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The Virtue Responsive Evil Demon

Suppose you are an ordinary virtuous agent. Up until now, you haven’t lived the kind of life that involves making any huge life or death decisions, but you are kind to your friends and acquaintances, charitable to distant strangers in need, honest to everyone except those you can’t trust etc. Now an evil demon comes to you and tells you that, for the rest of your life, he will kill 5 people (randomly selected strangers in another country) every time you act virtuously, and won’t kill any people every time you act non-virtuously. He makes it impossible for you to commit suicide (if this were an option, you might think you should immediately take it – although doing so would, quite plausibly, lead to the death of 5 people, the killing would stop there). (Alternatively, one could simply specify that the demon tells you that whenever you happen to die, but not before, he will move on to present some other ordinary virtuous person with the same problem.) On the assumption that the evil demon will keep his word, what are you to do? Given that you start off virtuous, what might we predict you do in this situation? And what might we predict the demon does in response to your subsequent acts?

Let us first consider one way of hearing the demon’s pledge. If we take acting virtuously to entail be extensionally equivalent to acting rightly, as many are inclined to do, then it follows that the evil demon will kill 5 people every time you act rightly. Suppose you think, “I will now commit an act of violence against a stranger. That will be wrong, so the demon won’t kill 5 people at this time.” It seems that an act that is normally wrong (violently attacking a stranger) is now right, because it prevents the death of 5 people. But if it is right, then it will actually lead to the demon killing 5 people. So it is wrong. But if it is wrong… You see the problem. 

We have a paradox on our hands. Or do we? It might be thought the paradox is generated by a questionable consequentialist type of assumption. Perhaps your original thought was correct: committing an act of violence as a means to preventing the killing of 5 is wrong. I think many of us would resist this thought (whether or not we are committed to consequentialism as a general theory). Suppose the demon had said he would kill 50 people, or 500 people, or 5000 people. How could committing an act of violence against one person as a means to preventing the killing of many people not be permissible? However, suppose the non-consequentialist thought here is right. Then, since you are a virtuous agent, we can expect you to try to think through what you should do before you act. We are now assuming your thinking reveals your non-consequentialist commitment (if it revealed the consequentialist commitment, instead, then you would be in the paradoxical situation, at least so far as you could determine [you might not be able to determine whether the consequentialist commitment is correct]). So you would think committing the act of violence would be wrong. And it doesn’t matter that it would lead to a much better agent-neutral outcome than if you didn’t commit the act of violence. So you shouldn’t commit the act of violence. So it wouldn’t be an option for you at all, as a moral response to the evil demon’s pledge. 

Perhaps some less significant act, normally considered wrong, would seem an appropriate means (perhaps you would think it not wrong to tell a lie to someone as a means for preventing the killing of five). But then the paradox is generated again. So we might think that nobody can avoid the paradox. I suppose you could avoid the paradox if the non-consequentialist thought is correct and you simply help an elderly person across the road; i.e. you do something that would be right whether or not it is a means to preventing killing, and you don’t think it becomes wrong because it foreseeably leads to the killing of five people (most of us would find this very implausible) – you avoid the paradox, but only in a way that leads to the demon actually killing people. Better to confuse the demon with a paradox than let him simply have his way!

In fact, despite my initial reasoning, the consequentialist alone might avoid this first paradox (thank you to Stephen Kearns for pointing this out to me): the consequentialist tells us it is right to choose the option (or one of the options) that has the most value, even when each of the available options is very bad. From this point of view, it would be right of me to just continue on making the decisions I was (virtuously) going to make anyway, before the demon arrived on the scene; sure, every one of my actions will lead to 5 people dying, but the actions will still be non-paradoxically right, since they will still be actions that correspond to the best options (the best option every time just includes 5 people dying, so that fact can be ignored when deliberating)! If consequentialism is correct then the demon gets to kill many people, rather than being caught in a paradox.

So far I have been considering what happens if we take acting virtuously to entail be extensionally equivalent to acting rightly. Suppose we reject this entailment (I happen to think we should). A virtuous person might reason thus: “Anything I do will lead to the killing of at least 5 people. However, suppose I work to develop a disposition that is not a virtue (perhaps, to be safe, I will develop a vice), and act on that disposition as much as I can, then I will certainly minimize killings. Let me go to the television and start the process of developing apathy and sloth.” In the situation we are imagining, the virtuous person should develop vices, or at least dispositions that guide their action that are not virtues, and act on those dispositions. They should plan not to be virtuous in the future. 

