Thursday, May 31, 2012

3 options

You know that you have three options, but you don't know what to do. You know so little about them, so God decides to come along to offer some help. God tells you that it would be right (=permissible) for you to choose a and wrong (=impermissible) for you to choose c. She tells you that she won't tell you anything about b. An angel that is very, very reliable but not infallible comes along and tells you that it would be right (=permissible) for you to choose b. She won't tell you about a or c. What should you do? What shouldn't you do? I'm curious to know whether it follows from the story I've told that you _shouldn't_ choose b. Or, might we say that the angel speaks the truth and that it's acceptable for you to choose b. I ask because the following seems intuitive to me: no conscientious person would choose b over a. What I don't know is whether _that_ tells us anything about b. I can imagine someone running the following argument: No conscientious agent could choose b over a in the circumstances described. So, it could not be right (=permissible) to choose b over a. So, any agent offered these choices shouldn't choose b. [Fwiw, I'm quite sceptical of this line of argument, but there's an intuition here that's interesting]

11 comments:

Kimberly Dill said...

Difficult, as angels are typically seen by theists as 'messengers of god'. That aside, I think most agents *would* choose a over b 1.) in virtue of god's weightier authority and 2.) given the psychological tendency for individuals to prefer two options over three (the fewer options, the better). If that seems right then 'all conscientious agents will choose a over b' does not necessarily entail that 'choosing b is not permissible'. Instead, it sheds light on some aspect of human psychology and rationality. The agent shouldn't choose c, as that option has been clearly ruled out. God's given a the go ahead. Why choose b when your selection pool has been so conveniently narrowed down by THE infallible authority?

Anonymous said...

For starters, let's assume that you know God to be infallible. And assume you know the angel to be fallible. (Otherwise I think still more options open up.) Still, it does not follow from the story you told, I don't think, that you *shouldn't* choose b. Unless you add that, before you hear from your advisers, you judge the options to be on a par (rather than just that you know so little about the options that you don't know what to do), it seems compatible with your story that you initially judge it better to do b than to do a or c. After God and the angel advise, you could reasonably still think that a and b are both permissible, and that b is better.

I don't share the intuition that no conscientious person could choose b. But your having that intuition suggests you mean the example to be restricted so that you're choosing *exclusively on the basis of the advice provided*. And then yes, doing b is risky in a way that doing a isn't (that's the point of making the angel fallible, I suppose). I still don't think the fact that no conscientious person could choose it shows much about b. But it does seem to me that, *all else being equal*, you should not do something you are not certain is permissible when you know yourself to have an option that you are certain is permissible.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of idiotic bullshit that motivates people like Hawking and Krauss to disparage philosophy. Embarrassing.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

Hi Anon,

So, what's the answer?

My guess is that you don't have one, that frustrates you, and that you are also frustrated by the fact that you can't see why the question matters. That's alright. That's why there's a popular science section in the bookstore for people like you.

Sungyak said...

Interesting.
I'd say one should choose a over b for the fact that if the angel is indeed a herald of God then b would somehow fall under a. But since angels are not infallible, but the word of God is, it'd be safer to choose a than b. Maybe it comes down to a hermeneutics of a sort.

Anders, Uppsala, Sweden said...

Why not choose a? OK, b's not bad but god goes for a. It should be a good choice.

mvr said...

Since I trust (mistrust) gods and angels equally, it looks to me like a crapshoot between a and b. I have a real worry about what God's motive could be for not telling me about b. But suppose she ran out of time or there was some other innocent explanation. Then it seems that I'm in a position to know that both a and b are permissible and c is not. I don't feel like I have any reason to choose one over the other. Perhaps b is riskier than a, but perhaps be is in some way better than a. Maybe given no evidence one way or the other I should go with the more reliable judgement that a is permissible. But if someone did the opposite I wouldn't criticize.

Actually, I keep getting hung up on the fact that God must be keeping secrets and wondering why. The angel might just not know about the options she remained silent about.

but then I don't pretend to be conscientious.

Chris Tucker said...

Very interesting question. Assume this conjunction:

1. In the absence of countervailing considerations, one is morally required to maximize moral value, and

2. In the absence of countervailing considerations, one is morally required to minimize the risk of performing an impermissible option.

I wonder whether your intuitions are explained by your tacit acceptance of something like 2. In any event, 1 & 2 push us toward saying b is impermissible, because a is most likely to maximize moral value and minimize risk of moral error. Nonetheless, I'm tentatively inclined to think that one's desires might constitute reasons that would justify (but not morally require) performing P.

Consider a case where you are being attacked. Perhaps you are not morally required to defend yourself. If so, you might know that you will be morally in the clear if you don't fight back. You are less certain that fighting back will keep you morally in the clear. Yet, I still think it might be morally permissible to fight back.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

Hi all,

I think the question is interesting for the following reason. You might think that facts about the risk of wrongdoing won't be among the facts that determine overall obligation. Zimmerman (I think) argues that other risks might have some bearing on overall obligation, not not deontic risks. It's not clear that he's right, but the arguments he offers for this view are prima facie plausible. It seems that some intuitions suggest that what we'll judge 'ought' to be done does depend upon these sorts of risks. That either means that his theoreticla arguments are unsound or that our intuitions in these matters need to be treated with care (i.e., they don't tell us what our overall obligation is in the relevant situations). If these intuitions are an unreliable guide, then I think that we might have a good reason to distrust some of the intuitions we have about the three options cases that he (and Regan and Jackson) use to beat up on objectivist views of obligation. That's something to work on later.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

Hi all,

I think the question is interesting for the following reason. You might think that facts about the risk of wrongdoing won't be among the facts that determine overall obligation. Zimmerman (I think) argues that other risks might have some bearing on overall obligation, not not deontic risks. It's not clear that he's right, but the arguments he offers for this view are prima facie plausible. It seems that some intuitions suggest that what we'll judge 'ought' to be done does depend upon these sorts of risks. That either means that his theoreticla arguments are unsound or that our intuitions in these matters need to be treated with care (i.e., they don't tell us what our overall obligation is in the relevant situations). If these intuitions are an unreliable guide, then I think that we might have a good reason to distrust some of the intuitions we have about the three options cases that he (and Regan and Jackson) use to beat up on objectivist views of obligation. That's something to work on later.

Daniel said...

I'm sympathetic to Anon 5:27, though he clearly misrepresents those who he refers to.

For the same reasons anyone would choose A over B, it seems clear that you know absolutely nothing about B (permissible or not). God says yes, no, and nothing. You wouldn't take God saying nothing to imply something.

Either way, I can't see how this is useful. I can't imagine someone being in a situation where they have to choose between three options they know nothing about. I suspect it's hard to imagine because it quite strongly implies free will.