Asymmetric Justice

Re­lated and re­quired read­ing in life (ANOIEAEIB): The Copen­hagen In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ethics

Epistemic Sta­tus: Try­ing to be min­i­mally judgmental

Spoiler Alert: Con­tains minor mostly harm­less spoiler for The Good Place, which is the best show cur­rently on tele­vi­sion.

The Copen­hagen In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ethics (in par­allel with the similarly named one in physics) is as fol­lows:

The Copen­hagen In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ethics says that when you ob­serve or in­ter­act with a prob­lem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not do­ing more. Even if you don’t make the prob­lem worse, even if you make it slightly bet­ter, the eth­i­cal bur­den of the prob­lem falls on you as soon as you ob­serve it. In par­tic­u­lar, if you in­ter­act with a prob­lem and benefit from it, you are a com­plete mon­ster. I don’t sub­scribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty pop­u­lar.

I don’t say this of­ten, but se­ri­ously, read the whole thing.

I do not sub­scribe to this in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

I be­lieve that the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple effec­tively en­dorse this in­ter­pre­ta­tion. I do not think they en­dorse it con­sciously or ex­plic­itly. But they act as if it is true.

Another as­pect of this same phe­nomenon is how most peo­ple view jus­tice.

Al­most ev­ery­one agrees jus­tice is a sa­cred value. That it is good and su­per im­por­tant. Jus­tice is one of the few uni­ver­sally agreed upon goals of gov­ern­ment. Jus­tice is one of the eight virtues of the avatar. Jus­tice is up there with truth and the Amer­i­can way. No jus­tice, no peace.

But what is jus­tice? Or rather, to avoid go­ing too deeply into an in­finitely com­plex philo­soph­i­cal de­bate mil­len­niums or eons old, how do most peo­ple in­stinc­tively model jus­tice in broad terms?

In a con­ver­sa­tion last night, this was offered to me (I am prob­a­bly para­phras­ing due to bad mem­ory, but it’s func­tion­ally what was said), and seems com­mon: Jus­tice is giv­ing ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment to those who have taken bad ac­tion.

I asked whether, in this per­son’s model, the ac­tions needed to be bad in or­der to be rele­vant to jus­tice. This prompted pon­der­ing, af­ter which the re­ply was that yes, that was how their model worked.

I then asked whether re­ward­ing a good ac­tion counted as jus­tice, or failing to do so counted as in­jus­tice, us­ing the ex­am­ple of sav­ing some­one’s life go­ing un­re­warded.

We can con­sider three point-based jus­tice sys­tems.

In the asym­met­ric sys­tem, when bad ac­tion is taken, bad ac­tion points are ac­cu­mu­lated. Jus­tice pun­ishes in pro­por­tion to those points to the ex­tent pos­si­ble. Each ac­tion is as­signed a non-nega­tive point to­tal.

In the sym­met­ric sys­tem, when any ac­tion is taken, good or bad, points are ac­cu­mu­lated. This can and of­ten is zero, is nega­tive for bad ac­tion, pos­i­tive for good ac­tion. Jus­tice con­sists of pun­ish­ing nega­tive point to­tals and re­ward­ing pos­i­tive point to­tals.

In what we will call the Good Place sys­tem (Spoiler Alert for Sea­son 1), when any ac­tion is taken, good or bad, points are ac­cu­mu­lated as in the sym­met­ric sys­tem. But there’s a catch (which is where the spoiler comes in). If you take ac­tions with good con­se­quences, you only get those points if your mo­tive was to do good. When a char­ac­ter at­tempts to score points by hold­ing open doors for peo­ple, they fail to score any points be­cause they are gam­ing the sys­tem. Gam­ing the sys­tem isn’t al­lowed.

Thus, if one takes ac­tion even un­der the best of mo­tives, one fails to cap­ture much of the gains from such ac­tion. Se­cond or higher or­der benefits, or sur­pris­ing benefits, that are real but un­in­tended, will mostly not get cap­tured.

The op­po­site is not true of ac­tions with bad con­se­quences. You lose points for bad ac­tions whether or not you in­tended to be bad. It is your re­spon­si­bil­ity to check your­self be­fore you wreck your­self.

When (Spoiler Alert for Sea­son 3) an or­di­nary cit­i­zen buys a tomato from a su­per­mar­ket, they are re­vealed to have lost twelve points be­cause the owner of the tomato com­pany was a bad guy and the com­pany used un­eth­i­cal la­bor prac­tices. Life has be­come too com­pli­cated to be a good per­son. Thus, since the thresh­olds never got up­dated, no one has made it into The Good Place for cen­turies.

The asym­met­ric sys­tem is against ac­tion. Ac­tion is bad. In­ac­tion is good. Sur­pris­ingly large num­bers of peo­ple ac­tu­ally be­lieve this. It is good to be you, but bad to do any­thing.

The asym­met­ric sys­tem is not against ev­ery ac­tion. This is true. But effec­tively, it is. Some ac­tions are bad, some are neu­tral. Take enough ac­tions, even with the best of in­ten­tions, even with fully cor­rect knowl­edge of what is and is not bad, and mis­takes will hap­pen.

