Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mental States and Moral Wrongs

Yesterday’s discussion about the context of Sam Harris’ statement leads to the question, “What is the relationship between belief and justified killing?”

Imagine that you are taking care of your neighbor’s four young children while she goes to a counseling session with her pastor. After her session, she shows up at your house with a shotgun. She is obviously upset and confesses that she must kill her children. She tells you that Satan is out to get them, and the only way to protect them from this unspeakable evil is to put them in the hands of a more powerful protector – God. The only way to do that is to kill them and send them to heaven.

She also says that she will kill anybody who gets in her way.

Would it be permissible for you to kill this woman if it is the only way to prevent her from killing you and the children?

The answer is clearly, “Yes.”

Why is it permissible to kill her?

Ultimately, because she intends to kill (murder) four innocent people (five, if you try to stop her).

Why does she intend to kill the children?

Because (1) she loves them and wishes to protect them, (2) she believes they are in danger, (3) she believes that only God can protect them, and (4) she believes that they can only have God’s protection if they are dead.

The four mental states in this example make up the mother’s reasons for attempting to kill the children. Prohibiting her from killing the children means that it is perfectly okay for her to love her children and want to protect them, as long as she does not believe that the only way to protect them is to kill them. Or, she can go ahead and believe that the only way to protect her children is to kill them, but not at the same time that she loves and wants to protect her children.

However, we will not allow her to both, at the same time, love and want to protect her children while she believes that the only way to protect them is to kill them. If this is the case, then we will exercise our right to restrain her by force if necessary, or even to kill her if she should succeed in getting into a position where we have no other option.

Every action that we prohibit – from robbing a bank to raping a child – is a prohibition on whatever combinations of beliefs and desires that would result in an agent performing such an action. It is entirely incoherent to say, “You may do not do X; but you have a right to have those mental states that cause people to do X.”

So, even though moral prohibition bans a specific desire or a specific belief, every prohibition prohibits certain combinations of desires and beliefs. Every prohibition is a prohibition on combinations of mental states. A prohibition on speeding is a prohibition on those mental states that would cause one to speed – or a prohibition on those who have such mental states from getting behind the wheel of a car.

We can also see this in how we determine whether a person has actually performed an immoral act, or whether he could be excused.

For example, we do not punish people for accidents. It simply makes no sense to do so. To punish somebody is to say that they are at fault for what happened, that they could have done otherwise. An accident, by definition, is something that was outside of the agent’s control. In the case of an accident, the agent could not have done otherwise. So, punishment is inappropriate. (In law, there are some exceptions to this. In morality, I would hold that exceptions make no sense.)

An intentional action is a conglomeration of a set of beliefs and desires. When we have a person on trial for a crime, the whole purpose of the trial is to determine what the accused believed at the time of the crime, and what he desired at the time of the crime. What we learn about his beliefs and desires determines whether or not we are going to punish him.

Let’s say, he shoots somebody. The mere act of shooting somebody does not make him guilty of a crime. He might have shot that person in order to eliminate a competitor for a job opportunity. Or, he might have shot that person in order to stop her from killing her four children.

The difference between homicide and self-defense rests in what the shooter believed and what he wanted to accomplish at the time of the shooting. Did he desire to protect the children from harm and believe that the person he shot was going to harm the children? Or did he desire a particular job and believe that the person he shot would otherwise get the job instead of him?

One set of beliefs and desires means that the accused did nothing wrong and is, perhaps, a hero. Another set of beliefs and desires means that the accused is morally contemptible and deserving of punishment. It is beliefs and desires that determine one from the other. All of the effort at the trial goes into determining which set of beliefs and desires the agent had.

We may say that we are trying to find out what the agent did so that we can punish his action. However, the “action” is defined by what we learn about the agent’s beliefs and desires. With one set of beliefs and desires the “action” is one of self-defense. With a different set of beliefs and desires the “action” is murder.

