If you don't know, can it hurt you?

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If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby skeptical scientist » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:26 am UTC

I generally think of myself as a utilitarian when it comes to ethical matters, but I've never bothered to seriously educate myself when it comes to the philosophy of ethics, so I tend to adopt a rather naïve point of view. Possibly as a result of my naïveté, I recently came upon a conundrum: what position does utilitarianism take on things like cheating, and how does it justify it? Just so there is no confusion, I'm talking about infidelity in a committed monogamous relationship where both partners expect the other partner to be faithful. I believe, as I'm sure do most people, that such behavior is ethically wrong. But I'm not sure how to justify this sense within the framework of utilitarianism, or indeed if it can be justified.

Let's assume that proper protection is used, so there is no chance of transmitting infection. (Okay, I understand that no perfect protection is possible nowadays, but just for the sake of argument, let's assume it is.) Similarly, let's assume that it is absolutely impossible for the faithful partner to ever find out; and moreover that the cheater will not behave any differently afterwards, so that the faithful partner's utility function is completely unaffected by the infidelity. Now I suppose the unfaithful partner may have negative net utility from infidelity when one considers guilt and so forth. But assuming rational actors (which is never a safe assumption when lust is involved, but never mind that) such people would presumably not be the people who would cheat in the first place. And of course there is also the third party to consider, but let's assume their utility function also has a net gain from cheating. Assuming all of this behavior goes on in private, the cheater and the third party are the only ones whose utility functions are affected, and they go up as a result of cheating. Does this mean cheating would be moral, from a utilitarian point of view?

Of course in practice there are nonzero risks of disease being transmitted and/or the victim finding out, and it is also inevitable that the cheater's behavior with their partner would be altered as a result of their actions. But are such (theoretically avoidable) secondary effects the only way that utilitarianism can justify the common consensus that cheating is wrong? Does utilitarianism therefore justify the old saying, "What you don't know can't hurt you," or am I missing something?

Is utilitarianism simply a flawed philosophy, and I should renounce it and adopt an ethical position which better addresses such matters?

For the record, I have never cheated and would never cheat while in a monogamous relationship.
Last edited by skeptical scientist on Thu Jun 10, 2010 10:16 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby BattleMoose » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:49 am UTC

Let's assume that proper protection is used, so there is no chance of transmitting infection. (Okay, I understand that no perfect protection is possible nowadays, but just for the sake of argument, let's assume it is.) Similarly, let's assume that it is absolutely impossible for the faithful partner to ever find out; and moreover that the cheater will not behave any differently afterwards, so that the faithful partner's utility function is completely unaffected by the infidelity. Now I suppose the unfaithful partner may have negative net utility from infidelity when one considers guilt and so forth. But assuming rational actors (which is never a safe assumption when lust is involved, but never mind that) such people would presumably not be the people who would cheat in the first place. And of course there is also the third party to consider, but let's assume their utility function also has a net gain from cheating. Assuming all of this behavior goes on in private, the cheater and the third party are the only ones whose utility functions are affected, and they go up as a result of cheating. Does this mean cheating would be moral, from a utilitarian point of view?


With the picture that you are painting here, with the aforementioned assumptions, I would agree that cheating could be at least a gain or no harm to all parties involved from a utilitarian perspective. That being said, I think the assumptions are not safe assumptions at all and some of them very bad.

and moreover that the cheater will not behave any differently afterwards


I don't think it is possible to behave the same way to your partner if you are cheating, for any length of time that is. From sexual appetite, sharing feelings and generally talking about your day, it depends on the type of relationship that is being developed. Also, a person has only so much time in a day, time spent cheating is time not spent with partner.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby sje46 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 9:11 am UTC

I think you know the answer to this question. Barring all negative consequences ,and knowing that there will only be positive, then cheating is justified under utilitarian framework. However, it's unrealistic to assume your assumptions, like that you won't get caught, that yu won't feel guilt, etc.

