Ethicality of Denying Agency

post by pwno · 2014-07-07T05:40:53.430Z · score: 9 (12 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments

If your 5-year-old seems to have an unhealthy appetite for chocolate, you’d take measures to prevent them from consuming it. Any time they’d ask you to buy them some, you’d probably refuse their request, even if they begged. You might make sure that any chocolate in the house is well-hidden and out of their reach. You might even confiscate chocolate they already have, like if you forced them to throw out half their Halloween candy. You’d almost certainly trigger a temper tantrum and considerably worsen their mood. But no one would label you an unrelenting tyrant. Instead, you’d be labeled a good parent.
 
Your 5-year-old isn’t expected to have the capacity to understand the consequences to their actions, let alone have the efficacy to accomplish the actions they know are right. That’s why you’re a good parent when you force them to do the right actions, even against their explicit desires.
 
You know chocolate is a superstimulus and that 5-year-olds have underdeveloped mental executive functions. You have good reasons to believe that your child’s chocolate obsession isn’t caused by their agency, and instead caused by an obsolete evolutionary adaptation. But from your child’s perspective, desiring and eating chocolate is an exercise in agency. They’re just unaware of how their behaviors and desires are suboptimal. So by removing their ability to act upon their explicit desires, you’re denying their agency.  
 
So far, denying agency doesn’t seem so bad. You have good reason to believe your child isn’t capable of acting rationally and you’re only helping them in the long run. But the ethicality gets murky when your assessment of their rationality is questionable.
 
Imagine you and your mother have an important flight to catch 2 hours from now. You realize that you have to leave to the airport now in order to make it on time. As you’re about to leave, you recalled the 2 beers you recently consumed. But you feel the alcohol left in your system will barely affect your driving, if at all. The problem is that if your mother found out about your beer consumption, she’d refuse to be your passenger until you completely sobered up - as she’s done in the past. You know this would cause you to miss your flight because she can’t drive and there are no other means of transportation.
 
A close family member died in a drunk driving accident several years ago and, ever since, she overreacts to drinking and driving risks. You think her reaction is irrational and reveals she has non-transitive preferences. For example, one time she was content on being your passenger after you warned her you were sleep deprived and your driving might be affected. Another time she refused to be your passenger after finding out you had one cocktail that hardly affected you. She’s generally a rational person, but with the recent incident and her past behavior, you deem her incapable of having a calibrated reaction. With all this in mind, you contemplate the ethicality of denying her agency by not telling her about your beer drinking.  
 
Similar to the scenario with your 5-year-old, your intention is to ultimately help the person whose agency you’re denying. But in the scenario with your mother, it’s less clear whether you have enough information or are rational enough yourself to assess your mother’s capacity to act within her preferences. Humans are notoriously good at self-deception and rationalizing their actions. Your motivation to catch your flight might be making you irrational about how much alcohol affects your driving. Or maybe the evidence you collected against her rationality is skewed by confirmation bias. If you’re wrong about your assessment, you’d be disrespecting her wishes.  
 
I can modify the scenario to make its ethicality even murkier. Imagine your mother wasn’t catching the plane with you. Instead, you promised to drive her back to her retirement home before your flight. You don’t want to break your promise nor miss your flight, so you contemplate not telling her about your beer consumption.
 
In this modified version, you’re not actually making your mother better off by denying her agency - you’re only benefiting yourself. You just believe her reaction to your beer consumption isn’t calibrated, and it would cause you to miss your flight. Even if you had plenty of evidence to back up your assessment of her rationality, would it be ethical to deny her agency when it’s only benefiting you?


What are some times you’ve denied someone’s agency? What are your justifications for doing so?

32 comments

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comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-07T11:42:43.019Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Imagine you and your mother have an important flight to catch 2 hours from now. You realize that you have to leave to the airport now in order to make it on time. As you’re about to leave, you recalled the 2 beers you recently consumed.

Perhaps this is fighting the hypothetical, but it's clear the person in the story went wrong the moment he drank those beers, knowing he had to drive soon and knowing his mother's attitude. Where was the protagonist's agency when he did that?

A close family member died in a drunk driving accident several years ago and, ever since, she overreacts to drinking and driving risks. You think her reaction is irrational and reveals she has non-transitive preferences. For example...

