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Mistakenly Glad

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Alex, a vegetarian, is glad to eat the vegetable soup at a restaurant because he mistakenly believes it is made with vegetable broth. Actually, it is made with beef broth. If Alex knew the truth, he would be disgusted. He is mistakenly glad to eat the soup. (This is true regardless of whether he ever finds out the truth.)

Martin is glad to be married. However, he mistakenly believes that his wife is sexually faithful, when in fact, she has been having sex with his business partner for many years. Martin values sexual fidelity such that if he knew the truth, he would be devastated to the degree that he would not be glad to be married. Martin is mistakenly glad to be married.

Emily is glad to have been given a diamond ring, because she believes it came from an ethical source. In fact, the diamond comes from a source that causes significant suffering to innocent people. If she knew the truth, she would be horrified and insulted at receiving the gift. She is mistakenly glad to receive the diamond.

Joyce is glad to have a son. However, she mistakenly believes her son is not murdering people and eating them. In fact, he is murdering people and eating them. If she knew this, she would regret having a son. Joyce is mistakenly glad to have a child.

The most common response people give upon hearing about philanthropic antinatalism is to ask why we haven’t killed ourselves (yet). The second most common, in my estimate, is what I call the “imaginary survey justification” – to assert that most people would be expected to report that they are glad to be alive (imaginary survey), therefore it is a good thing that they are alive, therefore it is a good thing to make new people.

I find this justification problematic not only because the empirical data are imaginary, but because it fails to address the phenomenon of being mistakenly glad. Just as ordinary “gladness” is subject to being mistaken if it is the product of incorrect beliefs, “gladness to be alive” is similarly problematic and subject to factual error. But is there any reason to be particularly worried about this in the context of “gladness to be alive”? Here are a few:

  • From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be incredibly dangerous to “allow” one’s organism to realize that life is not a great deal. We should expect human brains to embrace beliefs that promote gladness to be alive (and other survival-promoting mental states) regardless of their truth.
  • A high percentage of the world’s population is religious. I would suspect many people would subscribe to the statement, “I am happy to be alive because God created me and has a special plan for my life.” Thus, many people’s primary reason for being glad to be alive is patently false.
  • Many people believe in an afterlife. Same issue.
  • A high percentage of the world’s population lacks the capability for the kind of abstract thinking necessary to consider the question and all the prior beliefs one’s purported gladness may be based on.
  • The phenomenon of “meaningfulness” (commonly spoken of in the context of gladness-to-be-alive) seems to be a function of a specific kind of self-deception.

Similarly, more Americans than Europeans or South Americans seem happy to participate in their economic system, despite inequality, because they believe either (a) they have a “fair chance” at one day having high material wealth and status, or (b) they think there is a high probability of their one day having high status and material wealth. If it is merely procedural fairness (that is, reason (a)) that motivates them, they are only mistaken in this belief if the economic system is in fact unfair. However, if (b) is the reason – the belief that personal success is statistically likely – this is necessarily mistaken, because only a small percentage of people will achieve high status and material wealth, making the majority belief of personal future wealth demonstrably incorrect.

Exploiting other people’s false beliefs in a way that harms them is, ya know, fraud.


Written by Sister Y

March 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

10 Responses

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  1. A couple questions:

    Why is mistaken gladness worse than gladness with full information?

    Is gladness different than utility or happiness? If ignorance really is bliss, what is wrong with an ignorant world?

    “only a small percentage of people will achieve high status and material wealth, making the majority belief of personal future wealth demonstrably incorrect.”

    Ok, but what if people gain utility not from actual wealth but from the imagined future wealth?

    I think that's the point of a lot of western religion: the specifics of your life are unimportant relative to your faith.

    March 11, 2011 at 2:46 am

  2. I think you might be taking too cognitivist a view of religion here, one that is at odds with an adequately evolutionary – i.e. dual-inheritance–standpoint; a mistake not uncommon, I suspect, among the supersmart, secular, liberal, who tend to be intuitive consequentialists (Haidt, Greene, trolley, mob & magistrate, etc.), and one that virtually typefies new atheists. So I would say, sure, people can be induced to subscribe to whatever faith statement they’ve been inculcated to deploy when faced with the need to account for why they are glad to be alive, but that doesn’t mean that they are glad to be alive because of the contents of that product of mental dressage.

    Also, it just seems to me suspiciously optimistic to regard religion as largely a matter of the belief-stuff which, in providing so temptingly easy a target for rational criticism or sheer mockery (which, admittedly, is especially difficult to resist in areas where religiosity is acutely bound up with rank anti-intellectualism) probably nourishes inflated hopes of improving the world. Seems more in keeping with an evolutionary standpoint to suspect that the embrace of the belief stuff is a function of dispositions whose sourcesare those we have to thank for the likelihood that the religious shall inherit the earth.

    Also, couldn’t Joyce just as easily regret that her son did those things, or that she has a son who did those things, preferring rather that he hadn’t, or had a son who hadn’t, instead of regretting having a son tout court? So she might not be mistakenly glad to have a child tout court?


    March 11, 2011 at 4:25 am

  3. Bob, an antinatalist, is glad that he hasn't produced any children. Actually, he impregnated one his ex-girlfriends years ago without knowing it, and she ended up putting up the kid for adoption without informing him. Bob is mistakenly glad that he hasn't produced any children.

