Counterfactual Morality

When I wrote about allied bomber crews in WW2, I said that they were immoral partly because had they been on the wrong side of the war, they would still have done the same things. I think the idea of judging people by their counterfactual moral actions is one which I’ve internalized and held for years but never directly named and described so here goes.

Often when we want to judge a persons moral character, we look at either their actions or their intentions.

Looking at actions alone is initially appealing but has a core problem. Consider two people, Bill the psycho and Joe the normal person. Bill enjoys raping, torturing and hurting others at least some of the time. He has no regard for morals as we understand them and just acts to benefit himself. Joe is a normal person. Imagine both Bill and Joe are placed in an identical situation. They are at work. A coworker leaves their wallet on the table while going to the bathroom. Neither Bill nor Joe steal the wallet. Joe doesn’t steal the wallet because, even were he sure he could get away with it, he won’t do something he considers morally wrong, in this case stealing. Bill doesn’t steal the wallet because the small chance of being caught or even suspected outweighs the benefit he would get from the $50 or so he can expect to find inside. Were the calculus different in terms of self interest, he would steal without hesitation. This scenario illustrates the main problem with judging people by their actions: we don’t take intent into account. When judging whether a person is good, not whether they are a force for good, intent matters. Killing a person because you stab them in the heart with a knife because you hate them and killing a person because you stab them with a knife by accident while performing lifesaving surgery are morally different and that’s not a difference looking at acts alone can account for.

Now, this doesn’t mean that judging by actions is clearly inferior. There are reasons why looking at actions can be useful:

  • practically, intent is inaccessible while actions are observable
  • the elephant in the brain hypothesis: humans self-deceive. Evolution has optimized us to act in a way that is best for us while generating plausible stories about why our actions are actually good/virtous/moral in order to impress our social groups.
  • the "is a person good" vs "is a person a force for good" distinction I wrote about in being good vs doing good

The naive approach to solving this kind of problem is simple: take intent into account. The problem with this is that a person’s intent isn’t the only thing we care about. Consider the following cases.

Case 1. C the Coward and H the hero are two people. Both believe that raping people is bad. Under normal circumstances both wouldn’t rape (action) and both would have the same primary reason for not raping (they think it’s wrong). If a warlord captured them and tried the force them to rape Coward would rather rape than have a single finger broken by the warlords men. Hero would rather be tortured to death than rape. (Assume they have equal sensitivity to pain/self-control and so are paying the same "cost" for defiance). In normal life H and C have the same moral beliefs/intentions ("rape is bad and I won’t do it") and the same action (not raping). Yet when push comes to shove only H is actually willing to live by their morals.

Case 1. M the Midwit and F the Free-Thinker are two people. While living in a moderate liberal democracy they both have a fairly standard set of civilizational middle class beliefs including the belief that Killing/imprisoning/making people destitute because of their ethnicity/religion/class/politics is wrong. The difference is that M just holds these beliefs because that’s what everyone around them believes whereas F holds them as a result of consideration of the various reasons for and against tolerance. Time goes on an a new illiberal party/social movement becomes prominent and then dominant. In the new environment most people are exposed to arguments for intolerance. M becomes intolerant, matching their new environmental norm. F does not. (Note that this is different from the "would you believe in slavery if you were born in ancient Greece" argument. It’s about people who have been exposed to anti-slavery worldviews/arguments, not about reasoning them out form scratch)

I think both the cases above illustrate a different trait we care about when assessing whether someone is a good person. The specific traits in the examples are courage and wisdom but more generally speaking let’s call what we care about having environmentally-independent morality. Many people only have morals when the costs of doing so are low or negative. They don’t steal when stealing is not in their interest anyway. They won’t lynch other races when lynching is socially unacceptable and likely punishable. These people don’t actually have morals independent of their environment, rather they’re just reflections of whatever the prevailing game-theoretic equilibrium, social norm or epistemic environment they happen to be in.

There’s a lot to work out here.

  • Aren’t all people a product of their environment?
    • Yes but to different extents
  • Isn’t determinism true, free will an illusion and hence there’s no actual difference in how far people have "environmentally independent morality"?
    • Yes on the object level but on the messy level of practical abstractions we make to deal with our incomplete information, env-independent morality is still a useful concept in the same way as saying someone is unpredictable/erratic is useful even though we realize that at the level of atoms, an "erratic" person is just as predictable as everyone else
  • Can’t you include env-independence under intent or actions. Either as firmness of intent or as range of environments in which a person would act in a certain way? (e.g: don’t just look at how a person acts now, look at how they will act in the weighted average of all future timelines)?
    • yes
  • Isn’t it a bit quick to assume that cowardice/midwittery are morally blameworthy? Not everyone has a high IQ/innate courage.
    • Being morally blameworthy is one thing. Being a good or bad person as far as practical judgements go is a different things. Consider the case of X who is due to a brain defect beyond their control absolutely sadistic and evil. Even if you believe they’re not morally blameworthy, you probably still think they’re evil in the sense of practically treating them differently.
    • This is a tricky question I’ll write about in the future

I guess overall my message here is fairly simple. When judging people, whether for work, friendship or love, their moral character is probably the most important/heavily weighted trait. When judging that trait, you shouldn’t ask yourself only if that person is good in the present. You should ask yourself how far they would be good where being good had real costs. Hmmm. As always, a long winded article leads to a simple, obvious truth that could be said in one sentence. Still, sometimes you have to walk the road to make sure the destination is correct.

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