That sounds like the interior yadda-yadda of someone trying to justify themselves, trying to argue an error into being the truth. Thoughts that smell like that are not to be trusted beyond being an indication that something is wrong somewhere else. The error should be found, not covered over. If you once conceal a thought from yourself, clarity is ever after your enemy.

Even if you had plenty of evidence to back up your assessment of her rationality

The protagonist's own rationality being beyond doubt, to the protagonist?

Programmers talk about "code smell": code that may work as intended, but something about it suggests that its author was not thinking properly about the problem. There is also "thought smell", and the protagonist in this scenario is full of it.

Noticing thought smell in oneself is as important a rationalist skill as noticing when one is confused, as is knowing what to do about it.

comment by shminux · 2014-07-07T16:35:48.258Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

These are good points. I wonder if you can steelman the second setup to make it smell-proof, and then answer the OP's question?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-07T18:39:29.174Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if you can steelman the second setup to make it smell-proof, and then answer the OP's question?

No. For any action X it is easy to dream up a hypothetical situation Y in which X is the right thing to do. In the limit, it reduces to letting Y be "Suppose X was the right thing to do?" This is not a useful exercise. The pattern is an anti-pattern.

Besides which, someone has already commented that the concept of agency used in the OP is unclear. The 5-year-old and the mother still have agency; they are being prevented from exercising it, the one by superior force, the other by concealment of knowledge.

Substituting the word "control" does not change things. The 5-year-old and the mother are still trying to exercise control, that is, they are both trying to achieve purposes; they are being prevented from achieving those purposes, the one by superior force, the other by concealment of knowledge. The protagonist is doing this because his purposes conflict with theirs.

So the question is, when your goals conflict with another's, when is it right to use force or subterfuge to get your way? Suddenly it sounds a lot more commonplace a matter than the distant phrase, "the ethicality of denying agency", and needs no hypothetical steelmanned scenarios. A glance at the real world provides limitless raw material, which can come from as close at hand as one's own everyday life. The question is about the entire subject of how people can live together, the totality of ethics.

comment by shminux · 2014-07-07T20:31:58.463Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I do not believe that we use the same definition of steelmanning.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-08T12:59:27.945Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I do not believe that we use the same definition of steelmanning.

Steelmanning is making the best case possible for the idea in question.

Bad steelmanning consists of bottom-lining the idea in question and amassing as many soldiers for it as possible. One nails idea X in place and asks one's brain, what does that world look like? What might be true to imply that X is true? The virtual outcome pump in one's head obligingly imagines something, which you write above X as an argument to prove X. Repeat the process on those premises until you have something that looks like a coherent argument for X, but resembles one only in the way that a painting of a bridge looks like a bridge. It does not stay up because of its sound construction as a bridge, but only because of its sound construction as a painting: the paint is stuck to the canvas.

Even good steelmanning has a hint of the bottom line about it, but that is because it is a technique of anti-irrationality, not directly of rationality. To the perfect reasoner, there is no such activity as making the best case possible for an idea, only the best argument possible relating to the idea, whichever way it turns out. The imperfect reasoner's task is to force themselves to find actual good reasons for X even while flinching away from the task. It is futile to build a straw man and give it a coat of engine paint.

As for the original scenario, the everyday world provides far better examples where, by virtue of diminished responsibility, protection of some greater good, or various other reasons, one may be justified in forcibly or covertly thwarting someone else's wishes. The scenario of driving under the influence of alcohol with a passenger who would refuse is a really bad one, and there is no point in putting a finger on the scales to make the decision come out in favour of driving.

comment by pwno · 2014-07-07T19:31:09.502Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So the question is, when your goals conflict with another's, when is it right to use force or subterfuge to get your way?

In the scenarios with the 5-year-old and the mother, the protagonist's goal conflicts with what he deems to be an irrational goal. From his perspective, if they were more rational, their goals wouldn't be conflicting in the first place. So there are two questions that arise 1) can he make that judgement call on their rationality and 2) can he remove their ability to act as agents because of his assessment?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-07T19:46:24.455Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The child does indeed have limited rationality, and is in the care of the protagonist: the protagonist is right to exercise that duty of care by limiting the child's access to chocolate.