Whether this scenario is enough to make you drop utlitiarianism is your decision. I don't understand why it would be, though. What's your moral reason for not accepting cheating, even if it's acceptable under utilitarianism?
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Ulc » Thu Jun 10, 2010 9:15 am UTC

If you take these assumptions to be true, then your argument holds yes.

The assumptions are ludicrous however, you assume

Perfect protection.
The cheated partner cannot possible find out, under any circumstances.
The cheating partner does not in anyway behave different toward the cheated partner.
The cheated partner suffers no lack of utility from the cheating partner. Neither biological (being tired) or from time deprivation.
The cheating partner suffers no ill effects, neither physical nor psychological.

Being in science, I'm used to absurd assumptions (spherical cow anyone?), but these are just a bit more far-fetched than I can accept.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby EmptySet » Thu Jun 10, 2010 9:50 am UTC

Yeah, I think if you start your scenario with "If you assume you live in a magical wonderland where there are no negative consequences for any of your actions..." pretty much everything is "justified" by utilitarianism.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Arrian » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:38 am UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:Is utilitarianism simply a flawed philosophy, and I should renounce it and adopt an ethical position which better addresses such matters?


I've only dealt with utilitarianism from an economic perspective, never gone into the philosophy of it, but...

From what I understand, utilitarianism is amoral, it's not about wrong or right or moral or immoral in a general sense, its about individual actors making decisions.

So, I think you're looking at the question from the wrong way, you seem to be asking an answer for the question "Is cheating on a monogamous partner moral or immoral?" Utilitarianism asks "Is cheating on _my_ partner the best course of action _for me?_" One of the most basic tenets of utility theory that was drilled into me is that you cannot compare utility functions across people. I take that to imply that you can't construct general moral cases for everybody, you have to ask specific questions of specific people.

From that perspective, the question is "Will cheating maximize my utility?" Which breaks down into something like "How much utility will I gain from the act of cheating, what is my expected loss of utility from cheating, and how much negative utility will I get from cheating?"

- How much utility will I gain is the most straightforward question. It's the direct gains from cheating due to whatever factors like enjoying sex to enjoying the companionship to the thrill of the chase and of being naughty.

- Your assumptions try to set the expected loss of utility from cheating to zero. That is, if you lose utility from your significant other finding out, or straining your relationship through changed behavior, or getting a disease, the expected loss of those outcomes will be 0 only if the probability of them happening is 0. If the probability is greater than 0 then there will be an expected negative value based on that probability and the magnitude of loss from the outcome. (Basic expected value theory.)

- Negative utility would be from you simply feeling bad about what you did. Think of this as altruism; there's nothing irrational or outside utility theory about gaining value from doing something nice to someone else even though you receive no tangible benefit. The other side of the coin is feeling bad about doing something negative to someone even if they never realize that you did it to them, or because you know it will hurt them when they find out.

So, a utility maximizer would cheat if the expected value is positive or higher than some threshold, and wouldn't cheat if it's negative. There's nothing moral about it, some people might not cheat because they think they'll likely get caught, some won't because they'll feel guilty, some won't because the cost of getting caught is too high even if the chance is minimal. Others will cheat because she's just that hot, or they don't value their relationship very much, or because the downside of getting caught isn't very bad.

There's no general case, the right thing to do is whatever maximizes _your_ utility based upon _your own_ criteria.

At least, that's how economists think about it, I can't speak for philosophers.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby greengiant » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:45 am UTC

For those asking why this would be a problem for utilitarianism, I would guess that skeptical scientist's problem is that for (some version of) utilitarianism, the only thing that would make cheating wrong is its negative side affects. Presumably he thinks (as I do) that this is not what makes cheating wrong; it's wrong in and of itself rather than as a result of whether it causes unhappiness.

Can't say I'm a fan of utilitarianism, but there is still a lot of wiggle room here. You might say that everybody following the rule 'don't abuse somebody's trust' leads to a society in which everyone is happier and so as a utilitarian, you should always strive to follow that rule.

Or you might just say that utilitarianism is a prescriptive theory of ethics: follow utilitarianism and the world will be a better place. We might have to change some of our existing notions of right and wrong (such as this) but it's all for the best.

