Friday, May 24, 2013

Utilitarianism

Via xkcd.

15 Comments:

At 12:04 PM, May 24, 2013, Blogger jcast said...

This comic really bothers me, and I think I might as well explain why here. Physical injuries are real in an important sense; if your arm is broken, the only thing you can do is set it and wait. If you hit someone hard enough with a stick, you can kill them, and there's nothing the victim can do to recover from that at all.

By contrast, the emotional reaction of the target of verbal attacks is entirely the choice of that person. Children should be taught that it's their choice whether to accept what other people say about them or whether to feel good or bad about what people say. So the XKCD cartoon is really an attack on good parenting --- saying that children should be taught that other people can control their emotions.

 
At 12:41 PM, May 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with your second point jcast, being upset is not entirely the choice of the victim of a verbal attack. I think that people should be less sensitive but no one is immune to being offended- who would choose to be? Are you saying there's nothing anyone could say to you that would offend or upset you?

 
At 2:21 PM, May 24, 2013, Blogger Mark said...

It seems there are two kinds of insults: Ones that are true, and ones that are false.

You shouldn't feel insulted by a truth - own it, and use it to make yourself better.

For the ones that are false, it depends on whether you think they are true or not. If you know the false insult is false, why would it bother you at all? The only problematic one is the false one that you think is true. If you're already underweight and let yourself be convinced that you're fat, that's won't lead to a healthy outcome. That's not limited to insults, though, but applies to a lot of false statements that you believe.

 
At 11:51 PM, May 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To anonymous:

It is not obvious that you can learn to be desensitized to insults. But in my experience you can. It is like weight-training in the sense that it takes time.

I spent several of my teenage years on some of the foulest, unregulated, disgusting, insulting websites and communities that can be found. The end result is that, in my opinion, there probably isn't any word combinations which would offend or upset me emotionally. Unless it is in real life, where I would have to act offended in some cases, since a sense of pride is considered socially normal.

I'm not saying you should be completely like me. But I think everyone can and should at least learn to be desensitized to limited extent.

 
At 12:02 AM, May 25, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

In case it isn't obvious, my point in linking to the comic wasn't whether it was right or wrong but that the kid's initial response comes close to defining utilitarianism--that all that ultimately matters is subjective facts about people, roughly speaking how happy they are.

 
At 12:27 AM, May 25, 2013, Anonymous William Friedman said...

Except that the point of insults - the reason they hurt - is that they demonstrate that someone has a very low opinion of you, for what may or may not be good reasons. If you're young, you tend to rely heavily on the judgement of others; the statement 'you are a bad person' makes you feel bad because it is strong evidence that you are, in fact, a bad person.

Anyway, that's beside the point. The kid is making a reasonable definition of utilitarianism; a bit of a simplification, but it gets the point across.

 
At 8:53 PM, May 25, 2013, OpenID whswhs said...

I don't think I believe that whether someone is happy is a subjective fact about them. That seems to imply that a person is happy if and only if they believe they're happy, for one thing. But I think it's possible to misapprehend your own level of happiness, or to fail to notice it—to walk around with a glow that you don't notice till someone else points it out, or the reverse.

And also, that version seems somehow tautological. That happiness is what people want, even if it's true, does not entail that whatever people happen to want = happiness. There are, after all, people who lead miserable, self-destructive lives as a result of getting what they want.

Indeed, have you ever been close to someone who is clinically depressed? In my experience, one of the hardest things for a non-depressed person to grasp about this state is that you can say to a depressed person, "If you did X, you would be happy" [or "happier"], and they can recognize that and agree with you—and not want to do X. Doing anything is too hard; they're certain that if they really did X it would go wrong in some horrible way; they can't bear the pain of hoping for anything better; their happiness will be fleeting and leave them even more miserable for losing it; happiness is so unfamiliar that it's scary to think about it; they don't deserve to be happy because they're worthless . . . I've heard all of those. They make it really hard to apply the utilitarian calculus. Unless of course you define "happiness" so broadly that "not being happy" counts as happiness for the depressed person, which seems to make the claim tautological. Why bother having a separate word, "happiness," if the actual content is "whatever it is that you want"?

 
At 6:37 AM, May 26, 2013, Blogger Milhouse said...

