would fit the criteria of an “option” that evil men don’t have.

    Proverbs 15:29 “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”

    John 9:31 “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”

    James 5:16 “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

    1 Peter 3:12 “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

    The problem with the ‘modern’ church is that good men often fail to exercise spiritual options such as prayer, so it seems like evil has “more choices” than righteousness.

  • caethan says:

    I imagine Heaven as a phase space where all actually available options are moral options. The fact that it is disconnected means that no choices of ours can get us from here to there, which is consistent with Christian theology.

    It seems even stronger than that; if Heaven is fully connected morally as you imagine, then it must be the case that it is disconnected from us. If we could save ourselves into Heaven, then we would also have to be able to damn ourselves from Heaven.

  • Zippy says:

    Deep Strength:

    Prayer seems like it would fit the criteria of an “option” that evil men don’t have.

    Evil men can’t pray?

  • caethan says:

    The other interesting point I see is that if morality is a path function, then it is prima facie wrong to try and evaluate actions using a state function, because no state function can possibly correctly include path analysis. This is so even if it claims to be a moral analysis method such as utilitarianism or consequentialism, which amount to “find the state we want best and move there”. Maybe this was already obvious to other people, but the mathematical formalism helped me understand this on a more intuitive level.

  • @ Zippy

    Evil men can’t pray?

    I thought we were talking about actions and results of such actions as all actions have consequences.

    There are definite differences in what righteous and evil men do as a result, even if in the same action.

    If not, why is it even a point to discuss actions without the consequences as that means nothing?

  • caethan says:

    There are definite differences in what righteous and evil men do as a result, even if in the same action.

    But the difference between the prayers of the righteous and those of the wicked isn’t their own actions, it’s how God acts in response. And I don’t think God’s actions are capturable by the framework we’re discussing here, or by any other such framework.

  • Zippy says:

    Deep Strength:
    When you asked if you were missing something, it appears that the answer is “yes”.

    The OP:

    utilitarian options … what “works” – what most effectively or efficiently achieves proximate or this-worldly goals … materially possible choices … as a material matter … In terms of reaching proximate goals … etc

    If what you are arguing is that a prayerful man can, as a utilitarian act to make himself materially wealthy (a proximate goal), act by praying for riches, then I think you do misunderstand several of the concepts involved. If that isn’t what you are saying then I don’t think you are addressing the content of the OP.

  • @ Zippy

    If what you are arguing is that a prayerful man can, as a utilitarian act to make himself materially wealthy (a proximate goal), act by praying for riches, then I think you do misunderstand several of the concepts involved. If that isn’t what you are saying then I don’t think you are addressing the content of the OP.

    Thanks. That’s why I wanted the clarification.

  • Zippy says:

    DS: Fair enough.

  • Zippy says:

    caethan:

    This is so even if it claims to be a moral analysis method such as utilitarianism or consequentialism, which amount to “find the state we want best and move there”.

    Good insight. Moral ‘teleologists’ are always trying to equate morality with the content of a state (or with the desire or intention of achieving a state with certain content). Deontologists on the other hand locate morality in “paths” – in the moral quality of specific choices of action.

    The ‘natural evil’ / ‘moral evil’ distinction seems to be a distinction between state and path too: thus the traditional charge by deontologists that proportionalists/consequentialists conflate them.

    I’m mulling what this might mean for the Problem of Evil, for that matter.

    Anyway your comments are interesting and there may be more insights to be drawn from them.

  • jf12 says:

    re: “is the phase space of states continuous”

    No. There are plenty of actions that I literally cannot do, and trying doesn’t count. There are even plenty of actions that others can do that I cannot do.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    caethan,
    Human acts are incalculable and thus the metaphor of phase space of choices etc should not be carried too far.

    Human choices do not form phase spaces, mathematically speaking. To talk of continuity or lack of it of such a “phase space” is an error.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    Morality as defined by the set of prohibitions is, I should think, the very lowest level of what a man should do.
    Not to murder my neighbor today is moral, indeed, but hardly the way to live agreeably with him. So, the good man has indeed plenty of choices that are not available to the bad man. The way of graceful conduct is essentially limitless to the good man and unavailable to the bad man, even considered on strictly worldly realms.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:
    The following are two distinct claims:

    1) Morality definitely is a constraint on available choices (enter through the narrow gate and all that). This is what caethan and I are discussing, with a mathematical analogy.

    2) Morality is nothing but (ahem) constraint on available choices. Nobody has asserted this, but it is possible that it is what you are arguing against.

    As for this:

    So, the good man has indeed plenty of choices that are not available to the bad man. The way of graceful conduct is essentially limitless to the good man and unavailable to the bad man, even considered on strictly worldly realms.

