When Does Not Deciding Count as a Decision?

decisions-2

This week’s topic is whether not deciding is itself a decision. Let us start by escalating things quickly: consider the classic trolley problem.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

While there are many interesting aspects of the trolley problem, with many variants of the problem that may cause one to reconsider their views, this article is concerned with one particular question: Is actively choosing option (1), or doing nothing, equivalent to passively not making a decision? (It turns out this question has real-world consequences, as will be evident below.)

That is, is there is a difference between

  • A) Considering (1) and (2), and deciding that (1) is morally superior; and
  • B) Ignoring the decision, and thus passively allowing (1) to occur?

For one difference, consider the same trolley problem except that the trolley is initially headed for the 1 person, and you have to pull the lever to turn it to the 5 people. In such a case, someone using thought process (A) would STILL choose (1), to have the trolley hit 5 people, whereas someone using thought process (B) would now “choose” (2), allowing the 1 person to be killed.

In the original case, it is difficult to justify non-decision; however, one would most likely be viewed as innocent if one made no decision and allowed the trolley to kill 5. This is because the legal system generally can only punish decisions, not non-decisions. So the real question is, are the following equivalent?

  • I) The trolley is already headed towards the 5 people, and you allow it to continue on course.
  • II) The trolley is headed towards the 1 person, and you divert it to head towards the 5.

The outcome of both situations is the same, namely the 5 people die but the 1 person survives. However, it seems that if this were considered a wrong action, we would be able to legally punish (II), but not (I), since (I) could have been based on not deciding. However, should they be legally viewed the same? That is, should someone be accountable for not deciding?

Speed Chess

One of the interesting examples of decision vs non-decision in a non-legal, non-moral context is blitz chess. When you have only a few minutes for the whole game, you cannot afford to spend a sufficient amount of time thinking about every move. Instead, you must ration your time as a resource, and in some cases choose to not think on a particular move. Speed chess is indeed based primarily on intuition, less so on cold calculation.

Thus in speed chess, it is very feasible that not thinking about a move is itself a decision. Once you have a lot of experience, you gain the intuition of which types of positions require calculation and which do not. It becomes possible to say when it is “correct” to not decide. In this case, not deciding is clearly a decision.

Willful Ignorance

Decisions are based on available information, so a natural question relevant to whether one can be held accountable for not deciding is whether one can be held accountable for not knowing. Moreover, it is important whether someone can be held accountable for intentionally refusing to know. After all, no one would blame a child for thinking that Earth is flat. But when adults believe the world is flat, that is an entirely different issue, because most likely they have intentionally refused to hear the case of the round Earth.

The same goes for evolution, only there are significant national and state policy decisions made based on the refusal to learn about it. Of course, we wouldn’t hold a child responsible for their beliefs, but for an adult to use willful ignorance in decision making is inexcusable.

Whether willful ignorance is problematic in principle can be seen in a trolley variant. Suppose the person who has the power to pull the lever believes that the case is as in the original trolley problem. However, the side which supposedly has 1 person actually has 100.

The operator pulls the lever, diverting the trolley from the side of 5 people to the side of 100, killing all 100 people. Note that the operator cannot be blamed because of genuine ignorance.

Now consider an alternative scenario. The situation is the same as above: the operator believes that is a matter of 5 lives vs 1 life, but it is actually a matter of 5 vs 100. Before making the decision, someone else runs in, screaming that there are actually 100 people on the second track. It would be extremely easy to verify this, but instead, the operator refuses to listen to the new information and diverts the track to the 100 anyways, still clinging to the belief that there is only 1 person. In this case, the operator is being willfully ignorant.

(Can some lawyer explain if there are indeed differences in the previous situations?)

There are countless other examples where the intentional lack of information should not be a valid excuse for a bad decision. Suppose someone is about to receive the death penalty for a crime. A piece of evidence shows up that could provide reasonable doubt in the conviction. It would be absurd to refuse to see this evidence, especially because the refusal to see it would most likely be the result of the people really wanting this person to receive the death penalty, and that the extra information could disturb their beliefs.

