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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why you wouldn't (necessarily) take the million.

This post is in response to the following post:

Of course, I encourage you to elaborate on any points I may have missed.

The linked thought experiment completely ignores one very important bias, and as such is completely flawed, both in its approach and conclusion. Of course, this is why the site is named Overcoming Bias: so the author can betray his own horribly biased biases to the world. ;) Oh that we might be free of bias; but of course then this blog wouldn't exist, now would it? ;)

Namely, the bias that people will/would cave into greed, and that 1 million dollars would in fact be any sort of enticement. Obviously, for example, if said person is already a millionaire/billionaire/well-to-do, there is no such ridiculous need to sacrifice a dog's life (something imcomparable with, say, an amount of cash).

Of course, I'm not attacking a mere number value, and I realize the idea is that there is a large "opportunity" presented to the hypothetical individual which they must then weigh against the opportunity of a dog's life.

Neither am I saying that there are not greedy people. Of course, there are people who, for various reasons of mental ill-health, over-value things like money (much like any addiction in fact).

But the assumption that something like a million dollars must, in general be valued more than something traditionally sacrosanct, such as a dog's life, has little basis. For a very specific circumstance, yes, there might be someone who does that.

Instead of vaguely citing "morals" (which is not technically incorrect, it merely has a habit of angering those who don't really understand what a moral is, and therefore is better to be avoided for reasons of bias), let me use a couple concrete examples to illustrate why this assumption (that there is significant greed) is absurd:

Let us first assume that the monetary amount is increased to some infinite amount of money. Given that all humans are finite creatures with finite wants/desires, an infinite monetary amount has no more potential use than a certain finite one. The first fallacy is therefore that there is necessarily an amount that can buy an individual's happiness out, by replacing it with "more" happiness/success/contentment, etc.

Secondly, let us assume that, for some reason, the previous statement is untrue, that somehow there is a use for an infinite monetary amount, because, say, the individual in question plans to use an infinite amount of money all at once in an infinite universe, or that they plan on using it on an infinite period of time. There is still the false assumption that an infinite amount of money actually achieves anything; money is nothing more than a number, enforced by actual constraints such as energy, time, life, governance, encryption, etc. etc. The monetary amount itself is not itself a reason, it is what the holder thinks they can do with said amount(something the author loosely hints at, but it is insufficiently explored/mentioned), which is the second fallacy to the argument.

Thirdly, let me present an example in which most people would definitely take the "million". We presume that, from the previous two points, this is infact a practically infinite amount, which has actual purpose. Most people will sacrifice their pet, if they are also presented with the choice between their pet, or, for example, their child. The child is only a convenient example, but is illustrative that what is going on in the individual's mind is not a balance between greed and good, as the author seems to be hinting at, but between two values. If the "greater good" can be satisfied, it will be (the majority of the time). In fact there are a great many examples where such a thing would happen, if a million could be sacrificed instead for charity, than for a single animal, or for the betterment of mankind, etc. Put in this light, it is utterly apparent the absurdity and fallacy that there is necessarily a significant greed that would unerringly end the animal's life.

In conclusion, then, a very specific set of circumstances MUST BE MET in order for this to actually occur. Otherwise there is, generally, no amount of money (1) which can be purposed (2) to generally trump the value (3) of the dogs life. What does this mean? Most people, who have a deep, meaningful, relationship with their pet (high personal value) will not trade the pet in for any amount of money. Some people, who have mental problems, might irrationally over-rate the value of the money, or might be present with circumstances genuinely more valuable than that of their pets lives. Or, they might not truly value their pet's lives, to them they are just another object of affection to dote upon, a moving plushie.

(There you have it. Some real morals, not vague or unsupported citaitions of complex moraligious texts.)

About the only thing I could see invalidating any of this is consistent, objective, field-data indicating most people have an irrational addiction to money. Which would be interesting, I think, but is certainly not implicated or proved by this article.

Which, sadly, means the end conclusion, that we will end up doing things because other people do them, after it is less "weird", is entirely unsupported by this argument. Which is not to say that this conclusion is untrue (I very likely believe it is), but there is no correllation between the example and the conclusion.

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