If the virtuous person were to take the alternative view, that they should protect their own virtue even at the expense of many people being killed by another, they would be extremely self-indulgent, in a morally blameworthy fashion. Perhaps they realize this (they are virtuous, after all!). In that case, it seems they could continue to act in whatever “virtuous” ways they were planning to act before approached by the demon, and reason thusly: “my ways of acting are now self-indulgent, because they show insufficient concern for others, therefore I am not acting virtuously at all now, even though I am behaving the same way I would have behaved if I hadn’t been approached by the demon. My self-indulgence contaminates my virtues, and either turns them into vices, or crowds them out and makes my actions now vicious, rather than virtuous. Fortunately, that will save lives.” Now we are back in a paradoxical situation. If no one gets killed because one is acting “self-indulgently” in the way just described, then this type of self-indulgence is not a vice, so people will get killed, but then one is acting self-indulgently… 

So, let’s back up: it looked like a virtuous person could avoid the paradox by simply developing sloth, and acting on it (watching television all the time, etc.). But we might also worry about this option: perhaps sloth would be a virtue in a situation where one only develops sloth, and acts on it, in order to prevent killings. However, I don’t think this thought is right. If it is right, our thought experiment has serious consequences for the way we understand virtue. It has an ultra-Humean consequence. Humeans about virtue (not ultra-Humeans), like Julia Driver, think that something can be a virtue in one social world and a vice in another, since a virtue is simply a character state that brings about generally good consequences, while a vice is a state that brings about generally bad consequences. We are meant to consider the long term and widespread effects, not just the more limited effects. An ultra-Humean would say a virtue can quickly become a vice for an individual (rather than across society in general) if it can be expected to generally bring about bad consequences from now on in the environment surrounding the individual, and a vice might quickly become a virtue for an individual if it can be expected to generally bring about good consequences from now on in that individual’s environment. The ultra-Humean view is implausible. Therefore, no paradox is generated in the case where one develops sloth in order to prevent the demon killing people. 

If I am right, there is an interesting asymmetry here. Being self-indulgent about one’s own virtue in the way just imagined is enough to contaminate one’s virtues and make one act non-virtuously, but developing, then acting on sloth, simply because one wants to develop the vice for strong moral reasons is not enough to contaminate the vice and make ones laziness virtuous. 

[Highlighted changes occurred after the first comment by Campbell Brown, below.]

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15 Responses to The Virtue Responsive Evil Demon

  1. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    Brilliant Daniel – this is cool! I know you already know about this but here’s another attempt to solve the paradox. Here’s Aristotle from Nichomachean Ethics book 2, chapter 5:
    “but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.”
    So, acting virtuously requires three things. The sedond is relevant here. One acts virtuously and not mere in accordance to virtue only if one chooses the virtuous acts ‘for their own sakes’.
    Assume that the evil demon accepts this account of virtuous action. In this case, you can choose any virtuous act you like – say keeping a promise. The following part is tricky. You need to get yourself not to do this act for the sake of keeping a promise. Depending on the way we understand choosing an act for its own sake, you might also need to get yourself not to do this act for the sake of saving five people (even if this might already be an instrumental reason). Rather, you need to be able to get yourself to choose this act for the sake of the rewards and applause you might get from others for acting in this way, or some other prudential/egoistic reasons.
    Now, it might be that the demon won’t be Aristotelian and it might difficult to get yourself to act from wrong reasons (hypnosis might do it). But, it seems like this might be one way out. [You might also contest the knowledge condition in the demon case given how confusing the case is.]
    Also, love Stephen’s solution.

  2. David Sobel says:

    My first reaction is to say that the virtuous person would be motivated to do nasty stuff in such a situation so long as they believed such an evil demon existed and was true to his word. And a non-virtuous person would be motivated to do nasty stuff regardless of whether they believed all that about the evil demon. So I am thinking the person in this situation needs to try to make themselves such that even if they stopped believing the evil demon would harm people if they avoided nasty actions, they would do the nasty actions anyway. If the person is successful in making themselves this way, then I think they are not acting virtuously and so the demon should not mess with people.

  3. If we take acting virtuously to entail acting rightly, as many are inclined to do, then it follows that the evil demon will kill 5 people every time you act rightly.

    Actually, that doesn’t follow. What you need is that acting rightly entails acting virtuously. But that’s implausible: some right actions are neutral, i.e. neither virtuous nor vicious. So why not do some of these?

