Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Wager Pascal Should Stick to Science

Much has been said about Pascal's famous wager and since its flaws are plainly clear to me, I find it difficult to comprehend why many theologians use this as a defense of their faith (sometimes a main defense). The obvious problems seem to have been discussed ad nauseam such as the ignoring of many other mutually exclusive possible worlds in which it would be "infinitely" detrimental to hold a belief in any particular deity and may be "infinitely" beneficial to hold no theistic beliefs whatsoever.

I would like to bring up another possible problem with Pascal’s Wager, namely the issue of something being "infinitely" beneficial and "infinitely" detrimental. It is on the basis of appealing to some sort of "infinite" reward/punishment that Pascal argues that no benefits gained from a life of non-belief in a particular deity or religion (particularly Christianity for Pascal) can offset the potential gain or loss in the afterlife. I contend that such an understanding is not necessarily the case.

Often in debates about religion the terms infinity or perfection are thrown around willy-nilly without fully comprehending the consequences applying such terms. Infinitude is a term that doesn't apply well outside the realm of pure mathematics and into the real world. What does it mean to get an infinite amount of pleasure? An infinite amount of pain?

The economic concept of diminishing marginal utility may help inform our approach to Pascal’s Wager. The law of diminishing marginal utility states that as a person receives more and more units of a particular item the amount utility they receive per unit diminishes. To illustrate this imagine a poor person getting $100. That $100 will be worth much more to the poor person than it would be worth to a billionaire receiving the same amount. Ultimately depending on the persons preference receiving additional rewards will level out and any additional reward received will be effectively worthless. Therefore it isn’t correct to say that infinite rewards/punishment may await us in the afterlife since effectively there is only a finite amount value we can actually receive or lose.

Another thing to consider is what a person is willing to risk in order to receive an “infinite” reward. A person may very well be willing to take a bet to get an infinite amount of money with an almost zero probability of winning if it will only cost them a dollar. They may likely still take the bet if it cost them $10, $100, $1,000 or even $10,000 depending on the persons current wealth. But under the logic of Pascal’s Wager there shouldn’t be any fixed amount of money no matter how high a person shouldn’t risk to try to achieve this infinite amount of wealth since the expected value of any such wager is still infinity:

Expected Value = (Reward) x (Probability of Winning)
                             – (Cost) x (Probability of Losing)

                             = ($ Infinite) x 0.0001% - ($1,000,000,000) x (99.9999%)

                             = $ Infinite

Now consider a real life scenario, would any reasonable person risk their entire life savings on a bet like this? I would not. It is even likely that I wouldn’t even take this bet if it were 50-50. If there is too much at stake it becomes less and less likely for me to take very risky bets even if the expected value of such bets are positive. This is the major aspect missing from Pascal’s analysis. Pascal doesn’t take into account the inherent risks and costs involved with his wager. Not all decisions are based on total expected benefit vs. rewards, they also take into account risks/uncertainty as well as the actual utility of the potential benefits.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Consequence of Consequentialism

As in some of my previous posts I would like to return to the topic of consequentialism. As may be apparent, I have been leaning towards this normative ethical theory for reasons I have discussed before, namely the problematic issues inherent in the deontology (the main competing theory to consequentialism). Now that I have thought about it some more though I would like to bring up one of the problems that arise from the consequentialist perspective.

The biggest problem I had with consequentialism initially was the issue of intent, since from a consequentialist perspective the only thing that determines the morality of an act is its consequences, not the action or the intent of the actor. If you claim that the intent of the person performing an act is of significant relevance in judging whether or not that action is moral, you are now no longer primarily concerned with consequences.

As an example of this say a person (Jim) owns a large forest near a town. Jim decides to build a house for the poor. Since he is a professional lumberjack Jim chooses and cuts down the trees himself from his forest. After cutting down one particular tree unfortunately it ends up falling on a young boy exploring the forest, killing him. He never intended for the tree to hurt anyone and is deeply upset at the unfortunate event.

According to a consequentialist viewpoint only the consequences of an action are what judge an action as being morally wrong or right. So therefore Jim's act of cutting down the tree while having no intent to hurt the child (in fact his intention was to help people in need) is deemed immoral, no different than if Jim were a murderer who intentionally cuts down the tree to kill the boy.

This definitely seems problematic since how can you say that both events are morally equivalent? Certainly in the second scenario Jim should be judged as having committed an immoral act, but what about Jim's actions in the first instance? Was his actions in the first scenario moral or at least morally neutral simply because he didn't intend to hurt the child? All agree from both a deontological as well as a consequentialist perspective that the second scenario was indeed immoral, because harm was intended and harm was caused. However, I would not lay Jim in the first scenario blameless and his actions morally acceptable since his actions did indeed cause more harm than good.

Although it was unintentional he is still responsible to make amends since his actions were the most relevant cause of the boys demise. So while I see how people may want to lay him blameless due to his pure intent, I still find it acceptable to call his action immoral. This may be a disturbing conclusion, but I think holding this position is better overall since while people are blamed or praised for things that can rightfully be called accidents, it encourages us to take precautionary measures and to think very seriously about the actions we take or do not take.

There is still the issue of how the actions of Jim the intentioned murderer and Jim the intentioned philanthropist could be judged equally under this framework. While it is conceivable that we will lay a significant amount of blame on the intentioned philanthropist Jim, clearly we should blame the intentioned murderer Jim much more. This is where I will step out of my consequentialist perspective just a bit to concede that it only makes sense to judge these two scenarios differently not based on consequences, but rather based on intentions. While I do so I still hold that the consequences are the most significant factor in determining whether or not an action is moral. However, once it has been decided that a party has committed an immoral (or moral) action based solely on the consequences, then it can be decided based on the individuals intentions, and possibly other factors not related to consequence, how much blame (or praise) to attribute to that individual. Thus the consequences determine whether or not a person is praised or blamed and other factors determine the level of praise or blame deserved.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Rebbe on the Melting Pot and the Tzedakah Box

"May G-d Almighty bless everyone with a happy year, and go from strength to strength in all things necessary, especially for the benefit of the nationalities in New York; it is a "melting pot" for many nations, may all these nationalities live in good peace, and in harmony, and every one of them should strengthen the nationalities around them especially in matters of charity."

How about this year, as the Rebbe recommends, promoting charities to benefit those outside of the Jewish people?

I recommend giving to charities that help our communities that are of a different nationality/faith than us. To help improve schools around our neighborhood that don't have large Jewish attendance, as well as to people around the world that are in desperate need of basic supplies to live.

Tzedakah still counts if it isn't going to Jewish causes.

Check this out