A similar example is that some nation has borderline-quality intel justifying a war, and they decide to launch the war before they look at newer intel that could possibly negate the previous intel. Thus even if they are later found to be wrong, they would be able to use the ignorance argument by saying they didn’t know better at the time, even if they knew of the possibility of being wrong. There is a difference between genuinely believing the lack of contradictory information and the intentional refusal to look at (possibly) contradictory information.

It’s not a fine line that separates non-decision and the active decision that leads to the same result as in non-decision. Similarly, it’s not a fine line that separates genuine ignorance and willful ignorance. But even without a perfectly clear demarcation, the differences are real and these actions can and should be treated differently.

An Atheist’s View on Religion

Scarlet A

In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts on particular aspects of atheism and religion, but so far there are none that have laid out my views at a glance. So this is an open, informal post designed to do just that.

  • Identification: Agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). (Though typically, the word “agnostic” can be used differently to describe someone who is “between” theism and atheism.)Agnostic_chart
  • Burden of proof: Those believing in a god must prove so. “I can’t prove the planet Kolob doesn’t exist, therefore I must accept Mormonism,” is a ridiculous statement, as is “I can’t prove fairies don’t exist, therefore fairies exist.” Equally ridiculous is, “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”
  • Religion (general): Antitheism with respect to societal impacts. I think the harms outweigh the benefits. This is the primary reason I even post about religion in the first place.
  • Religion (specific): Islam is arguably worse than Christianity, as it justifies and is actively used to justify many violent actions. On the other hand, I don’t really consider Judaism to be a religion: 68% believe you can be Jewish and not believe in God. (I am probably biased in these views, as nearly every Jew I know is a secular Jew, whereas I know otherwise rational Christians who believe steadfastly in creationism.)
  • Religious people: With respect to individuals, I don’t treat religious people differently, since I don’t think it is their fault they were indoctrinated in a particular religion. I think the very devout are misguided rather than evil people, as I believe they are genuinely doing what they think is right. When someone does something terrible in the name of religion, my instinctive response is never “What a bad person!”, but more often along the lines of “Who brainwashed them into believing that!?” I would go so far as to say that the 9/11 hijackers, as well as all those Americans who perished, were victims of Islam, and that the truly bad people were the ones setting it up from behind the scenes. And, for example, I think the correct response to the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year should have been to consider conducting an objective criticism of Islam, but instead, we are too politically correct to do so, thus not helping to stop another such event from happening.
  • Fundamentalists vs. moderates: I don’t hold fundamentalists more accountable than moderates. Here is a link to my main post on this topic.
  • Activism vs passiveness: I think atheists do need to speak up, even at the cost of being perceived as “rude” or “angry.” So far, the main criticism of the “new atheism movement” is that it is rude and angry, not of the actual contents or messages of the movement. Here is the TED talk in which Richard Dawkins introduces this (30 min video):
  • Religion and science: The two are incompatible at the fundamental level—one teaches to not question anything, and the other to question everything.
  • Afterlife, ghosts, ESP, witches, UFOsreincarnation, etc.: No.
  • Morality: Just as a good law code is very complex, accounting for fringe cases and how to deal with ambiguous situations, so must a good moral code. A moral code simply stated in rules of “Do not X” is doomed to failure, especially if the rules are ambiguous, symbolic, self-contradictory, loophole-ridden, and cherry-picked to serve self interests. Here is a previous post on a better moral code, roughly utilitarian. In addition, with respect to large-scale views on morality, I agree with Sam Harris‘s criticism of “multiculturalism.”
  • LGBT rights, women’s rights, right to choose, feminism, universal education, universal healthcare, etc.: Greatly in support. It’s sad when one of the leading stories yesterday was that Saudi Arabian women were protesting a ban that prevented them from… driving. And when you think about the root cause of the opposition to these factors, you start to see a clear pattern with religion. I see all these issues as religious issues, and I don’t want society to fight the same battle many times, which is why I am also in favor of more vocal disagreement with religion. But of course, that would considered offensive, and the status quo is to care about the unjustified sensitivities of a religious group over the civil rights of millions.
  • Political views (on social issues): Liberal, as shown above.
  • What needs to be done: I have an outline for this but it can easily form a new post.