We may say that we punish people for their actions while we leave them free to have whatever mental states they like. However, it is almost always the case that what we call wrong is an ‘action’ defined as a collection of mental states, accompanied by some physical movement – the twitching of muscles - that has no moral quality independent of the mental states they are associated with.

Now, I would like to go back to our original example. When we prohibit a mother from killing her children, what we are in fact prohibiting is any set of mental states which would cause a mother to kill her children. This includes the set of our mental states that I mentioned at the start of this post.

However, if we are going to ban this particular set of mental states, which states are we going to ban? Clearly, the desire to protect one’s children is not on the chopping block. We want to encourage this state. So, the only option is to ban one or more of the beliefs that make up this set. In short, mothers are not permitted to believe that the best way to protect their children is to kill them.

Or, at least, they are not permitted to believe this except when they can provide good evidence. If one’s child is slowly burning to death, with no possibility of rescue, screaming in pain, a sharpshooter parent may shoot the child to prevent several minutes of agony before death. In this case, the parent may be let off, but only because her belief in the child’s suffering is on such solid footing.

I also cannot help but mention that desire utilitarianism is compatible with all of this. Desire utilitarianism, which is the idea that morality is concerned primarily with promoting desires that there are the more and stronger reasons to promote, and inhibiting desires that there is the more and stronger reason to inhibit.


olvlzl said...

I wouldn't analyze the situation the same way. I’d say that no matter what the mental state of the mother was, it wasn’t until she began to act in ways that impinged on the rights of her children that anything she thought or did became the cause for someone else to act to impede her. Peoples’ desires and feelings can be anything but entirely rational and positive to deranged and negative. Anyone who has dealt closely with someone with a major mental illness would know that. The experience of knowing someone who has deteriorated into irrationality teaches a lot. I’d hope that anyone who has seen that the person they knew was, to some measure, still there submerged in their diseased state knows that it isn’t cut and dried and able to be filed away, completely classified. You try to help them and sometimes things work but then it reverts to the horror of irrationality. And if they begin to act in ways that might harm other people you have to try to act to prevent that. Harming other people, by the way, seems to be a lot less common than the irrational person being harmed by other people and themself. Under the laws after Rockefeller found that he could unload the severely mentally ill into the streets, make the situation of getting help for someone with severe mental illness almost impossible once that person has reached what for the most irrational is the legal fiction of adulthood.

So, your example can be analyzed and, if the laws and governmental funding would permit, perhaps prevented without dealing with the entirely invisible matter of the mother’s mental state. We don’t know anything about that except what she tells us, whatever we conclude will be based on her actions and her words. It's entirely possible for someone who has watched some A&E junk "reporting" on a situation to think they understand it based on a false comparision and get it entirely wrong. It’s a messy situation that can’t be untangled using logic or formal reasoning. Those are too specialized methods for dealing with rather simple things and objects.

I think that for trying to figure out what the right thing to do is that an analysis of rights and actions that infringe on other peoples’ rights is more useful for the situation.

I would like to ask a question, someone brought up the question of belief without action. Clearly, if there is an action that stems from a belief the belief would have to come first, even if it was a belief that existed for a fraction of a second before the resulting action. But not all beliefs are acted on, my guess is that most are not. I might believe that I should sell all I have and give the money to the poor but I have failed to do that. I might believe that I should refrain from ever telling a falsehood but I haven’t fulfilled that requirement of another religious tradition. I could believe that I should stop drinking coffee and that would prove to be the hardest of them all to fulfill.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an economist joke:

2 economists are walking along the sidewalk and they walk past a lamboughini.
1 economist says: I really want a lambourghini.
the other replies: obviously you don't.

Economists aren't a very jovial bunch ;)

The idea is that economists see the world as a series of choices. If the 1st guy really wanted a lambourghini, he would have one. He may have to prostitute himself or sell everything he owns, or steal one, but he would if he really wanted one.
The fact is he wants other things more (integrity, a house, a clean criminal record...) an so he does not have a lambourghini.