    That sounds like something that would be very agreeable if it were actually true, and would certainly make the Joel Osteens of the world happy; but you’d have to provide examples of worldly utilitarian choices aimed at proximate goods that a good man is materially capable of making but a bad man is literally not materially capable of making.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    I do think that the overly mathematical and geometric approach misleads here. The bad man may be literally unable to conceive of some graceful conduct or choice i.e. choice as to friendship or trade rather than war.
    Material capability is irrelevant. Spiritual capability is.

    There is no pre-existing space of possible actions. Either murder or not.
    Either lie or not. There are infinite and non-computable ways of speaking truth, some more graceful than others. Also
    A truth told with bad intent
    Beats all the lies one can invent

    The scientistic way of talking about morality as a path or what not though a phase space is inappropriate,in fact, highly positivistic.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Are the Biblical Proverbs that talk of prosperity of righteous misleading and errant?

    Are the prosperous more likely to be immoral?

  • vishmehr24 says:

    “So an immoral man can achieve proximate goals more effectively and efficiently than a moral man in virtually every case”

    So sin does NOT make you stupid and the liar does NOT get entangled in his web of lies.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    Material capability is irrelevant. Spiritual capability is.

    So if you change the subject, you can claim that I’m wrong.

    Material capability is irrelevant to the achievement of material goals?

    The scientistic way of talking about morality as a path or what not though a phase space is inappropriate,in fact, highly positivistic.

    You don’t like the analogy, and you think I should shut up about it because the truth is upsetting. But if we lie to people and tell them crime never pays – proximately – and morality doesn’t constrain, all that does is make us into liars or madmen.

    Are the [maximally] prosperous more likely to be immoral?

    Yes. I know a few self made billionaires and a few very holy people. The intersection set is null.

    So sin does NOT make you stupid and the liar does NOT get entangled in his web of lies.

    You have a habit of missing the point and of arguing against things not asserted.

  • Zippy says:

    By the way I am still waiting for examples of worldly utilitarian choices aimed at proximate goods that a good man is materially capable of making but a bad man is literally not materially capable of making.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    The scientistic way of talking about morality as a path or what not though a phase space is inappropriate,in fact, highly positivistic.

    Where exactly is the positivism in saying, “x is true about this concept”? Positivism would be saying, “This concept is limited to nothing but x.”

  • jf12 says:

    re: “There is no pre-existing space of possible actions.”

    One such pre-existing space is the verbal description of possible actions, whose dimensions are words. A path in this space is a describle sequence of possible actions.

  • caethan says:

    I’m mulling what this might mean for the Problem of Evil, for that matter.

    It’s got me thinking about Original Sin. If Heaven is a morally-connected phase space where all possible actions are moral, then it follows that not only is this world disconnected from Heaven, but even a contingently sinless (i.e., pre-Fall) world is disconnected from Heaven. Only in an ontologically sinless world could it be possible to enter Heaven through one’s own actions. It follows that Pelagianism necessarily implies that whatever someone chooses to do must be moral.

  • caethan says:

    That suggests to me that part of what Original Sin means is to be inextricably linked to the kind of world we live in. And that to be cleansed of Original Sin requires not just a change in me but a change in what it means to be me. I can’t save myself by walking the right path in phase space, Someone else has to change the paths I am bound in so that they all lead towards Heaven.

  • Zippy says:

    caethan:

    Only in an ontologically sinless world could it be possible to enter Heaven through one’s own actions.

    … in which case we would already be there :).

  • caethan says:

    … in which case we would already be there :).

    Indeed! Pelagianism is trying to call this world Heaven and make it stick.

  • Graham says:

    Hi Zippy,

    First time commenter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you’re driving at in this article is a partial explanation for why, in this world, evil seems so often to triumph over good. You’ve observed that crime frequently does pay, and you’d like to spell out why.

    Evil men can’t pray?

    I think the conclusion you reach in this article relies on a certain trick of definition. Since you characterize a moral man as unwilling to take evil actions, it might be fair to characterize an immoral man as unwilling to take good actions.

    The good man is good insofar as he does good and avoids evil. For symmetry, then, the evil man is evil insofar as he does evil and avoids good. Thus by definition, sincere prayer, as other goods not done for the sake of appearances, are not available to the evil man, because in performing them he ceases to be evil. Like a good man in performing evil ceases to be good.

    That would restrict the options available to the evil man considerably, perhaps for argument’s sake making them equal in quantity to the good man’s. But the root observation, that crime frequently pays, still holds true. I couldn’t say why, but if I’m right, it seems that the explanation for this is darker than immoral men simply having more options to choose from and out-playing the good men. Evil is easy and feels good, and in a fallen world, vain men, in a kind of conspiracy, collectively reward the evil acts and punish the good acts of other men.

