Thursday, December 04, 2008

Opportunity Costs of Doing Good

In a comment to a previous post, Doug S. pointed out that a call to contribute to some cause necessarily comes with opportunity costs that have to be weighed.

Specifically, in response to my call to readers to contribute to prosecuting a case of anti-atheist bigotry, Doug S. mentioned that one’s resources can be better spent saving a life in Africa. Specifically:

Well, I donated $25. I don't know if that made much of a difference. Considering that I could probably save the life of a random stranger in Africa for $1,000 by donating to Population Services International, I don't know if making a donation to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is a good use of my money.

I will wager that, if Doug S. were to review his finances for any given month, he would be able to find a large number of examples in which he spent $25, but where it did not go to saving a life in Africa. Nor did it go to fighting anti-atheist bigotry in America. Instead, it went to some substantially trivial form of personal entertainment, perhaps – like a movie, or tickets to a ball game, or a meal in a restaurant.

This is no criticism of Doug S. I do the same thing. While I devote a significant amount of time to my job and this blog, I can sometimes be seen as a hobbit battling pixilated evil in the land of Middle Earth in the game, "Lord of the Rings Online". Certainly, this time pales in moral significance not only against the saving of a life in Africa, but in fighting anti-atheist bigotry in America.

Even in a crisis situation - say, an airplane crash on an island - the most important task (assuming a hospitable climate) is to find fresh water. This does not imply that the survivors should put 100 percent of their effort into finding fresh water. Others can look for food - cook - and do other chores. Even those looking for fresh water can take a break from time to time.

When I suggest that a reader make a contribution to some effort – whether it is by contacting the Military Religious Freedom Foundation about prosecuting a case of anti-atheist bigotry, or to write a letter to Dear Abbey, or to speak up against the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto, I am not asking them to take those resources away from projects like saving a life in Africa. I am asking them to take those resources away from such things as going to a sporting event, watching a sitcom, going to a movie, or eating out at an expensive restaurant.

It is reasonable ask whether morality grants you any free time to do the things that you like to do, like play a computer game or read a book. In fact, it does, in a tricky sort of way. At least, if desire utilitarianism is correct, what we aim at is people who enjoy doing that which tends to fulfill the desires of others, and is inhibited from doing that which thwarts the desires of others. Morality is perfectly consistent with giving a good person every opportunity to do what he enjoys – because what he enjoys is beneficial to others. Moral behavior, for such people, is not a chore. It's a hobby.

The rest of us, with less good desires (with desires fulfilled by actions that do not fulfill other desires) sometimes find that doing the right thing is more of a struggle. There is room for a little bit of improvement – for taking resources devoted to some project that fulfills desires that do not tend to fulfill the desires of others, and devoting them to something that does.


Peter Clothier said...

My own test of morality is to judge the action by its outcome--whether it results in benefit or harm to myself and others. Same test when it comes to those things from which I derive pleasure. If it results in harm--to myself or others--refrain. I'm not, of course, always successful!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Peter, this is called 'utilitarianism' and is very popular at the moment. The main difficulty is that the outcome is (normally) not known until after the action(s) is/are performed. It is also a "means justifies the ends" type of ethics which means that the action I actually take to arrive at a "good" outcome (which I put in quotes because that is really the difficult question here anyway) is legitimate.

For example, lets say you take drugs in the privacy of your own home three nights in a row with great pleasure, and then on the fourth night because you have run out, and feel the withdrawal, go a bit beserck and cause terror to those around you (or worse). The question now is: which of those nights that you took drugs was morally good? But secondly: could you have known this after the first night? Also, could you have known that on the first night while you were stoned, you agreed to visit a friend in hospital on the second night, which you completely forgot about moments later... etc.... etc...

... my point: in important moral actions there are almost always unforseen consequences, so consequences can not be the test of the moral goodness or otherwise of an action.

Anonymous said...


First, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism which is a "ends justify the means" system, not the other way around. Of course, that was probably a typo.

Second, an inability to have perfect knowledge of the future is not an argument against utilitarianism. First of all, various utilitarian thinkers have defined the right action as one that is based on the most reasonably forseen consequences. For example, it is a reasonably forseeable consequence that if you take drugs then you will go through withdrawal (or die).

All that incomplete knowledge of total consequences demonstrates is that it is possible to morally miscalculate. This does not disprove a moral system but is a natural product of human imperfection.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Act Utilitarianism is all well and good, for the most part, but I abandoned it because of the focus on actions, which leads to "ends justify means" as was pointed out. Classic example is the Baby Hitler scenario - that being, if you'd had the chance to kill Baby Hitler, should you have? (Assume for the sake of argument that this could prevent WWII and the holocaust).

The answer is obviously yes, because the benefit of preventing those horrors outweighs the cost of one baby's life. But this leads to the conundrum that it's impossible to call any act "good" or "bad", because the full consequences of any specific act are impossible to determine. If Hitler's mother had drowned him Andrea Yates style she would have been put on trial for murder, even though from our future perspective she did the right thing.

Any time you do anything bad (like litter) you can claim it is for the greater future good (that litter was in the exact right spot to prevent a horrible accident next week, somehow) This is a common xtian defense of the problem of evil. Any time someone else does something good, you can claim it has disasterous consequences in the future (you might have just saved the life of future-Hitler).

Due to this impossibility, it's much more effective to instead evaluate desires and see if they tend to promote good or evil in the world. A desire to save lives is generally good, because most people are not future-hitler, and so we promote that desire. A desire to litter is bad, because most litter doesn't prevent accidents. Trying to track every action that's been comitted to determine - days, years, or decades later - if ultimately it was good or bad is not only impossible, it also provides no information to the person at the time of the action-taking if he should or shouldn't take that action (since you can't send information back through time). On the other hand, telling someone that certain desires are good and generally lead to positive outcomes and instilling those desires in him provides data *before* the event, and motivation at the time of action-taking, and is thus usefull.