Monday, July 21, 2008

Reasonable Person Test

Ron from Houston, in a number of comments, has been bringing up a test for moral acceptability that he calls "The Reasonable Person Test."

I keep bringing up the reasonable man standard because I think it applies in these situations. Grilling hamburgers at my local park is something a reasonable man would do and is therefore acceptable. Grilling hamburgers outside a Hindu temple is not something a reasonable man would do and therefore violates boundaries.

I have objections to the 'reasonable person' test. Namely, if we are going to try to determine what the reasonable person would or would not do, what we need to do is to look at the reasons. We then evaluate the reasons for soundness (or, at least, plausibility), and judge from that.

However, if we are making our evaluations on the plausibility of reasons, we do not need a reasonable person test. We simply need a 'good reason' test. The 'person' part becomes superficial. We need to look at whether the reasons for or against an action have merit, or not.

There are two types of reasons – beliefs and desires. Desires identify the ends (or goals) of human action, while beliefs pick out the means (or the methods of establishing or maintaining those goals). To look at whether an agent passes a “good reason” test, we must look at the reasons and see if they are any good.

Beliefs are judged to be good or bad based on their justification. Abelief is a mental state – having a belief that P means being in a state where one treats the proposition P as being true. (Even though the belief might be false.) Believing that there is a dragon outside of one’s door that will eat the agent as soon as he leaves the house means behaving as if the proposition were true.

Desires are judged good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. We have reason to promote beliefs that tend to fulfill other desires because we have other desires that need to be fulfilled.

So, what reasons are there for cooking hamburgers in a park as opposed to cooking hamburgers in front of a Hindu temple? What can we say about the quality of those reasons?

We do not need a "Reasonable Person Test" to judge an act like PZ Myers' alleged plan to desecrate a consecrated communion wafer. We need to look at Myers' reasons themselves, and to judge whether those reasons have any merit.

I hold that the proposition that the crackers were not obtained by theft is an unreasonable belief. Property acquired through fraud or stealth is still the property of the person who was defrauded. We can be quite certain that, if Myers has a consecrated communion wafer, then it was taken from the church through fraud (by falsely presenting oneself as a Catholic participating in the ritual of communion), or by stealth (sneaking out with a wafer).

We can argue that Myers also presents another bad reason for action (or demonstrates the absence of a good reason, which also counts on this model). He does not show any compassion for the feelings of Catholics who are offended and bothered by his action. Sympathy is a good desire – one we have reason to promote and to promote. To the degree that Myers does not exhibit sympathy, we have reason to condemn him.

However, the ‘sympathy’ ply is cluttered by the fact that the Church promotes policies and laws detrimental to the well-being of others. As such, we have to measure sympathy for the members of the Catholic church against sympathy for the well-being of those who are made to suffer and, in some cases, die as a result of Catholic church doctrine.

I am not going back to the Inquisition, Crusades, and 30-Years War to make this point. I am talking about current policies that block research into stem cell medicine, early-term abortions, family planning (through the use of birth control), and homosexual marriage. We need to measure compassion for people who hold an absurdly false set of beliefs, with compassion for the people that those who uphold an absurdly false set of beliefs harm.

Given that real value requires real relationships between states of affairs and desires, we have good reason not to respect false beliefs. What this means is that a state of affairs S has value to the degree that there is a desire that P and P is true in S. No consecrated cracker has ever been the actual body of Christ. So, much of the value that people see in a consecrated value is not real. Whereas the interests harmed by public policies that the Catholic Church defends are real.

Real goods trump imaginary goods.

In the case of the Hindu temple, this applies. If the Hindu position regarding the eating of beef resulted in widespread starvation – where tens to hundreds of millions of people starve to death – it may well be time to open up a barbecue in front of the nearest Hindu temple. Once again, it makes no sense to give preference to invented harms over real harms.

One objection that may be raised against this is the assumption that starvation, survival through medical breakthroughs involving stem-cell research, and freedom from sexually transmitted disease, are all real goods while the sacredness of cows and the value of the consecrated communion wafers are imaginary goods. In making these claims, I may be accused of begging the question against religious beliefs.

However, the possibility of error is captured in the principles surrounding freedom of speech. I am not advocating violence against those who hold these absurd beliefs – in fact, I have argued against the use of violence. I have only argued in favor of debate, which means allowing the critics of these views to speak their mind in whatever way they think best communicates their ideas.

