Self-Deception and Moral Dilemmas

19 July 2005

One thing I do for Philosophy Talk as a member of the Crack Research Team is pre-interview each guest. The point is to give the guest an idea of the structure of the upcoming show—the “story arc”—and to make notes on what the guest thinks to pass on to John and Ken. Last week I spoke with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong about moral dilemmas. At the end of our conversation he said something that dovetails with thoughts I’ve had concerning the area I specialize in: philosophy of mind on self-deception.

Sinnott-Armstrong said that the person who faces a moral dilemma has an obligation to compensate, or minimize damage, on whichever side of the dilemma she ultimately breaks the moral requirement. In other words, if you have a moral dilemma, you’ll necessarily break one requirement or another, but since it’s a moral requirement you’re breaking, you should try to do as little damage as possible. The Ethiopian mother who must leave one child behind on the trip to the aid station, lacking strength to carry both, should tell the child she leaves that she loves him and is sorry. And Sartre’s student, if he joins the French resistance, should ensure that his mother is as well cared for as possible. This is Sinnott-Armstrong’s point; I’ll take it as given in what follows.

Self-deception is a state of believing that humans enter into as a result of desiring. It’s motivated irrationality. The abused wife in denial, for example, wants it to be true that her husband won’t beat her again, and this desire engenders the belief that he won’t. She’s not unintelligent; she’s self-deceived. Likewise, the college dropout clings fiercely to the belief that finishing his education isn’t necessary for having good employment prospects. He wants that to be true; that wanting causes a self-deceptive breakdown of his better standards of judgment.

The two examples I just gave suggest that self-deception is to be avoided. There are many, however, who would resist this conclusion. One prominent ethicist, whose name I won’t mention, speculated once in conversation, “Maybe it’s a good thing we deceive ourselves.”

Here I want to push the view that self-deception has morally negative consequences. I’m going against a line of reasoning to the contrary that relates specifically to moral dilemmas. One might say: “Well, in a moral dilemma you’re bound to do at least one bad thing, since you can’t meet both moral requirements. Since that’s inescapable, maybe it’s good to be self-deceived about the moral obligation you’re breaking. That would alleviate the psychological pain associated with breaking that moral requirement.” I think people are tempted by this kind of thinking often; that’s one reason why we’re less on guard against self-deception than we might be.

But that line of reasoning is dead wrong; Sinnott-Armstrong’s point shows us why. Let’s put aside the question of whether self-deception actually does minimize psychological pain. (I think it doesn’t, since it prolongs the healing process.) The problem with being self-deceived in the context of a moral dilemma is that you’ll be blind to your obligation to compensate and minimize damage. If you’re blind to it, you probably won’t do it. That’s bad.

Here’s the rub. There’s growing support in the philosophical community for the view that self-deception is not intentional—at least not most of the time. We slide into it, as opposed to deciding consciously to do it. But that means we can’t simply decide not to do it either. At best we can make good faith efforts to be the kind of reflective people who rethink the evidence and try to avoid bias of any form. In short, we can’t turn self-deception on and off like a switch. We have to make a higher-order decision about what kind of cognizers to be in general: ones who let self-deception pass or ones who guard against it.

You could argue that there are specific cases where self-deception turns out to be a good thing. I’m skeptical. But just remember that you have to make a choice about whether to have the kind of mind that’s prone to self-deception or the kind of mind that isn’t. Given the obligation to compensate in the context of moral dilemmas, I think it’s better to have the kind of mind that isn’t. That will take epistemic courage. But that's no surprise; being moral usually requires courage.

Comments (9)


Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

What exactly is the definition of self-deception?

What exactly is the definition of self-deception?
Where do the dreams and fantasies that motivate us end and self-deception begin?
History and everyday life are populated by individuals who achieve overwhelming and awesome things against seemingly insurmountable odds. How do they do it? Certainly a lot of luck is involved, many contingent events occur whose absence would have annihilated any chance of realizing their dream--but I believe that a certain kind of positive self-deception is often the key that unlocks their potential.
As Lance Armstrong cycles his way to a possible 7th Tour victory this month, one has to wonder how a man who was sentenced to die of cancer, who doctors worried would never recover, could have ever survived, trained, and conquered the most grueling athletic event around. Yes, yes, of course, he has amazing genes, the heart of an ox and blood cells that attach to oxygen like jellyfish to skinny-dippers. But when he was lying there staring at the hospital ceiling as they pumped poison into his body to kill his cancer, wasn't he deceiving himself by imagining ever getting back on a bicycle? When he did get back on the bike, wasn't it just a pipe dream, an irrational and illogical fantasy that he could win a stage in the Tour de France, much less the entire event? After all, before cancer, he had never won a single yellow jersey! No one would have ever believed that Lance would come back and win the Tour. Would anyone bet money on it? NO! That would be irrational, against the prevailing facts, preposterous! But Lance did--he dared to deceive himself, to dream, and look what happened.
If self-deception is the denial of the facts, the lies we tell ourselves against our better judgment and trained rational minds, then it seems that outlandish hopes and dreams fall into this category.
I argue that our wildest dreams and fantasies are positive motivators in our lives, that self-deception can be transformative, and that believing in the irrational is what gets us through our day jobs, our lonely nights, and our limitations.
There is room in the world for both the epistemically courageous and the blind dreamers.

