Saturday, June 19, 2004

Understanding Evil - The Matrix Fallacy

I'm afraid I simply don't understand a lot of what goes on in the world. When the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse came to light, my first thought was not "How can they do this?!" or "What sort of barbarians are these?!" or "Aha! the Capitalist Imperialist aggressors show their true nature!" My first thought was "What made them thing this was in any way a good or appealing course of action? Why would anyone derive enjoyment from it?"

I simply don't understand why inflicting pain on a helpless person would be emotionally satisfying. Can someone explain this to me? All the gobbledygook I've heard about validation through power simply fails to help me understand this.

The same with Al Qaeda. My fundamental emotional reaction is not anger -- "The Bastards! They must die!" (though that thought I understand and sympathize with). Nor is it self-doubt -- "Why do they hate us?" Rather, it was confusion. Why do they think crashing airplanes into buildings is a good idea? Why do they hate life? It's hard for my mind to accept the existence of such a mentality.

Another case in which I differ from the vast majority of people is Nozick's Experience Machine. Nozick's thought experiment involves a machine whicc you could program to provide you with the experience of any complete life you wish. Once you were in the machine, you would not know you were in the machine; it would all feel real. Would you go into the machine, or would you stay in your inferior real life?

Nozick says that most people would say no. Initially, this was incomprehensible to me. Why not live a perfect life? The "outside world" won't be real when you're in the machine. Aren't people by nature pleasure-seeking? (Mental pleasure -- the satisfaciton of a life well-lived -- is included in the machine.)

The answer is that people -- at least the people who allegedly wouldn't use this machine -- don't evaluate this logically fron the ground up; they use heuristics, moral rules of thumb. In general, self-deception is a bad thing. On average, it leads to more pain, as you becomes less skillful at dealing with life, and self-doubt, as you worry whether things you like really are so, since you know yourself to be a self-deciever.

The Experience Machine yields a surprising result, useful to Nozick, because it removes precisely those properties of life which make the heuristic valuable. No self-doubt about this self-deception. No chance of backfiring or things catching up to you. The reason you get an unexpected result is because the experiment deliberately confuses the relevant heuristic! It is either foolish or dishonest to reason from this that the rational thing to do is to recognize intrinsic value aside from pleasure. The majority of people might use a ready-made heuristic, but the majority of people would be irrational in this case. The heuristic its still entirely valuable, because nothing like the experience machine exists. No inference can be drawn about real-life self-deception, because real-life self deception has those qualities omitted in the Experience Machine.

In other words, the heuristic (or, as I would call it, the moral principle) against self-deception is rational from the standpoint of a pleasure seeking morality.

While I'm on this topic, I may as well address principle-based morality's benefits or problems compared with a utilitarian one. Utilitrians often say that absolute morality simply cannot address all of life, and tht we must deal with each choice on its own. I say: utilitairanism also cannot deal with all life.

Some information flows are too great to be synthesized effectively. We would be useless blobs if we reasoned each choice from first principles on a utility-maximization basis. Moral principles are heuristics, designed as way of dealing with the confusion of reality effectively without a superhuman mentl effort.

If I say it is immoral to cheat, and that is why I don't cheat at cards, that's not necessarily an intrinsic argument. For me, it's shorthand for a reference to the heuristic I have formed that cheating is bad for utility-maximization -- that it's bad for me. I could, of course, reason each opportunity through, determining the likelihood of getting caught, the damage to my self-esteem, the likely benefits, and the trust-cost, but card games would simply take too long that way. So I don't cheat. I may miss out on one or two rational utility-maximization opportunities every few years, but this is more than made up for by time saved and virtues cultivated.

It occurs to me that bad principles can be understood -- in part as misplaced heuristics. Hard work can be confused with self-denial; independence can be confused with malevolence. Could Al Qaeda simply be operating under bad heuristics? I don't have a conclusion yet, but it's good food for thought.

UPDATE: Yglesias seems to agree with my thoughts at the top of this post, that some evil is simply causeless, the product of a hatred of the good for the sake of hating. The closest I've come to this is when it's felt good to be angry, or sad, and I kept the mood up for as long as I could. But I suspect there are other reasons for that; perhaps I needed the emotional release before getting back to a healthy state of normality.

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