Wednesday, February 27, 2019

White lies

Suppose Bob is known by Alice to be an act utilitarian. Then Bob won’t believe when Alice asserts p in cases where Bob knows that by Alice’s lights, if p is false, nonetheless the utility of getting Bob to believe p exceeds the utility of Bob knowing that p is false. For in such cases an act utilitarian is apt to lie, and her testimony to p is of little worth.

Such cases are not uncommon in daily life. Alice feels bad about a presentation she just made. Bob praises it. Alice dismisses the praise on the grounds that even if her presentation was bad, getting her to feel better outweighs the utility of her having a correct estimate of the presentation, at least by Bob’s lights.

Praise from an act utilitarian is of little value: instead of being direct evidence for the proposition that one did well, it is direct evidence for the proposition that it would be good for one to believe that one did well. Now, that it would good for one to believe that one did well is some evidence that one did well, but it is fairly weak evidence given facts about human psychology.

And so in cases where praise is deserved, the known act utilitarian is not going to promote utility for friends as effectively as a known deontologist, since the deontologist’s praise is going to get a lot more credence. Such cases are not rare: it is quite common for human performances to deserve praise and for the agent to be such that they would benefit from being uplifted by praise. While, on the other hand, in cases where praise is undeserved, the known act utilitarian’s praise does little to uplift the spirit.

These kinds of ordinary interactions are such a large part of our lives that I think a case can be made that just on the basis of these, by the lights of act utilitarianism, an act utilitarian should either hide their act utilitarianism from others or else should convert to some other normative ethical view (say, by self-brainwashing). Since the relevant interactions are often with friends, and it is unlikely one can hide one’s character from one’s friends over a significant period of time, and since doing so is likely to be damaging to one’s character in ways that even the act utilitarian will object to, this seems to be yet another of the cases where act utilitarianism pushes one not to be an act utilitarian.

Such arguments have been made before in other contexts (e.g., worries that the demandingness of act utilitarianism would sap our energies). They are not definitive refutations of act utilitarianism. As Parfit has convincingly argued, it is logically consistent to hold that an ethical theory is true but that one morally should not believe it. But still we get the conclusion that everybody morally should be something other than an act utilitarian. For if act utilitarianism is false, you surely shouldn’t be an act utilitarian. And if it’s true, you shouldn’t, either.

The above, I think, is more generally relevant to any view on which everyday white lies are acceptable. For the only justifications available for white lies are consequentialist ones. But hiding from one’s friends that one is the sort of person who engages in white lies is costly and difficult, whereas letting it be known undercuts the benefits of the white lies, while at the same removing the benefits of parallel white truths. Thus, we should all reject white lies in our lives, and make it clear that we do so.

Here, I use “white lie” in a sense in which it is a lie. I do not think “Fine” is a lie, white or otherwise, when answering “How are you?” even when you are not fine, because this is not a case of assertion but of a standardized greeting. (There is no inconsistency in an atheist saying “Good-bye”, even though it’s a contraction of “God be with you.”) One way to see this isn't a lie is to note that it is generally considered rude (but sometimes required) to suggest that one's interlocutor lied, there is nothing rude about saying to someone who answered “Fine”: “Are you sure? You look really tired.” At that point, we do move into assertion category. The friend who persists in the “Fine” answer but isn't fine now is lying.


scott said...

Insofar as our interest is in what act-utilitarianism recommends in the actual world, it is an empirical question how people will receive praise from someone they know is an act-utilitarian. When I introspect, I find that I don't really respond to the praise of an act-utilitarian differently from the praise of a deontologist. Maybe that makes me irrational.

Suppose empirical psychology bears this out. And it turns out that when we observe people they don't dismiss praise from act-utilitarians.

Then one could say this: It is true that there are possible worlds populated with ideally rational agents in which it would be bad overall if everyone followed act-utilitarianism because then no one would trust praise. But no such world is the actual world. Given the psychology of people in the actual world, and given that we are irrational in such a way that we trust praise from act-utilitarians, we should just go ahead and tell white lies.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, that's a nice point. I suppose the more nuanced thing to say is that one finds compliments from people who don't engage in white lies more rewarding. But it's not clear that that's enough to sustain the argument.