Minor spoilers for HPMOR, I guess?


Sometimes, if you do something, people will call it good.  Other times, if you do something, people will call it bad.

These words actually cover two different kinds of moral judgment: judgment of actions and judgment of character.

Judgment of actions is evaluating whether these actions are good or bad actions - whether they lead to good or bad consequences.  For example, murdering someone is bad because it results in that person being murdered.

Judgment of character is evaluating this action as Bayesian evidence of your character - whether it says good or bad things about the other actions you are likely to take.

Sometimes these two things align: murder is bad on both forms of judgment.

However, confusion can arise when these two forms of judgment lead to different answers.  In cases like this, it's valuable to distinguish which kind of judgment you're using, and to understand that these two forms are not necessarily consistent with one another.


Suppose that Bob gets a large tattoo of a flaming skull on some visible part of his anatomy.

By judgment of actions, it's hard to argue that this act has any particular moral impact.

But by judgment of character, this tattoo serves as a reasonable quantity of Bayesian evidence of bad character.  If you see Bob having such a tattoo, you can correctly conclude that Bob is more likely to be violent, more likely to commit crimes, etc.

These two forms of judgment are in tension.  Judgment of character suggests that, when you see Bob's tattoo, you should judge him as more likely to be a bad person - that you should be less likely to trust him, less likely to hire him to babysit your children, less willing to meet him in an abandoned parking lot to buy the PS5 he advertised on Craigslist, etc.  But judgment of actions declares that Bob has not actually harmed anyone, and there's no reason to punish him.

One resolution to this tension is to distinguish between social and legal punishment.  We are often willing to apply social punishment based on judgment of bad character (most people would not disapprove of you for refusing to meet Bob somewhere that isn't public), but not willing to apply legal punishment (most people would disapprove of the police arresting Bob on a charge of 'having a tattoo that we think is Bayesian evidence of wrongdoing').  


In Ch54 of HPMOR, Harry discovers that Bellatrix Black is incredibly loyal to the Dark Lord, and that the Dark Lord does not appreciate this loyalty and abuses her anyway:

If someone shows me that much loyalty, even by mistake, there's a part of me that can't help but feel something. The Dark Lord must have been... evil doesn't seem like a strong enough word, he must have been empty... to not appreciate her loyalty, artificial or not.

This makes very little sense from the standpoint of judgment of consequences.  Failing to adequately appreciate his minion's loyalty is not a noticeable increase to the amount of evil the Dark Lord has done, compared to the huge amount of murders and torture we already know he is responsible for.

But it makes a fair amount of sense from the standpoint of judgment of character.  Many very evil people, who have done a great deal of harm, have been honorable, loyal towards their loyal subordinates, etc.  Learning that the Dark Lord mistreats even his most loyal servant is further evidence of his bad character and irredeemable nature, even if it's not the worst thing he did.


“Well, there was a bit of a fracas, as we say, and it turned out that a man had a dog, a half-dead thing, according to bystanders, and he was trying to get it to stop pulling at its leash, and when it growled at him he grabbed an axe from the butcher’s stall beside him, threw the dog to the ground and cut off its back legs, just like that. I suppose people would say ‘Nasty bugger, but it was his dog’ and so on, but Lord Vetinari called me in and he said to me, ‘A man who would do something like that to a dog is a man to whom the law should pay close attention. Search his house immediately.’ The man was hanged a week later, not for the dog, although for my part I wouldn’t have shed a tear if he had been, but for what we found in his cellar. The contents of which I will not burden you with.

Terry Pratchett, Snuff

One common argument for vegetarianism goes something like this:

You say that factory farming of pigs is okay, because they are 'non-sapient' or in some sense stupid enough it's fine to eat them.  But pigs are if anything somewhat more intelligent than dogs, and you support laws against animal cruelty towards pet dogs.  

If you actually had a consistent policy that animals had no moral value, you would think that dogfighting rings, or even just killing your dog for your own amusement, would be perfectly legal - you can't find a weight to place on animal welfare that forbids abusing your pet dog but allows factory farming of pigs.  

Your actual moral policy seems to be something like 'dogs are cute, pigs are not', but this is obviously not a good way to make a decision.

This article explains what I think is a large part of my response to this.  

Abusing your pet dog is objectively not very harmful in terms of [amount of harm done] & [level of sapience of victim], much less harmful than e.g. factory farms.  