    I hope you found that constructive. Your blog is great.

  • jf12 says:

    Apropos of something, the time-dependent maze can have very many solutions. If the maze changes are frequent enough and random enough then almost every strategy that involves constant motion will *eventually* be a winning strategy. If the changes are quite slow and/or predictable, then any of the static strategies (e.g. the right hand rule) are fine if you move fast enough, suitably projected with predictions. I think that only if the changes exhibit a sort of Wolfram’s Class 4 behavior can a changing maze be often unsolvable by constant motion.

    If the here-and-now paths aren’t actually connected to the yonder-later paths, then there’s no point in moving at all if you’re just going to get divinely translated.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    Since you characterize a moral man as unwilling to take evil actions, it might be fair to characterize an immoral man as unwilling to take good actions.

    I personally know a junkie who voluntarily attends church and – so far as I can tell – genuinely loves his family and God.

    A lot of the people at the march for life are also gay marriage advocates.

    Hitler loved his mother and made sure she was comfortable and well looked after when she got cancer.

    I’m sure Stalin kissed his kids goodnight.

    The idea that evil men are unwilling to perform any good actions whatsoever is a load if I’ve ever seen one.

    You seem to be defining “evil man” as “one who will necessarily always choose evil”. That just doesn’t match reality. An evil man is a man who is willing to choose evil. He doesn’t necessarily always choose evil.

    Thus by definition, sincere prayer, as other goods not done for the sake of appearances, are not available to the evil man, because in performing them he ceases to be evil.

    We’re not talking about a whether a man is overall “good” or overall “evil”. We’re talking about how many paths are materially available to accomplish a certain end.

    A moral man is only capable of choosing moral means.

    An immoral man is capable of choosing both moral means and immoral means.

    I couldn’t say why, but if I’m right, it seems that the explanation for this is darker than immoral men simply having more options to choose from and out-playing the good men.

    Just because the fact that evil men have more options is a reason doesn’t make it the only reason. In fact, trying to limit the concept to nothing but “evil men have more options” may very well be positivist.

    Evil is easy and feels good, and in a fallen world, vain men, in a kind of conspiracy, collectively reward the evil acts and punish the good acts of other men.

    Which is one more evil choice available to evil men and not to good men.

  • Zippy says:

    Matthew 7:13 is old wisdom that the modern world has attempted to bury. I’m just stating it in current language with a mathematical analogy.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    @Graham

    I think the conclusion you reach in this article relies on a certain trick of definition. Since you characterize a moral man as unwilling to take evil actions, it might be fair to characterize an immoral man as unwilling to take good actions.

    Yes. Midway through the post Zippy changed the consistency of the actions and intents of the good/moral man and evil/immoral man. The initial understanding was consistently good-acting vs. consistently evil-acting.

    Additionally (and more problematically for anyone trying to use this line of argument to suss out the reality of choices and morals) the goals themselves have been treated as neutral. So it’s presented that the good man has the exact same range of goals as the the evil one (e.g., Trying to get rich is considered a neutral goal), for which the evil man has more options thanthe good man. That news has been furthered presented as a sobering fact about the reality of our “phase space”. It’s not. The goal of being rich is not even in the phase space of a good man. Therefore the limitations don’t even exist, and this model isn’t even wrong.

    The treatment of prayer has been childish. I don’t mean to be rude; that’s the most accurate description. The evil man literally cannot pray “Thy will be done” and remain the evil man. Him mumbling a demand or even a request for, say, wealth or even “make Grandma healthy” is neither the understanding nor the truth of the reality of prayer that a good man would know. Whatever the evil man says then is not even prayer; at least not one with an outcome which we should consider as a success within the proposed model. It’s not an option for him.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    The initial understanding was consistently good-acting vs. consistently evil-acting.

    Um… no. Where are you pulling that from? I can’t seem to find it anywhere in the OP, even implicitly. I’m genuinely curious what words precisely gave you that impression.

    Besides, what use would that model be in reality? There is no such thing as a human who does nothing but good or nothing but evil.

    Additionally (and more problematically for anyone trying to use this line of argument to suss out the reality of choices and morals) the goals themselves have been treated as neutral.

    Um… no. They’re just not the topic being discussed. We’re talking about means, not ends.

    You can use non-evil means to an evil end, making the action evil by merit of its end. You can use evil means to a non-evil end, making the action evil by merit of its means. In order for an action to be morally acceptable, it must use good/neutral means to reach a good/neutral end.

    The immoral man has a wider range of options than the moral man because he has no problem with using evil. Whatever his intended ends – be they evil, good, or neutral – he has more options for how to get there. He is capable of choosing an evil path as well as a good/neutral one.

    So it’s presented that the good man has the exact same range of goals as the the evil one

    Again, where are you getting this from?

