Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Elections question

Stalin and Mother Teresa are running for Prime Minister of Canada. Stalin has a well-publicized plan to murder all the Ukrainians, of whom there are a million. Moreover, his economic policies are stupid, resulting in the impoverishment of the middle class, and no improvement for the needy. Mother Teresa is not only virtuous, but also extremely well-informed about economics, and has policies that promise great economic improvement for the needy, and no loss for the rich. So far, the choice seems easy. The night before the elections, an omniscient and perfectly truthful being tells you—and you know that this is true—that if Stalin is elected, he will succeed in all his plans—a million Ukrainians will be murdered, and the economy will be destroyed. But the being also tells you that if Mother Teresa is elected, earthquakes will destroy Toronto and Montreal, directly killing two million people, and despite Mother Teresa doing the best that can be done, the country will be plunged into an economic depression, whose net effect is the same as that of Stalin's economic policies. If Stalin is elected, the earthquake will happen in an uninhabited area (maybe the military parades will redistribute the geological stress). Oh, and neither Mother Teresa, nor Stalin, nor anybody other than you knows about the earthquake issue--and nobody will believe you if tell them.

The results of electing Stalin are, thus, better than of electing Mother Teresa: a million die, while on Mother Teresa's watch, two million die. Whom should you vote for?

I am not claiming that this has any significant resemblance to the upcoming Canadian or U.S. or other elections.

[Edited: Added lack of others' knowledge of earthquake condition. Also, fixed a typo.]

19 comments:

Reuben said...

Classical Theists go to great lengths to demonstrate that God must by nature be omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent, and that any conception of God that lacks one of these qualities is therefore a deficient conception. Furthermore, according to Classical Theism, any of these three qualities can only be attributed to God. Accepting this account as true, if we were to encounter a being that we knew to be, say, omniscient, then we could infer that said being also possesses the qualities of omnipotence and omni-benevolence, and is in fact God. If this is correct, then the being in this example must be God.

Now, we should think that God does not make earthly appearances and disclose information to persons except for some very good reason (e.g.: pronounce judgment, call to repentance, instruct, or edify). But what could be God’s reason for disclosing this information? It doesn’t seem to qualify as a judgment, as if God would be angrier with the populace for electing a just ruler than a wicked one. There is no call to repent, and it does not enable one to alter events, since few people listen to crazies warning about impending doom.

Though some may make recourse to the argument from inscrutability and claim that, like instances of horrendous evil, we cannot know why God allows certain events except for some greater good, I do not think that this properly describes our situation. That is, God revealing specific bits of information is a deliberate attempt on the part of God to elucidate and enlighten, and if no one can understand the purpose of the message, then God has behaved very foolishly.
We therefore have good reasons to believe that God would not act in such a way.

Thus, I conclude that the question is incoherent, that it is an impossible situation unless further conditions are stipulated. I liken the scenario to talk of round squares, or questions like, “If God told you to murder as many children as you could, would you do it?” There are no answers to nonsensical questions.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, the case doesn't need an omniscient being, but only an infallible and perfectly truthful one. God surely could have created an infallible and perfectly truthful being--a being that is incapable of speaking anything but the truth. Such a being might be ignorant of many things, but it would only speak truly.

Reuben said...

Okay, but according to the scenario you described the being as “omniscient and perfectly truthful,” not merely “infallible and perfectly truthful.” I do not suppose that you think that God can create an omniscient being.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Probably there can't be an omniscient being other than God.

Still, I think it would be limiting of God's power to say that God can't make an earthly appearance for a minor reason. God is perfectly good, so he can't make an earthly appearance for a bad reason. But is it literally impossible for God to make an appearance for some minor reason?

David said...

I think there is an argument to vote for Mother Teresa, if you vote at all, because if you vote for Stalin, you are helping to bring about a situation in which someone will do evil, while if you vote for Mother Teresa, you are helping only to bring about a situation where something bad happens. But,unless it is part of the terms of the problem that you must vote, you shouldn't vote, since it is better not to contribute to the bringing about of a bad effect.

D.R. said...

I'd vote for Mother Teresa, since the negative effects from her election are not her fault, whereas Stalin's responsible for his negative effects.

Tim Lacy said...

Am I a Ukrainian voter?! ;)

But seriously, I think I might be with David on this one: don't vote. If a gun was held to my head, I'd vote for Mother Teresa out of virtue.

- TL

Reuben said...

Point taken; I do not think it impossible for God to make an appearance for a minor reason. However, my contention is that, in this scenario, God has no reason whatsoever. What is God doing, informing me of some inevitable tragedy, the knowledge of which neither I nor any other person can benefit? This is not comparable to Hebrew prophets proclaiming the destruction of Jerusalem, or to the revelation of St. John’s Apocalypse. There is no call to reflective action, only the whispering of a terrible secret.