However, abusing your pet dog is extraordinarily strong evidence of bad character.  If you respond to the level of loyalty that almost every dog shows you with abuse, I think there is something deeply and profoundly wrong with you and I want you removed from society as soon as possible lest whatever-it-is manages to spread.   This is perhaps not entirely fair - as in the tattoo example above it is strange to want to impose legal punishment based on evidence of bad character - but I have a hard time finding it in me to disagree with it.


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Learning that the Dark Lord mistreats even his most loyal servant is further evidence of his bad character and irredeemable nature, even if it's not

Did this sentence get cut off?

Yes, good catch.

This distinction feels very important, and yet difficult to make clearly. I mean, bad actions should be punished, right? And bad judgment is like... everyone has a right to their own opinion... but also, I have a right to avoid associating with people who have too many tattoos (because that is my judgment, which again may be right or wrong, but it's my right to make it).

Problem is, avoiding some kinds of people is itself a form of punishment. I mean, if every refuses to hire the guy with the tattoos, then he is de facto being punished for his choice, which didn't harm anyone.

This tension is weaker when there are many possibilities. Like, if I choose to avoid the guy with the tattoos, but many other people are okay with it, he will probably not even notice. The tension becomes stronger when the options are few, like if there are six families living in a block of flats, and five of them keep having a party together once in a while, but the guy with the tattoos never gets invited.

Some people try to resolve this tension by saying that all judgments of character are bad (because they sometimes translate to actual punishment). This seems to me obviously wrong, and also obviously hypocritical because everyone is making judgments of some kind (the person saying that all judgments are bad is thereby making a meta-judgment against people who make judgments of character). On the other hand, considering how stupid most people are, I would prefer if no one could punish me for my judgment, if it harms no one. No obvious solution here.

No obvious solution here.

The story had a solution for a 'more extreme' problem - acquire more information. It's not that there's no way out.

There's more than two kinds, because we also care about intentions and rule following.

Consequentialism as a term was introduced by Anscombe, at the same time as making an argument against it: we want to apportion praise and blame in relation to someone's character and intentions....but the consequences of actions taken in isolation aren't much related to character and intentions.

Punishing someone for an unintended and unexpected negative consequence seems unreasonable..what lesson could they learn? Punishing people for failing to follow rules that generally lead to good consequences is much fairer, since they can predict when they are going to get punished.

But consequentialists kind of acknowledge the usefulness of rules , in that they don't object to the basic idea of a legal system .

My inner Professor Quirrell is currently saying that if someone did have a moral policy in which animals had little-to-no value, they probably wouldn't abuse their pets where we could see; it'd be as if someone had read Snuff and thought "That man was a fool. He shouldn't have done that in public, because look what happened to him." Someone who really didn't care about animals in the slightest would still probably act like a normal member of society and just avoid interacting with animals whenever possible, because seeming like a stereotypical villain is going to be counterproductive for achieving your desires.

Wow. I have this strange feeling that someday, someone is going to look at the above paragraph and say "hath, you condone animal abuse?" or something to that effect. hopefully that doesn't happen.

Someone who really didn't care about animals in the slightest

would not have a pet.

Yeah, you're right. Oops.

I mean, you basically stated that*:

just avoid interacting with animals whenever possible

*unless you edited it.


This section missed the point (on there terms of the post up to this point). It has an ethos around loyalty. For all that the author is arguing for two forms:



This argument is of a third.

Here, the connection between the two previously has been broken.

A characterization in terms of evil acts would have said - 'and 'he' is evil unto all - supporters and enemies alike'. This evil has no honor towards enemies or friends and is an enemy to all.

This is perhaps not entirely fair

The example fictional passage did not have such laws - but it did have those with power to exercise searching his house at their discretion. (This power could also be abused at their discretion to harass.)

but I have a hard time finding it in me to disagree with it.

The crimes contained within, while not elaborated, might be speculated. And thus, one might reason, that with more information, the same result could have been reached without searching his house (if some other info. was available).

The author also, it seems, decided to pit your consequentialist intuitions against your legal intuitions.

This is perhaps not entirely fair - as in the tattoo example above it is strange to want to impose legal punishment based on evidence of bad character

Or you can recognize that as a crime.

Abusing your pet dog is objectively not very harmful in terms of [amount of harm done] & [level of sapience of victim], much less harmful than e.g. factory farms.  

And, consistently, the factory farm as well.*

the tattoo example

The author could have used such an example, though it might have been:

  • less effective ('that's not a good enough reason!')
  • but also could illustrate the method: inquire. Acquire more information. For example, if a tattoo is associated with a particular gang, then an investigation may reveal an association with that gang.

*I'm not going to explain a way out of that one. I will also note that working in a slaughterhouse has consequences for the people who do it.

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