Oct 21, 2008
Followup to: Ethical Injunctions
During World War II, Knut Haukelid and three other saboteurs sank a civilian Norwegian ferry ship, the SF Hydro, carrying a shipment of deuterium for use as a neutron moderator in Germany's atomic weapons program. Eighteen dead, twenty-nine survivors. And that was the end of the Nazi nuclear program. Can you imagine a Hollywood movie in which the hero did that, instead of coming up with some amazing clever way to save the civilians on the ship?
Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt published the work of an anonymous economist turned bagelseller, Paul F., who dropped off baskets of bagels and came back to collect money from a cashbox, and also collected statistics on payment rates. The current average payment rate is 89%. Paul F. found that people on the executive floor of a company steal more bagels; that people with security clearances don't steal any fewer bagels; that telecom companies have robbed him and that law firms aren't worth the trouble.
Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes) once said: "I don't know what's worse, the fact that everyone's got a price, or the fact that their price is so low."
If Knut Haukelid sold his soul, he held out for a damned high price—the end of the Nazi atomic weapons program.
Others value their integrity less than a bagel.
One suspects that Haukelid's price was far higher than most people would charge, if you told them to never sell out. Maybe we should stop telling people they should never let themselves be bought, and focus on raising their price to something higher than a bagel?
But I really don't know if that's enough.
The German philosopher Fichte once said, "I would not break my word even to save humanity."
Raymond Smullyan, in whose book I read this quote, seemed to laugh and not take Fichte seriously.
Abraham Heschel said of Fichte, "His salvation and righteousness were apparently so much more important to him than the fate of all men that he would have destroyed mankind to save himself."
I don't think they get it.
If a serial killer comes to a confessional, and confesses that he's killed six people and plans to kill more, should the priest turn him in? I would answer, "No." If not for the seal of the confessional, the serial killer would never have come to the priest in the first place. All else being equal, I would prefer the world in which the serial killer talks to the priest, and the priest gets a chance to try and talk the serial killer out of it.
I use the example of a priest, rather than a psychiatrist, because a psychiatrist might be tempted to break confidentiality "just this once", and the serial killer knows that. But a Catholic priest who broke the seal of the confessional—for any reason—would face universal condemnation from his own church. No Catholic would be tempted to say, "Well, it's all right because it was a serial killer."
I approve of this custom and its absoluteness, and I wish we had a rationalist equivalent.
The trick would be establishing something of equivalent strength to a Catholic priest who believes God doesn't want him to break the seal, rather than the lesser strength of a psychiatrist who outsources their tape transcriptions to Pakistan. Otherwise serial killers will, quite sensibly, use the Catholic priests instead, and get less rational advice.
Suppose someone comes to a rationalist Confessor and says: "You know, tomorrow I'm planning to wipe out the human species using this neat biotech concoction I cooked up in my lab." What then? Should you break the seal of the confessional to save humanity?
It appears obvious to me that the issues here are just those of the one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma, and I do not consider it obvious that you should defect on the one-shot PD if the other player cooperates in advance on the expectation that you will cooperate as well.
There are issues with trustworthiness and how the sinner can trust the rationalist's commitment. It is not enough to be trustworthy; you must appear so. But anything that mocks the appearance of trustworthiness, while being unbound from its substance, is a poor signal; the sinner can follow that logic as well. Perhaps once neuroimaging is a bit more advanced, we could have the rationalist swear under a truthtelling machine that they would not break the seal of the confessional even to save humanity.
There's a proverb I failed to Google, which runs something like, "Once someone is known to be a liar, you might as well listen to the whistling of the wind." You wouldn't want others to expect you to lie, if you have something important to say to them; and this issue cannot be wholly decoupled from the issue of whether you actually tell the truth. If you'll lie when the fate of the world is at stake, and others can guess that fact about you, then, at the moment when the fate of the world is at stake, that's the moment when your words become the whistling of the wind.
I don't know if Fichte meant it that way, but his statement makes perfect sense as an ethical thesis to me. It's not that one person's personal integrity is worth more, as terminal valuta, than the entire world. Rather, losing all your ethics is not a pure advantage.
Being believed to tell the truth has advantages, and I don't think it's so easy to decouple that from telling the truth. Being believed to keep your word has advantages; and if you're the sort of person who would in fact break your word to save humanity, the other may guess that too. Even intrapersonal ethics can help protect you from black swans and fundamental mistakes. That logic doesn't change its structure when you double the value of the stakes, or even raise them to the level of a world. Losing your ethics is not like shrugging off some chains that were cool to look at, but were weighing you down in an athletic contest.
This I knew from the beginning: That if I had no ethics I would hold to even with the world at stake, I had no ethics at all. And I could guess how that would turn out.
Part of the sequence Ethical Injunctions
Next post: "Ethics Notes"
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