Wednesday, December 2, 2020

More on the side-effect harm/help asymmetry

Wright and Bengson note an apparent intuitive asymmetry in our side-effect judgments. We blame people for not avoiding bad effects, even when these bad effects are not intended, but we do not praise people for not avoiding good effects when these good effects are not intended.

I wonder if the explanation for this asymmetry isn’t this:

  1. Typical good people strive to avoid bad side-effects to others

  2. Typical bad people don’t strive to avoid good side-effects to others.

The reason for (2) is that typical bad people are selfish rather than malevolent: their badness consists in the fact that they put themselves before others, not in their going out of their way to deprive others of goods as such. But typical good people are positively benevolent, so we have (1).

Now, given (1), if you fail to avoid a bad side-effect, that makes you be worse than a typical good person. And that calls for significant castigation. But given (2), if you fail to avoid a good side-effect, that doesn’t make you better than a typical bad person. Granted, you could still be praised for being better than a very bad person, but that would be damning with faint praise. So, (1) and (2) neatly predicts the asymmetry in our practices of praise and blame.

But now imagine that we lived in a more polarized society, where typical bad people were actually malevolent rather than selfish. Against that background, it would make sense to praise someone for not avoiding a good effect to another. This is similar to the way that we would not praise a 21st-century upper-class man for refraining from duelling, but we would praise a 19th-century one for the same thing. For the vice of duelling is no longer rampant like it was, and to say that someone never engages in duels is damning with faint praise. Praise is comparative, and comparisons depend on reference class.

Sometimes that reference class is the person’s past and present. And that provides cases where we would praise someone for not striving to avoid good side-effects. If out of hatred someone previously strove to avoid good effects to a particular other, and then stopped such striving, then praise would be in order.

We thus need to be careful in drawing conclusions from praise and blame practices, because these practices depend on statistical facts. If the above is right, the side-effect asymmetry may simply be due to reference class issues rather than any deeper facts about intentions, side-effects and value.

But I think there is probably a further asymmetry between praise and blame. While, as noted, we do not praise people for doing going things most people in the reference class do, we do in fact blame people for doing bad things that most people in the reference class do. While we do not praise our 21st century contemporaries for refraining from dueling, we would have been right to castigate our 19th century contemporaries for that vice. That “everybody is doing it” often makes praise feel nearly completely inappropriate, but it only somewhat decreases the degree of blame rather than eliminating it.

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