Quora – If good and bad is subjective, then what right does any government have to punish anyone for anything

If good and bad is subjective, then what right does any government have to punish anyone for anything, if that person could just argue that he was doing what’s “right” in his own eyes?

[ 24/3/20 ]

A lot of problems with this question, and when they are sorted out the answer is both complex and clear.

All human perception is subjective, by definition, but that does not mean that it is unrelated to objective reality. The question we need to always ask ourselves is: how likely are my perceptions to be a useful correlate to reality?

Most of the time, the answer to that will be – very likely, at some level of resolution.

Modern science is very clear, reality is far more complex than any mind can deal with in detail, so all understandings and perceptions and models are simplifications of whatever reality might actually be. The really tricky question is working out when the resolution of the model currently in use is not good enough to produce survivable outcomes?

So what might ideas like “right”, “wrong”, “good”, “bad” mean in such a probabilistic interpretation of whatever objective reality might actually be?

To some degree for all of us, and for some people all of the time, that will be a matter of social consensus.

For others of us, and for all to some degree, it will be a matter of what we have accepted or chosen as our highest values.

Simple binary ideas like good/bad or right/wrong are not an accurate model of reality, but they are very useful for making rapid decisions based on sparse data; and a lot of our decisions are like that, necessarily.

The more time we have to make decisions, the more we are able to consider and model the likely consequences of different options over different time periods, and to make a more nuanced evaluation of what seems the best of the available options. But if that luxury of time does not exist, or we don’t have the information or algorithms (mental tools) to make those assessments – then it is back to simple binaries that are usually based on historical precedent at some level.

Where that can lead to major failure is when we don’t have historical precedent.

The current covid-19 virus situation is like that.

The only rational response is for everyone who is not involved in essential production (water, food, medical, shelter, sanitation, transport, energy, communication, or maintenance of any of the aforementioned) to stay at home and isolate (unless needing access to essentials – and then using best precautions to prevent contact or contamination), and for those who must work to take all reasonable precautions to avoid contact with others and to essentially starve the virus to death by denying it new hosts to spread to.

If we do that effectively, then we can end it in about 6 weeks.

But if anyone cheats, then they endanger everyone else. Not everyone will die from this pandemic. If we have functioning critical care units then very few will die. If we overwhelm our hospital systems then up to 20% of the population could die (when all the secondary and tertiary effects are all added up – as many medical personnel would die in that scenario, and they take a long time to train – so the consequences would go on for years if it does get out of hand). So anyone cheating on the self isolation is putting the lives of millions at risk. That is clearly bad if you value the life of anyone!

In the case that most people agree that human life has value, and the government has a vast majority consensus on that value, then government using force to achieve 100% compliance is a good thing, a necessary thing, provided that they also ensure that every individual has reasonable access to all essentials.

So there can be no absolutes in terms of good and bad, as all such things are fundamentally either based in heuristics (things that worked well enough in the past to survive) or on probabilistic estimates of complex relationships that contain fundamental uncertainties.

Yet we do all have to act in reality, so we have to do so on the basis of some model of reality, at some resolution, and some set of values (either chosen or inherited from genetics or culture – both of which are distillations of things that worked in the past to some useful degree in most contexts but are not necessarily workable in any specific current context – because we live in rapidly changing times). So ultimately we all use some version of what seems good or bad to us, some version of right or wrong; however we happen to get there; and all such things will contain uncertainties, whether we are aware of them or not.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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