    Therefore the limitations don’t even exist,

    Um… no. The means of “mugging an innocent man” for the end of “accumulating wealth” doesn’t become any more acceptable if we change the end to “treat my sick and dying mother”.

    Limitations on what actions we may and may not perform remain regardless of what we intend to accomplish by those actions.

    IOW, again, we’re talking about means, not ends.

    The evil man literally cannot pray “Thy will be done” and remain the evil man.

    People believe self-contradictory things all the time. Just look at the vast numbers of libertarians in the world proclaiming free and equal rights.

    Whatever the evil man says then is not even prayer; at least not one with an outcome which we should consider as a success within the proposed model.

    Just because a means is more likely to achieve one end then another doesn’t make it any less available.

    Just because the means of prayer is a lot less likely to win me the lottery than to bring comfort to my sick and dying mother doesn’t mean I can’t employ it as a means for either end.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    Just to be a clear, an evil end can make an otherwise good action morally unacceptable. However, a good end can’t an evil action morally acceptable.

  • Zippy says:

    I see no particular reason to believe that (e.g.) a mobster’s or drug dealer’s prayers aren’t prayers. Perhaps God has revealed differently to Cane.

    Maybe if enough derision and high dudgeon is mustered it will be possible to obscure the substantive point underneath a blanket of attitude. But let’s use a concrete example to cut through some of that fog.

    Suppose the specific proximate goal under consideration is to rescue a hostage. Suppose we have the hostage-taker’s family in custody, just for laughs.

    The morally acceptable tactical options are a subset of all materially possible tactical options; and in some cases a morally unacceptable tactical option will be more effective or efficient, in terms of achieving the proximate goal. Depending on the hostage taker, for example, the most effective way to get him to surrender might be to rape or torture his wife, or to threaten to do so. Therefore the man who is willing to do evil has all of the tactical options that the good man has, and also, in addition, all of the morally evil options.

    Morality constrains action, and constraint of action reduces effectiveness and efficiency in achieving proximate goals. Less free energy, more difficulty getting from A to B — if it is even possible to get from A to B.

    Resisting the conclusion is ridiculous, but many modern Christians resist it nonetheless. Probably because they have been formed in heretical ‘teleological’ or state-based understandings of morality.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    @JSG

    Where are you pulling that from? I can’t seem to find it anywhere in the OP, even implicitly. I’m genuinely curious what words precisely gave you that impression.

    Zippy wrote:

    An amoral man (which is the same as an immoral man) has all materially possible choices available in his permutation space of options. A moral man has a more constrained set of choices available to him.

    The tense he used was perfect. Each choice by the moral man moral; each by the immoral one, immoral.

    We’re talking about means, not ends.

    You keep saying that like you think it’s a legitimate point, but ends are means.

    People believe self-contradictory things all the time. Just look at the vast numbers of libertarians in the world proclaiming free and equal rights.

    My comment was not about cognitive dissonance.

    Just because the means of prayer is a lot less likely to win me the lottery than to bring comfort to my sick and dying mother doesn’t mean I can’t employ it as a means for either end.

    Praying “Thy will be done” and wishing for God to give you a pony are not really the same thing; even if you end both by uttering “Amen”.

    Um…no.

    I would strongly encourage you to foreswear that phrase, or at least limit yourself to once per post. It’s a sad and passive-aggressive attempt at irony. It’s also tired and girly.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    The tense he used was perfect. Each choice by the moral man moral; each by the immoral one, immoral.

    Except that’s not what he said. You quoted it yourself. He said the immoral man has “all materially possible choices available”. He did not say the immoral man always chooses evil.

    You keep saying that like you think it’s a legitimate point, but ends are means.

    So things are things that they’re not? All is one? That’s good to know. I’m off to convert to Buddhism guys. See you later.

    My comment was not about cognitive dissonance.

    Nevertheless it is a counter example. Plenty of men who do evil things also genuinely pray.

    Praying “Thy will be done” and wishing for God to give you a pony are not really the same thing; even if you end both by uttering “Amen”.

    So where exactly is the positivist line of demarcation between prayer and not prayer?

    I would strongly encourage you to foreswear that phrase, or at least limit yourself to once per post. It’s a sad and passive-aggressive attempt at irony. It’s also tired and girly.

    Do you have a point to make, or are you just hurling insults?

    *insert passive-aggressive mumbling here*

  • Cane Caldo says:

    I see no particular reason to believe that (e.g.) a mobster’s or drug dealer’s prayers aren’t prayers. Perhaps God has revealed differently to Cane.

    “I said the words!”

    Depending on the hostage taker, for example, the most effective way to get him to surrender might be to rape or torture his wife, or to threaten to do so. Therefore the man who is willing to do evil has all of the tactical options that the good man has, and also, in addition, all of the morally evil options.