I’m sure there are missing things in this profile, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. I look forward to answering them.

Edit: Received a question on the religion and science compatibility. I agree that I have not quite expanded on the topic as much as the others, and I may write more about this in the future.

Edit 2: Here is the science and religion compatibility post.

Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality, part 2

For the full explanation, see Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality, part 1, written almost exactly a year ago.

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Moral Consistency

We had a particular debate recently on consistency in moral dilemmas. In particular, we went over two variants of the Trolley Problem: the fat man and the transplant. One side argued that you must pick the same answer in both variants, while the other side argued that it was rational to have opposite answers in the two cases. I argued for the latter.

Here is Wikipedia’s preferred formulations of the two variants:

Fat man:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Transplant:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

In the original trolley problem, most people would sacrifice one person to save five. However, in the fat man variation, not as many people are willing to take the action. And in transplant, very few people agree that harvesting the healthy traveler’s organs is the correct move.

This is quite inconsistent. Why would you be willing to sacrifice one person to save five in some cases, but not in others? Shouldn’t the results be the same?

I argued that it is morally feasible to have different answers to this question, especially in regards to saying yes to the original or fat man case, and saying no in the transplant case.

From a utilitarian perspective, these scenarios are not the same, namely because people contribute different values to society. In the standard trolley example, there is no reason to suspect that the one person laid on one of the tracks is different from any of the five people laid on the other track. Since we are given no other information as to who these people are (of course, the situation changes if we have more information), the best bet is to save the five. Similar is the fat man scenario.

In the transplant case, however, we are given additional information: given that someone is about to die due to the failure of some vital organ, they are probably contributing less to society than the healthy traveler undergoing a routine checkup. Now, this effect may not be strong enough to warrant the sacrifice of 5 people, but it clearly makes the transplant scenario different from the trolley or the fat man.

Now, if the transplant case were replaced with sacrificing one life to save a million, then the problem is entirely changed as well. Similarly, in the trolley problem, if we said the five people were all serial killers and the one person on the other track was a normal hard-working person, that changes the situation.

Since we can change around the answers so easily, there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental one life versus five lives struggle at hand, but rather, a combination of other factors. We can answer the question based on what information we have about the people involved, and since these situations imply different types of people, we are not morally obliged to answer the same for all variants of the problem.

The Moral Landscape

“She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, ‘Every third must walk in darkness.’
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

The Moral Landscape

This is a passage from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2011). The book is controversial and very thought-provoking, both philosophically and practically, especially to the liberal notions of the West. It has certainly changed my views of morality.

Namely, Harris argues that moral relativism has gone too far in our current world, and that it has caused morally inferior practices (such as the burqa) to persist without serious criticism. In addition, he notes of these practices, several are especially difficult to criticize, because to criticize them would be considered offensive to religion. Moreover, because morals are associated by many to religion, it is difficult to seriously argue what is right or wrong, again out of fear of being labeled as offensive or intolerant. And out of this, many moral issues are left unresolved because to debate them is considered wrong.

Can One Culture Be Inferior?

Consider two societies that had the same moral code in all ways except, as in the example earlier, one society required removing the eyes of every third-born, while the other did not. Can we say that the former has an inferior culture? Maybe, maybe not. But this question has an answer, according to Harris, although most of the world would think that it does not. In our world, the tendency is to say that all cultures are equal, that they deserve the same respect, or something along those lines. We would be viewed as supremely intolerant if we were to say otherwise.

And yet, there are issues with this: Can we really view a culture that plucks out the eyes of third-borns out of tradition as an equal culture? What about a culture that condones slavery, or one that requires the burqa, or one that isn’t taken aback by suicide bombing? In the back of my mind, at least, I think such cultures can be viewed as wrong in those areas, but of course, it is an entirely different thing to say it publicly. (See what I did there?)