Or you could say there's more to life than happiness and reject utilitarianism.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby BlackSails » Thu Jun 10, 2010 12:01 pm UTC

Sure, if the risk is 0 then it cant be justified. But realistically, the risk is not 0 (even if it is very small) and the negative utility from your partner finding out is generally very, very large.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Nem » Thu Jun 10, 2010 12:18 pm UTC

The problem with utilitarianism, it seems to me, is that it either demands saints or allows monsters. You can use it to justify anything by building in the psychological resources of the actors as a variable. Sure, I murdered hundreds of thousands of people for some chǎo-miàn - but because of my available psychological resources it was the best thing I could do; and since the maxim is the greatest good for the greatest number - or some variant thereof - I actually did the right thing.

Similarly, sure I might cheat and got caught - and the entire set of negative consequences ruled out in this scenario happen - but I'm fallible, and given the sort of person I am that's the best I could do. Or remove that excuse and create an unrealistic standard; render so many things immoral that people will tend simply to reject the entire philosophy, since it no-longer lines up with their intuitions about the social roles they fill.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby morriswalters » Thu Jun 10, 2010 1:31 pm UTC

Frame the question in better terms and apply it to your dilemma. Look at your assumptions in a behavioral context. Receiving a reward reinforces a behavior, in this case sex is the reward and cheating the behavior. Each time you get away with the behavior you reinforce it. Eventually the reinforcement overcomes you rational assessment of risk. This is an unavoidable biological fact unrelated to your philosophical framework. So what does your philosophy say about getting caught?

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby lowbart » Thu Jun 10, 2010 2:23 pm UTC

skeptical scientist wrote: Similarly, let's assume that it is absolutely impossible for the faithful partner to ever find out; and moreover that the cheater will not behave any differently afterwards, so that the faithful partner's utility function is completely unaffected by the infidelity.


This is my main problem with your whole post and the way you've laid out the situation. You simply can not make that assumption. It comes from a misunderstanding of why people cheat in the first place.

To illustrate: An ex girlfriend of mine may have sorta kinda cheated on me with another guy. I'm not going to get into specifics. Afterwards, we bought this self-help book intended to help couples recover from an affair. It said that the way regular people (as in, people who believe cheating is wrong) get involved in affairs is usually by finding some kind of emotional or physical satisfaction with a new person that they don't see themselves as getting from their partner. It's usually emotional to begin with, not physical, because most people have at least enough self-control (even when drunk) that they won't go home with someone else for the night just because they have nicer boobs or a bigger dick.

In other words, the unfaithful partner feels there is something lacking in the current partner relative to the new one. Maybe the current partner is always tired after work and doesn't have time to provide companionship, maybe they just don't seem to care in the way the unfaithful partner wants them to, maybe the unfaithful partner is just tired and disappointed in them and thinks they are boring. This appears in stark contrast in the unfaithful partner's mind to the attributes of the new person, who satisfies these desires in ways that the current partner no longer does or never did.

In my situation, there were a few examples of this. One, my ex and her friend had more compatible senses of humor and they were able to tease and trash-talk each other comfortably (This never happened between me and my ex because she was always really sensitive and took everything personally, and since I never got used to being able to tease her, I didn't want to take it either, and never knew when she was serious). Two, I am much taller than my ex while she and her friend are the same height. This made eye contact and conversation easier, and led to her thinking about how much easier physically it would be to kiss him. Three, despite how I tried to be a good and affectionate boyfriend, and meant it, I fundamentally had a more cynical, analytical view of romance and love in general, while her friend was a naive, classic "hopeless romantic" who put her on a pedestal. All these things were attractive to her, and the more she thought about the fact that he satisfied these things and I didn't, the more cemented it became in her mind that he was what she wanted and I wasn't. It can be self-perpetuating, and it's this snowball of thought and feelings that sets people down the path where they can block their partner out of their mind enough to actually go through with the action of cheating instead of just thinking about it.

So, TLDR version, the unfaithful person already starts thinking and acting differently toward their partner before the cheating even happens - that's what lets the cheating actually happen.

