Saturday, November 19, 2005

Morality By the Numbers

This post has more to do with moral theory than applied ethics.

An anonymous writer called me on an issue yesterday that I feel needs to be addressed more thoroughly. His point is valid, and it has weight. It concerns the importance of numbers in moral decisions.

This essay will use incest as an example, because it is in the context of a discussion of incest that the subject came up. However, the purpose of this essay is to example some general ideas on how morality works, why it works, and why it is important.

In the context of a few paragraphs on incest, this anonymous argued that two adult siblings with no natural aversion to incest (because they were raised in separate households) who engaged in incest would harm nobody. These people would be innocent victims of such a regulation. "Even if there are only two 'victims' of such a law, that doesn't make the law right."

I suspect that this anonymous author is alluding to arguments I made that the number of a people that fit into a particular classification is irrelevant in certain arguments. For example, there is a piece of spam-mail going around saying that, since atheists are in the morality, they should "sit down and shut up." It concerns arguments like those that use the premise that homosexuals make up 10% of the population, or the non-religious make up 14% of the population, as if this has weight in a moral argument.

Against these types of arguments, I make the claim that numbers do not matter. If X is wrong, then it is wrong to do X to even one person.

So, for example, we would not argue that the wrongness of slavery is due to the fact that African Americans make up 11% of the population -- as if slavery would be permissible if they only made up 5% of the population, or 1% of the population, or even if there were only one African American. Slavery would still be wrong, and numbers are not relevant in that debate.

Yet, at the same time, I deny that if there are two individuals -- siblings raised apart with no natural aversion to sex with each other, who meet as adults -- that this would count against a universal prohibition on incest.

So, not even one African Americans can be legitimately slaved, but two individuals who find themselves in the above situation may be forced to abstain from sex.

Can I square these two claims?

This is a good question.

The Function of Morality

I am going to start with a couple of the foundational features of the desire-utilitarian system that I use as the foundation for all of my writing. Namely:

[Belief + Desire] -> Intention -> Intentional Action

A desire (or an aversion, where an “aversion to X” is identical to “a desire that not-X”) is a persistent entity. We cannot flip it on and off at a whim. So, if we set up an aversion to X, we can expect (demand) that the aversion to last for a while. Demanding that a person have an aversion to X at T1 and not at T2 may be asking the impossible.

If we wish to reduce the incidents of a particular intentional action, we do so by promoting an aversion to some state associated with that action. In this regard, we can think of what it would be like trying to teach somebody to hate oranges, but not to hate one orange, or to hate chocolate but to like one piece of chocolate.

The vast majority of incestuous relationships are harmful. In order to reduce the number of incestuous actions, we promote an aversion to incest, and we do so by applying condemnation and punishment against those responsible for those actions.

We decrease the number of lies by promoting an aversion to lying. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who lie. Whenever people coddle and praise liars they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to lying, they are creating a culture in which people can more easily lie without a twinge of conscience or regret.

We decrease hypocrisy in society by promoting an aversion to hypocrisy. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who apply one set of standards to themselves and a different set to others. Whenever people coddle and praise hypocrites, they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to hypocrisy, they are creating a culture in which hypocrites can feel free to use whatever principles best serves their own interests at the moment, without a twinge of conscience or guilt.

This is why those who coddle and praise liars and hypocrites are as guilty as those they refuse to condemn. The liars and hypocrites are doing damage to society by their lying and hypocrisies. The person who coddles and praises them are promoting deceit and hypocrisy through society at large.

The same thought process goes into justifying the prohibitions against killing innocent people, rape, and theft. However, I make a special mention of deceit and dishonesty because I believe this culture is accustomed to giving a pass on these wrongs (as well as intellectual recklessness), much to our detriment as a society.

Morality By the Numbers

Once it is determined that a it would be useful to promote a particular aversion, it makes little sense to argue that the aversion applies only to a certain number of objects.

If it is wrong to kill an innocent person (if an aversion to killing an innocent person is something for us to encourage and promote), then it makes no sense to argue for an aversion to killing two innocent people, but not for killing one innocent person. The person who has no aversion to killing just one person is a threat to everybody, and is quite capable of killing them, one at a time.

