Friday, 7 May 2010

A moral question

Why don't you rob a bank? The benefit of doing so would be, it's unnecessary to say, enormous. But very few people do it. Why not? Is it because it's so much hard work to do so, what with all the logicstics and technology and months of preparation involved? Is it because if you are caught, the costs are so high that they put the enormous benefit in to stark perspective? Is it because it's completely immoral?

I suspect that it's the last answer that most people would give, without so much as blinking. But what does that really mean? Does everyone share an inate sense of morallistic duty that makes them not want to rob the bank? Obviously not, since there are some people in the world who do go ahead and try. Maybe immoral in this context, for some people at least, is some kind of shorthand for the costs/risks are too high to justify the act.

So how do we go about finding out whether someone is unmotivated to steal for reasons of undiluted moral duty, or merely because they consider the costs to be higher than the benefits? With science of course! We will do a thought experiment, and to recreate experimental conditions, we will isolate the variable we want to test, in this case the morality. Therefore we will mitigate the cost/benefit analysis. If we make the result of a cost/benefit analysis unequivocably positive, then it's obvious that any person that still resists robbing a bank is resisting for moral reasons.

So let us enter the theoretical realm of the thought experiment. I shall ask you, as the experimenter, to imagine that in this realm, robbing a bank is incredibly easy, and you have a 100% guarantee that noone will ever find out. Imagine perhaps that you're sat in front of a computer and that all you have to do is to simply press enter, and any amount of money you desire will be strategically siponed into various accounts prepared for you in advance. It's set up in complete anonymity. You will leave and noone would know that it was you. You know you wouldn't even be brought in to be questioned since there would be no traces leading back to you. Not even God would know it was you1. Now here comes the question; would you press enter?

There is a problem with the experiment, however, and that is that it's impossible for the experimenter to get any meaningful data. Let's break this down. The experimentee has 2 things going on: the answer he gives to the experimenter, and the answer he actually believes. As I will explain, there is motive for lying here. So since there are two factors, each with two possible answers, there are four possible outcomes to consider:

1) The experimentee would, and tells this to the experimenter.

2) The experimentee would, but tells the experimenter he wouldn't.

3) The experimentee wouldn't and tells this to the experimenter.

4) The experimentee wouldn't, but tells the experimenter he would.

Now, some of these are more likely to occur than others. I suspect that if we can assume that the experimentee holds a basic level of sincerity and respect for the experiment, that it's unlikely that we'll get (4).

(1) is the scenario from which we learn the most, except that we only learn that the experimentee is either not very intelligent, or has not really thought it through very well. If he had thought about it, he would realise that telling the experimenter marks him out as 'immoral', held back only by the policing ability of society's law enforcement. Therefore, scenario (2) is far more likely from the person who would. However, at this point, how do we differentiate the person in scenario (2) from the person in scenario (3)? Any person telling the experimenter tha he wouldn't isn't giving the experimenter any useful information, since it is still anyone's guess what the actual tendancies of the experimentee are.

So this is an interesting thought experiment, but unfortunately the only person you can experiment with reliably is yourself!

1:We must assume for the purposes of the thought experiment that if you believe in an omniscient God, that you must discout his omniscience in this case. If you do not, then the experiment can't advance since you are still exposed to policing. The experiment tries to isolate the morality of the individual from any kinds of external morality, whether they be imposed by society, law or God.


  1. You see what would happen if it were as easy as pressing a button when you loose your wallet. Most people take the money - "opportunity makes thieves". Does this idiom also exist in English? So true. No scientifical evidence provided, though.

  2. Yeah we say "opportunity makes a thief," though I hadn't thought of that until you mentioned it. Though I think you're right; that really what people call their morality is just their ability to judge costs, benefits and risks. Many actions that we call 'immoral' are so because situations make that action more likely to cost than to benefit the actor. And that simply by changing certain conditions can suddenly make the 'morality' of that very same action seem much less important.