There are a few exceptions and extreme situations where that's not the case (such as celebrities, people who just don't give a shit about their partner, people who do it primarily for the thrill of the risk) but I'm pretty sure that's how it works most of the time. This is a really interesting (if slightly sore) topic for me, so I'm interested in hearing different viewpoint about it as long as they come from a good amount of thought and experience.

Also, I will look up the title and author of that book if anyone is interested.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Argency » Thu Jun 10, 2010 2:45 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:Look at your assumptions in a behavioral context.
Don't look at it behaviourally. Behaviourism sucks. Use evolutionary cognitive psychology.

If you believe that humans have an inborn desire to act morally (and we seem to, because even babies and chimps know when they're being treated unfairly) and if you believe that human traits are evolved traits (and they seem to be, because... science...) then our moral behaviour should be evolved to maximise our chances of successfully passing on our genes. I don't mean that in the day to day sense - knocking someone up doesn't qualify as passing on your genes successfully. I mean that in the long, long, long term: your actions should be aimed towards building a healthy, safe society and gaining standing in that society, whilst staying alive and healthy and sane, because that gives your children and your children's children the best odds of survival. In other words, you should be driven to not just any utilitarianism but rule utilitarianism.

And I think that by and large human morals seem to match up to that prediction pretty well. Of course, they need to be twerked because we don't live in small tribal community amongst other hostile tribes anymore, we live in a global community. There are a few other adjustments, too, but strictly speaking I think that's the shape of it. So, will cheating secure your relationships, make for a healthier society and make people like you?

As a rule, no. So rule utilitarianism says it's a bad thing, which seems to match up pretty well with what most people think in their heart of hearts.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 3:07 pm UTC

I'm pretty sure utilitarianism can support social contract creation, and cheating would be violation of a social contract and thus undesirable.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby dubsola » Thu Jun 10, 2010 3:44 pm UTC

Argency wrote:if you believe that human traits are evolved traits (and they seem to be, because... science...)

There's a fair amount of contention about this idea on this forum. A lot of people here believe that many human traits can be attributed to culture.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 4:26 pm UTC

Indon wrote:I'm pretty sure utilitarianism can support social contract creation, and cheating would be violation of a social contract and thus undesirable.


Although I think it can support the creation of it, I don't think it can support it all the time. This is actually one of those times. If breaking a social contract yields higher overall utility for everyone, then you should break it.

As for cheating not be immoral under utilitarianism, this is something your gonna have to bite the bullet on if you want to remain a utilitarian. All ethical theories have outcomes that contradict our instinctual morals. I believe this is because of the fact that our morals were developed via natural selection, and their only "purpose" was to insure survival, not to make logical sense.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Argency » Thu Jun 10, 2010 4:28 pm UTC

dubsola wrote:
Argency wrote:if you believe that human traits are evolved traits (and they seem to be, because... science...)

There's a fair amount of contention about this idea on this forum. A lot of people here believe that many human traits can be attributed to culture.


Haha, fair point. Not all human traits, that was a silly thing for me to say. Obviously some traits are cultural. But if you think that the specific human trait of moral intuition is evolved then I think it holds. If you think moral intuition is based on culture, then... well... Surely moral relativism is flawed? I mean, if it is both right and not right to perform an act, then morals provide no guidance - so they offer no guidance at all. You may as well not have them. Even as a meta-ethical theory I think moral relativism fails because it's completely trivial to say "everyone's right". It doesn't lead us anywhere.

Of course, culture can still impinge on moral decisions - I wouldn't marry two women at once if I were a Protestant, but I could if I were a Mormon. That isn't culture deciding my morals, though, it's culture changing my circumstances. Change the input, and you change the output, even if one's moral code is the same.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 5:14 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:Although I think it can support the creation of it, I don't think it can support it all the time. This is actually one of those times. If breaking a social contract yields higher overall utility for everyone, then you should break it.

I would identify that as an argument not for cheating, but for divorce.