So any in­di­vi­d­ual, any group, any com­pany, any sys­tem, any any­thing, that takes ac­tion, is there­fore bad.

The law by de­sign works that way, too. There are in­creas­ingly long and com­plex lists of ac­tions which are ille­gal. If you break the law, and any­one who does things will do so by ac­ci­dent at some point, you can be pros­e­cuted. You are then pros­e­cuted for the worst thing they can pin on you. No amount of other good deeds can do more than miti­gate. Thus, any suffi­ciently rich in­ves­ti­ga­tion will judge any of us who reg­u­larly take mean­ingful ac­tion to be bad.

If you can be sued for the bad con­se­quences of a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure, po­ten­tially for ru­inous amounts, but can­not col­lect most of the huge benefits of suc­cess­ful pro­ce­dures, you will en­gage in defen­sive medicine. Thus, lots of defen­sive medicine. Be­cause jus­tice.

If, as was done in the past, the en­g­ineer and his fam­ily are forced to sleep un­der the bridge af­ter it is built, so that they will be kil­led if it falls down, you can be damn sure they’re go­ing to build a safe bridge. But you’d bet­ter want to pay for a fully bul­let­proof bridge be­fore you do that.

Skin in the game is nec­es­sary. That means both be­ing at risk, and col­lect­ing re­ward. Too of­ten we as­sign risk with­out re­ward.

If one has a sys­tem whereby peo­ple are judged only by their bad ac­tions, or by their worst sin­gle ac­tion, what you have is a sys­tem that con­demns and is against all ac­tion.

Never tweet.

Also see pri­vacy and black­mail.

The sym­met­ric sys­tem is in fa­vor of ac­tion. If no one ever took any ac­tion, we would not have nice things and also all die. If peo­ple gen­er­ally took fewer ac­tions, we would have less nice things and be worse off. If one gets full credit for the good and bad con­se­quences of one’s ac­tions, we will provide cor­rect in­cen­tives to en­courage ac­tion.

This, to me, is also jus­tice.

A sym­met­ric sys­tem can still count bad con­se­quences as larger than similar good con­se­quences to a large ex­tent (e.g. sav­ing nine peo­ple from drown­ing does not give one enough cred­its to mur­der a tenth), and we can pun­ish lo­cally bad in­tent on top of di­rect con­se­quences, with­out dis­turb­ing this. Ac­tion is on net a very good thing.

The Good Place sys­tem works well for sim­ple ac­tions with mostly di­rect con­se­quences. One then, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, gets credit for the good and the bad. It also has a great fea­ture, which is that it forces the ac­tion via a high re­quired thresh­old. You need a lot of points to pass a bi­nary eval­u­a­tion when you die. Sit­ting around do­ing noth­ing is a very bad idea.

The prob­lem comes in when there are com­plex in­di­rect con­se­quences that are hard to fully know or ob­serve.

Some of the in­di­rect con­se­quences of buy­ing a tomato are good. You don’t get credit for those un­less you knew about them, be­cause all you were try­ing to do was buy a tomato. Know­ing about them is pos­si­ble in the­ory, but ex­pen­sive, and doesn’t make them bet­ter. It only makes you know about them, which only mat­ters to the ex­tent that it changes your de­ci­sions.

Some of the in­di­rect con­se­quences of buy­ing a tomato are bad. You lose those points.

Thus, when you buy a tomato and thus an­other cus­tomer can’t buy a tomato, you get docked. But when you buy­ing a tomato in­creases the store’s es­ti­mated de­mand for toma­toes, so they or­der more and don’t run out next week, and a cus­tomer gets to buy one (and the store stays in busi­ness to provide even more toma­toes), you don’t get re­warded.

Bet­ter to not take the shop­ping ac­tion.

No won­der peo­ple make seem­ingly ab­sur­dist state­ments like “there is no eth­i­cal con­sump­tion un­der cap­i­tal­ism.”

Un­der this philos­o­phy, there is no eth­i­cal ac­tion un­der com­plex­ity. Pe­riod.

I get that com­plex­ity is bad. But this is ridicu­lous.

Com­pare to the Copen­hagen In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ethics. If one in­ter­acts with a com­pact, iso­lated prob­lem, such as a child drown­ing in a pond, one can rea­son­ably do all one could do, satis­fy­ing one’s re­quire­ments. If one in­ter­acts with or ob­serves a non-com­pact, non-iso­lated prob­lem, such as third world poverty, you are prob­a­bly Mega-Hitler. You can­not both be a good per­son and have slack.

As a young child, I read the book Be a Perfect Per­son in Just Three Days. Spoiler alert, I guess? The pro­tag­o­nist is given a book with in­struc­tions on how to be a perfect per­son. The way to do so is to take pro­gres­sively less ac­tion. First day you take sym­bolic ac­tion, wear­ing broc­coli around your neck. Se­cond day you take in­ac­tion, by fast­ing. Third day, you do noth­ing at all ex­cept drink weak tea and go to the bath­room.

That makes you ‘perfect.’

Be­cause perfect means a score of ex­actly zero points.

Asym­met­ric sys­tems of judg­ment are sys­tems for op­pos­ing all ac­tion.