Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Benefit and good

In natural languages such as English almost all words — and all short words — have multiple meanings. These meanings are usually related in some way, but they are all different. Look at any dictionary: you'll see an enumeration of different meanings for almost all words. We automatically and usually subconsciously disambiguate these variant meanings by appealing to the context in which words appear.

Such is the case with a word such as "good". I want to discuss one specific meaning of "good": the meaning of "individual benefit".

The best way to understand our brains is as goal-seeking computers: We are always evaluating our internal and external state and seeking, all things considered and given present circumstances, to perform the optimal action. We may be (and often are) confused or mistaken about what the effects of some action will actually be, but, given our understanding, we always seek what we believe to be the best course of action, the course of action that will result in what we believe will be the best physically possible outcome.

In short, we always do, by definition, what we think will be best, what we think will deliver the most benefit.

This is a definition, but it is not strictly tautological: Our brains might not be goal seeking machines. A computer, for example, can be programmed to be a goal-seeking machine, but there are other ways of programming computers. It's logically possible that we might be sphexish, but it is actually true that we are not.

When judging another person's behavior, motivation or belief, their personal benefit cannot affect my own evaluation because I already know that the action is — to the other person — of maximum physically possible utility. Everyone, from the nicest, most considerate person to the most depraved tyrant, mass murderer or child rapist believes that he or she is not just doing good, but doing what is best. It's pointless to try to make any kind of distinction on something that's absolutely invariant.

(Well, not entirely pointless. We employ this sort of reasoning, when a person behaves very strangely, to conclude that they are actually insane; that the goal-seeking character of their brain has been deeply undermined. But real insanity is relatively rare and not an ethical issue.)

I can't rely on the other person's evaluation of the benefits (since that's always the same: optimal), so I have to rely on (among other things) my own evaluation of the benefits of an action: how it does or would benefit me. (And, since I'm a normal human being capable of abstract reasoning, I evaluate not just the particular benefits, but also the abstract categories the benefits belongs to.)

So, yes, in this sense, religion — like everything else — gives its practitioners what they believe to be maximal benefit. But that's completely irrelevant from an ethical perspective: By this criterion everything is perfectly good; each person lives in the best of all possible worlds.


  1. Larry,

    Do you think the evaluation (judgment made about how good a course of action is) is subconscious; consider a 'truly selfless act'. If this kind of motivation is indeed subconscious, then any truly selfless act would be impossible (which I strongly suspect) or it would at least be impossible to be sure of the motivation. An individual may believe consciously that they act despite their own interest but this might not be the case at all. Good can only be the response to personal drives. These drives can include the more virtuous ones like empathy but we are all still reacting to subjective experiences. Is there such a thing then as the truly selfless act?

    Would something like the following qualify?

    You do a favor for a dying stranger you hate, which will result in your painful death and accomplish a goal you despise. No one will ever know this has taken place.

    If it must be something of this nature, it hard to see how that much selflessness is a good thing.

  2. There is no such thing as a truly selfless act, except in the sense that our bodies and brains "obey" physical law. It's a contradiction in terms: It is the self that acts; how can a self act in a selfless way?

    The evaluation of good is often made subconsciously; it is the job of philosophers and psychologists to consider such evaluation consciously and explicitly.

    The dichotomy between selfishness and altruism is specious and misleading. A much better way to describe the dichotomy is between being considerate (of the feelings of others) and inconsiderate (or being outright sadistic).

    This is one reason why I don't like religion, or why I think religion follows from ethics, not the other way around. If you're considerate of other people just because it's important to you yourself to be considerate, you're at best just pushing your innate consideration back onto God.

    On the other hand, if you're innately inconsiderate, and you act considerately just because you fear divine punishment (or crave divine reward), are you really good? In my opinion, no: you're merely obedient, and you'll obey an inconsiderate or sadistic authority just as easily as you'll obey a considerate authority.


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