    Haha! Right, because as we all know: “The rapaciousness of a pragmatic man availeth much”, and, “if you have a mustard seed of rape you can move hostages.”

    I agreed with your start…

    If we attempt to make what “works” – what most effectively or efficiently achieves proximate or this-worldly goals – into a fundamental criteria of politics, we always and necessarily embrace evil.

    …because you put works in quotes. I thought you were saying that it DOESN’T work from the eternal perspective. That is the only perspective that matters. And so I wholeheartedly agreed with your closing paragraph:

    So if you are part of a political or economic movement which emphasizes “what works,” or what is practical, or what maximizes material prosperity over what is Good, True, and Beautiful — if you deliberately downplay the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in order to make alliances and get things done — you are the bad guy.

    But what was in-between was just nonsense. The good man has resort to God, the evil man does not, and that is all the difference in the world. That is the good beautiful truth.

    If solutions are keys, and the problem is a lock, your argument (not your beginning declaration and not your conclusion, but your argument) is that the good man is constrained because he only has the one key that works, while the evil man has “the benefit” of one thousand keys which will not.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    @JSG

    Except that’s not what he said. You quoted it yourself. He said the immoral man has “all materially possible choices available”. He did not say the immoral man always chooses evil.

    If we do not stipulate (at least implicitly) for the sake of the argument that the immoral man is immoral by dint of his choosing immoral actions, then all you’ve done is greyed up what was supposed to be a comparison of the black versus white.

    So yes: It was poorly argued, and that poor argument did not lead to the correct conclusion. Zippy knows and even stated the correct conclusion, but he got there by some other means than he argued.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    If we do not stipulate (at least implicitly) for the sake of the argument that the immoral man is immoral by dint of his choosing immoral actions, then all you’ve done is greyed up what was supposed to be a comparison of the black versus white.

    Except no man is completely black or completely white. If our model conforms to reality, it just is shades of grey.

    No man is nothing but good or nothing but evil.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    If solutions are keys, and the problem is a lock, your argument (not your beginning declaration and not your conclusion, but your argument) is that the good man is constrained because he only has the one key that works, while the evil man has “the benefit” of one thousand keys which will not.

    While I agree that the only thing that matters in the end is reaching Heaven, I’m afraid you’ve thrown a red herring.

    We’re talking about proximate goals. We’re not talking about the final goal – the only goal that matters in eternity.

    A bank robber’s proximate goal is certainly not reaching Heaven. That doesn’t mean his goal doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean he isn’t using a means to reach his intended end.

    A pro-life advocate protesting outside an abortion clinic has a proximate goal of “prevent murder”. If his only goal in protesting is “reach Heaven” – if he lacks the goal “prevent murder” – then the act is selfish and cheap.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    @JSG

    I suspect that you’re just being obstinate now and refusing to recognize what is meant by the words model, sake of the argument, and stipulate. Nor do you seem to understand that while this is true of reality…

    Except no man is completely black or completely white.

    …it’s inclusion in the model destroys the model’s premise. If both men (in the model, I say!) are morally grey, then both men have moral and immoral options available. Now we have moved from a potentially instructive comparison of moral versus immoral to an ignorant and agnostic comparison of immoral versus immoral.

    If our model conforms to reality, it just is shades of grey.

    No man is nothing but good or nothing but evil.

    While I have some basic disagreements with Zippy’s ideas on positivism, I believe I understand it. If I do, then that statement is wrongheaded.

    Either way: I leave you to it.

  • Zippy says:

    JSG:
    In my experience there is little point in arguing with Cane when he starts throwing hissy fits and pretending everyone is saying things they manifestly are not.

  • Zippy says:

    Cane has himself all worked up over the words “good man” and “evil man”, because he is paying no attention to what people mean by those words in the discussion. A man willing to do only good has a certain set of tactical options available to him to rescue the hostage. A man willing to do evil has all of those tactical options, and more. No amount of bluster can change that, but it may be instructive to see how hard some people will try to obfuscate it.

  • jf12 says:

    @JSG re: “Just to be a clear, an evil end can make an otherwise good action morally unacceptable. However, a good end can’t an evil action morally acceptable.”

    Correct. This is in itself makes Zippy’s point, especially with the fact that a path comprises a multitude of choices of means.

  • jf12 says:

    re: “Plenty of men who do evil things also genuinely pray.”

    Lord, forgive me.

  • Zippy says:

    Indeed, I’ve seen people argue that in “hard cases” you should just go ahead and use evil means, and then pray to God to forgive you. In the Great Waterboarding Debate I called this the “Matthew 16:26 Gambit”.

