Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Nicest Hot Dog Vender in Town

There's this nice lady you know working in the crowded town plaza. Now the hot dogs she makes aren't particularly good, in fact, sometimes they're not good at all, but still, there is one essential gimmick to these 'dogs that makes people come back there again and again. You see, this is no ordinary hot dog vender, though she looks like one. She is actually a multi-millionaire, who just does this kind of thing for kicks. Every hot dog she throws at you is free of charge - though the problem is, she's quite a fierce little woman. So much so, that you are literally required, not just obliged, to eat that hotdog as soon as she picks you from the crowd and chucks it at you. Big woop, right? Who cares? Free hotdogs are always good, who doesn't like free hotdogs? Well actually, Muslims don't, but there are too few of them to make a difference. The same with people who 'genuinely' (yeah right, everyone likes hotdogs) believe that they do not like hotdogs. Overall, the combined effect of those hotdogs being given out is a good one, so doing this means that this woman must be something of a moral paragon - in fact, the Catholic Church is announcing her sainthood next week!

But there lurks a growing crowd of naysayers, those who seem to think, for some odd reason, that these hot dogs are a bad thing. They say, "If someone is allergic to some of those ingredients and is made to eat one, then you have done a harm to that person - more so, than if that person had never been forced to eat that hotdog in the first place. Making people happy by giving them hotdogs does not, and never will make up for causing some of them harm, because suffering is harm and therefore immoral, while happiness is not harm and is therefore neutral. Besides, since every hotdog has some necessary bad parts, then the act of forcing someone to eat a hotdog is still a wrong one, because you have still harmed them (even if only slightly) in the process."

But that virtuous old woman, being a multi-millionaire, was able to get around those crafty fun-stompers with just a few simple calls. The hotdog meat was switched to top quality - so great that no one could ever say that they had been harmed by a hotdog - and those who were allergic, or muslim, or 'didn't like hotdogs' could simply be appeased by other, alternative hotdogs made on the spot. And do you know what those evildoers - those who would defecate on the prospect on free hotdogs for all - said to that? That "the fact of the matter is that no one consents to being given a hotdog, regardless of whether they like it. Just because you weren't harmed by something doesn't mean being forced, coerced or otherwise made to do it is a morally good thing. Rape is still rape, even if it feels good."
Ridiculous. Idiots.


  1. I didn't get any comment of yours Shadow. There must be some sort of glitch with google, sorry. Can you salvage what you wrote?

  2. No, sorry, but I commented here, even said that there has been some time that I didnt came around.

    By the way I looked at your new post and thought you deleted my comment. =) But that´s ok, you know, it´s your blog, you do whatever you please!

  3. Hm. I don't think the analogy is that good, since most people would eat a hot dog and not have any problems with it whatsoever, while harm is necessarily linked to human lives.

  4. Estnihil, would you create Unbreakable? I would. I don't think that minimal imposition on others is the cardinal ethical priority.

    I can see an extreme anarchist view promoting non-imposition as the greatest good, but to me this is a poor conception of liberty. I care a lot more about people being able to do what they deem good and being able to avoid what they deem bad than about making sure that people aren't impinged upon. This greater care for positive than negative liberty is an empirical care -- to the extent that greater liberty would reduce suffering and increase joy (which is what I care about, with a priority on reducing suffering), I think most of the improvement would come from people enjoying greater capabilities and resources rather than people being restricted less.

    "Rape" denotes non-consensual sex. It connotes horror. But the horror comes entirely from the unwantedness, the force, the violation, etc. Consent (or, perhaps, endorsement) transforms rape into something really fun that makes life a lot better than it would be otherwise.

    To return to your allegory, once the hotdog woman fixes things so that no one is harmed, I'm cool with that.

    (Incid., I just saw your comment on my new blog -- didn't realize I had to approve stuff for it to show up. I've since changed the settings so that comments are automatically approved and don't lie in limbo for days until I can figure out Wordpress's interface.)

