The idea of rational regret was brought up in my Value Theory class as a challenge to value monism. Value monism claims that there is ultimately one type of intrinsic value, and everything that has value derives its worth from that single intrinsic value. Strict utilitarianism defines human happiness as the only intrinsic value, things like life, relationships, people, etc. all derive their value from the amount of happiness they instantiate.
Rational regret makes this claim: it is possible, when deciding between X and Y, to choose X (while being morally justified in choosing X) and rationally regret that you did not choose Y. For example, imagine that I am choosing between breaking a promise to a friend and helping a neighbor in trouble. If I choose to help my neighbor, I am valuing the discontinuation of his/her trouble higher than the value of keeping a promise to my friend. Rational regret claims that it is possible for me to rationally regret my decision, even though I was morally justified.
If the claim is correct, and I can rationally regret my decision, what does my regret show? If value monism is correct, the value of both eliminating trouble and keeping a promise is ultimately reducible to a single value, such as happiness. Lets say I know choosing to help my neighbor will have a net +10 gain in aggregate happiness, while keeping my promise will have a net +9 gain in aggregate happiness. Choosing to help is thus the morally right choice; however, what am I regretting in choosing to help my neighbor? I may regret my situation, and lament that I could not do both. The claim of rational regret goes farther — it states that I can regret my decision, even in the same situation. If value monism is correct, however, I would be regretting that I made the singularly right decision. Effectively, I would be regretting that I did not do the wrong thing.
It seems counter-intuitive to claim that I can only regret my situation, and that regretting my choice amounts to a wish that I did the wrong thing. The only way to avoid this and maintain rational regret is through value pluralism — if there are multiple types of value that are not reducible to an ultimate value, then there may be no clear answer when choosing between different types of value. When I choose between the value of helping my neighbor and keeping a promise, I am judging two distinct values. If I must subjectively choose which value I prioritize (which my ethics theory claims), then my decision merely reflects a choice between values that could have gone another way. If either value could be justifiably chosen (if I see compelling reasons to favor either value), then I can rationally regret my choice to prioritize one value over the other. Perhaps looking back, I realize that I should have valued promises more. This gives better grounds for my rational regret than simply regretting my situation; instead, I am regretting a choice I made (that I could have done differently), and there are morally defensible grounds for choosing either option.
I’ve argued against religious faith quite frequently on this blog, on facebook, and on Yahoo Answers. My primary philosophical objections to religious faith are here: http://fensel.net/2012/08/02/why-i-hate-religion/, and I stand by each of the points I made in that post. Religious faith is a vice, that prioritizes faith over critical thinking, trains people to subjugate themselves, and replaces humanity as the final end in moral thought.
The purpose of this post is to show the one argument I consider to be valid for religious faith. This argument follows directly from my own views on value and morality, so I am committed by my own argument to accept it.
First, I am working on the assumption that there are no good epistemic reasons for religious faith. Meaning, there are no facts that inductively support the truth of any religion. I find this assumption strong, and am fully convinced that it is true. There are no good scientific arguments for religion, and the only surviving metaphysical arguments are weak (the moral argument and the ontological). Further, as I will argue in a future post, there is no way to use natural evidence to support supernatural conclusions. Only if you assume that your sensations are supernatural evidence can they support supernatural conclusions (and your assumption will make your argument question-begging).
Beyond epistemic reasons, people could have practical reasons to have religious faith. Famously, Pascal argued that people have a practical reason to believe in God because the belief might be instrumentally valuable in achieving infinite bliss. Even though there is no epistemic reason to believe that God exists, the belief is practically useful to have–it might benefit you to have that belief.
Pascal’s argument does not work, for a number of reasons (possibility of different Gods, opportunities lost during life because of religious faith, possibility of God being pissed that you treated your life like a casino gamble). But, the practical approach does provide the best way to justify religious faith. Here’s how I would, if I were a religious person:
As I’ve argued before, we find meaning in the things that we choose to find meaning in. This meaning makes our lives worthwhile, and we have a rational motive to pursue that meaning. If religious faith provides an opportunity for meaning, and no alternative approach can provide an opportunity for the same degree or better of meaning, then you have a reason to have religious faith. This reason is practical, not epistemic-religious faith may not be true, but it is useful for you to have. The usefulness of religious faith is its instrumental value in promoting meaning in your life.
The reason this argument would work (assuming that you actually do have the highest opportunity for meaning with religion) is that it focuses on your rational will, and how you choose to value things. If you choose to value meaning over truth (and I’d argue that everyone does, or at least, everyone should), then you can potentially have a reason to reject truth in favor of religion. As Nietzsche argued-why value truth, and why not value falsehoods? If you place more value/meaning in religion than in truth, and religion provides the best opportunity for value/meaning, then you have a reason to have religious faith.