  • […] Morality constrains action. A man willing to do evil has all the same tactical options that a man unwilling to do evil has, plus the additional immoral tactical options that the good man will not choose. Consider some uncontroversially worthy worldly goals: […]

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    I suspect that you’re just being obstinate now and refusing to recognize what is meant by the words model, sake of the argument, and stipulate.

    Do you have a point, or are you just hurling insults? If you think I’ve abused, equivocated, or been ignorant about any of those words, please feel free to point out specific instances.

    Nor do you seem to understand that while this is true of reality…

    Except no man is completely black or completely white.

    …it’s inclusion in the model destroys the model’s premise. If both men (in the model, I say!) are morally grey, then both men have moral and immoral options available.

    Alright. Fair enough. Let me try to rephrase it in a way that makes a bit more sense.

    Action x is about to be performed. Person y is going to perform it. What sorts of choices person y tends to be inclined to make at times other than the time of action x are irrelevant. If – at the time of action x – person y is willing to choose evil, he has more options for what x might be. If – at the time of action x – person y is unwilling to choose evil, he has less options for what x might be.

    While I have some basic disagreements with Zippy’s ideas on positivism, I believe I understand it. If I do, then that statement is wrongheaded.

    Well that’s a little vague. I can’t even comment on it because I don’t really know what I’d be commenting on. Did you intend to add something substantive to the conversation?

  • Graham says:

    @Zippy

    A man willing to do only good has a certain set of tactical options available to him to rescue the hostage. A man willing to do evil has all of those tactical options, and more. No amount of bluster can change that, but it may be instructive to see how hard some people will try to obfuscate it.

    According to that characterization you are right of course. My point was simply that the characterization applied to the good man and the evil man was asymmetrical, in that the good man by definition only does good and ceases to be good when he does evil, but the evil man apparently does both good and evil, and remains an evil man even while doing good. In short I was digging behind your premises, not denying the consequences of your premises. You have indirect scriptural support for this point of view, however, and I’m taking that into consideration as I think about it. It has been interesting.

  • […] Catholic has a fantastic series of quick but illuminating posts (Part one, two, three, and four) on how our Christian faith will never be optimized to worldly success as a […]

  • vishmehr24 says:

    jf12
    “One such pre-existing space is the verbal description of possible actions, whose dimensions are words. A path in this space is a describle sequence of possible actions.”

    Zippy has been trying to teach here that the meaning is NOT exhausted by the words. Your idea is pure positivism.

  • jf12 says:

    @vishmehr24, being a physical scientist by nature as well as nurture I’m especially immune to concerns of positivism. I fall into the utilitarian camp on this. Is the model working good enough? Then it is a good enough model. period.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    …being a physical scientist by nature as well as nurture I’m especially immune to concerns of positivism…

    That’s extremely funny. Scientwits tend to be even more likely to make positivist errors than everyman.

    In biology, positivism has led generations of scientwits to believe that any metaphysically naturalist explanation at all, no matter how ludicrous in the face of evidence and reason, is better than just admitting what we don’t know. Thus neodarwinism.

    In physics, positivism has led generations of scientwits to search for a formal ‘theory of everything’, despite the fact that this has been known to be mathematically impossible since the 1930’s. So someone like Peter Woit is considered a gadfly while someone like Edward Witten is considered a sage.

  • caethan says:

    My experience as a scientist and an advisor to trainee scientists is that knowing when you don’t know the answer is one of the most important skills to learn if you want to do productive scientific research. I’ve seen multiple people get led down paths that wasted years of their time trying to defend a hypothesis they came up with in 30 seconds while answering a question during a talk or seminar rather than admit that they don’t know the answer.

  • Zippy says:

    caethan:
    My biophysics professor and my molecular biology professor were a study in contrasts. The former was extremely circumspect about going beyond what we actually know, and he was one of the best instructors I’ve had. The latter was a hack ideologue, and he finished the course with a powerpoint slide of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  • SirNemesis says:

    I’m not religious, so I don’t believe in heaven or hell. Thus, I advocate justice in the material world. In my view, the goal of morality is to make it such that the moral options BECOME the more utilitarian options; thus, a moral person is no longer handicapped relative to an amoral person (and indeed a person with immoral (rather than simply amoral) instincts might actually be handicapped because the utility-optimal moral behavior is not natural to him.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    the goal of morality is to make it such that the moral options BECOME the more utilitarian options;

    Part of the thesis of the OP is that that’s not possible.

  • Zippy says:

    SirNemesis:

    In my view, the goal of morality is to make it such that the moral options BECOME the more utilitarian options

    Let me see if I can restate this.

    The reality of action-constraining moral norms is stipulated: e.g. it is morally wrong to murder. We’ll presume for the sake of argument that there is agreement on what constitutes the set of natural law moral norms, even though there probably is not.