The mother only has limited rationality by the protagonist's self-serving account. He thinks he can drive safely after a couple of beers; she thinks it too great a risk, did she know of it. His internal monologue --- under the influence of those same two beers --- triumphantly proves her irrationality by the fact that her assessment differs from his. Pah! she has even let herself be irrationally influenced by one of the family dying in a drunken crash! How irrational she is! She has non-transitive preferences, hahaha! Poor old dear, she's not really a PC, not like us, eh? Of course I can drive her safely, are you calling me a drunk? Yes, officer, this is my car, and we've got a plane to catch, so if you don't mind, no I HAVEN'T been drinking--- And so on. That is the general picture I have in my mind of the person you put in that scenario who thinks he's contemplating "the ethicality of denying her agency".

Or dressed up in jargon, it's my posterior on seeing the evidence of the story, given my prior knowledge of the ways of the world.

ETA: A real answer to what the of course not at all drunk driver could do would be to handle the immediate situation by paying a taxi driver whatever it takes for a two-hour journey. He might then profitably spend those two hours examining the underlying problem: why he chose to have those beers.

BTW, his mother already knows he's been drinking.

comment by pwno · 2014-07-07T20:56:54.758Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

He might then profitably spend those two hours examining the underlying problem: why he chose to have those beers.

Why would this be a problem?

BTW, his mother already knows he's been drinking.

I didn't make it clear, but in the scenario she doesn't know.

comment by tut · 2014-07-08T13:16:12.181Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't make it clear, but in the scenario she doesn't know.

The scenario doesn't make sense. If you ever think that you find yourself in this scenario, please book a time with your doctor and explain to them that you just missed a flight because you couldn't resist drinking in the morning before you knew that you had to drive a car.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-08T13:17:36.230Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why would this be a problem?

He deliberately got himself into an awkward situation, for nothing more than the pleasure of drinking a couple of beers. No-brainers don't get much simpler, and for him to get this wrong suggests there's something more going on.

BTW, his mother already knows he's been drinking.

Another BTW: I didn't make that up arbitrarily, just reasonable conjecture from the ways of the world, and of mothers.

I didn't make it clear, but in the scenario she doesn't know.

You can add as many hypotheses as you like (as could I: "what if she asks point-blank?"), but as I said in my reply to shminux, it doesn't help. This scenario does not work as an illustration of the ethical problem. To scale the example up, it's like asking if a murderer should confess, when what he should have done is not do the murder.

comment by pwno · 2014-07-08T18:26:16.691Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, the way I wrote the scenario makes it seem like he deliberately got himself into an awkward situation for little benefit in return. And I see how this weakens the scenario as an illustration of the problem. So let me try improving the scenario:

Imagine he determined that refraining from disclosing the information to his mother was ethical. A week later, he finds himself in a similar situation. He wants to drink a couple of beers, but knows that by the time he'll finish, he'll need to drive his mother. This time he has no qualms about drinking, making the beer-drinking pleasure worth the consequences.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-08T22:05:22.056Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Then his foot is set upon the road to ruin. Is that the implication you intended?

comment by Kawoomba · 2014-07-07T16:46:05.714Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you once conceal a thought from yourself, clarity is ever after your enemy.

How very Jedi Master-esque of you. Don't underestimate the power of the dark ... I mean, the power of compartmentalizing/shielding dumb beliefs. After all, you probably know some people you'd consider smart in general who are also e.g. religious.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-07-07T19:13:11.176Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How very Jedi Master-esque of you.

Eliezer-esque, actually. "If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy."

The arguments in that link pretty much apply here.

comment by gwillen · 2014-07-07T07:22:38.167Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think I'm actually more comfortable with the scenario where you are the primary/sole beneficiary.

Denying someone's agency to benefit them is really treating them like a child, and is only appropriate in a case where they really don't have the capacity to exercise it (besides children, e.g. adults with significant dementia or cognitive impairment.)

By contrast, if someone's irrational behavior is going to negatively affect you, I see more room for mitigating it by denying them information (i.e. lying to them, whether by commission or omission.) In this case I don't see it as being quite the same thing as denying agency, somehow -- you're treating them as an agent, but an adversarial one. Whereas in the other case you're trying to protect them from themselves.

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-07T18:04:42.273Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think I'm actually more comfortable with the scenario where you are the primary/sole beneficiary.

