Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thought Experiment

I'm not usually one to talk about invisible dragons in my garage, but this might be fun. If not, I'll try not to do it again until I've gotten better at the process.

Imagine there's a man who is one of the top few in the field of helping poor children out of serious medical conditions. He can do medical work that many people would describe as "miracles." He also does this work basically for free, because he was frugal in his youth, and he's saved up enough to live out the rest of his life in comfort. A foundation even pays for him to travel around the world, and there's an equitable process for bringing patients to him or sending him to patients.

Sounds good so far, right?

He works about 12 hours a day, six days a week. He spends the seventh day recharging and studying up on the latest work in his field. He's not neglecting any family duties with this schedule. Every year, he takes off two weeks to relax, then it's back to saving the kids. If you know all this about him, he sounds like a really stand-up sort of guy.

On the way home from work every night, our saint finds a homeless person on the street and kicks him or her. It's rarely the same homeless person night to night, but it happens six nights a week. If all you knew about our guy was this part, then he sounds like a monster.

What if you know both parts? Is he hero or villain?

No translate this into organizations - corporations, religions, special interest groups, governmental organizations, countries, whatever. Can we expect that there will ever be a clear view of an organization's goodness or nefariousness?

Hey, I think I just thought-experimented politics and PR into being. Go, me!


GDad said...

Additional comment:
When I wrote this a couple of days ago, I was reading some summaries of Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality books, where getting to heaven or hell was just a matter of accounting.

If a person had better than 50% good in his soul at the time of death, he went to heaven. Less than 50%, and he went to hell. Exactly 50% got you to limbo.

Ashitaka said...

He's still a saint, think about his work, you never specified how long he had been doing his job. My point in that is that he could have saved the lives of those homeless people, seen them become homeless by losing their way (not a victim of circumstance, someone who had a choice or could have prevented this from happening) and given them a good kick in the rear for putting all their money into high risk stocks, blowing it on liquor, choose the way they lost it yourself but keep with the overall theme, and you'll come to the same conclusion.

The good here completely outways the bad, doing what he does for children, compared to a bruised bottom, hardly an argument in my opinion.

Besides, after all those good deeds and parents screaming for you to save their child, wouldn't you kick someone square in the butt? It's better than letting it build up, snapping one day, and going on some crime spree.

Angry Professor said...

Uh oh -- I'm channeling my inner economist... After computing his utility function (as well as the utility function of the homeless person), I have to conclude he's a hero.

You need to make it harder, though. What if he shoots the homeless person? (My inner economist is struggling to say something about this too, but I've got him under control...)

CrankyProf said...

Go read this.

GDad said...

I read the story years ago and had forgotten it. Huh.

Also, the idea of the blurred line between nobility and villainy is a big theme in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events books that I'm reading to Son right now. Three children try to live up to high standards and find themselves acting as villains for noble reasons throughout the books.

Does it change the scenario above if the man is being forced to kick the homeless person to avoid a mob hit on his siblings or something? I dunno.

Mike said...

Hero or villain, Monster or saint? How about neither? Just a human being with good and bad all rolled up together. Neither pure white nor deepest black just a shade of grey like the rest of us.

M&M said...

I think the crux of this line of thought lies in the western tendency to romantacize things. If someone is a hero or saint, then they are that way ALL the time (likewise villains and criminals).

The truth obviously is somewhere in the middle, but that's harder to dramatize, so western literature has their heroes dressed in white (Obi-Wan) and their villains in black (Vader and the Emperor).

Of course organizations are a different kettle of fish, and much more difficult to judge. Think about it, if ONE person is hard to quantify, how much more difficult would a GROUP of individual (which all organizations are.

I have a personal complaint with the way US laws treat corporations (though I work for a one!). Corporations get many of the same rights and freedoms in our country as citizens do (except voting), they have none of the responsibilities. All they need to do is make money and pay taxes (and not much of those, comparatively speaking) and Uncle Sam is hunky dorey. If one of their products kills someone? Well, let the free market take care of it. If their customers' care, they won't come back.

The only example I can think of is Dupont's industrial accident in India a number of years ago that killed about 10,000 people. Dupont is still in business. Can you IMAGINE a situation in which any US citizen could kill 10,000 people, everyone would KNOW it and yet nothing would happen to them?

That is total BULL. That company should have been completely dismantled. Everyone on the board of directors and the CEO should have everything they owned confiscated and the money given to the families of the victims.

Corporations get special rights in the USA and are the ultimate "special interest group"

Anonymous said...

Definitely hero. I mean, heck, the homeless person probably doesn't even remember it the next day.

But yeah, sometimes saints have a coke habit. It happens. Everyone has to drop that image management sometime- it's up to us to get over their betrayal of the messiah spot we reserved for 'em, and love 'em anyway.

Jen said...

Sounds like he is suffering from a mental illness. I can't think of anything worse than kicking a man when he is down, I probably could think of many things but this is really bad.

Let's change the question. Say he is suffering from a mental illness and the treatment that prevented him from kicking the homeless people rendered him incapable of performing the medical miracles on children. Would you give him the treatment?

Bill said...

How hard does he kick?

Bill said...

Okay, here's my real answer.

He's a villain, given the facts as presented. His public life, what he presents to the world, is filled with good deeds. His private life, his inner heart, is filled with cruelty and intolerance.

Sound familiar?

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I read that John Lennon beat his first wife. Does that make him less than what he was?

I'm reading a book called Shataram about an Australian fugitive who went to Mumbai and did great things, got captured and served the rest of his sentence and returned to the same place to carry out his good.

I don't knwo wbout this man-- if he got caught kicking the homeless person, as surely the bad would eventually catch up to him, he'd get punished for the bad things. Surely the judge would go easy on him. Does he want to change? Does he live for th people he helps or to that moment of kicking the homeless person?

GDad said...

Wow. This is a good one.

Maybe my next thought experiment will involve an elevator falling down an infinitely long shaft....

Faith said...

Life is too complicated to say villian or hero. Being in the social service field, I think I've seen many similar situations. It's hard to say just what is villian and hero. Everyone has good and bad rolled up into their gene make up. I've also been stumped why people can be cruel and evil on the inside, letting it show where the family can see it (sometimes to rarely) but appear to be the most loving, caring, and do gooder to the social environment round them.

I can't wait for your next one. Makes for good mind exercise. Hey, if I have to do one of these in class sometime, can I write and ask your permission to use one? (smile) We have a project due that these situations but be a good example of.

GDad said...

Faith, by all means, you're welcome to use this for a class.