Maintaining social contracts carry fairly high utility value due to trust relationships.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 5:34 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
Dark567 wrote:Although I think it can support the creation of it, I don't think it can support it all the time. This is actually one of those times. If breaking a social contract yields higher overall utility for everyone, then you should break it.

I would identify that as an argument not for cheating, but for divorce.

Maintaining social contracts carry fairly high utility value due to trust relationships.


But in certain situations divorce could have larger negative utility. Yes maintaining social contracts has high utility value, but in certain situations if no one finds out you break it, there are no issues of trust. Clearly there are situations where the utilitarian would break a social contracts if no one would find out and it yielded higher utility. Even if others would find out and the action still yielded higher utility a utilitarian is obliged to take it.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 5:48 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:But in certain situations divorce could have larger negative utility. Yes maintaining social contracts has high utility value, but in certain situations if no one finds out you break it, there are no issues of trust. Clearly there are situations where the utilitarian would break a social contracts if no one would find out and it yielded higher utility. Even if others would find out and the action still yielded higher utility a utilitarian is obliged to take it.


Ah, but a social contract followed irrationally would be more trustworthy, and thus carry more value, than one followed rationally for just the reason that you describe.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:10 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
Dark567 wrote:But in certain situations divorce could have larger negative utility. Yes maintaining social contracts has high utility value, but in certain situations if no one finds out you break it, there are no issues of trust. Clearly there are situations where the utilitarian would break a social contracts if no one would find out and it yielded higher utility. Even if others would find out and the action still yielded higher utility a utilitarian is obliged to take it.


Ah, but a social contract followed irrationally would be more trustworthy, and thus carry more value, than one followed rationally for just the reason that you describe.


More trustworthy doesn't mean more utility, particularly when its done irrationally. Also I am not convinced it would be more trustworthy if people didn't find out that you were breaking it or not. Trustworthiness of the contract only depends on whether or not people trust it. If you break the contract and they don't find out, there is no trust lost. Your rationality or irrationally of following the contract has nothing to do with how much people trust it.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:29 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:More trustworthy doesn't mean more utility, particularly when its done irrationally.

The utility of a social contract stems from its' trustworthiness.

If people feel that others will break contracts when they can get away with it, those contracts become less trustworthy and thus provide less utility. In contrast, if people feel they will go to lengths to honor contracts, those contracts would become more trustworthy, and thus provide more utility.

This is, of course, assuming an appropriate, utility-generating agreement.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:37 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
Dark567 wrote:More trustworthy doesn't mean more utility, particularly when its done irrationally.

The utility of a social contract stems from its' trustworthiness.

If people feel that others will break contracts when they can get away with it, those contracts become less trustworthy and thus provide less utility. In contrast, if people feel they will go to lengths to honor contracts, those contracts would become more trustworthy, and thus provide more utility.

This is, of course, assuming an appropriate, utility-generating agreement.


But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby BlackSails » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:52 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.


Its a prisoners dilemma sort of thing. Sure, its best for the group as a whole for everyone to be trustworthy. But if everyone else is trustworthy, and you can gain by defecting....

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 6:56 pm UTC

BlackSails wrote:
Dark567 wrote:
But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.


Its a prisoners dilemma sort of thing. Sure, its best for the group as a whole for everyone to be trustworthy. But if everyone else is trustworthy, and you can gain by defecting....


err... not really. By maximize utility, I mean maximize utility for everyone, which is what utilitarianism is all about.(Although sometimes this means just increasing your own utility without changing any one else's. This is essentially what we are talking about with the cheating scenario)
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:08 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.


Unless it is only possible to convey the degree of trustworthiness of following a contract irrationally while actually following it rationally. That is to say - faking love, at least in this case.

And considering the practical chances of being discovered, it may be in the utilitarian interest to ensure that such people are stripped of their opportunity rather than be allowed to take such low-utility risks.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby BlackSails » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:18 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
BlackSails wrote:
Dark567 wrote:
But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.