In the section “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance'”:

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues…. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
…”

An Atheist’s View on Morality

This is in response to my previous article, “Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality.” In that article I listed several questions in several situations and asked you, the reader, what you would do in each case. At the end, I promised to explain my own moral principles as well. So, this post is my own view of ethics and morality, from an atheist.

What Is the End Goal?

First of all, what is the goal of morals? To create a better society is a satisfactory explanation to many, but what then? If a nearly perfect society were to exist some time in the future, would morals still matter? My answer is Yes.

I am optimistic in the future of humanity, and I hope there will be a time when humans can peacefully explore the stars, the galaxies, and the universe. When we are at this stage of civilization, we will be long past the petty conflicts that determine morals today.

Thus, a more long term goal is needed. I propose the following primary objective:

  • To preserve life in the universe.

There is no pure logical reason to put this directive above all others. However, if we start with this assertion, that a universe with life is better than a universe with no life, then many moral questions can be answered in a systematic way.

A Moral Hierarchy

It is systematic enough to put morals into a hierarchy:

Levels
6. Preservation of Life
5. Preservation of Intelligent Species
4. Preservation of Diversity of Species
3. Preservation of Well-Being of the Species
2. Preservation of Self
1. The Following of Social Norms/Cultures/Religion/Laws
0. Natural Instinct and Personal Wants

The way to read this is for any action, start at the bottom and see if it fits with the statement at that level. Then an action is morally justified if it fits a given level and to the best of your knowledge, it does not contradict a higher level. On the other hand, an action is morally wrong if it fails to fit the highest level that you are knowledgeable of.

Examples

Perhaps this hierarchy is a bit confusing, so I will give a few examples.

Example 1: You see a dollar bill is on the ground and nobody else is around. Is it right or wrong to take the dollar bill?

  • According to Level 0, you are allowed the action of taking the dollar bill. You go up one level, to Level 1, and the action is still allowed by society. You don’t believe it will affect any of the higher levels. So, the decision to take the bill is morally justified.

Example 2: Someone has $1,000. Is it morally right or wrong to steal the money from this person?

  • The action fits Level 0, but it fails at Level 1, as it is against the law. You do not believe it will affect any higher level. Since Level 1 is the highest relevant level to your knowledge, the action is morally wrong.

Example 3: Thousands of nuclear weapons around the world are about to explode, and the only way to stop them is to extract a certain code from a captured terrorist. However, the terrorist will not speak. Is it morally justified to torture the terrorist?

  • Torture is against social norms and the law, so the action fails at Level 1. But, Level 3 and Level 4 are very relevant, as the large number of nuclear detonations would kill billions, collapse ecosystems, and cause catastrophic changes to the environment. It would not only threaten human civilization (Level 3), but also wipe out many, many species (Level 4). It could even wipe out humans (Level 5). Thus, to preserve Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5, the action is morally justified.

Example 4: An alien species is about to create a super-massive black hole that will devour millions of galaxies and eventually the whole universe. The only way to prevent this is to preemptively wipe out this alien species.

  • Killing the alien species is against the law, so the action fails at Level 1. Even worse, it would kill an entire species, an act of xenocide, so it fails at Level 4. However, it satisfies the highest objective, Level 6, as it prevents a case where all life in the universe could be destroyed. So, wiping out this alien species is morally justified.

