Prices or Bindings?

Fol­lowup to: Eth­i­cal Injunctions

Dur­ing World War II, Knut Hauke­lid and three other sabo­teurs sank a civilian Nor­we­gian ferry ship, the SF Hy­dro, car­ry­ing a ship­ment of deu­terium for use as a neu­tron mod­er­a­tor in Ger­many’s atomic weapons pro­gram. Eigh­teen dead, twenty-nine sur­vivors. And that was the end of the Nazi nu­clear pro­gram. Can you imag­ine a Hol­ly­wood movie in which the hero did that, in­stead of com­ing up with some amaz­ing clever way to save the civili­ans on the ship?

Stephen Dub­ner and Steven Le­vitt pub­lished the work of an anony­mous economist turned bagel­sel­ler, Paul F., who dropped off bas­kets of bagels and came back to col­lect money from a cash­box, and also col­lected statis­tics on pay­ment rates. The cur­rent av­er­age pay­ment rate is 89%. Paul F. found that peo­ple on the ex­ec­u­tive floor of a com­pany steal more bagels; that peo­ple with se­cu­rity clear­ances don’t steal any fewer bagels; that tele­com com­pa­nies have robbed him and that law firms aren’t worth the trou­ble.

Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes) once said: “I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that ev­ery­one’s got a price, or the fact that their price is so low.”

If Knut Hauke­lid sold his soul, he held out for a damned high price—the end of the Nazi atomic weapons pro­gram.

Others value their in­tegrity less than a bagel.

One sus­pects that Hauke­lid’s price was far higher than most peo­ple would charge, if you told them to never sell out. Maybe we should stop tel­ling peo­ple they should never let them­selves be bought, and fo­cus on rais­ing their price to some­thing higher than a bagel?

But I re­ally don’t know if that’s enough.

The Ger­man philoso­pher Fichte once said, “I would not break my word even to save hu­man­ity.”

Ray­mond Smul­lyan, in whose book I read this quote, seemed to laugh and not take Fichte se­ri­ously.

Abra­ham Heschel said of Fichte, “His sal­va­tion and righ­teous­ness were ap­par­ently so much more im­por­tant to him than the fate of all men that he would have de­stroyed mankind to save him­self.”

I don’t think they get it.

If a se­rial kil­ler comes to a con­fes­sional, and con­fesses that he’s kil­led six peo­ple and plans to kill more, should the priest turn him in? I would an­swer, “No.” If not for the seal of the con­fes­sional, the se­rial kil­ler would never have come to the priest in the first place. All else be­ing equal, I would pre­fer the world in which the se­rial kil­ler talks to the priest, and the priest gets a chance to try and talk the se­rial kil­ler out of it.

I use the ex­am­ple of a priest, rather than a psy­chi­a­trist, be­cause a psy­chi­a­trist might be tempted to break con­fi­den­tial­ity “just this once”, and the se­rial kil­ler knows that. But a Catholic priest who broke the seal of the con­fes­sional—for any rea­son—would face uni­ver­sal con­dem­na­tion from his own church. No Catholic would be tempted to say, “Well, it’s all right be­cause it was a se­rial kil­ler.”

I ap­prove of this cus­tom and its ab­solute­ness, and I wish we had a ra­tio­nal­ist equiv­a­lent.

The trick would be es­tab­lish­ing some­thing of equiv­a­lent strength to a Catholic priest who be­lieves God doesn’t want him to break the seal, rather than the lesser strength of a psy­chi­a­trist who out­sources their tape tran­scrip­tions to Pak­istan. Other­wise se­rial kil­lers will, quite sen­si­bly, use the Catholic priests in­stead, and get less ra­tio­nal ad­vice.

Sup­pose some­one comes to a ra­tio­nal­ist Con­fes­sor and says: “You know, to­mor­row I’m plan­ning to wipe out the hu­man species us­ing this neat biotech con­coc­tion I cooked up in my lab.” What then? Should you break the seal of the con­fes­sional to save hu­man­ity?

It ap­pears ob­vi­ous to me that the is­sues here are just those of the one-shot Pri­soner’s Dilemma, and I do not con­sider it ob­vi­ous that you should defect on the one-shot PD if the other player co­op­er­ates in ad­vance on the ex­pec­ta­tion that you will co­op­er­ate as well.

There are is­sues with trust­wor­thi­ness and how the sin­ner can trust the ra­tio­nal­ist’s com­mit­ment. It is not enough to be trust­wor­thy; you must ap­pear so. But any­thing that mocks the ap­pear­ance of trust­wor­thi­ness, while be­ing un­bound from its sub­stance, is a poor sig­nal; the sin­ner can fol­low that logic as well. Per­haps once neu­roimag­ing is a bit more ad­vanced, we could have the ra­tio­nal­ist swear un­der a truthtel­ling ma­chine that they would not break the seal of the con­fes­sional even to save hu­man­ity.

There’s a proverb I failed to Google, which runs some­thing like, “Once some­one is known to be a liar, you might as well listen to the whistling of the wind.” You wouldn’t want oth­ers to ex­pect you to lie, if you have some­thing im­por­tant to say to them; and this is­sue can­not be wholly de­cou­pled from the is­sue of whether you ac­tu­ally tell the truth. If you’ll lie when the fate of the world is at stake, and oth­ers can guess that fact about you, then, at the mo­ment when the fate of the world is at stake, that’s the mo­ment when your words be­come the whistling of the wind.

I don’t know if Fichte meant it that way, but his state­ment makes perfect sense as an eth­i­cal the­sis to me. It’s not that one per­son’s per­sonal in­tegrity is worth more, as ter­mi­nal val­uta, than the en­tire world. Rather, los­ing all your ethics is not a pure ad­van­tage.

Be­ing be­lieved to tell the truth has ad­van­tages, and I don’t think it’s so easy to de­cou­ple that from tel­ling the truth. Be­ing be­lieved to keep your word has ad­van­tages; and if you’re the sort of per­son who would in fact break your word to save hu­man­ity, the other may guess that too. Even in­trap­er­sonal ethics can help pro­tect you from black swans and fun­da­men­tal mis­takes. That logic doesn’t change its struc­ture when you dou­ble the value of the stakes, or even raise them to the level of a world. Los­ing your ethics is not like shrug­ging off some chains that were cool to look at, but were weigh­ing you down in an ath­letic con­test.

This I knew from the be­gin­ning: That if I had no ethics I would hold to even with the world at stake, I had no ethics at all. And I could guess how that would turn out.

Part of the se­quence Eth­i­cal Injunctions

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