The desecration of the consecrated communion wafer is meant to communicate that the consecrated wafer is still just a cracker. The barbecue outside of a Hindu temple at a time of starvation communicates the fact that e can use cows to feed people. No violence is being offered against the church (at least on the principles I am defending here). That is as far as respect for other beliefs requires us to go.

Desire utilitarianism does have something like a 'reasonable person' test. It is a 'person with good desires’ test. A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. And a permissible act is an act that a person with good desires may or may not perform, depending on other interests.

A right act is not necessarily done for good reasons – sometimes they are done for notorious reasons. A person might turn in his brother, the child rapist, so that he can be sole heir to the family fortune. Yet, he still performed the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

However, 'good desires' is rather precisely defined – as is 'justified beliefs'.

One of the problems of imagining a 'reasonable person' test without fixed definitions is that people are going to imagine the 'reasonable person' doing exactly what the agent wants to do. It is an invitation to examine one’s own prejudices and then project those prejudices onto the world. One person may claim that a reasonable person can simply see that homosexuality is unnatural and that we must promote religion in order to promote morality.

What standard does he use to determine if these views are correct?

I would argue that the only standards that make sense in the light of this model is to test the beliefs and desires themselves for reasonableness – beliefs in terms of whether or not they are justified, and desires according to whether or not they tend to fulfill other desires.


Burt Likko said...

This all is really getting back to the issue of motive. At least, that's where I was headed with my "proportion" argument about the communion cracker and I think that's where Ron from Houston would wind up by really looking at the "reasonable person" standard.

The "reasonable person" is a concept borrowed from tort law, and there is some use to be had from the concept. In the law, a jury is often asked to determine whether a given course of conduct was reasonable or unreasonable, and an element of democracy creeps in to that evaluation by virtue of twelve people selected more or less at random from the community being asked to make that decision. Personally, I think that system works pretty well, but that's not the point here. The question is whether the concept of a "reasonable person" can get us closer to deciding what is ethically acceptable and what is not. I think there is value to be had in this suggestion, although I stop short of saying that it would be dispositive in most cases.

One thing that the reasonable person does that is not purely subjective to the theorizer about the reasonable person is that the reasonable person at least restrains himself from acting on a malicious motive. By definition, malice is unreasonable. The reasonable person may not necessarily want to help someone else, but the reasonable person also does not want to harm them.

The reasonable person also acts in a way that is at least minimally self-interested. Typically, one does something in order to realize some sort of gain -- it might not be a gain that is quantified in money or some other good, but there is something about one's actions that leaves one better off than before. The reasonable person, I posit, at the very least, refrains from doing something that will cause himself significant harm.

That is not to say that the "reasonable person" concept is free from subjectivity based on the philosopher who uses this tool. Of course people will disagree about what is "reasonable." But if something is pretty clearly unreasonable, and we understand why it is so, then we have at least one perspective on the issue that helps guide us to our ethical evaluation.

Sheldon said...

"We need to measure compassion for people who hold an absurdly false set of beliefs, with compassion for the people that those who uphold an absurdly false set of beliefs harm."

But isn't there a problem here? That is the belief in the sacredness of the cracker causes very little direct harm. It is merely ritual feature of the whole Catholic belief system.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church teaches its followers in Africa and elsewhere that condom use is sinful and will result in hellfire.

The first feature of Catholic belief is relatively benign, the second is morally repugnant. These features of belief are not neccessarily connected. One belief can be held without the other.

We should hope to persuade lay Catholics, and maybe even members of the hierarchy, to ignore the directly harmful belief.

Ridicule of the belief in the symbolic importance of the cracker is more likely to throw up their defenses, rather than open their mind to criticism that has real world consequences.

M. Tully said...

OK Alonzo,

Help me out here, realize I’m not a moral philosopher, I’m just trying to reach a better understanding.

“There is no social contract”

Why do I decide to join, or if by accident of birth, decide to stay in any social unit? Is there not an expectation that together the unit will achieve more than what I could do on my own? If the social unit doesn’t meet that expectation, isn’t expected that I would withdraw myself from it and find one that would (or become a hermit, if that actually worked better)?

“Basing any moral conclusions on the myth of the social contract…”

First, believe me this is just a question given in the search for understanding, not with any intent to be a polemic. But, the “myth” of social contract theory is that it is a conceived ideal of how a social group would be formed by ideally rational actors coming together in an ideal situation. Which, I believe most people would agree that those ideal situations are very unlikely to have occurred in the past nor are ever likely to occur in the future. Having said that, it seems to me that Desire Utilitarianism, to be factually true and not an ideal concept, would have to have a concrete method of measuring both the number and magnitude of all human desires on earth at any one given instant in time. If that methodology exists, then without a doubt, it is game, set and match.