Its a prisoners dilemma sort of thing. Sure, its best for the group as a whole for everyone to be trustworthy. But if everyone else is trustworthy, and you can gain by defecting....


err... not really. By maximize utility, I mean maximize utility for everyone, which is what utilitarianism is all about.(Although sometimes this means just increasing your own utility without changing any one else's. This is essentially what we are talking about with the cheating scenario)


If everyone cheats, then the group utility is minimized because everyone is untrustworthy. If only you cheat, then both the group and yourself are maximized. Its just a larger version of the prisoner's dilemma.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:19 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
Dark567 wrote:But what I am saying is that it can be worth it to break the contract as long as others don't find out and allowing the trustworthiness to stand. As long as everyone else still believes in the trustworthiness and you won't get caught, the utilitarian is obliged to break the contract.


And considering the practical chances of being discovered, it may be in the utilitarian interest to ensure that such people are stripped of their opportunity rather than be allowed to take such low-utility risks.



How exactly do you strip people of the opportunity to cheat on their significant others? For that matter can anything like that actually provide more utility to the population?

Well maybe, but if in a relationship both people cheat but still maintain believe in the trustworthiness of their significant other, it seems as if both people breaking the social contract,without the other know it, actually produces the greatest utility.


Well maybe, but if in a relationship both people cheat but still maintain believe in the trustworthiness of their significant other, it seems as if both people breaking the social contract,without the other know it, actually produces the greatest utility.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Indon » Thu Jun 10, 2010 7:35 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:How exactly do you strip people of the opportunity to cheat on their significant others? For that matter can anything like that actually provide more utility to the population?

We may need to kill all the actors, so that the rest of us can better trust our relationships.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Crius » Thu Jun 10, 2010 9:40 pm UTC

Ulc wrote:If you take these assumptions to be true, then your argument holds yes.

The assumptions are ludicrous however, you assume

Perfect protection.
The cheated partner cannot possible find out, under any circumstances.
The cheating partner does not in anyway behave different toward the cheated partner.
The cheated partner suffers no lack of utility from the cheating partner. Neither biological (being tired) or from time deprivation.
The cheating partner suffers no ill effects, neither physical nor psychological.

Being in science, I'm used to absurd assumptions (spherical cow anyone?), but these are just a bit more far-fetched than I can accept.


There are certain scenarios where these assumptions would work out pretty well. Take a person who travels for business occasionally, and meets someone at the hotel bar.
- The likelyhood of meeting anyone they know is miniscule.
- The cheating partner would be gone for the duration regardless, so the effect on the cheated partner's utility has a minimal to nonexistent effect.

The big risk in this scenario is the cheating partner acting guilty, though that depends on the person. I think with the right person and under certain circumstances, you could reasonably make these assumptions.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Thu Jun 10, 2010 10:33 pm UTC

If I may be slightly tangential... ignoring your assumptions (since talking about fantasy perfect people isn't applicable to real-life philosophy), we can still apply utilitarianism to the actual situation of actual people cheating and come out with a net positive result. They're not frequent, but it can happen.

A person in a relationship has a right to seek sexual satisfaction if the other party is categorically unwilling to fulfill their desires as assumed or understood when the relationship was entered into. For example, take a husband and wife pair. The wife decides after having a child that she is never ever willing to have sex, and say this goes on for about a year (temporary asexuality), though she's unwilling to give her husband permission to sleep with another woman. The husband is justified in having a discreet affair to meet his sexual needs from a utilitarian standpoint, given that the alternative is his sexual frustration and eventual divorce, upheaval in the child's life, "abandoning" a new young mother to her own financial devices... etc.

Another case would be of a spouse who is unable to engage in sexual activity for medical reasons (the first thought occurring to me is a terminal cancer patient undergoing aggressive chemo). Discreet infidelity would have a net benefit for both the sexually frustrated party and the cancer patient if the alternative is ending the relationship.

Just some ideas. There's no reason to throw out utilitarianism completely. Just apply it to real-life situations instead of china-doll hypotheticals.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 10:42 pm UTC

I think part of the problem with utilitarianism is that many people would disagree that infidelity in those cases is morally permissable. People take certain commitments pretty seriously(ie. Marriage).
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:11 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:I think part of the problem with utilitarianism is that many people would disagree that infidelity in those cases is morally permissable. People take certain commitments pretty seriously(ie. Marriage).