-End notes: Obviously, I do not recommend you abandon truth for religion. The argument only works in very unique cases, and is only meant to show how it is possible to practically justify religious faith. Further, I believe placing value in truth is one of the first steps you need to take as a rational person–I fail to see how you could develop a coherent life without first putting some value in truth. But, if you haven’t made this step, and you would rather value religion than truth, then there is no way to rationally persuade you otherwise. Epistemic arguments are convincing only to the extent that you value truth. If you only consider practical arguments, then you might have a reason to find meaning in religious faith.
Intransitive preferences contradict basic transitive logic. In general form, intransitive preferences can be understood as:
Intuitively, it appears irrational to maintain all three positions at once. If x>y and y>z, it should follow that x>z. It doesn’t seem possible to rationally maintain all three positions at once.
The Money Pump Argument is a case that’s meant to prove the irrationality of intransitive preferences. Using the example my professor used:
Preference 1: Chocolate Ice Cream > Vanilla Ice Cream
Preference 2: Strawberry Ice Cream > Chocolate Ice Cream
Preference 3: Vanilla Ice Cream > Strawberry Ice Cream
The idea behind the Money Pump Argument is that any person X who holds all three of these preferences could be turned into a money pump. Imagine that X currently has Vanilla Ice Cream. Based on Preference 1, X would prefer Chocolate Ice Cream to Vanilla. If this is a real preference, X should be willing to pay the smallest unit of money (1 cent) to upgrade from Vanilla to Chocolate (if X isn’t willing to pay the smallest unit to upgrade, it’s not really a preference). Now X has Chocolate Ice Cream. Based on Preference 2, X would be willing to pay 1 cent to upgrade from Chocolate to Strawberry. Now X has Strawberry Ice Cream. Based on Preference 3, X would be willing to pay 1 cent to upgrade from Strawberry to Vanilla.
After paying 3 cents, X is back to the original spot-Vanilla. This process could, if X had no memory/rationality, go on infinitely, thus making X a “money pump” that pays for no actual upgrade.
The purpose of this post is to challenge the idea that intransitive preferences are necessarily irrational. Most intransitive preferences are irrational, but I want to argue that irrationality is not a necessary part of intransitive preferences (it is possible to hold intransitive preferences and still be rational).
The concept behind my objection is mathematical. Intransitive preferences are impossible to justify if the “>” relations are thought of in an entirely linear manner-one entity is greater than the other, and “greater” is defined as having a higher amount of goodness/utility/happiness/etc. Understood this way, intransitive statements are necessarily irrational-if X has a greater amount of goodness than Y, and Y has a greater amount of goodness than Z, then it is mathematically impossible for Z to have a greater amount of goodness than X.
My alternative way of understanding intransitive statements is a circular preference system, without necessary differences in goodness between the entities to justify the preference. Meaning, X > Y is not true because X has a greater amount of goodness/utility than Y. Rather, X > Y is true only if, for some reason, changing from Y to X increases goodness/utility. Although it is difficult to imagine, it is at least possible for “X >Y”, “Y > Z”, and “Z > X” to all be true simultaneously if all the transitions manage to increase goodness/utility. The key point is that the goodness that causes the preference (people prefer to increase goodness) does not exist in the entities “X”, “Y”, and “Z”; rather the goodness that causes the preference exists in the change from one entity to the other. The system of preferences is coherent if they exist in a circular manner, and a circular manner is possible if a linear comparison of goodness in the entities is not used.
Here’s the example I thought of as an objection to the claim that intransitive preferences are necessarily irrational, which illustrates the math I was talking about:
Imagine a person, Poca, who collects Chinese Zodiac Animals. Poca can only afford to keep one animal at a time. Poca has a strange desire: simulate travelling into the future by trading a zodiac animal for the animal that represents the following year. If Poca currently has a Rat, Poca would be willing to trade the Rat for an Ox-the next animal in the calendar. Here’s Poca’s intransitive preference system:
1. Ox > Rat
2. Tiger > Ox
3. Rabbit > Tiger
4. Dragon > Rabbit
5. Snake > Dragon
6. Horse > Snake
7. Goat > Horse
8. Monkey > Goat
9. Rooster > Monkey
10. Dog > Rooster
11. Pig > Dog
12. Rat > Pig
Poca’s preference system, that values the transition (rather than the entity itself), can coherently maintain all 12 intransitive preferences. The 12 preferences share the same properties as the Ice Cream example earlier-if someone could trade with Poca, Poca could be turned into a money pump. However, this does not make Poca irrational. For each transaction, Poca might lose 1 cent, but Poca gains the utility of feeling like she traveled into the future. If Poca did not prefer the feeling to 1 cent, Poca would not make the trade (a trade is evidence that Poca prefers the feeling to having 1 cent). Even if Poca is continually traded with and becomes a money pump, Poca will continually gain more utility than she loses due to her strange desire.
The Poca Zodiac case is incredibly weird, and I can’t imagine anyone actually having these preferences (not to mention the idea of trading a dragon for a snake). But the point is that it is not necessarily irrational to maintain intransitive preferences. If Poca’s preference system is rationally coherent (and it is), then it possible to rationally maintain intransitive preferences.