Discussion Forum

Doing good and logic

Posted by Duncan Watson
Friday, March 3, 2006

Rev Buglass (see recent thread on Ladbrokes) - doing good has always been a bad thing, at least doing some good acts has always been a bad thing if we assume constancy of logic throughout time (which does not seem unreasonable).

For example non-cooperative prisoner dilemma cases- Alf and Bert have been arrested for a crime they did not commit, their captor offers them each the choice of implicating the other person or remaining silent. If they both remain silent they get two years in prison, if they both implicate the other person they get five years in prison each, if one person implicates the other and the other remains silent the person doing the implicating goes free and the person remaining silent gets ten years. They cannot communicate with each other but know the other to be fully rational so that whatever they decide to do is a good indication that the other will do the same. The standard agreed resolution to this case assuming sensible amounts of utility and disutility for the prison sentences leads to the rational thing to do being to confess even though if Alf and Bert had both remained silent they would have received lesser prison sentences.

If we say that being rational is a good thing then it appears it is also a bad thing since it leads to increased prison sentences in the example case. This is contra the suggestion that a good thing is never a bad thing. Of course it is open to argue that being rational is a bad thing but that rather undermines one?s confidence in the sanity of the person who is asserting that.

Posted by Andy M
Friday, March 3, 2006

So, you'll take 3:1 then?

Posted by Jack
Friday, March 3, 2006

A nice example of game theory, but the real concern in this example that the two characters were arrested for a crime they did not commit, with subsequent power relations that render 'being rational' a negative. The nature of the theory is to force 'rational' equilibrium decisions, so the outcome should never come as a surprise...

Posted by Rev Tony Buglass
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Duncan - "doing good has always been a bad thing" - pardon? Sorry, perhaps I shouldn't get into these discussions at the end of a very busy week, but I just didn't understand your argument at all.

At the very least, you're overstating the case - *always* a bad thing. So feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, etc, is always bad?

OK, perhaps that's not what you mean by "doing good", but your prison anecdote doesn't clarify matters. The good thing is to release innocent people. If in this case it means implicating a guilty person, well, that's the consequences of his guilt not their alleged betrayal. Perhaps "doing good" can be perceived as a Bad Thing by those who lose out - in which case, could it not be that they were doing something wrong in the first place? For example, if Nestle lose some of their profits because we all by fair-trade coffee, does that not just serve them right for ripping off the Third World coffee producers?

I agree, life isn't as simple and black and white as that. If thousands were laid off if Nestle went bankrupt, it would be bad for them and their communities. Which is why I tend in the long run to come down to common-sense rather than logic. And my common-sense tells me that "doing good" is usually a Good Thing.

Posted by Andrew Hall
Saturday, March 4, 2006

This is a discussion topic that really cannot be resolved, as it relies on, amongst other things, a great deal of subjectivity.

Simplistically, Rev Buglass must be right. How on earth can 'doing good' be anything but commendable? The issue, however, is clouded by two things - is the 'good deed' universally accepted as being 'good' or is is a case of one man's 'good' being another man's 'bad'? Secondly, what are the motives of the person doing the 'good' deed? Is the act of doing good purely altruistic, or more designed to pander to the self-satisfaction of the instigator?

There are two sides (if not more) to every argument. Presumably some people felt that going to war in Iraq was a 'good' deed as it liberated hundreds of thousands from a tyrannical dictator. The Nazis must have had conviction that the 'final soulution' was 'good' for the future purity of their race. They must have thought that committing atrocities was a 'necessary evil' ultimately resulting (they hoped) in good.

And so to the more mundane... the objectors to Ladbrokes feel that they were doing good by objecting to the development. Their arguments were based on the aesthetics of the town centre, a certain amount of morality (Methodism is well-known for its attitude towards drinking and gambling) and social concern. They felt they were doing good. Similarly, those for the development argued that the town should be inclusive, catering for all tastes and recognise that adults should have the right to choose what to do with their money. They too felt they were doing good. Ladbrokes themselves feel that they can make money out of the venture for their staff and shareholders - so yet again, in business terms, they are 'doing good' for their company. 'Goodness' often depends on the viewpoint of the beholder.

But of course this argument should never have started. Here too, the Rev Buglass has taken the term 'do-gooders' too literally. It is generally used, not so much in the sense of people undertaking selfless acts for the good of others, but rather in the sense of people interfering in other peoples lives for their own selfish motives or hidden agendas.

But I'm sure he'd be the first to agree that there is good in all of us.

Posted by Rev Tony Buglass
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Andrew wrote: "But I'm sure he'd be the first to agree that there is good in all of us."

I would, I would! And of course, I did deliberately use "do-gooders" too literally in order to raise the very points you've just made, on the grounds that there are certain phrases which are used uncritically - do-gooders, nanny state, political correctness, etc - in such a way as to avoid the argument and prejudge the discussion.

Re gambling and drink - I have to confess, as a paid-up member of the Trades Club, that the image of Methodists as teetotallers is not true. I'm afraid it's just a rumour which we've allowed to get round so that no-one expects us to buy a round...