Reasoning

The reasoning for each level is as follows:

  • Level 1 overrides Level 0: The society most likely has a better chance to function  with rules than without rules. This gives it a higher chance to advance.
  • Level 2 overrides Level 1: An individual should be allowed to preserve one’s own life regardless of what other people assert, as long as the individual believes the actions necessary do not contradict any of the higher levels. This is because an individual may discover truth that is contradictory to the rest of the society.
  • Level 3 overrides Level 2: It is justified for an individual to sacrifice one’s own life to improve the quality of living for the species. This increases the chance that the society will be able to preserve itself.
  • Level 4 overrides Level 3: It is justified to lower the quality of living of a species to preserve the diversity of life, i.e., the number of species. This way, if some catastrophe wipes out one species, there are a large number of species remaining to preserve life.
  • Level 5 overrides Level 4: An ecosystem has a better chance to survive if the most intelligent and advanced species is alive. For instance, if a massive asteroid is on a collision path with Earth, it will require Space Age technology (achieved only by humans) to preserve life on Earth, so humans are more important to Earth’s ecosystem than any other species.
  • Level 6 overrides Level 5: It is better for a technologically advanced species to sacrifice itself if it allows life to continue in the universe if life would otherwise be destroyed.

The Role of Knowledge

This hierarchy of morality is strange in that the determination of whether an action is morally justified depends partially on the knowledge of the individual.

For example, suppose that someone were brainwashed when they were young by a society or religion, and that he is led by it to an action that contradicts one of the higher levels. On Earth, for instance, it is common for many of the popular religions to contradict Level 2: Preservation of Self, and Level 3: Preservation of Well-Being of the Species. Level 3 is particularly relevant in today’s age, when the understanding gained from stem cell research, particle accelerators, and evolution have the result of giving life on Earth a much higher chance to survive potential global or cosmic catastrophes.

When someone who is brainwashed by a religion commits an act that contradicts Level 2 or 3, then according to this moral system, the person is not to blame—the fault is with the religion, and with the society for allowing that particular religion to be so pervasive.

Who Exactly to Blame?

Imagine a massive asteroid that will crash into Earth in the year 2050.

At the rate of advancement of our current technology, with a few years of advance warning, we as a species will be able to send multiple rockets armed with nuclear weapons to knock the asteroid off course and save not only our lives, but the lives of all species on Earth, and all of Earth’s children. But say religion had been more prominent and had delayed the onset of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution by just 100 years. Then when the asteroid hits, we would only have what we know as 1950 technology, and likely all of humanity, and all life on Earth, could be destroyed. Surely this is not the fault of any person, but the fault of religion.


The corollary to this question is, What if an asteroid had crashed into Earth in the year 1850? There would have been absolutely nothing we humans could have done at that time to stop it. If that were the case, then we could not blame anyone in that time period. Instead, we would blame the Dark Ages, for practically halting the advancement of technology for a thousand years.

Ethics in Religion

If we value life, and if we want life to prosper in the universe, then humanity as a whole needs to adopt a new form of ethics. Maybe not the one above, but it must embrace one that is based on the existence and diversity of life, not based on myths that were invented in an ancient past.

This is why, among religions, a tolerant religion such as Buddhism is better for the future of humanity than an heavily indoctrinated one such as Christianity or Islam. Religions of the latter category only claim to be “tolerant,” but in practice are often not. See Galileo, the Salem witch trials, or the recent anti-free speech protests in the Middle East. These kinds of religions are fundamentally resistant to change. Whereas, truly tolerant religions are always open to change.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.

-Dalai Lama

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

-Dalai Lama

Sure, the less tolerant religions may teach values they consider to be good, but for life to survive, sometimes the rules must adapt. Say a powerful alien species abducts you and gives you two options: (1) to kill a fellow human and the aliens will befriend the human race and help us advance, or (2) to refuse to kill a human but then the aliens will destroy the entire Earth. You could blindly follow “Thou shalt not kill” as in option (2) and let all the millions of species on Earth die, or you could rationalize that the survival of millions of species, including your own, is more valuable than any single individual member of the species, and instead advance life as in option (1).

Some Concluding Remarks

To preserve life and to let it flourish through the stars, and eventually throughout the universe, we must use an ethics system that adapts to the given situation, not one that proclaims to be absolute and forever-lasting.

Some nations, particularly many of those in Europe, have already realized this. When the United States finally realizes this as well—and hopefully before it’s too late—the rest of humanity will follow, and then finally, the human species will be one of progress, discovery, and peace.