Not Even if it’s the Right Thing to Do

Not Even if it’s the Right Thing to Do November 16, 2011

Overturning tables (and also paradigms)

So after kicking around the idea of sin-eating — trying to take on the burden of someone else’s evil, I still think it might theoretically be a moral act, but I’ve come around to recommending that nobody do it.  It seems to fit neatly into the type of ethical injunctions Eliezer Yudkowsky recommended for computers (and people):

“You should never, ever murder an innocent person who’s helped you, even if it’s the right thing to do; because it’s far more likely that you’ve made a mistake, than that murdering an innocent person who helped you is the right thing to do.”

And once you spend a long time discussing the ethics of a decision you know you should never make, you should suspect you’ve strayed into High Energy Theoretical Ethics — a nice place to visit, but a bad place to stay.  So I’d like to change topics to a different instantiation of don’t do [X] even when you think it’s right, and this one has a little more real-world applicability.

In the RCIA class I attend, everyone was asked to read the Gospel of Mark and share their impressions of Jesus. I was struck by the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s preaching. In the space of the shortest gospel, he breaks the Sabbath by performing miracles, disavows the old halachic rules for food, and overthrows the law of Moses as a stop-gap measure, not the fullness of truth.  It’s a radical revaluing of values, and I wanted to know how the Jews were supposed to know that they were right to take a leap of faith and value their own judgement of Jesus’s power above the ethical injunction that would have told them to stick with Moses.

You don’t need to wait until the New Testament to find an example of people overriding their ethical safeguards; it’s hard to do better than the story of Abraham and Isaac.  And I still find all these stories frightening.  I expect that when you’re willing to trust enough to murder your son, you’re probably over-trusting in a number of other circumstances, even if they’re less dire.  How important is the divine signal, and how much noise are you prepared to treat as holy edict?

This is pretty much the “how do you pick a teacher” question writ large.  Do we trust ourselves enough to know which moral rules we’re wise enough to ignore?  I doubt it.  I have trouble imagining how you can be so open to radical moral shifts without making a lot of high stakes mistakes.  You don’t need to be an atheist to acknowledge that the vast majority of people who hear a god telling them to do counterintuitive or frightening things are misguided.

So, even if the lay Jews listening to Jesus were correct to throw over their old allegiances and ethics, how could their decision be epistemologically justified?  What cognitive framework lets you make correct leaps of faith without making a lot of false positive errors that can put you and everyone you love in serious danger?

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