Denying someone's agency to benefit them is really treating them like a child, and is only appropriate in a case where they really don't have the capacity to exercise it (besides children, e.g. adults with significant dementia or cognitive impairment.)

Why is treating an adult "like a child" inherently worse than treating a child that way?

comment by gwillen · 2014-07-07T18:14:42.524Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Let me rephrase that as "treating them like they have a diminished capacity for agency, which is only appropriate if they actually do."

There's a cultural presumption, which I am neither intending to support nor to argue with here, that children fall into this category.

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-10T21:12:08.343Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a cultural presumption, which I am neither intending to support nor to argue with here, that children fall into this category.

Indeed. But more importantly, do adults fall into that category? That's what's being discussed here.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-07-07T13:05:51.129Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In the first example, you also need to catch the flight.

comment by pwno · 2014-07-07T07:40:55.507Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you're treating them as an agent, but an adversarial one.

But if you thought of them as having agency, you'd want to respect their desires and therefore disclose the information, possibly hoping you'd come to some sort of compromise.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2014-07-07T07:58:05.794Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I think "agent" or "agency" is being used in two different senses here — a descriptive/game-theoretical sense and a normative/political sense.

In the game-theory sense of "agent", noticing the presence of an "agent" does not imply "you'd want to respect their desires". For instance, Clippy is an agent, but an adversarial one. We don't want Clippy to get what it wants with our light-cone, thank you very much.

The normative/political sense of "agency" implies a whole slew of values and norms having to do with how humans ought to relate to each other: people ought to get to make their own decisions; others ought not conspire to keep them ignorant; and so on.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-07T14:57:03.465Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

While both the child and the mother might have the same class of agency with respect to the object level decision, they have different classes of meta level agency, that is agency about their decision how they want to choose and what kind of person they want to be. While the child does not have that agency and therefore needs to be not only protected from false decisions but also raised to that meta level agency, the mother does and therefore the decision of the son to not tell her about being drunk interfere with that meta level agency, i.e. her right to take responsibility for her own life unless the son knows that she would want to be a rational person in which case his choice does not infringe on her agency.

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-07T17:59:43.739Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

While both the child and the mother might have the same class of agency with respect to the object level decision, they have different classes of meta level agency, that is agency about their decision how they want to choose and what kind of person they want to be.

I cannot parse this.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-07-07T18:13:58.720Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

They both know what their preferences are, but the child isn't fully equipped to choose better preferences.

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-10T21:08:21.322Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-10T21:10:02.939Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm.

Does the average human, in all their heuristics and biases and irrationality, actually have enough "meta-level agency" at all times?

comment by Dagon · 2014-07-07T07:57:50.506Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I find the word "agency" in this to be a bit confusing. In none of these cases are you preventing someone from expressing desires or from making decisions. You are failing to provide (and in some cases thwarting) those desires, but it doesn't seem to be denying that they're thinking/feeling beings.

I'm pretty sure my confusion comes from a lack of understanding of the interaction model behind the idea of "agency" as something external. IMO, making decisions and experiencing the consequences is not a right that's given, but just the state of the universe as experienced by agents. Lack of cooperation or outright opposition doesn't deny one the ability and necessity to decide how to act.

tl;dr: failure to support someone's preferences is not denying their agency.

comment by MugaSofer · 2014-07-07T18:02:44.754Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Would replacing "agency" with "control" make sense to you? That's roughly how I interpreted it.

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-07-07T23:55:33.201Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You may find it useful to look at the SEP's entry on Paternalism, as well as the "related entries" listed at the end.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-08T16:01:54.903Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Should you consider "Not begging someone for something" denying them agency?

I mean, presumably, you would prefer your five year old not ask you for too much chocolate. But what if they say "But PARENT, if I DIDN'T beg you for too much chocolate, I would be denying you of your agency!"

Because I have both begged for things, not begged for things and been begged from, in all sorts of various circumstances. Possibly too many to list.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-07-07T15:57:11.134Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If your 5-year-old seems to have an unhealthy appetite for chocolate, you’d take measures to prevent them from consuming it.

When I seem to have an unhealthy appetite for chocolate, I take measures to prevent myself from consuming it!

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-07-07T23:50:37.721Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that is one mark of maturity. But I am not sure what you were intending to support (or undermine) by your assertion.