    Terrifying, no?


    March 11, 2011 at 5:15 am

  4. This is a very interesting post. We have evolved to be mistakenly glad often. However, mistakenly glad is still glad (although I hadn't thought about the fraud aspect before). I'm more concerned about the possibility that our cumulative real-time experiences are substantially worse than both our recall of them and our outlook of the future. What counts as happiness is how happy we were in real time, not how happy we think we were in retrospect or how happy we think we are going to be in the future. I think there is major discordance there.


    March 12, 2011 at 3:19 am

  5. But can how happy we were or are in real time be disentangled from the contributions made to it by our biased recall of the past and anticipation of the future? Maybe it's not so much that we're deluded about how happy we are, but happiness in real time is a function of inaccurate/deluded recall and anticipation of past and future. In which case wise counsel for conducting a happy life would consist in fostering a stable pattern of inaccurate recall and anticipation.


    March 12, 2011 at 5:05 am

  6. Item #1:
    The act itself of recalling an event as happy provides less happiness than the consequences of the recall. When I think about past joy, I feel a little better as long as I hold the memory in my consciousness, but the main benefit is that happy recollections make us less likely to ruminate over misfortune or failure or suffering and more likely to be motivated generally and in particular motivated to do things that will make us happier or less sad, such as spending time with friends, going out and exercising, or getting off our butts and going to work or getting something whose benefits are delayed finished. Rob is very much right, I believe, about how recall can't not be considered part of the equation, but it's more the effects of recall than recall itself.

    Item #2:
    I can't remember whether I'm stealing the following from Sister Y, but we need to ask whether the harm our ignorance of which makes us mistakenly glad dates to when we find out about it (and are thus no longer glad), or when it happened in the first place (that is, when the beef broth was added to the soup, when the wife began cheating on her husband, etc..

    To use the cheating example, let's stipulate that this is a clean, idealized case. Your partner didn't give you an STD or have their behavior toward you change at all or have any other ill effect (or prevent good effects) until the moment you find out. It has literally no impact on your life, present or future. I think that in this case, people whose intuition tells them that they're harmed from the moment of infidelity are simply in error. It's a consequence of the reinterpretation of events and behavior that the cheated-on partner undergoes when they discover the cheating. It's a re-write of the narrative. Saying that finding out causes retroactive harm seems to me to imply backward causation, as if by editing your diary to say that you felt sad rather than happy on a particular day in the past that you actually change how you felt that day.


    March 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  7. I'm more concerned about the possibility that our cumulative real-time experiences are substantially worse than both our recall of them and our outlook of the future.

    This is, in my view, another way of being “mistakenly glad.”

    The problem with the “imaginary survey justification” is that it assumes an incoherent, poorly-developed theory of happiness (and rationality, consent, etc.).

    Some people think that only subjective experience matters (i.e., that it's impossible to be “mistakenly glad”). This has all kinds of strange consequences if we really buy it – e.g., that adultery is only wrong if you get caught, that it's only morally required to appear to keep your promises, that there's no reason to do anything in the interests of a dead person (inheritance, last wishes, etc.), that an experience machine is as good as the real thing, etc.

    In other words, the “imaginary survey justification” assumes a particularly stupid form of pure ethical hedonism.

    Sister Y

    March 13, 2011 at 1:08 am

  8. When we consider thought experiments that ask us, for the sake of the experiment, to make stipulations that in the actual world would be unrealistic, our intuition is forced to consider scenarios unlike those in which it was formed.

    Our experiences of actual adultery, of actual promise-breaking, and of actually respecting the wishes of the dead are different from clean, ripple-free thought experiments in which the cheated-on partner is entirely unaffected by their spouse's infidelity, those to whom promises are made are entirely unaffected by the breaking of the promises, and no one finds out about a dead person's wishes being ignored. Pretty much every instance of adultery, every broken promise, and every ignored wish of the dead is one that we've learned about, and thus has had effects on the people betrayed or close to those who were betrayed. We have a rich, ready repository to draw on of hearts broken, faith in humanity shattered, and relationships ruined from *discovered* betrayals; we have no similar repository to refer to of things that nobody ever learns about. So when we're asked to imagine a case of, say, adultery that has truly no adverse consequences for either the cheater or the cheated-on, we can't do it.

    Most people who think they can get away with cheating on their partners, breaking their promises, or disregarding the wishes of the dead without anyone suffering from it have the usual biases of being more in control of things and more aware of things than they actually are. If you think that you won't behave any differently after cheating on your partner, or that he or she won't find out or have heightened suspicions, or that you yourself won't be affected for the worse by it, you're probably wrong. In the real world, we don't reach the point where we have the luxury of debating whether only subjective experience matters. Betraying people almost always harms people's subjective experiences; our ability to cleanly imagine cases where it doesn't is poor.


    March 14, 2011 at 3:30 am

  9. I can see a song about this, “Mistakenly Glad”, to the tune of “Comfortably Numb”…


    March 17, 2011 at 3:21 am

  10. If anyone's interested: a recent paper, co-authored by Haidt, which makes the points about overly cognitivist views of religion I was ineptly trying to make in the second comment above, and which serves as a nice complement to the paper by Atran & Henrich I linked to there; also, advice on how to discretely bequeath money to the mistress(es).


    March 28, 2011 at 6:11 pm

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