On Philosophy

December 11, 2007

When Telling People To Do The Right Thing Is Wrong

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

The title of this post may seem paradoxical. How could it possibly be wrong to tell people to do the right thing, unless you are in some strange situation where you know that they will do the opposite of what you advise? Well, before I get to that let me describe a kind of sister situation involving normative facts in general. By a normative fact I mean simply that someone should do some particular action, which implies in turn that acting in that way will satisfy their desires or facilitate such satisfaction. Given that it is obvious that in most situations there will be a number of normative facts, not all of them compatible with each other. If a person has five desires then there will be at least five things that they should do, which probably can’t all be done at once. And, furthermore, there will be a body of other normative facts relating to what would help fulfill those desires, both in the moment and in the long-term. But just because a person should do all of those things doesn’t mean that of them none are a better choice than any other, generally there is always one best course of action among many that they should do. Thus, if we have the best interests of the person who we are advising in mind, and nothing else, it would be a mistake to encourage them to do something just because it is a normative fact for them. What we should do is figure our which course of action is best for them overall and then recommend that; doing any less would be encouraging them to make a mistake.

Of course that applies to ethics as well, because that we should act ethically is just one normative fact among many with no special status. And thus there may be times when, even though they should act ethically, there are other normative facts that may demand satisfaction more pressingly and thus it may be in their overall best interest not to act ethically. But that situation is not what I have in mind here, because we aren’t motivated by the best interests of other people when we advise them to act ethically. Rather we are compelled both by ethics and by simple self-interest to advise people to act ethically. Ethics I take to be acting in the best interests of the community, and thus encouraging people to act ethically is generally in the best interests of the community, and itself recommended by ethics. And, from a purely self-interested standpoint, people are less likely to act against your interests if they are trying to be ethical, and so it benefits you to lead them to be ethical. Of course what I am interested here is just cases where it is actually unethical to encourage people to be ethical, where giving such advice will lead to more harm than good. Obviously there will be times where self-interest will encourage us not to tell people to be ethical, for example when we are benefiting from their unethical behavior, but such cases are trivial to generate, and thus not very interesting.

Before I proceed I also should note that when I talk about advising people to be ethical I have in mind specifically situations in which we are trying to argue a person out of taking a particular action or living a certain kind of the life on the basis that it would be unethical, possibly by explaining in detail why it is unethical, and why acting unethically is undesirable. Obviously it is possible to “advise” people to be ethical without ever mentioning ethics. We could, for example, bribe or threaten them into an ethical course of action. Doing that is probably always ethical, modulo the nature of the “advice” itself. Since we are interested in effects changing someone’s action from a bad one to a good one is good, assuming that we don’t generate more undesirable consequences in doing so. In contrast much more complicated situations can arise when we consider advising people to be ethical when we explicitly invoke notions of right and wrong, because what we say may tie into their conceptions of right and wrong, and may have a number of interesting side-effects. Specifically there is a chance that if we tell someone that they are doing the wrong thing and they do it anyways then they may begin to conceive of themselves as an unethical person. And that may lead them to further unethical actions, since as they see themselves as unethical already they may feel that things can’t get worse, that further unethical actions have no consequences for them. Indeed I suspect that this is the source of many unethical people, not necessarily people who have been told what is ethical and then acted against that advice, but those who, for whatever reason, have come to believe themselves to be unethical. We have a tendency to find words to define ourselves with, and then live in accordance with those descriptions. Obviously this is a bad habit, because we are mutable and what we are at one time need not constrain who we are in the future. Still, it is a common habit, and criticizing it will not make it go away.

Does this mean then that we should never give advice about what is right and wrong, fearing that someone might go against that advice and then become an unethical person? Of course not, but it does mean that we may need to take a second look at the advice we give. Certainly it is always safe to give general advice about the nature of ethics itself. That might seem contradictory, since obviously it is possible to deduce any legitimate ethical advice we might give from the general laws of ethics. However, given that ethics is complicated, people find it easy to make excuses for themselves, if they want to. Thus someone may know what ethics is and be acting unethically, and yet have convinced themselves that they are ethical. Naturally it would be better if they simply acted ethically, but if they are acting unethically it is better that they believe themselves to be ethical and thus follow the demands of ethics in other situations. Also the demands of ethics come in different strengths, some actions are slightly unethical while other are highly unethical. Given that it is probably always a good idea to give specific advice against doing the most unethical actions in every situation. Such advice, in general, does the most good, and it is likely that someone who is going to act in a way that is extremely unethical already realizes that it is unethical, and hence informing them of that fact isn’t going to change anything.

The rest seems to come down to a case-by-case basis. Obviously we should give advice about ethics in situations where we are trying to inform people about the nature of ethics in a broad sense and when that advice might cause someone to change their mind about how to act for the better. However, it would be best to withhold that advice when the person we are advising is going to ignore our advice anyways. Then it is just a wasted effort. Since they aren’t going to be affected by it we are, at the very least, wasting our time. And we run the risk of accidentally convincing them that they are an unethical person, and thus encouraging further unethical behavior. Perhaps the real problem then is recognizing when we are in one of these situations so that we can appropriately withhold our advice. Obviously nothing will ever be certain in that respect since we aren’t mind readers. However a little simple psychology can identify most such cases. For example, if that person has displayed a pattern of a particular kind of unethical behavior it seems unlikely that simply advising them about ethics will convince them to change their ways. Also we must take into consideration that person’s desires. If it seems likely that they are acting unethically simply because they don’t realize that it is unethical, or because they haven’t properly thought about the importance of acting ethically in that situation, then giving ethical advice is a good idea. However if they are acting unethically because they are driven by powerful desires then that advice will probably fall on deaf ears, exactly the kind of situation we are trying to avoid. Perhaps the best advice I can give about giving advice in these matters is simply that, if we are motivated by ethics, our goal is to maximize the other person’s good behavior, not to correct specific tendencies. Which means that some times we will have to turn a blind eye to certain faults.

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