    In the real world as we actually find it, crime sometimes pays. Therefore we must reshape the world through politics and technology to make it such that crime never pays. The job is never done until we have eliminated all possibility for crime to pay: until we have achieved Heaven on earth, to as great a degree as the laws of physics allow.

    Is that an accurate restatement?

  • caethan says:

    Off-topic, but as I know you’re interested in physics formalism and metaphysics, did you see the recent work with hydrodynamic analogs of quantum systems? See, e.g., http://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20140624-fluid-tests-hint-at-concrete-quantum-reality/

    It’s fascinating; these men have built a system in which macroscopic oil droplets can be persuaded to follow quantum mechanical trajectories using an analog of self-propagating pilot wave mechanics. I’ve been judging the physicists and other scientists I know based on whether they recognize that these experiments should update our preferred choice of competing QM formalisms, to wit, that the Copenhagen model just became less plausible.

  • jf12 says:

    @caethan, I happen to agree with Tony Leggett’s opinion about this, if that helps you to pigeonhole me.

    If there *can* be no testable consequences to assuming an extraneous wave-thingey-doodle, what would Occam say?

  • Zippy says:

    caethan:
    Looks very interesting, I’ll check it out.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    Infinities possess counter-intuitive mathematical properties. Is the infinite set of moral possibilities really smaller than the infinite set of non-moral possibilities?

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:
    If a person were faced with an actual infinity of options for a particular choice, he would need an actual infinity of time to even think of them all let alone consider and choose a particular one. So in practice a finite choosing subject acting at a particular moment in time in pursuit of a specific proximate goal is making a choice from among finite options.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Human action is fundamentally non-computable, thus your algorithmic picture is hopelessly simplistic.

    The options can not be said to be “finite” since human acts can not be limited. Before a person acts, you could never say that he faces a finite number of options out of which he must choose one. There is no such finite set.

    Even to say that there is a finite set, is the height of positivism.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    “he would need an actual infinity of time to even think of them”
    You have a wrong algorithmic picture of human acts.
    A person can act with the spirit of intuition.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    You have a wrong algorithmic picture of human acts.

    Are you suggesting that because the OP does not provide a complete formal characterization of human acts, that the definite point made cannot be true?

  • Hrodgar says:

    Merely because a set is non-computable, or even non-quantifiable, does not make it infinite. This is similar to one of William Brigg’s pet peeves: namely, the constant drive to quantify all probabilities.

    Furthermore, there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1. There are also an infinite number of values between 0 and 2. This does not mean that 1 is not less than 2. So even if humans have an actually infinite number of possible decisions, the available moral options are still less than the available moral options plus the available immoral options.

  • jf12 says:

    vishmehr evidently urges us all to be immobilized by Zeno’s paradox.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Infinite is only a metaphor to convey the incalculableness of the human act.
    My point is that this incalculableness makes dubious Zippy’s analogy to the phase space. Any conclusion drawn from this analogy is dubious. However, the conclusion may be argued on other grounds.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    Problem is NOT that “OP OP does not provide a complete formal characterization of human acts”
    Problem is that you are inappropriately trying to formalize something that is essentially non-formalizable.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:
    You can attack the phase space analogy all day without calling into question the point made by the OP. A man willing to do good has the morally good options available to him; a man willing to do evil has all of the morally good options plus the morally evil options that the former will not choose.

    I think the analogy helps provide insight into the point, for those capable of grasping it. Nobody has ever pretended that human acts are completely formalizable as nothing but a phase space, so you keep attacking a straw man. And that the analogy doesn’t help you personally doesn’t call into question the central point of the OP.

    If you wanted to effectively attack the point made in the OP, you would have to (say) give examples of tactics for rescuing a hostage that are available to a man unwilling to do evil that are not available to the man willing to do evil. Otherwise you are just foot-stomping; and a metaphysical tantrum is not an argument.

  • Catholic Economist says:

    Problem is that you are inappropriately trying to formalize something that is essentially non-formalizable.

    TL;DR version of vishmehr24’s argument: “The map is not the territory, so what’s the point of drawing maps?”

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    The main objection I make is you encourage positivism and scienticism by making such inappropriate analogies.
    You keep talking of material possibilities as if there are pre-existent possibilities. There is none such.

  • Basically, Mal from “Firefly” has more options than Batman, and the Joker has more options than both of them.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    From an immoral man having more options than a moral man, how does it follow that
    “So an immoral man can achieve proximate goals more effectively and efficiently than a moral man in virtually every case”

    Person ‘A’ may well have n (good)+ m (evil) options and person B having only n (good) options.

    Person A may choose a good or an evil option, by assumption that A is immoral.
    Person B chooses a good option, by assumption that B is immoral.

