Utilitarian Dishonesty


I found confirmation for one of my theories for understanding the world.

I have noticed that people, especially people giving general life advice or instructions (which are the same thing) tend to make a lot of strange claims. Furthermore, they stress the claims' universality and aggressively resist any attempt to qualify them. That wouldn't be a problem in itself. After all, the world is full of statements that really are that true. "2 + 2 = 4", for example. But these people are saying it for claims that are blatantly false!

For example, I remember hearing a sermon on the subject of authority. The pastor was in favor of it. So in favor, in fact, that he said that everyone was required to obey authorities, even if they knew the authority was wrong. Emphatically. The biggest problem with this (as I judged at the time) was that he was a Protestant, and Protestant Christianity was found on the guiding principle that, if the authorities were wrong, you should not go along with it. So any Protestants who believed that really ought to go become Catholics instead. When I asked said pastor about this, he said that that situation was different. And since he never said what situations he was trying to cover, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But really, there is the problem. Instead of saying when the rule applied, he implied that it always did, even though he knew that wasn't true. And he didn't feel that this was at all dishonest.

Yesterday, I was reading the archive of comments on a web page, and I saw another, more serious, example of this. There was guy whose life was seriously messed up (on the "I wish I was dead so I didn't have to deal with this anymore" level). Ten years before, he had gone to a (group) therapy program to get help. There, he had essentially been told "It's not a big deal, so ignore it and stop being so selfish, you horrible person. No exceptions." Luckily, there were other posters who knew about the topic, and they were able to tell him that it only really meant "this problem won't kill you". So far, this is sad, but not really worth commenting on here.

What may this different is that the same therapist apparently read that web page as well, recognized the guy, and posted a response. In essence, he said that he was sorry for what happened, but he wasn't at fault because it is standard practice to phrase things in their most absolute forms so that people can't wiggle out of them. The target audience was supposed to be people who didn't really have the problem, but claimed that they did. So the established solution was to say the problem couldn't exist.

I want you to think about that. Therapists are being trained to lie to the people who come to them for help about the subject that they are supposed to be helping with. The reasoning seems to be that A is always wrong, but if you tell that to people they just jump to slight variant A2. So instead, you pick the most common correct answer, B, and you say it is always true, and the people who started at A get to the right place. It's a disaster for anyone starting at C, but that's OK because there are only a few of those and you can still claim a 90% success rate. Its not 100%, but it's better than you get if don't focus on the A people.

This is the utilitarian ideal in practice: all that matters is the average/total impact, and if some minority has to suffer for the greater good, that's just their tough luck. The victims are allowed to console themselves with how much better off some people they don't know are because of their suffering, but they shouldn't do anything to change the system because, if they did, the group would be worse off. To each according to the system's ability, from each according to the system's need. And there ain't no justice -- its inefficient.

Note: This doesn't just apply to therapists. It's a pretty safe bet that the same ideas inform clergy, since they also do a lot of therapy-like stuff. I would probably include teachers, government policymakers, and military leaders in the group. And probably more.

Note 2: This only seems to apply when dealing with people in groups. The pastor I mentioned above had a more nuanced claim when we spoke 1-on-1. The therapist agreed that "it won't kill you" was the correct interpretation in his post. Governments have all sorts of programs to help people who get accidentally disrupted by their plans.

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