Well utilitarianism doesn't consider the morality of anything. It just compares the results of choices and compares the relative good vs bad outcomes where good = more people who have a larger amount of happiness. There are no intangibles in utilitarianism. Just more or less satisfaction.

I mean, that's my understanding of the philosophy. It's been a while since college phil classes though, so correct me if I'm wrong.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Dark567 » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:30 pm UTC

meatyochre wrote:
Dark567 wrote:I think part of the problem with utilitarianism is that many people would disagree that infidelity in those cases is morally permissable. People take certain commitments pretty seriously(ie. Marriage).

Well utilitarianism doesn't consider the morality of anything. It just compares the results of choices and compares the relative good vs bad outcomes where good = more people who have a larger amount of happiness. There are no intangibles in utilitarianism. Just more or less satisfaction.

I mean, that's my understanding of the philosophy. It's been a while since college phil classes though, so correct me if I'm wrong.


Your correct I am just saying peoples moral instincts tend to disagree with that notion in certain examples(like the op's example) and often that's. A reason they give to giving it up.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:42 pm UTC

Well most people would agree that if you're not sexually fulfilled in a relationship, you should probably break it off. But given some real life examples, especially with the terminally ill partner, I think most people would compare infidelity to breaking up with a cancer patient undergoing catastrophic chemo and say that the infidelity would be preferable. Even though it's still more preferable to keep it in your pants, I'm a realist and not every person is capable of that amount of restraint and deprivation.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Ulc » Thu Jun 10, 2010 11:56 pm UTC

Crius wrote:
Ulc wrote:If you take these assumptions to be true, then your argument holds yes.

The assumptions are ludicrous however, you assume

Perfect protection.
The cheated partner cannot possible find out, under any circumstances.
The cheating partner does not in anyway behave different toward the cheated partner.
The cheated partner suffers no lack of utility from the cheating partner. Neither biological (being tired) or from time deprivation.
The cheating partner suffers no ill effects, neither physical nor psychological.

Being in science, I'm used to absurd assumptions (spherical cow anyone?), but these are just a bit more far-fetched than I can accept.


There are certain scenarios where these assumptions would work out pretty well. Take a person who travels for business occasionally, and meets someone at the hotel bar.
- The likelyhood of meeting anyone they know is miniscule.
- The cheating partner would be gone for the duration regardless, so the effect on the cheated partner's utility has a minimal to nonexistent effect.

The big risk in this scenario is the cheating partner acting guilty, though that depends on the person. I think with the right person and under certain circumstances, you could reasonably make these assumptions.


Even in that scenario, you're still dealing with ridiculous assumptions

There will always be a non-zero risk of STD.
The cheating partner might change behaviour in a negative way from feeling guilt, thus decreasing the cheated partners utility.
The cheating partner might him/herself suffer from decreased utility from feeling bad about it.

Even if you assume a person with no ability to feel guilt*, is an excellent actor so their behaviour doesn't change - you still can't get around that non-zero risk of STD's.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Fri Jun 11, 2010 12:24 am UTC

Ulc wrote:
Crius wrote:
Ulc wrote:If you take these assumptions to be true, then your argument holds yes.

The assumptions are ludicrous however, you assume

Perfect protection.
The cheated partner cannot possible find out, under any circumstances.
The cheating partner does not in anyway behave different toward the cheated partner.
The cheated partner suffers no lack of utility from the cheating partner. Neither biological (being tired) or from time deprivation.
The cheating partner suffers no ill effects, neither physical nor psychological.

Being in science, I'm used to absurd assumptions (spherical cow anyone?), but these are just a bit more far-fetched than I can accept.


There are certain scenarios where these assumptions would work out pretty well. Take a person who travels for business occasionally, and meets someone at the hotel bar.
- The likelyhood of meeting anyone they know is miniscule.
- The cheating partner would be gone for the duration regardless, so the effect on the cheated partner's utility has a minimal to nonexistent effect.