Now, supposing that I am mistaken and the scenario is not impossible, I would reason to my decision as follows. First, God does not reveal future invents in vain, and so God has disclosed this information because God wants to somehow influence my actions. Presumably, I am aware of Stalin’s ridiculous political platform, and was fully intent on voting for Theresa before the divine disclosure. Am I to presume that God wants me to vote for Stalin, or to not vote at all, since I was already set to vote Theresa? God did not explicitly say so in the scenario, but I can imagine the exchange went like this:

“Sure, Stalin will cause x to happen, but the election of Theresa will result in xyz. Get my drift?”

So I grimly vote for Stalin, because I was going to vote for Theresa, but God bothered to intervene. Meanwhile, I'm enraged that God saw fit to disclose such information so unhelpfully.

jawats said...

I assume at the outset that refusing to vote is not an option. (Or, if it is, that would be my first choice, I suspect.)

That said, I think one must vote for Mother Teresa if not voting is no option. Contingent occurrences (assuming direct relation) out of the control of one who seeks the good by good means should not figure into a calculus of action. On the other hand, one cannot vote for Stalin, for one cannot support deliberated evil, regardless of success of the plans or not.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

I hate to be the political scientist of the bunch, but it would all depend on how each candidate was polling.

If their characteristics are as you describe, I would imagine Stalin would be polling abysmally (although that could be a terrible assumption because the populace might really want what he's offering).

But if he's polling incredibly poorly, I'd vote for him. I will have voted for the lower amount of deaths and he'll still lose. Which brings up an interesting question of how much an individual vote really matters in the face of an obvious landslide. (I voted for myself in 2004 because voting for anyone in Texas seemed arbitrary (and was) with Bush campaigning).

If they polling neck and neck, I see an argument for voting for Mother Teresa simply because of the kind of destruction caused (with your full knowledge) would be a singular act, not one that spreads out over the long term and would most likely destroy the entire nation itself or leave a gaping wound in the national psyche at the very least.

So I'll check fivethirtyeight for Stalin/Teresa polling numbers.

bnwied said...

Some of you are making this far too complicated. What is the right thing to do? Vote for Mother Theresa of course. Choose the good.

I detect much consequentialism in some of you.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Would those who thought you should vote for Mother Teresa change their mind if it turned out that, in some way impossible to foresee (except by messages from supernatural beings), the earthquake would be caused by her policies? For instance, maybe her policies would involve the building of homes for the homeless, and the building of these homes would in fact be the case of the fault giving way where it would.

A perhaps relevant intuition I have is that murder is much worse than natural death (murder involves two evils: the evil of a person being killed, and the evil of a person committing murder). But I don't know how far to press this. If two people are drowning, and one is about to be murdered, and I can either rescue those who are drowning by throwing them a life preserver they can share or the one who is about to be murdered by bashing the potential murderer on the head with the life preserver, should I rescue the two drowning people or stop the murderer? My inclination is to say that I should rescue the two drowning people.

The election question was in part meant to probe for the degree to which voting for a candidate confers one's approval on the candidate's policies, or at least on the candidate's most notable or most important policies, or at least comparatively (maybe if Stalin and Hitler are both running, it is OK to vote for the one of the two whose policies are less evil; in that case, one is not conferring approval on the candidate's policies, but on the claim that the candidate's policies are better than those of the opponent). If there is any such a conferral of approval, then it is clearly wrong to vote for Stalin.

I also think that what we say in these puzzles is going to be pretty sensitive to the kinds of evil involved. For instance, those commenters who have anti-consequentialist intuitions probably would think it's OK to vote for Stalin if he wasn't as evil as he is described here, but basically the same policies as Mother Teresa, except that he also promised to do some minor evil (e.g., he promised he would send a secret service agent every month to steal a candy bar for him from a different Ottawa area convenience store). In that case, it seems that it would be acceptable to vote for him to prevent the earthquake, even though as a foreseen but unintended-by-you effect the minor evil would happen. (But then why can't one say that the murdering of the Ukrainians is an effect unintended by you?)

jawats said...

Would those who thought you should vote for Mother Teresa change their mind if it turned out that, in some way impossible to foresee (except by messages from supernatural beings), the earthquake would be caused by her policies? For instance, maybe her policies would involve the building of homes for the homeless, and the building of these homes would in fact be the case of the fault giving way where it would.

It's very difficult to say this, because I desire to engage in some sort of balancing at this point. Still, a known, unintended, evil unforseeable, effect cannot negate an intended good. An evil action producing any effect is to be avoided, or worked against, while a good action producing an intended and unforseeable (by the actor) evil effect need only be avoided (if ever) after the effects become known.

If two people are drowning, and one is about to be murdered, and I can either rescue those who are drowning by throwing them a life preserver they can share or the one who is about to be murdered by bashing the potential murderer on the head with the life preserver, should I rescue the two drowning people or stop the murderer? My inclination is to say that I should rescue the two drowning people.