  4. john a says:

    Question: If I take the offer of the evil demon and act so as not to have him kill 5 innocent people is this not acting virtuously in so far as a virtuous person would try to save innocent lives? Seems like the ED is going to kill 5 innocent people regardless of what I do.

  5. TheGreenMan says:

    If the act involved does not outweigh the lives of five people, then you act as you would have because changing the way you act would be virtuous act to begin with. If the act involved does outweigh the lives of five people, you act as you would have before because you would still be acting in the more virtuous way. All you can strive for is the act with the most virtue involved.
    The ideal situation would be to not care about the lives of other people and live life as you always have. I don’t think that’s a practical solution, though.

  6. Daniel Star says:

    Jussi: Thanks! Glad you like the post. I like your suggestion for a way to combat the demon with Aristotle’s condition that one only acts virtuously if one chooses the virtuous act ‘for its own sake’. If one can get oneself into a state of mind where one performs an action that conforms with virtue, but is not done for its own sake (one does it instead for a reward, or even a nice fuzzy feeling of self-contentment), then the demon might not kill anyone. However, I worry that in the situation we are imagining, acting for a reward or for praise, etc. might actually count as choosing a virtuous act ‘for its own sake’, since choosing to act for a reward is to choose to follow what is now (but not normally) a very choice-worthy end. At this point the paradox returns. In other words, your response may be similar, in the end, to the self-indulgence response I considered above.
    David: I like this response. I think it is basically what I had in mind when considering the possibility of developing sloth. It is a way out of the paradox.
    John: I agree the ED is going to kill at least 5 innocent people, assuming I start off virtuous. The question is whether there is any way I can minimize the number of total killings quite substantially, and I think I may be able to do this by developing vices.
    Campbell: Good point about the relevant entailment. What I should have said is that some people think that virtuous action and right action are extensionally equivalent – this is a stronger claim than I needed, but it would have better explained why I discussed two different ways of thinking about the scenario. Perhaps you are right that acting rightly entails acting virtuously, but I’m not sure that is true: the virtuous agent, acting in character, may certainly sometimes reason that he is a situation where it is merely permissible to X, and decide to X; however, it doesn’t seem wrong to me to then go on to describe X as a virtuous action, due to the fact it was performed by a virtuous person acting in character. Of course, we could also simply consider a number of different demons separately: one who puts his pledge in terms of acting rightly, one who puts his pledge in terms of acting virtuously, and one who puts his pledge in terms of acting wrongly.

  7. Daniel Star says:

    Oops. When I say, in response to Campbell, “Perhaps you are right that acting rightly entails acting virtuously”, I meant to say “Perhaps you are right that acting rightly *does not* entail acting virtuously.” And I should also have added that acting virtuously might be thought to not entail acting on a virtuous motive, but rather acting as a virtuous person would act in your situation (this is an alternative to Aristotle’s way of understanding what it is to act virtuously, as nicely summed up by Jussi).

  8. Starcher says:

    If you know your demons, you know that this is a trick question. Demons are liars. The demon telling you it would kill five people for every virtuous deed is lying. Do all the virtue you want. Okay, I understand this is a hypothetical, but you got to know your demonology, that when they have a chance to lie, they take it.

  9. Another wee comment, about this:

    Suppose you think, “I will now commit an act of violence against a stranger. That will be wrong, so the demon won’t kill 5 people at this time.” It seems that an act that is normally wrong (violently attacking a stranger) is now right, because it prevents the death of 5 people.

    I’m not sure this last bit is true. What would have happened if you hadn’t committed this act of violence? You might have done some other wrong act instead, or done nothing at all. So it might be the case that these 5 people would have survived anyway, in which case your act of violence has not prevented their deaths.

  10. Marsh Naylor says:

    I don’t see the asymmetry that you’re talking about.
    If self-indulgence does occur when the virtuous person continues to act as if no change occurred in the moral landscape, then he might not be accessing the virtues at all. The Evil Demon changes a lot about the moral landscape overall. How to get the right consequences or the kinds of feelings, actions, reasons, and doings that are considered right would, in many cases, change as well.
    Developing, then acting on sloth, simply because one wants to develop the vice for strong moral reasons is not enough to contaminate the vice and make ones laziness virtuous seems kind of wrong to me. Let’s say in the Evil Demon wager’s world authentic slothfulness is the very thing that will prevent 5 deaths in both a consequentialist and non-consequentialist set up. I think we’d recognize the pretty hefty sacrifice this virtuous agent makes and, considering the circumstances, excuse his laziness and perhaps chalk this up as a tragic dilemma. I don’t think it turns laziness into a virtue, but I think it dislodges the laziness from being a merely a vice.