  5. JasonSL, I wouldn't create Unbreakable for the simple reason that Unbreakable COULD come to the opinion that they do not like their life, or that they do not want to live. I view that as a harm just as I view this as a harm: say you drug someone against their consent, and they have the most pleasurable, life-changing experience ever. But not only did they not consent to this, but in fact, they have a moral code that prohibits drug use. By giving them the drug you have done a harm to them, even if they do not subjectively experience any such harm - just like an Unbreakable who is happy yet would prefer not to exist. At least, that's all I envision can result from thinking about these scenarios. Thanks for your comment. I had a more detailed response written out, but lost it all because of google. This'll have to do!

  6. "I wouldn't create Unbreakable for the simple reason that Unbreakable COULD come to the opinion that they do not like their life, or that they do not want to live."

    Then Unbreakable would be in effect a reverse pathetic golem. The pathetic golem is miserable but prefers to continue living. And, there are probably lots of humans whose opinion is that their life is worth continuing but are mistaken -- they actually are experiencing net negative utility. We don't consider their mistaken ex post ratification of their life to make it right to have created them, so why should we consider Unbreakable's mistaken ex post condemnation of her life to make it wrong to have created her?

    How does Google screw up comments?

  7. Oh maybe I shouldn't have blamed Google for that, I had to switch to my account in the middle of typing out the comment, erasing it.
    I'm not sure I can really argue against what you're saying. I was in the process of forming some flimsy line of thinking when I realised I was just acting on my emotions - I think maybe my own deep-rooted hatred of life may be swaying my opinion a bit. I guess you're right, my initial reaction was that you were somehow claiming that Unbreakable's life would be a good thing, but on further analysis, I think you are probably of the opinion that we have no duty to create pleasure, but since we have a duty to stop suffering, creating Unbreakable is simply a neutral moral action. And I think I'd agree with that, as much as I don't want to. Gotta update my thoughts a bit!

  8. Well, for the sake of disagreement (*smile*), I'll argue that Unbreakable's life *would* be a good thing, but I don't think we have a duty to create her.

    I guess I'm uncomfortable with purely negative utilitarianism (either personal or impersonal), or plain-old positive-and-negative utilitarianism (again, either personal or impersonal). I can't shake the conviction that pleasure/joy/happiness counts for *something*, but I also can't abide by there being an imperative to create positive-utility (or zero-negative-utility) persons. I also struggle with situations like James wrote about recently where creating someone who suffers mildly relieves all (or nearly all) of the suffering of someone else who suffers mildly: my intuition is that the new mildly-suffering person should be created, although I'm hardly completely comfortable with that intuition.

    I think you can have something that is very close to negative utilitarianism if you think that the threshold for a life worth having is a lot higher than people generally think. Barring transhumanism, there's not a lot of room between a life barely worth having and the ceiling on human well-being, but there's tons of room between the threshold and the floor on well-being (it's hard for me to even imagine the floor). The distribution of quality of life is very much negatively skewed, and has a pretty fat tail to boot. Even if most lives are worth having (which I doubt), the expected utility of a life is negative thanks to the skew. So only in rare circumstances, for which I have a hard time coming up with times in which they obtain outside of thought experiments, is it acceptable to create a new person.

    I think most people underestimate how bad the bad is and overestimate how good the good is[1], and these people include standard utilitarian philosophers. In principle at least, how good the good is and how bad the bad is is an empirical question. On one extreme, it could be found that good isn't actually good at all! But I don't think this is true. And on the other extreme, it could be found that good really is as good as people think it is, which I also don't think is true.

    So good doesn't count for *nothing*, which means it's good to create Unbreakable (not-entirely-negative utilitarianism). But since no one is being deprived of good by not creating her, it's okay not to (personal utilitarianism).

    1. Similarly, people who hate or otherwise disprefer life may underestimate how good the good is, since they're often anhedonic, or they lack much good in their lives.