If we are advised to promote an aversion to slavery, then we should promote an aversion to enslaving even one individual. The idea that we can promote an aversion to enslaving two people, but not to enslaving just one, is nonsense. If there is no aversion to enslaving an individual, then all of our liberty is in danger.

If we are promoting an aversion to lying under oath to a grand jury, it makes no sense to promote an aversion to lying to two grand juries, but making it permissible (in the sense of giving people no aversion) to lying to just one person.

However, in deciding about whether to promote a moral duty or prohibition, we are going to look at the overall effect of having such a duty or prohibition. When we arrange to punish criminals in prison, we are going to admit the fact that some innocent people will be arrested and convicted of crimes.

Yet, the fact that there are innocent victims of the system is not an argument for throwing it out. It is an argument for putting in safeguards to keep the number of innocent people as low as practical, but we are not going to refuse to arrest and imprison anybody, because we will almost certainly put at least one innocent person in prison.

If we are going to create a prohibition against lying to a grand jury, we are going to admit that, in some instances, a lie could produce good consequences. There will be instances where it is reasonable to expect that the truth will send an innocent person to prison while a lie will allow him to keep his freedom – because people sometimes take the truth the wrong way. Yet, we are not going to allow for exceptions to the prohibition against lying to a grand jury.


In some cases, we are capable of mentally distinguishing exceptions to certain moral rules. Killing is not permitted, except in self-defense. Lying is wrong, but it is not wrong to lie to the Nazi asking if you know the location of any Jews, or the slave chaser in pre-civil-war Pennsylvania asking if you have seen any Negroes in the area.

However, these exceptions are not even decided on a case-by-case basis. These exceptions have to do with whether it is possible to generate an aversion “except in case X” as a general attitude, and if this “aversion except in case X” works better than the simple aversion without exceptions.

With so little potential for benefit from an “except in the case where siblings grew up in several households and met as adults,” and when these benefits are weighed against the huge costs associated with a weaker overall aversion to incest, we are justified in saying, “no exceptions to incest” just as we are allowed to say, “no exceptions to lying to a grand jury.” This is the prohibition – the general social attitude – that makes the most sense, all things considered.


Anonymous Author: This, then, is what I mean when I say that, if something is wrong, it does not depend on how many people are wronged. If it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to somebody, it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to even one person.

This does not mean that a prohibition against killing innocent people, enslavement, rape, or lies will not create “victims” – will not produce the best over all consequences in every instance. Every one of these prohibitions provides poor consequences from time to time. Yet, whether a prohibition produces bad consequences in a particular instance is not relevant to whether the prohibition is a good idea. Whether the prohibition is a good idea depends on whether, all things considered, we are better off with that prohibition than without it.

We are better off with a strong prohibition on incest than without it. The possibility of a few rare and exceptional instances where the prohibition does not produce good consequences does not argue against this fact.

My web site contains a Summary Account of the position I apply in these posts, and a Book lenth manuscript explaining how I got to this position.


Anonymous said...

There is one number that matters: zero. Something cannot be wrong if zero people are harmed. (For this determination I do not count the actor; hurting yourself is merely stupid but not morally wrong.) Thus in the case of the siblings who want to have sex with each other, such an act would be permissible if they both go into the relationship willingly, with their eyes open to what they're doing, and taking measures to ensure no defective babies are produced (this could include anything from checking their genes for compatibility to wearing a condom). Your aversion to incest, or mine, or anyone else's does not matter. Even if the "vast majority of incestuous relationships are harmful," (a dubious claim anyway)the fact that one such relationship is not is enough to destroy the grounds for any moral prohibition.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am afraid that I am going to have to disagree with this.

Consider the safety rules at a factory. One day, an employee decides to disobey the rules. He justifies this by saying, "I checked; there was nobody who could get hurt."

He should still be fired, because the absence of a habit of obeying the rules creates a risk -- in increases the chance of the same rule being broken on some other instance where it was not so safe.