“First, the assumption that there is a compromise contract that everybody will have reason to sign is false.”

Social contract theory as modified by the theory of evolution, would wholly agree with the above statement. The history of mankind has shown a slow development of social morality, moving from the family to the tribe to the clan to the land and then to the nation-state. Many SC adherents have a hope that one day it will progress to all of humanity. How does DU guarantee that it has a set of premises that everyone will actually willingly follow?

“Even assuming that there is a contract for everybody to sign, as I sit here ready to act, what reason do I have to consider the terms of such a hypothetical contract? My interaction is with real people in the real world having real beliefs and desires.”

Again, I think most SC minded people would agree (I may be grossly misinterpreting SC theory, but I don’t remember any philosopher ever assuming that there ever was an actual written in stone contract). But again, I have to ask can any person interacting with real people in the real world, ever be able to discern the product of the number and strength of all human desires at the particular instant in time they are making a moral decision?

“Social contract theory ignores the vital concern with how to motivate people to abide by the terms of the contract.”

SCT, as I understand it, would answer, ”Because they understand that in a social organization, they can achieve more than on their own.”

“If an act that conforms to a social contract rule also happens to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent's desires given her beliefs, then he will obey the contract. If the two diverge, then the agent will violate the contract.”

How is DU different? If an agent decides that their personal set of desires x strengths out ways that of the rest of humanity, why would we expect them not to act on their decision?

Again Alonzo, I’m just looking for clarification. At this point (as a layman, not a philosopher), I have not found a single school of thought that answers all moral questions. Until I do, I’m still an empiricist with strong leanings to following the laws of nature, Act Utilitarianism, Social Contract Theory, and more recently, Desire Utilitarianism (as the data supports each one in a given situation).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

M. Tully

Why do I decide to join, or if by accident of birth, decide to stay in any social unit?

The claim that there is no social contract is not the same as the claim that there is no reason for society. Of course we benefit from being a member of society. The advantages of specialization and trade are huge. But the fact that there is an advantage does not imply a social contract. It invites some method of promoting those benefits and reducing costs, but does not dictate any particular form for that method.

[T]he “myth” of social contract theory is that it is a conceived ideal of how a social group would be formed by ideally rational actors coming together in an ideal situation..

Actually, I think that ideally rational actors would reject the idea of a social contract for exactly the reasons that I mentioned. There is no hope of ever agreeing on such a contract, and even if they had a contract the question of how to get people to follow it remains unanswerd (given that people always act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs).

Instead, those ideally rational actors would instead see the wisdom of promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires through the social tools that they had available (praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment). They would see how rational it is to promote in each other desires that tended to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

How does DU guarantee that it has a set of premises that everyone will actually willingly follow?

May I assume that you meant to say 'principles' here, or 'rules'? If this assumption is granted, please note that DU comes with no such guarantees. However, it is no fault of a theory that it fails to guarantee that which cannot be guaranteed. The question is like challenging a physicist by saying, "How does your theory guarantee our ability to travel back in time?" The virtue of a theory can sometimes be found in the fact that it correctly identifies the limits of what we have reason to ask for.

Still, it makes sense for people generally to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (the desires being fulfilled providing the motivation to promote those desires), and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires (the desires being thwarted providing the motivation for inhibiting such desires). It makes sense to promote aversions to murder, rape, theft, on these grounds.
desire utilitarianism focuses directly on motives.

If an agent decides that their personal set of desires x strengths out ways that of the rest of humanity, why would we expect them not to act on their decision?

Worse than that, a person with bad desires (or the absense of good desires) will act immorally in certain circumstances. This is exactly why it is necessary to focus on desires (reasons for action) and not actions themselves - because people cannot deviate from performing that act that best fulfills the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs.

Which brings me back to the point at the start of this response. The team of rational agents would see this as reason to throw out the idea of creating a social contract, and as a reason in favor of establishing a set of institutions to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires.

M. Tully said...


Thank you for taking time to respond. You've given me a good deal to think about.

It was also a unique experience to have the founder of a philosophy answer questions that I had (I can't seem to get a hold of Mill's email address).

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...

Shouldn't the 'reasonable person' test also apply to the person inside the temple who might be offended by the act of barbequeing some meat? Someone might refrain from selling spare ribs outside a mosque out of politeness, or from fear of being lynched, but is it 'reason' to pander to the unreasonable superstitions of others?