Monday, November 28, 2022

Games and consequentialism

I’ve been thinking about who competitors, opponents and enemies are, and I am not very clear on it. But I think we can start with this:

  1. x and y are competitors provided that they knowingly pursue incompatible goals.

In the ideal case, competitors both rightly pursue the incompatible goals, and each knows that they are both so doing.

Given externalist consequentialism, where the right action is the one that actually would produce better consequences, ideal competition will be extremely rare, since the only time the pursuit of each of two incompatible goals will be right is if there is an exact tie between the values of the goals, and that is extremely rare.

This has the odd result that on externalist consequentialism, in most sports and other games, at least one side is acting wrongly. For it is extremely rare that there is an exact tie between the values of one side winning and the value of the other side winning. (Some people enjoy victory more than others, or have somewhat more in the way of fans, etc.)

On internalist consequentalism, where the right action is defined by expected utilities, we would expect that if both sides are unbiased investigators, in most of the games, at least one side would at take the expected utility of the other side’s winning to be higher. For if both sides are perfect investigators with the same evidence and perfect priors, then they will assign the same expected utilities, and so at least one side will take the other’s to have higher expected utility, except in the rare case where the two expected utilities are equal. And if both sides assign expected utilities completely at random, but unbiasedly (i.e., are just as likely to assign a higher expected utility to the other side winning as to themselves), then bracketing the rare case where a side assigns equal expected utility to both victory options, any given side will have a probability of about a half of assigning higher expected utility to the other side’s victory, and so there will be about a 3/4 chance that at least one side will take the other side’s victory to be more likely. And other cases of unbiased investigators will likely fall somewhere between the perfect case and the random case, and so we would expect that in most games, at least one side will be playing for an outcome that they think has lower expected utility.

Of course, in practice, the two sides are not unbiased. One might overestimate the value of oneself winning and the underestimate the value of the other winning. But that is likely to involve some epistemic vice.

So, the result is that either on externalist or internalist consequentialism, in most sports and other competitions, at least one side is acting morally wrongly or is acting in the light of an epistemic vice.

I conclude that consequentialism is wrong.


Gordon said...

I wonder if consequentialism can be salvaged from this argument with the following consideration:

Suppose that the utility of winning accrues only if the victory is achieved against a capable opponent who is highly motivated to win. (For example, I have seen boxing matches where the victor is visibly disappointed or even enraged when he perceives that his opponent threw in the towel prematurely.) In this case, each competitor would be behaving morally if and only if he tries his hardest to win, even given consequentialism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, I think I made a number of mistakes in my argument.

On consequentialism what is evaluated is the action, not the end of the action. So even if my winning has lower utility than your winning under similar circumstances, it does not follow that my trying to win has lower utility than my not trying to win. There are two possibilities, after all, assuming I try to win. Either I will succeed or I won't. If I won't succeed, then the harder I tried, the more enjoyable the victory for you, for your fans and for my fans. If I do succeed, the utility is lower than if I had tried and you nonetheless succeeded (I am assuming your victory has higher utility), but it may still be higher than had I failed to try (in which case very likely I would not have succeeded) because then there would have been general disappointment. So a case can be made that my trying to win is better than my not trying to win, even if other things being equal my winning is worse than your winning. And similar things seem to hold on expected utility versions.

Still, suppose that the utility of your winning is higher than of my winning, and I am about to win, but I have some subtle way of throwing the game so no one can tell, and everyone will enjoy the game pretty much as much. Then on externalist consequentialism I should throw the game in this way. Whether such a way of throwing the game is available depends on many factors: what the game is, who the audience are, what level one and one's opponent are. Still, there are probably a number of combinations where such throwing is available, and the slight loss in quality of play is outweighed by the benefits of your winning.