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Guest

Thursday, July 21, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Self deception! A person deceives themselves becau

Self deception! A person deceives themselves because it will give them temporary comfort. In fact they may not know they are deceiving themselves for a long time. They could be in a strong denial (not having past this stage), just don?t know any better, need this self deception to give them mental stability, or have been taught not to think in a way that will lead to opposite conclusions from those they currently hold.
How do you know that the mind which you are using is not in fact deceiving you right now? It has been claimed that outside forces or ideas that originally come from the outside can be deceiving you, but what about the mind itself. Maybe the human mind at its basic structure has to keep certain concepts as true, which may be lies, just to keep the human living comfortably. The human body above all has to keep homeostasis, and maybe the human mind has to deceive itself to keep a balance.
I have been taught not to be deceived by hope. I remember reading the ancient Greek story of how Pandora was created in Hesiod ?Works and Days.? During the story one is taught the futility of the idea of Hope. Hope will not get you anything, but will eat up your time. It will give you pleasure and comfort, but will not produce anything.
It will only be experience that will conquer self deception. There may come a time when the lie will no longer work. There are some self deceptions that are necessary as in the case of Plato?s noble lie. Another would be the idea that all men are created equal. No one is really equal, each person is different. There are many ideas that we hold true to keep society stable.

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Guest

Saturday, July 23, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Neil, I am very interested in this line of interes

Neil, I am very interested in this line of interest and what its consequences might be for understanding and managing conflict. In particular, on the side of the guilt value of the transgressed moral component and how an agent might be married to the responsibility for having chosen. When I think of such a person who acts on self-deception in a way that I find distasteful, I think of a man in armor pulling out a large piece of fashioned steel from another man's corpse, having dispatched his foe largely because he just can't stand to live in a world wherein his peculiar higher power doesn't reign supreme. Of course, it's been quite awhile since this basic but blatant example served as a timely reference, but an updated one might be a person with TNT strapped to their body boarding a railway passenger car...
I am in agreement that self-deception seems negative, especially where it "frees" an agent from responsibility from commiting wrongful acts against others (or...in the case of the spousal abuse 'recipient'...one's self). Also, I think that anything that encourages human beings to be reflective is a good thing, but I wonder if there is a way of showing that this aversion-to-self-deception is something people ought to cultivate...in a way that is different from Kant (if I don't misunderstand) simply asserting that there is such a thing as a moral duty that individuals are bound to, period...end of story.

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Guest

Sunday, July 24, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for these comments. Here are a few thoughts

Thanks for these comments. Here are a few thoughts in response--not particularly ordered.
First, I won't give a precise definition of self-deception. (I do have a definition. E-mail me if you want to discuss this further.) But here's a general characterization. People have epistemic norms--norms that govern how they form beliefs in response to input or evidence. Self-deception is when someone forms a belief contrary to what their epistemic norms and evidence would dictate, and the process of forming this belief is causally influenced by a desire with a content related to the belief in question.
E.g., the abused wife wants P (P=my husband won't beat me); this causes her unjustifiedly (even by her own lights) to believe P. There's debate about the content of the desire, but that's more or less what I think.
About Lance Armstrong, whom I greatly admire, I have two questions:
1. Is he really self-deceived?
2. Is self-deception really the most helpful thing for someone like him to make a comeback?
On 1, remember: he had plenty of evidence in the past that he was a good cyclist, and many people survive cancer. Maybe he thought, "Hey, I've got a shot. I'll give it my best."
On 2, is self-deception really the key psychological ingredient to overcoming the odds, or *determination*? I'd go with determination.
On the topic of cultivating an aversion to self-deception, I can't come up with any moral or practical knock-down arguments for why we should do it (cultivate an aversion). But that's true for most things in the moral sphere. In general, though, I think that having as accurate of representations of the world as possible is best for our ability to interact with the world and others for the purpose of accomplishing what we want to do. That includes acting morally.
But then: what if you want to be morally exculpated? Would a little ignorance help? I think not, at least not if it's caused by self-deception. Doing something bad under self-deception is, I think, morally on par with doing something bad while drunk. It's still bad. If we're responsible cognizers, we can largely avoid being self-deceived. That makes us responsible for the things we do under its influence.
How to avoid being self-deceived? I've put a lot of thought into this and come up with the following 3 principles:
1. Attend also to evidence that makes you feel uncomfortable, and don't resist it.
2. Imagine situations analogous to the one in question about which you're disinterested and see what you believe about them.
3. Find out more evidence, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Of course, you can just do these things when you're self-deceived, because if you are you don't know it. So we should do them in general, and avoiding a lot of cases of self-deception will be a nice byproduct.

