Asymmetric Justice


Related and required reading in life (ANOIEAEIB): The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

Epistemic Status: Trying to be minimally judgmental

Spoiler Alert: Contains minor mostly harmless spoiler for The Good Place, which is the best show currently on television.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics (in parallel with the similarly named one in physics) is as follows:

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

I don’t say this often, but seriously, read the whole thing.

I do not subscribe to this interpretation.

I believe that the majority of people effectively endorse this interpretation. I do not think they endorse it consciously or explicitly. But they act as if it is true.

Another aspect of this same phenomenon is how most people view justice.

Almost everyone agrees justice is a sacred value. That it is good and super important. Justice is one of the few universally agreed upon goals of government. Justice is one of the eight virtues of the avatar. Justice is up there with truth and the American way. No justice, no peace.

But what is justice? Or rather, to avoid going too deeply into an infinitely complex philosophical debate millenniums or eons old, how do most people instinctively model justice in broad terms?

In a conversation last night, this was offered to me (I am probably paraphrasing due to bad memory, but it’s functionally what was said), and seems common: Justice is giving appropriate punishment to those who have taken bad action.

I asked whether, in this person’s model, the actions needed to be bad in order to be relevant to justice. This prompted pondering, after which the reply was that yes, that was how their model worked.

I then asked whether rewarding a good action counted as justice, or failing to do so counted as injustice, using the example of saving someone’s life going unrewarded.

We can consider three point-based justice systems.

In the asymmetric system, when bad action is taken, bad action points are accumulated. Justice punishes in proportion to those points to the extent possible. Each action is assigned a non-negative point total.

In the symmetric system, when any action is taken, good or bad, points are accumulated. This can and often is zero, is negative for bad action, positive for good action. Justice consists of punishing negative point totals and rewarding positive point totals.

In what we will call the Good Place system (Spoiler Alert for Season 1), when any action is taken, good or bad, points are accumulated as in the symmetric system. But there’s a catch (which is where the spoiler comes in). If you take actions with good consequences, you only get those points if your motive was to do good. When a character attempts to score points by holding open doors for people, they fail to score any points because they are gaming the system. Gaming the system isn’t allowed.

Thus, if one takes action even under the best of motives, one fails to capture much of the gains from such action. Second or higher order benefits, or surprising benefits, that are real but unintended, will mostly not get captured.

The opposite is not true of actions with bad consequences. You lose points for bad actions whether or not you intended to be bad. It is your responsibility to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

When (Spoiler Alert for Season 3) an ordinary citizen buys a tomato from a supermarket, they are revealed to have lost twelve points because the owner of the tomato company was a bad guy and the company used unethical labor practices. Life has become too complicated to be a good person. Thus, since the thresholds never got updated, no one has made it into The Good Place for centuries.

The asymmetric system is against action. Action is bad. Inaction is good. Surprisingly large numbers of people actually believe this. It is good to be you, but bad to do anything. 

The asymmetric system is not against every action. This is true. But effectively, it is. Some actions are bad, some are neutral. Take enough actions, even with the best of intentions, even with fully correct knowledge of what is and is not bad, and mistakes will happen.

So any individual, any group, any company, any system, any anything, that takes action, is therefore bad.

The law by design works that way, too. There are increasingly long and complex lists of actions which are illegal. If you break the law, and anyone who does things will do so by accident at some point, you can be prosecuted. You are then prosecuted for the worst thing they can pin on you. No amount of other good deeds can do more than mitigate. Thus, any sufficiently rich investigation will judge any of us who regularly take meaningful action to be bad.

If you can be sued for the bad consequences of a medical procedure, potentially for ruinous amounts, but cannot collect most of the huge benefits of successful procedures, you will engage in defensive medicine. Thus, lots of defensive medicine. Because justice.

If, as was done in the past, the engineer and his family are forced to sleep under the bridge after it is built, so that they will be killed if it falls down, you can be damn sure they’re going to build a safe bridge. But you’d better want to pay for a fully bulletproof bridge before you do that.

Skin in the game is necessary. That means both being at risk, and collecting reward. Too often we assign risk without reward.

If one has a system whereby people are judged only by their bad actions, or by their worst single action, what you have is a system that condemns and is against all action.

Never tweet.

Also see privacy and blackmail.

The symmetric system is in favor of action. If no one ever took any action, we would not have nice things and also all die. If people generally took fewer actions, we would have less nice things and be worse off. If one gets full credit for the good and bad consequences of one’s actions, we will provide correct incentives to encourage action.

This, to me, is also justice.

A symmetric system can still count bad consequences as larger than similar good consequences to a large extent (e.g. saving nine people from drowning does not give one enough credits to murder a tenth), and we can punish locally bad intent on top of direct consequences, without disturbing this. Action is on net a very good thing.

The Good Place system works well for simple actions with mostly direct consequences. One then, under normal circumstances, gets credit for the good and the bad. It also has a great feature, which is that it forces the action via a high required threshold. You need a lot of points to pass a binary evaluation when you die. Sitting around doing nothing is a very bad idea.

The problem comes in when there are complex indirect consequences that are hard to fully know or observe.

Some of the indirect consequences of buying a tomato are good. You don’t get credit for those unless you knew about them, because all you were trying to do was buy a tomato. Knowing about them is possible in theory, but expensive, and doesn’t make them better. It only makes you know about them, which only matters to the extent that it changes your decisions.

Some of the indirect consequences of buying a tomato are bad. You lose those points.

Thus, when you buy a tomato and thus another customer can’t buy a tomato, you get docked. But when you buying a tomato increases the store’s estimated demand for tomatoes, so they order more and don’t run out next week, and a customer gets to buy one (and the store stays in business to provide even more tomatoes), you don’t get rewarded.

Better to not take the shopping action.

No wonder people make seemingly absurdist statements like “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

Under this philosophy, there is no ethical action under complexity. Period.

I get that complexity is bad. But this is ridiculous.

Compare to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. If one interacts with a compact, isolated problem, such as a child drowning in a pond, one can reasonably do all one could do, satisfying one’s requirements. If one interacts with or observes a non-compact, non-isolated problem, such as third world poverty, you are probably Mega-Hitler. You cannot both be a good person and have slack.

As a young child, I read the book Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days. Spoiler alert, I guess? The protagonist is given a book with instructions on how to be a perfect person. The way to do so is to take progressively less action. First day you take symbolic action, wearing broccoli around your neck. Second day you take inaction, by fasting. Third day, you do nothing at all except drink weak tea and go to the bathroom. 

That makes you ‘perfect.’

Because perfect means a score of exactly zero points.

Asymmetric systems of judgment are systems for opposing all action.