  11. john alexander says:

    The issue I have is that regardless of what you do you will be acting virtuously if your intention is the save innocent lives. If you create vices with the intention of saving lives is this not virtuous? You lie, steal, cheat, to save lives – how is this any different then a simple utilitarian/consequentialist calculation. You also expect the ED to keep his word so you will keep yours as you create vices to save lives. So simply entering into the agreement is to act virtuously and every time you act to save lives you are doing as you promised you would.
    Also, would you think the same way if the offer from the ED was that you kill one innocent person to save five innocent people ( a variation on Williams famous thought experiment)? Assuming the ED is a truth-teller it seems that your position would be that you should kill the one. but, if that is the case then why can we not simply argue that we ought not to enter that agreement because the cost to us as moral agents is too great. Besides, why not simply maintain that the ED is responsible for what he creates – the death of five innocent people – and you are not responsible for what you do not cause. I think it can reasonably be argued that we do not have to accept any offer simply because the offer is like the one you describe. How do we assume liability for outcomes of an offer that is made to us if the outcome is immoral in its intent, as well as its results?

  12. MarcusAquinas says:

    No answers to be found here; just questions.
    If I assume that the evil demon is speaking truthfully (a questionable assumption with evil demons being evil demons), do I act rightly/virtuously by assuming responsibility for the evil demon’s actions?
    If I assume that the evil demon is speaking truthfully and I take responsibility for the demon’s actions, would it be right to henceforth always act to save a greater number of lives than would be harmed by the demon (to work, for example, toward finding a cure for cancer)? Does working toward finding that cure constitute a single act carried out over time or multiple acts executed singularly?
    Does the realization of such a cure constitute a virtuous act? To take a Malthusian approach, would such a cure constitute, perhaps, the ultimate non-virtuous act? Conversely, does the failure to realize it constitute a non-virtuous act or would such a failure be virtuous in a Malthusian view?
    Is there virtue in the attempt or in the actualization?

  13. Jason DCruz says:

    Interesting post, Daniel. My first thought is that this is the kind of evil demon case that leads me to doubt my intuitions. I don’t think I’m sympathetic to the “ultra-Humean” view as you describe it (the view that a virtue can “quickly” become a vice if it can be expected to generally bring about bad consequences). But in *my* world, the environment never changes so quickly and systematically so as to render harmful a kind of disposition to notice, deliberate, and respond emotionally that previously produced good consequences. But perhaps if I lived in a demon world, I would think differently. If I suddenly knew with certainty that inculcating sloth were a perfectly reliable means to avoid needless death, perhaps I would think that laziness had been “purified” and made virtuous. In this very weird world, perhaps ultra-Humeanism would not be so weird.

  14. John Grey says:

    Very interesting. I know this isn’t the way you wanted to take this example, but I think the demon presents a surprisingly important game-theoretical scenario.
    Suppose the demon can’t just go around killing people, it has to have gotten someone to accept the bargain first. Then the optimal result for we mortals would be for everyone the demon approaches to reject the bargain. But the virtuous person will quickly see (as you suggested) that it might be better for her to take the bargain, since it’s all too likely that the demon next approaches someone careless, or even someone who takes pleasure in seeing the demon kill.
    The reason this seems like a particularly important scenario is that it is strikingly similar to the scenario in which states find themselves with respect to weapons technology. (E.g., the optimal solution seems to be for no states to have any nuclear weapons, but because this would require trusting other states, it’s not going to happen.)

  15. Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, Daniel. This is a nice puzzle. The first thing you should do is ask the demon whether he is including his threat in his conception of your circumstances. If he isn’t, there’s no problem. You just need to ask what a virtuous person would do in your circumstances (absent the threat) and refrain from doing it. If he is, then you’re in trouble, because you’re being confronted with a version of the Liar paradox. If we assume (plausibly enough) that the virtuous thing to do will be to act so as to prevent the five deaths, then, if you act virtuously, the demon will kill the five; and if you act non-virtuously, the demon will kill the five (since causing that is what it is to act non-virtuously). This demon is truly evil!