You linked only to the image, so you're missing the alt text, which is an integral part of the comic.

 
At 10:05 PM, May 26, 2013, Blogger John Fast said...

1. I agree with jcast and with the first part of Mark's post (i.e. about the best way to respond to true feedback).

2. Re the first Anonymous post: I believe that a person's reaction to something is their own responsibility and their own choice (even if it's an unconscious choice). For example, if someone says "You give away too much of your money to charity," I might feel angry or insulted . . . or I might grin and consider it a compliment. Or I might truthfully say, "Wow, thank you for pointing that out -- I didn't realize it, and now I will change," or, "Thank you for reminding me, I have been meaning to cut back, and I'm glad you stopped me before I gave that homeless guy a $5 bill."

3. Mark: If someone says bad things about me and they're false, I might be harmed. For example, if someone says that I embezzled money from my last employer and others believe them, then I might lose my current job.

 
At 9:00 AM, May 28, 2013, Blogger Mark said...

John: True, but that would be slander, not an insult. At least a combination of both.

Note that harm might also befall you if somebody said something bad about you that's true - maybe you did indeed embezzle money. You could even construct scenarios where bad things happen to you because somebody said something good about you, true or false.

 
At 7:13 AM, May 29, 2013, Blogger Andrew said...

Another view of utilitarianism from a popular webcomic:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2992#comic

 
At 10:04 AM, May 30, 2013, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Physical injuries are more visible and can be measured more objectively, I can see why it is tempting to make them the primary measurement, especially for libertarians.

But this ignores decades of research and millennia of philosophy on the nature of humans as a tribal, social animal, who envolved in an environment where social approval meant survival & reproduction, and social disapproval could mean death from being cast out of the tribe. Social inputs are critical parts of primate life.

Why do you believe that a physical feeling like pain affects our happiness more than the emotional response to a verbal attack? Both are mediated through thoughts which influence emotions, as we know from many places, from Shakespeare: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Sure, It is good not to be too dependent on others' social approval (especially distant others), and to learn not to be hurt by insults (while using them as feedback), and to have the center of your self-worth be your own opinion & values rather than that of other people. But even a healthy person with internal self-esteem is going to be hurt if someone they respect verbally attacks them. A skin thick enough to keep out the bad is also going to keep out the good. If you don't care what other people say, you won't truly connect with them. Our minds are not built to be able to let in only the good & not the bad.

I do think that most people should strive to view themselves as more in control of their emotions, as more responsible for their reactions, and practice internal validation. But those skills will *also* make them feel less unhappiness at physical injuries - see Stoic philosophy!

The comic exaggerates, but I think the basic point is valid: our moods are influenced more by social input (like words) than by physical factors (like broken bones). We can learn to maintain our spirit in the face of both kinds of attacks, but the verbal ones are harder. We can choose whether to accept the insults we hear, and we can choose whether to suffer from the pain we feel. It is good to train yourself to not suffer (see Stoicism or westernized Buddhism), but it is a lifelong practice, not an easy or definite outcome of good parenting.

 
At 4:47 PM, May 30, 2013, Blogger Donald F. Linton said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:08 PM, June 01, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Patri: Insteresting that you mention stoicism. So far the only book about it I've read were Ta eis heauton (but in czech not greek) or "Meditations" I think is the usual english translation. And as far as I understood it from there, a true stoic completely dismisses emotions as something harmful (which is far more extreme than your description). I read it when I was 14 or so, so maybe I didn't get it (or don't remmember it) quite right, but I concluded that even though it is good not to let emotions rule you, their goal of getting rid of them completely is impossible (and following it potentionally harmful by itself), because that just goes against human nature.

 
At 10:28 AM, June 16, 2013, Anonymous J.A.B. said...

Physical pain depends on your attitude at least as much as emotional pain. On more than one occasion, I've said "Hey, I'm not tired, I'm in pain, and I CAN TAKE A PILL FOR THAT!"

I'm always finding blue marks on my arms and legs and wondering what I did: I would never have pushed that hard if I hadn't been thinking about something more important at the time. Once I found a blue mark and remembered standing beside my bike outside the comic shop saying "I'll bet I find a blue mark tonight and wonder where I got it" -- but I couldn't remember the injury itself.

 

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