This is what I am arguing is true about incest. The absence of a habit itself creates risk. The absence of a habit of condemning incest in all instances increases the risk of incest under circumstances that are harmful.

Where the safest rule is "Always do x", or "Never do Y", we go by thta rule, even if we can think of one or two exceptions where it is not the most efficient option.

Anonymous said...

Okay, but in the factory case someone owns the factory. Nobody owns people, therefore the only people who can properly make rules about themselves are themselves. "Risk" is not a valid means of assessing morality in a specific case. If the majority of the people were alcoholics, it would not be immoral for me, who is not, to drink.

Anonymous said...

Damn, another thought on the same line:

It is extremely dangerous to pilot fighter jets off of aircraft carriers. Despite intense training, a significant number of people die each year doing it. By your reasoning, it is immoral to fly fighter jets. However, there is a significant difference between, say, 'Maverick' and my grandmother. Mav has natural talent at flying and is in good physical shape. My grandmother is in her eighties and doesn't even drive. It is appropriate for Maverick to fly, even if an accident happens and Goose dies (tell me you've seen Top Gun, please :) ), while it would not be appropriate for my grandmother to do the same.

Now, Mav still has to fly according to some rules, certainly. The rules are in place to protect the expensive Navy aircraft and the significant investment of training time and money the Navy put into training Maverick. If, however, Mav buys his own plane and flies it recklessly by himself over the open ocean, there is no moral problem with that.

Incest is not to be taken lightly, for it does have a very real potential to permanently change the dynamic of an intimate relationship. Aside from the genetic aspect, however (and there are ways around that), the matter is little different from two good friends who decide to sleep together. A lot of thought should go in to such a decision, and most will probably decide that it is not right for them. There are some, though, for whom the answer will be 'yes,' and you have no right to make rules for them.

Case in point: no doubt many theists have told you that you're decieving yourself by being an atheist. The possibility that you are remains, but I'm sure you would disagree with them. The argument "we are better off with religion than without it," however true it may be, does not constitute grounds for mandating worship for all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


By my reasoning, it would not be immoral to fly fighter jets, because of the large number of very significant benefits associated with national defense, and the damage that a prohibition on flying fighter jets would have to that defense.

However, the "permission" with respect to incest would apply to cases that are extremely rare to the point that they are virtually non-existant. Whereas the harm done to victims of harmful incest are so common that decreasing the risk that victims may find themselves in such a situation would be virtually assured to produce benefits.

Keep in mind, at this level we are talking about the merits and demerits of a particular prohibition (or aversion), not of any given specific act. We evaluate specific acts according to whether or not they are an act type against which we should have an aversion (or which we should desire). We evaluate whether we should have a particular desire or aversion according to its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires or aversions.

There are no "intrinsic values" or "natural rights", and if one bases a moral conclusion on these entities their reasoning is as flawed as those who base ethics on God, which also does not exist. However, desires and aversions and the relationships between them are real, so basing moral decisions on these entities does not suffer the same problem.

If promoting this exception does not create a situation where the number of incidences of wrongful (harmful) incest will not be higher, while others actually do benefit from this liberty, then you win your point.

However, if society, in following your suggestion, must endure a greater number of incidences of harmful incest (because self-deceivers rationalize that their specific instance should be counted as one of the 'good' types), then society has no reason to adopt your suggestion -- except by appeal to entities that do not exist.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your argument as it pertains to the law (not so much as to the morality or advisability of incest in the "exception" mentioned) but I am wondering: can you honestly say that you came to this conclusion after reasonably and open-mindedly considered the situation, or did you construct the argument because the idea of incest being bad is burnt into your brain? I mean no offense in asking, but the result would be the same in either situation, and you risk pandering to people who disagree with your version of morality in order to seem acceptable to such people.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ellis: If you can come up with a evidence that the argument is not sound, then you will have provided reason to believe that I accepted an unsound argument for some reason or other.

However, the first step would have to be something to suggest that it would be safe for society to allow incestuous desire. My claim is that this allowance will increase the incidents of harmful relationships. This, however, is an empirical claim. Sociological evidence to the contrary would defeat it.

Cyril said...