It seems to me that the inclination here is to make the best decision possible under the circumstances, with what knowledge you have. This is a question of maximization of good, rather than helping another to avoid evil. There are enough facts missing here concerning what is going on that saving the two drowning people would seem to be a priority.

In that case, it seems that it would be acceptable to vote for him to prevent the earthquake, even though as a foreseen but unintended-by-you effect the minor evil would happen.

Would it? Why?

American Patriot 2020 said...

How about we/some operative we hire assassinate both Stalin and Mother Teresa and then only two people die.

Yeah, that would be the best.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

@ bnwied

"Some of you are making this far too complicated. What is the right thing to do? Vote for Mother Theresa of course. Choose the good."

The good is one million more people dead?

I knew some of those people. They were good people.

Alexander R Pruss said...

(Based on a comment I saw elsewhere, I should specify that both Stalin and Mother Teresa would leave office on time. This is unrealistic in the case of Stalin, but let's add the assumption.)

Here's a thought I had.

Suppose I ask you: (1) "Which candidate would be a better Prime Minister?"

Obviously you should answer: "Mother Teresa." That's the truth.

Suppose I ask you: (2) "Which candidate would be better for the country?"

To that question, you should answer: "Stalin." After all, that, too, is the truth, and you should answer truthfully.

Suppose I ask you: (3) "Which candidate would be better for you?"

How you answer that question depends on whether you are Ukrainian and whether you live in Toronto or Montreal.

Now, when you get to the ballot box, there is no question posted there. One is just asked to choose a candidate. If we understand the ballot to be implicitly asking us questions (1), (2) or (3), that makes things a bit easier. But I don't think we should understand the ballot as asking that sort of question.

larryniven said...

Wait - the right way to approach a voting opportunity is not to vote in the way that you think will most benefit the area covered by the election? It clearly is wrong to consider (1) as a governing principle, because being a good politician does not always coincide with being good. (3) is just insane, and if I have to defend why it's insane, I don't know that I'll be able to do it respectfully. So (2) - along with the maybe naive assumption that what's good for one's country is good for the world - is the only sensible measure by which to vote.

Now, before thirty people jump on me for saying that I'd vote for Stalin in Alex's scenario, that's not what I'm saying. I happen to hold a more nuanced view of politics than that, thank you very much - the effects of Stalin's policies will not dissipate quickly enough to minimize the harm done by merely (yes, merely) 1,000,000 deaths. This is the sort of thing we're seeing now with the banks: even though Republicans saw positive (to them) results in the short-term after deregulating the banking industry, in the long term that decision proved to be incredibly bad.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Larry:

I don't think (3) is insane, though I do prefer (2). One reason (3) isn't insane is that we might think that people are more likely to know what is good for them individually than what is good for others. If everybody votes for their own self-interest, it could be argued that it is more likely that the majority's self-interest will be promoted than in a case where everybody votes for what they believe to be in the interests of the populace. I don't think this argument is in the end persuasive, but it is not insane.

As for the long-term effects, I can just write them in. Or we can just change the numbers. Maybe the earthquake will kill 15 million people. The long-term effects on the country of losing half the population are probably going to be as great as those of having a million murdered. Or we can posit that, in either case, after four years, the Albanians will invade Canada, and the Canadian population will go into a diaspora, scattered all over the world, with the effects of the diaspora overshadowing the effects of what happened during the four years.

larryniven said...

"One reason (3) isn't insane is that we might think that people are more likely to know what is good for them individually than what is good for others."

Then why not simply ask others what they think is good for them? If each person only knows to a reliable degree what is good for that person (which is already an implausible premise), all that's needed to determine what's best for the populace as a whole is a small amount of honest communication. It would be a massive tragedy to forgo that in favor of voting strictly for one's own interests. And note, please, that it's badly insufficient to talk about "the majority's self-interest" - if 6 out of 10 people desperately want the other 4 to be tortured and killed, that should by no means justify it happening (similarly, if 75 million voters want to inflate their own already-significant wealth at the direct cost of 74 million voters, that doesn't mean that they'd be justified in voting that way). So not only is this scenario not likely on its face (i.e., that we don't know what's best for others, even to within a guess) and not only is it easily solved by stuff we'd be doing anyway, the goal it aims at isn't even the right goal. If this isn't an insane position, it's sure approaching one pretty rapidly.

I was thinking about boundary cases when I posted my first response, but I fail to see how they're particularly informative. Let's say that Stalin's policies would mean the death of 5 billion people worldwide...but that Theresa's would result in the planet exploding (I can make this worse if it's somehow not already convincing enough) immediately upon her being sworn in, her enacting her first major policy change, or some other such milestone. Who cares what their policies are, at that point? The question still reduces to (2): which candidate would it be better to elect?