Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Robin Hanson offers an intriguing post at Overcoming Bias on what we want and what we’d like others to think we’d want. (There’s more to his post, but that’s the part we’re interested in.)

Bottom line: We want to get what we want, not just do what we should, and so we want advisors like economists who tell us how to get what we want. But we'd rather be seen as following advisors like moral philosophers who tell us to do what we should.

We don’t disagree, which makes us wonder how some can pull off actions that are seen as clearly immoral. Killing civilians is clearly an immoral action, yet there was still the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of those actions have/had their defenders—we’ll not go into the validity of their arguments—and their defenses generally claim that each was for “The Greater Good”: Jews, Gays, Gypsies, and many, many others were a plague; China needed industrialization to survive; the war needed to end.

We suppose it’s because the ruling powers/voting blocs were taking action against someone else, so they wouldn’t suffer the worst of their decisions. This seems to vindicate Prof. Hanson’s assertion, “But in fact we care only moderately about what we ‘should’ do.”

We doubt the decision-makers would be eager to suffer as much for their Greater Good, but we’re more disillusioned by the willingness of others to accept “The Greater Good” as morally superior to, oh, not indulging in genocide.

For one, it seems the more grand the action, the more vague its purpose. Wikipedia.org features two propaganda posters for its Great Leap Forward entry. Their translations are, “Long live the General Line! Long live the Great Leap Forward! Long live the People's Commune!” and “Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields.” Neither give any indication of a clear goal, much less that goal’s merits. The first is merely an insipid cheer; the second—well, we’re not entirely sure, but we think it’s an exceptionally poor attempt to express cause and effect: “If take steel as the key link, then leap forward in all fields.” Who should take steel? This is written in the second person, so presumably the reader should take steel. Where should the reader take steel? “as key link.” Key link to what? Leaping forward in all fields? But if this is a command, then we must be able to perform at least one of the two—taking steel as key link or leaping forward in all fields. Both commands, however, are written as metaphors and thus are abstract, so we’ll have to choose the more tangible abstraction: Leaping forward in all fields. That’s only slightly less impossible than taking steel as the key link, if only because it’s something someone could physically do, but look! We’re beginning with the effect instead of the cause! The cause is a metaphor, thus we can’t undertake it, thus we can’t leap forward in all fields, but we’ve just shown that we can leap forward in all fields! Did they simply get the cause and effect backwards? How would leaping in fields lead to taking steel as the key link? This explains the fall of Communism.

More to the point, it’s a poor justification of the GG’s supposed moral superiority. You can’t see the consequences of not taking these actions so there’s no basis for comparison; their superiority is just speculation.

We find it disheartening that so many people violently defend immoralities on such shabby and indistinct basis. But then, that’s why were here.