    Then how does it follow that A is more likely to realize his goal than B?
    Doesn’t it depend upon what exact options are chosen?

    Or you are relying upon A and B being optimizers that would choose an optimum solution of the some existing set of options.

    But this is precisely the thing I doubt adequately describes the space of human choices and the mode of human act.

    And my point about the in-errancy of Proverbs of Solomon is ignored.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    But this is precisely the thing I doubt adequately describes the space of human choices and the mode of human act.

    Saying “I doubt it” is just a description of your personal mental state though. It doesn’t actually address any argument I’ve made.

  • jf12 says:

    re: ignored. The *worldy* prosperity of the wicked does occupy a lot more Biblical phase space than you think it should?

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    I’m pretty sure that folks who understand enthalpy and believe their lying eyes will ‘get’ the analogy. But I followed up with concrete examples to make it easier on non-nerds who haven’t taken thermodynamics.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    Have you given an argument or a pseudo-scientific analogy (why “phase space”, why not just “space”?)

    Is thermodynamics an adequate model for human acts?

  • Catholic Economist says:

    Is thermodynamics an adequate model for human acts?

    vishmehr24-

    Not to speak for Zippy, but could you define what you mean by adequate? I have a feeling this is where you are getting hung up…

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Catholic Economist,
    Asking for a definition is so positivistic. How can I demarcate adequate from inadequate?

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    @ vishmehr:

    You’re sounding dangerously postmodernist there buddy. How can you ask Zippy if his model is adequate and then claim it’s impossible to know if it’s adequate? Seems a lot like the postmodern, “Since positivism is false, definite knowledge is impossible.”

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    IOW, just because a definition can’t be complete doesn’t mean it can’t be accurate.

  • Catholic Economist says:

    Asking for a definition is so positivistic. How can I demarcate adequate from inadequate?

    Ok. Now that you have gotten your catty little remark out of the way, would you like to attempt an answer?

  • vishmehr24 says:

    ‘Inadequate” is an euphemism used in scientific writing for “totally, hopelessly wrong”.

    Am I a gas atom that my behavior be be modelled by thermodynamics?
    Of all the things in the world, the human act is least like to be modelled by thermodynamics and phase spaces and optimizations.

  • Catholic Economist says:

    ‘Inadequate” is an euphemism used in scientific writing for “totally, hopelessly wrong”.

    You do all understand that all models are wrong by definition, correct? Therefore, criticizing a model for being “wrong” is tautological. However, just because a model is false, doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful for understanding some aspect of reality.

    Am I a gas atom that my behavior be be modelled by thermodynamics?

    Do demand curves slope downward? I’m pretty sure they do. How do I know? In part because a model of human behavior based on unrealistic assumptions featuring an optimization exercise predicts that they usually will. Moreover, the predictions derived from this optimization problem are consistent with existing empirical evidence, which is always nice…

    Of all the things in the world, the human act is least like to be modelled by thermodynamics and phase spaces and optimizations.

    Indeed, modeling human behavior is intrinsically difficult, but not impossible. I agree that there are far too many individuals (especially in my line of work…) that take their models of human behavior too seriously, but that is not indictment against the use of models.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    @ Catholic Economist:

    IOW, just because a model can’t be complete doesn’t mean it can’t accurately describe certain aspects of a thing.

    Vishmehr thinks he’s rejected positivism, but he’s still caught up in it. To be fair, it takes awhile to wrap your head around it and really get the process of weeding it out of your argumentation going.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Catholic Economist,
    I would not say that models are wrong tautologically, but a model is useful or not in a given situation.

    The economic models deal with particular type and aspect of human act (buying and selling) that may be amenable to modeling. Even here, evidence is none too good that it can be done.

    But Zippy is talking of modeling the human act as such. Everything, love, hate, war, creativity,

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Given that the moral man is constrained by his sense of right and wrong. the conclusion that
    “an immoral man can achieve proximate goals more effectively and efficiently than a moral man in virtually every case”

    appears too strong. Virtually every case??

    I would rather picture morality as a path that leads the moral person to a entirely a new space or dimension of graceful conduct.

    And this space is not open to the immoral person that is willing to countenance evil acts.

    So, by entertaining evil acts, we close ourselves to the immense possibilities of good acts.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    appears too strong. Virtually every case??

    See what happens when you actually cite my words? A substantive question appears amidst the torrent of straw men.

    In arid hypotheticals, protagonists pursue one well-defined proximate goal with a few simple options and one or two steps to carry them out. But real life involves complex clusters of proximate goals and options.

    But even if someone objects to “virtually every case” – because they interpret it as isolated hypotheticals rather than reality – in general, men willing to do evil will be more materially empowered in pursuing their various proximate goals than men unwilling to do evil. If this weren’t the case, evil wouldn’t tempt.

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