This appears to be the same as your expression of mental states. They do not exist absent the actions taken unless they are not really the mental state we profess them to be.
At least that's what I'm getting from this.
If you don't start killing Americans then you must not really believe killing Americans is the way to heaven.

olvlzl said...

Vincent, that reminds me of a question I once answered on a blog thread. The question was if someone consented to sex but changed their mind part way through but their partner kept on would it be rape?

I said, yes, of course it would be rape if someone asked someone to stop and they wouldn't. Well, the other person was a lawyer and she said that it wouldn't be because the act of consent applies to the act of penetration. I'm no lawyer but I'd say that the answers could both be right, depending on the context, and probably in different states. Not that the partner should have continued just that the definition depends on the context.

The world is a lot more complicated and ambiguous than lends itself to even complex analysis. Maybe that's the overall view from where I stand. I understand the desire for absolute certainty but I look at the long history of trying to find it only to see that it is as elusive as ever. I don't think we can get it and we should try to get by without it. I don't think we have much of a choice, being limited beings, as we are. Reading through what I posted here this morning, I'd say that I was limited by the benadryl I had to take last night.

Anonymous said...

well, in the law we have the luxury of a few black line rules (and I am a lawyer).
Rape is sexual penetration without consent (as far as I know, in every state).
Removal of consent after penetration can't retroactively make penetration rape.
Of course, battery is any offensive unconsentual touching, so after consent was removed it would be battery, so it's not the same crime, but it is still a crime.

Ironic note - considering the topic:
The "word verification" I need to type in to post this is "kkiil"

Anonymous said...

Why does she intend to kill the children?

Because (1) she loves them and wishes to protect them, (2) she believes they are in danger, (3) she believes that only God can protect them, and (4) she believes that they can only have God’s protection if they are dead.

So we have a woman who feels she has a rational for her actions. Good, the responsibilty of an Ethical Atheist is therefore to give her a better rational.

(1) she loves them and wishes to protect them,
So praise her, whether this be instinctive or, if she has lost that instinct because of resentment and supplants it with a social-moral conformity, just use it. Say you agree with the outcome whatever.

(2) she believes they are in danger Discuss her fears with her, whether it be paedophiles in the neighbourhood, sexual promiscuity subliminally taught in the UK's Dr. Who programmes or her Religion teaches her say, once induced to follow Gangsta Rappers, they will never regain consciousness.
See if her fears are unfounded, and if they are founded, reason a way she can still protect them. Meditation, discussion with people who woke up from their ego state, etc. Children's minds are impressionable. Show her that proportionally as many leave the Church as they leave Homosexuality behind them. Mind Chains can be broken through forgiveness, the way to let go.

Many a kicked-out father has killed so the Bitch cannot indoctrinate his children to endure a living death of compusion supported by drugs and tobacco and Welfare. Validate that fear. You can die a physical death or die a psychotic death (and then wish you died a physical death in the first place). This woman might see a real and probable future she is terrified of: a physical and moral famine.

(3) she believes that only God can protect them, Well if she truely believed in God Almighty that then the magic phrase is to say "it is Allah's Will" and docile conformity returns as her eyes glaze over. It's kept many a Caliph in power. A bit like saying to an Athiest "It's alright, God does not exist, Cottaging's OK, carry on" and the eyes glaze over once more. It's kept many a Government Minister in power.
(4) she believes that they can only have God’s protection if they are dead. Well actually if the Omnipotent Being cannot protect the living She certainly cannot protect the dead. That will be reassuring for her to know.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The joke you mention results in an equivocation. It is true that a person who wants a lambergini and nothing else will act so as to acquire a lambergini, but that this desire may conflict with other desires.

This is still not an objection to the point in my post however. The four brain states mentioned is still prohibited, though the five brain states (the four mentioned, plus - say - an aversion to killing that is stronger than the desire to protect one's children is permitted.

Thus, my statement that a prohibition on an act is a prohibition on those combinations of brain states that would cause the act, but not a prohibition on those brain states that would not cause the act, still stands.

olvlzl said...