The big risk in this scenario is the cheating partner acting guilty, though that depends on the person. I think with the right person and under certain circumstances, you could reasonably make these assumptions.


Even in that scenario, you're still dealing with ridiculous assumptions

There will always be a non-zero risk of STD.
The cheating partner might change behaviour in a negative way from feeling guilt, thus decreasing the cheated partners utility.
The cheating partner might him/herself suffer from decreased utility from feeling bad about it.

Even if you assume a person with no ability to feel guilt*, is an excellent actor so their behaviour doesn't change - you still can't get around that non-zero risk of STD's.

Just because you can't "get around" >0 risk of STDs doesn't mean utilitarianism can't declare that committing the infidelity would still be a permissible activity. Some STDs aren't very serious and are curable (like chlamydia or a UTI).
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Vaniver » Fri Jun 11, 2010 12:37 am UTC

(You, here, doesn't refer to skeptical scientist, but to the cheater.)

Any moral system which tells you that you can lie to other people about deeply important things, and it's okay because they won't know about it, is a profoundly weak moral system.

It's not about what's good for the other person. It's why you're trying to not feel guilty about something you damn well should feel guilty about.

So- while you don't have to abandon utilitarianism, you have to understand that it is at best a metric, not a complete moral system. Find an augmentation or a replacement.
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby meatyochre » Fri Jun 11, 2010 12:47 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:(You, here, doesn't refer to skeptical scientist, but to the cheater.)

Any moral system which tells you that you can lie to other people about deeply important things, and it's okay because they won't know about it, is a profoundly weak moral system.

It's not about what's good for the other person. It's why you're trying to not feel guilty about something you damn well should feel guilty about.

So- while you don't have to abandon utilitarianism, you have to understand that it is at best a metric, not a complete moral system. Find an augmentation or a replacement.

My personal system of morality has very few rules, one of which is "thou dost not lie unless it be little and light-colored." But I don't know that this criterion is universally acceptable or enforceable on others. How does one distinguish absolutely between a lie which is major and one which is "white"? The fact that there are good and bad lies (since there are times when lying is the morally right thing to do) mean lying in itself isn't sufficient criteria for moral wrongness, even outside the bounds of a utilitarian system. I don't think the judgment you pass on a moral system which allows lying is complete unless you address this.

I was staying away from passing a value judgment on lies in this thread myself, because I didn't want to get into the murky area of white lies. But the can is open now!
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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Zcorp » Fri Jun 11, 2010 4:17 am UTC

BlackSails wrote:If everyone cheats, then the group utility is minimized because everyone is untrustworthy. If only you cheat, then both the group and yourself are maximized. Its just a larger version of the prisoner's dilemma.

Except that you defecting will have a systemic effect that threatens trust of the whole group, you maximize yourself in the short run but in the long run you decrease the utility of yourself and of the group as everyone starts defecting in response to your defect.

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Re: If you don't know, can it hurt you?

Postby Nem » Fri Jun 11, 2010 6:44 am UTC

From the perspective of forming a social contract it's better to deal with trustworthy agents. A purely egoistic person is much easier to trust than someone who's more generally moral.
The egoist will cheat under the conditions where it's good for them, whereas the moral person may or may not, depending on how they reason. Therefore reject uncertainty - distrust - and prefer the person you know is going to cheat under certain conditions. Then you can work around those conditions or not depending on whether you care about the cheating.

Vaniver wrote:(You, here, doesn't refer to skeptical scientist, but to the cheater.)

Any moral system which tells you that you can lie to other people about deeply important things, and it's okay because they won't know about it, is a profoundly weak moral system.

It's not about what's good for the other person. It's why you're trying to not feel guilty about something you damn well should feel guilty about.

So- while you don't have to abandon utilitarianism, you have to understand that it is at best a metric, not a complete moral system. Find an augmentation or a replacement.


My moral system - which I acknowledge is based on an aesthetic - is more interested in maximising the diversity of available experiences, rather than pleasure. It's perfectly permissible to lie because it increases that diversity for everyone involved. It is about what's good for the other person as much as it is about what's good for me - at least within the confines of the system.


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