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Guest

Sunday, July 31, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

What an interesting discussion -- thanks for this.

What an interesting discussion -- thanks for this.
I think the Lance Armstrong example is a trickier one than you might be giving it credit for, Neil.
If indeed Lance said to himself, "Hey, I've got a shot, I'll go for it," we might claim that this comes AFTER the self-deception, because in order to be motivated to give it a shot, you have to believe that you can overcome the odds, which, without self-deception, appear insurmountable. I think this points to the idea that we're always playing percentages when making decisions, even decisions about being self-deceptive. That is, if anybody really *only* looked at the odds, then there would be no Lance Armstrongs, so to speak.
And if the answer is 'determination, rather than self-deception,' I'd have to say again that it seems to me that deciding to be determined about accomplishing something for which there is little reason to believe it can be accomplished (the odds are bad) involves ignoring what you would normally accept as your 'accurate representations of the world'.
Perhaps it's important that one's 'accurate representations of the world' also need to include that sometimes people do overcome great odds to accomplish things...? Still, what makes ME so special that I think I'M going to be the one to overcome the odds?

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Guest

Wednesday, August 17, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Neil, you mention that you have a definition for

Neil,
you mention that you have a definition for self-deception. Can you post it, please.
We seem to be using the loose definition for self-deception of "not facing up to the facts." And by facts we mean knowledge, do we not? And if we mean knowledge then we can apply the three criteria for knowledge:
1) It is true
2) I really believe it to be true
3) I am justified in believing it is true
Now to the case of Lance Armstrong. It is said that Lance committed self-deception, but did he? What he thought came to be true; he did recover and go on to great things; So criterion 1 is met. He really believed what he thought (I assume); so criterion 2 is met. The criterion in dispute is "was he justified in his belief that he would recover and go on to great things?" If the answer to criterion 3 is yes, then he did not deceive himself. If the answer to this third criterion is no, then he did deceive himself. He was given a non-zero probability of recovery, wasn't he? And if he did recover, then I don't see any compelling reason why he would not attain his former physical conditioning. So Lance was (chose one):
A) Not guilty of self-deception
B) Guilty of just a bit of self-deception
C) Guilty of profound self-deception
D) None of the above

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Guest

Monday, October 17, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

And even this assumes that Lance was lying there i

And even this assumes that Lance was lying there in the hospital bed thinking "I'm going to win the Tour de France". What evidence do we have that this is the case?
More likely, he lay there thinking, "I'll ride my bike again, dammit, no matter what these doctors say!" And the doctors said, "Sure, we think you can!" Then when he took that first bike ride, he thought, "I'm going to get back in shape and ride competitively again!" And when he rode his first race, he thought, "I'm gonna try for the Tour de France!" And when he was lined up at the starting line with the other competitors, he thought, "I'm gonna win!"
What's self-deception here, and what's self-motivation? Where do you draw the line? I'd say that the odds of Lance accomplishing each individual step weren't bad at all (except for the last one), it's only when multiplied together that they becoming vanishingly close to zero. But he could have changed his goals at any point and successfully accomplished something else.

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Guest

Monday, August 7, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Love the discussion but it seems to ignore Trivers

Love the discussion but it seems to ignore Trivers' great contribution: self-deception is built in - we don't have a "choice" about it. Lance Armstrong is not a good example. There are 1,000's of better examples: the one's who thought they had a chance and didn't even get to qualify. Try this: try to catch yourself in even a moment of self-deception. Very difficult. I think I have one when I say to myself "I want another beer." But it's true - I do - based on my body's addiction. Same for smoking and eating and sex and winning debates like this one. From the Darwinian point of view,those who choose debates such as these will be devoured by...

 
 
 

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