Thus, my statement that a prohibition on an act is a prohibition on those combinations of brain states that would cause the act, but not a prohibition on those brain states that would not cause the act, still stands.

Alonzo, you assume that the brain states necessitate the actions. I don't say you're wrong, I say we don't know. We've all become so used to thinking that when we talk about things like "mental states" or even "beliefs" that we know that we are talking about somethign that might be like another "mental state" or "belief". We assume that without any direct evidence. For all we know two people who use exactly the same words to tell what they are experienceing as any kind of interior mental state are actually talking about two entirely different things. Science can have no idea of what someone is experiencing unless that person tells what they think that is. Reporting is the only way we can possibly have any evidence of that. I think I went through that here before so I don't want to repeat all of the arguments.

We have no idea if your assumption is true, I tend to doubt it. A ban can't be on any kind of idea that isn't acted on, the action is what is visible, what has an impact in the world, what has an objective existence that can impinge on other people. The act is important in terms of second parties. The belief may be of great importance to the person holding it, it can't in and of itself be directly known by other people.

Again, I maintain, that if you were the focus of the act you would certainly think that was what was important. The belief behind it might be important after the fact but only in so far as there was an action associated with it by the actor or others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, my claim is not an assumption. Belief-desire theory of human action is the most widely used theory of intentional action. It claims that human actions can all be explained in terms of the formula:

(belief + desire) -> intention -> intentional act.

There may be other forces out there. However, unless and until we have evidence for them, there is no reason to make reference to them.

We know about beliefs and desires the same way we know about black holes and subatomic particles. We cannot observe them directly, but we can know of their effects. From the effects, we can theorize as to what type of entity generates those effects. Many things that cannot be 'directly' known - such as the chemical composition of water - can still be reliably known.

Think of a person sitting at a computer trying to figure out how it is programmed. He clicks on particular keys and observes the results. With enough data, he can start to draw up theories that allow him to predict an explain the relationships between particular inputs and outputs.
These are computer states.

We do the same thing with people. We observe their behavior, then come up with theories (in terms of beliefs and desires) that allow us to reliably predict and explain their behavior.

Science has clearly demonstrated that, even when people explain their own behavior, the best they can do is to offer a theory. Nobody knows even their own beliefs and desires. They have unconscious desires, and will deceive even themselves to bury aspects of themselves they do not like or do not approve of. A homosexual may live in denial of his own homosexuality, explaining away his own homosexual behavior.

The scientist can sometimes tell - better than the person himself - why he did what he did. This has been shown in a number of experiments, where people explain their own behavior in a particular way, but the scientists have rigged the experiment so that their explanation cannot possibly be true. For example, scientists ask their subjects to select among a number of items that are identical. The subjects make a choice, explaining their choice in terms of texture, feel, or some other quality. To make sure that the subject could not actually sense any difference, they shuffle the items and ask the subject to choose again. They cannot identify the item they selected the first time. However, the scientists know from their research that people automatically select the last option. The real reason the agent selected the option he did is because it was the last option presented among identical options. However, very few people realize that this was the real reason behind their action.

It is the case that when people explain their own actions, they have more data available from which to create a reasonable theory. Thus, people will tend to do a better job explaining their own actions than the actions of another. However, the methods used are the same.

olvlzl said...

The scientist can sometimes tell - better than the person himself - why he did what he did. This has been shown in a number of experiments, where people explain their own behavior in a particular way, but the scientists have rigged the experiment so that their explanation cannot possibly be true.

I'm assuming this is something in line with the false memory studies done quite a while ago at Emory? I'd like to read them. I notice that you say that the scientists can show that the explaination can't be true - I'd as if that is in whole or in part- but can the scientists really say with more certainty what the motives were? Absent testimony from the only person in the universe who experienced the motivation I don't believe that for a second. Though I've read enough in the behavioral sciences that a researcher or reviewer making such outlandish statements wouldn't surprise me at all. What did they use? A crystal ball?