Looking for books on how morality can lead to bad decisions
January 18, 2017 1:35 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a book that covers how making the moral choice in a given situation could lead to worse outcomes. I am probably not explaining this well.

This is stemming from a conversation with a friend regarding zipper merging. Drivers won't let people merge in at the end because they think the situation is unfair and the other driver is taking advantage of the situation instead of merging earlier and waiting like everyone else in the lane. By people not zipper merging themselves and not letting other people zipper merge traffic is worse than it has to be.

Another example could be in an airplane: parents are supposed to put on their own oxygen mask before helping their kids. In a situation like that, the parent's "moral" decision would very likely be to take care of their kids first.

Or perhaps in addiction treatment where the previous focus on getting clean and curing the addiction is clashing with harm-reduction ideas like safe injection sites or methadone treatments.

I remember reading an article on why it is actually a good thing to let people charge higher prices for goods like water and batteries before a hurricane. Something about it prevents people from buying 8 jugs of water which they won't end up using because it is too expensive so more people get to have 1-2 jugs of water which actually will be used. I would like a book of these kinds of things.

I imagine there are a ton of books out there that specifically deal with religion and how various teachings are wrong, like how abstinence-only sex ed causes more unwanted pregnancies and STDs. I'm fine with that kind of thing being a chapter in the book but I don't want the whole book to be that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think the term you want to look for is consequentialism.

From that article: "Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences. Here the phrase 'overall consequences' of an action means everything the action brings about, including the action itself. For example, if you think that the whole point of morality is (a) to spread happiness and relieve suffering, or (b) to create as much freedom as possible in the world, or (c) to promote the survival of our species, then you accept consequentialism. ... Consequentialism is controversial. Various nonconsequentialist views are that morality is all about doing one's duty, respecting rights, obeying nature, obeying God, obeying one’s own heart, actualizing one’s own potential, being reasonable, respecting all people, or not interfering with others—no matter the consequences."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:57 PM on January 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Just looking for keywords:
You may be thinking about perverse incentives?

Or if you're looking for ethical theories, you're looking for a conflict between a deontological theory (that says there are certain acts that are right or wrong in themselves, regardless of whether they have bad consequences) vs. consequentialism (which says acts are only right or wrong insofar as they have good or bad consequences).
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:02 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

IIRC the book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan and the World by Courtney Humphries has a chapter about attempts by scientists and officials to reduce or control pigeon populations in urban areas, and the process often boils down to finding and stopping one specific person who throws out breadcrumbs to the birds every day. The birds grow used to the regular food source, the breeding population explodes until the pigeons are a public nuisance, it's a bad thing—but stopping it basically involves yelling at the Mary Poppins sweet little old bird lady for feeding the birds (tuppence a bag). Then if/when the neighborhood Bird Lady/Guy does stop feeding the birds, there suddenly isn't enough food available to feed the artificially inflated pigeon population, and large amounts of birds starve to death. Everyone feels bad.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:14 PM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Its not a book, but this essay "Empathy as Faux Ethics" covers pretty much that, and I enjoyed it.
posted by Joh at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in Kant's On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns, in which
"This philosopher goes as far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer had taken refuge in our house."
posted by General Malaise at 2:48 PM on January 18, 2017

Freakonomics (books, podcast, media empire) is chock full of related counterintuitive consequences.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:45 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy reading some books on negotiating, such as Getting to Yes or The mind and heart of the negotiator. One of the things they sometimes talk about is that if, for example, you offer two strangers on the street the chance to split a free $100 on the condition that one determines the split and the other says "yes" or "no" to the deal, if the split is very unfair, the second person will often say "no" to free money based on that. So, if the first person proposes they get $80 and the other gets $20, the second will turn down a free $20 "on principle" because of the greed of the first person.
posted by Michele in California at 5:11 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

The situations that you bring up make me think of the field of Law and Economics. Richard Posner has had a thing or two (million) to say about this field, and this paper (The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory [PDF]) might be the kind of thing you're after.

I think the book, The Economics of Justice was the one pissed people off first, but it might have been Sex and Reason.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:42 PM on January 19, 2017

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