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How important is loyalty?
How would you behave in these scenarios?
Scenario 1: Your friend has been taken in for questioning in relation to a crime he may or may not have committed. He assures you that he did not commit the crime, but you can’t tell if he is being honest or not, and you think that there’s about a 50% probability that he committed the crime. Another person has also been taken in for questioning, and similarly there is a 50% chance that he has committed the crime (assume it is not possible that anybody else has committed the crime). Your friend asks you to testify on his behalf claiming you believe it to be seriously unlikely that he committed the crime - if you do it, you slightly increase the chance that he will be found innocent and the other person will be found guilty. Do you do it? Does your decision as to whether to do it or not depend on whether the other person has someone else testifying on their behalf?
Scenario 2: A friend of yours has died, and his dying wish was that you leave a flower by his grave every week. He has no way of knowing whether you do it or not, and nor does anybody else. Nobody will be hurt by you choosing not to do it, and it isn’t something you particularly gain from doing - you don’t feel guilty for not doing it, and the way to maximise your utility is by doing it much less often than he wanted, about once every two months. Do you do it once a week, once every two months, or some other amount?
Scenario 3: You have won a prize from a competition that you are not able to use, or derive no pleasure from using. For whatever reason, you are unable to sell the prize. Two people ask if they can have the prize since you do not want it: one is someone who you do not know at all, and will gain 10 utility from the prize. The second is a close friend, and will gain 5 utility from the prize. Who do you give the prize to?
Scenario 4: Your child is seriously ill and so is another child at the same hospital as your child. For some (admittedly fairly implausible) reason, you are able to choose whether your child or the other child receives a treatment that could cure the illness. If your child receives the treatment, the chance the illness will be cured is 40%. If the other child receives the treatment, the chance the illness will be cured is 50%. Who do you decide ought to get the treatment?
Some brief thoughts on Loyalty
Each scenario has a fairly obvious ‘loyal decision’ and an ‘alternative decision’ - in each scenario except arguably scenario 1, the alternative decision maximises utility whereas the loyal decision has some element of remaining loyal to someone you know. Which decision of the 4 do you think is the most immoral to make?
My intuition is that in each scenario other than scenario 2, the alternative decision is probably the moral decision to make, whereas the loyalty decision is the less moral decision to make, but I would still make the loyal decision, and not only would I make the loyal decision, I would feel slightly disgusted with myself if I opted for the alternative decision. Thinking about scenario 2, I don’t have a strong preference - I think my tendency to want to make the loyal decision is contingent on the person I am being loyal to gaining something from my decision. In scenario 2, my friend doesn’t actually gain utility (and I lose it), so I have no strong preference towards being loyal.
But I am intrigued by my own inclination towards loyalty - I think of myself as a pretty strong utilitarian/prioritarian, so why am I so drawn to the loyal decision? I suppose it could be pure selfishness - despite being a utilitarian, I do not give all of my money to charity, which would be the utilitarian thing to do. But this isn’t quite right - I don’t feel a moral aversion to giving money to charity, in fact I feel the opposite: a mild moral disgust at the fact that I don’t donate much money. With the loyalty examples, I feel a strong moral aversion to choosing another child over my own child for a medical treatment, or for refusing to stand up for my friend in court. This isn’t selfishness, it would probably be in my interest not to get involved in some court case my friend is caught up in, but I know I would (probably) do it anyway.
Scott Alexander has noted that he has a similar intuition (despite, as far as I can tell, also being basically a utilitarian or consequentialist of some sort) - he feels slightly appalled by a patient of his who reported another patient who had been using heroin in a rehab clinic. Even though it is clearly beneficial to the well-being of patients in the clinic to report the heroin user, there is some sufficiently strong commitment to the idea of loyalty (or against ‘snitching’) that Scott feels repelled by the tattletale.
I am not a pure utilitarian - I place value on priority, as discussed in the most recent post. But should I also place some value on loyalty? If I have two options - both of which create the same amount of utility in the world, but one of which is an act of loyalty, could the loyalty serve as a tie-breaker when it comes to which action is more morally defensible? Could it be even more than that - could one action which creates slightly more utility but displays no loyalty be less moral than an action that creates slightly less utility but is an act of loyalty?
My feeling is that I shouldn’t incorporate loyalty into my moral framework, but I’m open to the idea. Despite having an intuitive support of making loyal decisions, I can’t really justify why making a loyal decision is more moral than a decision that maximises utility. But I definitely do have the intuition. Do you? I’m interested in whether other people struggle with these cases - and please don’t try and bend the hypotheticals so you can give some feasible reason why the loyalty decision actually maximises utility - assume that the loyal decision never creates more utility than the alternative decision. Leave a comment or DM me on Twitter with your thoughts, if you have any.