A caveat (clarification?) to Mr. Fyfe's argument regarding incest: the proposition in question is an increase of an "anti-incest" desire and NOT a decrease in an existing "pro-incest" desire.

To see why, let's hearken back to the already-mentioned case of "genetic sexual attraction", the participants of which I will call Dick and Jane.

I don't think that it would be accurate to describe either one as having a desire for incest per se. Such a desire would be fulfilled by illicit relations with any member of their family (the general definition of "incest") regardless of whether it was Dick or Jane, and so probably would have surfaced before the two of them even met. No, it's more accurate to say that Dick has a desire for Jane and vice versa.

This would be counteracted, of course, by the anti-incest desire mentioned above, but it would not be a suppression of a pro-incest desire, as none exist.


The definition of incest is a somewhat trickier subject, however. Technically all sex is between creatures that are related in some way (as we all come for a common ancestor), but ideally the amount of revulsion would be proportional to the closeness, at least as far as humans are concerned. Culturally the line is usually drawn somewhere around cousins, although sometimes closer sometimes farther.

Kristopher said...

i think alonzo is aiming at the wrong target

we all seem to aggree that the "real problems" are irresponsible genetic pairing, and unequal sexual relationships.

alonzo wants to use an aversion to incest as a tool inorder to bring condemnation down upon the real problems as a practical solution to the real problems prevelance in incestial relationships

citing that while a good system of justice system will invariable imprison innocent people that sometimes a good system of condemnation will invariable condemn innocent people.

but i think he would agree that we should make the justice system as effective as possible in seperating the innocent from the guilty.

if we only condemn the real problems and not incest in general then only those deserving of condemnation will be condemned and those undeserving will not be condemned. furthermore those that should be condomned will be given the exact amount of condemnation necassary instead of further unwarrented condemnation of condemning for violating the real problems and condemning the incest. (condemning the right person for the wrong reasons) furthermore we would not have to add caveats that would make the rules hard to understand. we could condemn the real problesm 100% and incest as a practice 0% so there would be no confusion for the uneducated masses. thus the abusers of the real problems could not use uncondemned incest as an umbrella since that factor would be irrelevant to their having committed real problems.

if most people that eat spicy ice cream also conduct their relationships in ways that create real problems. condemning spicy ice cream could create a decline by association in the real problems but it creates an unnecasarry middle man.

the real danger i see with alonzo's argument in this case is that we should tailor our condemnations for the uneducated masses becuase it is difficult for them to process exceptions to rules.

however this seems to be to be a form of itellecual recklessness instead of forcing a 100% on a system that is in truth more nuanced (which i dont think applies to incest but does apply elsewhere)would it not be better to teach a more nuanced system?

lying is a better example. if we condemn all lying 100% we would certainly create a better system than if we did not condemn it at all. but if we created a nuanced system that condemns lying when it is inapropriate in a population that could discern between the two is that not better than both?

we could tell a child never to lie but i could think of a thousand situations where lying would be the moral thing to do. but as the child becomes older would it not be wise to teach the adolescent that lying is sometimes justified and counsel them on how to tell the diference between the two occassions? would it not be intellectually irresponsible to choose to reinforce a less just and less acurate system merely becuase it is easier to understand?

the ten commandments are easier to understand than DU but adopting DU is a superior strategy for correct moral reasoning.

the same could be argued about physics of universe creation versus creationism (a magic man did it)

just as condemning incest is easier for people to understand adopting a system that only condemns the real problems is a superior strategy for creating a just society through condemnation.

occams razor only applies when whens both theories equally explain the criteria but in this situation i think the more complex system functions more appropriately whith how things should be under DU

i apologize for the both the length and the tardiness of this comment

Kristopher said...

found this qoute while reading through the archives from alonzo: -- "We must continue to remember that condemnation belongs only to those who are guilty, and not to those who are like those who are guilty except for the fact that they (the not-guilty ones) are not a personal threat to others." -- and i felt like it applied to my argument above.
this qoute is from the post "Christmas Chat 2006" I don't believe i have taken it out of context but i also don't believe i overcome my own biases any better than most so I suggest reading the original.