Desert and Diligent Paranoia

Suppose that a person is diligently paranoid. In other words, imagine a person who, by conventional standards, worries excessively about risks that involve low probabilities but high stakes. Imagine this person’s applying the precautionary principle in ways most people find problematically risk-averse. And imagine her actively planning for exigencies or emergencies in ways that consume emotional and material resources, thereby undercutting her capacity for ordinary enjoyment. Where most people would simply overlook these remote but apparently scary risks, the diligent paranoid expects them, planning and drilling for them, rehearsing what she would do when (not if) they come to pass. Indeed, diligent paranoids seem to feel a certain gratification when disaster occurs, since it confirms their irrational belief that life is a series of disasters. They appear to lead a problematically joyless existence, focused on mere survival rather than on a richer conception of human flourishing–the classic case of the person who lives her life by fear rather than some more wholesome motivation.

Now suppose that a low probability event actually takes place in the paranoid person’s life, one that appears to vindicate her paranoia. She is, let’s say, driving through a storm when her car is pulled into floodwaters. Where most people might panic or be baffled about what to do, our diligent paranoid knows exactly what to do because she has (irrationally) expected this event all her life. Suppose she does exactly what survival requires, and survives. Does she deserve to survive? Do the nearby people who (for lack of planning and execution) perish therefore deserve to die?

The expected consequence account seems to me to offer an equivocal answer here. On the one hand, to the extent that the diligent paranoid’s worries were genuinely irrational or paranoid, the event in question wasn’t expected, and neither were its consequences. Given this, it seems wrong to describe her planning for an unexpected event as a case of realizing the expected consequences of the event. And so, it seems wrong to say that she deserved those consequences. If the event wasn’t expected, the response to it seems not to be, either.

On the other hand, given the occurrence of the event, the person’s pre-planning seems to get all the expected consequences exactly right–in fact, better than average. On this description, she particularly seems to deserve the consequences. She gets right what most people get wrong.

Bottom line: the expected consequence account gives different answers, depending on how we describe the cases. But we might wonder whether so much should turn on how we describe the target action.

We might also interpret the diligent paranoid’s pre-planning as diligent behavior, hence deserving by the conscientious effort account of desert. On Sher’s account, conscientious effort properly understood deserves the object of the conscientious action. In this case, the diligent paranoid’s planning and execution seems to entail that she deserves survival. But insofar as her diligence is an expression of paranoia, presumably a vice, we might think that the paranoia serves to defeat her claims to desert.

That said, it seems odd to say that a paranoid doesn’t deserve to survive the ordeal that she predicted, even on the grounds that she was irrationally paranoid to predict it. But it seems right to say that someone doesn’t deserve something brought about through a vice: if paranoia is an epistemic vice, it seems problematic for its expression to be rewarded, even in the case (or maybe especially in the case) where it fortuitously brings about a good consequence. Once again, a great deal seems to turn on our choice of descriptions.

I suspect that the key to this conundrum lies with the difficulty of drawing a non-arbitrary line between prudence and paranoia when it comes to low probability/high stakes risks. Because it’s unclear how to draw the line, it’s unclear how to judge those who exemplify traits that straddle the implicit lines we draw (or half draw, or think we draw). Paranoid people are kind of crazy, but sometimes right. It’s hard to know what to make of that fact, and in consequence, hard to know what they deserve. They’re a problem for everyone, including theorists of desert.

4 thoughts on “Desert and Diligent Paranoia

  1. That is an interesting case that gets a lot of Sher’s moving parts moving! Nothing autobiographical of course…

    I think Sher would say this: (a) obsessive worrying/planning for unlikely disasters predictably brings misery (so that, in virtue of the person having this trait, she deserves her misery, within some limits), (b) taking just the right actions for getting out of the disaster (however one comes to do so, however unlikely the disaster) predictably results in one’s extrication from the disaster (so that, in virtue of the person having this trait, she deserves to get out of the disaster, survive, etc.) and (c) the obsessive worrying/planning predictably bringing about survival if conditions that are significantly more likely not to obtain than to obtain turn out to obtain does not count. Though I think I sympathize with this last claim (as far as capturing what I take to be the relevant sense of ‘expected consequence’ or ‘predictable consequence’ goes), it would need something in the way of explanation and justification.

    I don’t think Sher would regard diligent effort (in the obsessive worrying and planning) having its source in vice as something that would defeat the diligent-effort mechanism for generating desert. But I could be wrong. I’m sympathetic to the idea that this should be a defeating condition (if the sole source is vice) — but that is because I take diligent effort and acting with wise foresight (Sher’s expected consequence cases) to deserve reward, including relevant natural reward, because these are actions that exhibit competence, virtue, excellence, etc. (However, it is worth noting that Sher, in passing, indicates that some kind of reward-for-merit template fits dilgent-effort and expected-consequence cases well-enough. So it is at least something of an open move for him to appeal to this kind of model, in which case an action being sourced in vice, particularly solely in vice, would be relevant to at least one respect or type of desert.)

    I would say that your case, as described, involves the obsessive worrying and planning exhibiting some virtue as well as the obvious vice. After all, natural disasters happen all the time. So worrying some and planning some about what one will do should a natural disaster strike exhibits a kind of virtue in foresight or prudence. It would be different if the person were obsessively worried and making plans regarding robot aliens eating her brains. In that case, there would be no virtue exhibited in her worrying/planning and the idea that she deserves any rewards for her obsessive worrying/planning (whether surviving if the robot aliens come or anything else) would be implausible. This, I think, because there would be no appeal to this claim on any reward-for-virtue model of desert — the sort of model that seems to me to apply to what is deserved, if anything, due to the obsessive (but also perhaps to some degree prudent) worrying and planning.

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    • I agree with almost all of that. I agree with both (a) and (b) in your first paragraph, and agree with the overall point you make in the second paragraph. I also agree with the claim you make in your last paragraph, which coheres with the point I made in my own last paragraph: I described the “paranoid” cases in an ambiguous, ambivalent way. Ideally, we would want clean, clear distinctions between paranoia understood as an epistemic vice and prudence understood as an epistemic virtue, or paranoia as an epistemically unjustified attitude, and prudence as a justified one. But we don’t seem to have those. So once again, unclarity about desert turns out to be parasitic on unclarity about something else.

      I’ve been planning at some point to write a free-standing blog post about paranoia as an epistemic vice, opposed both to complacency, the vice at the other extreme, and prudence or caution as the virtuous mean between them. For now I’ll just say this.

      Think of beliefs about risk as having three-ish dimensions: a probability judgment, a judgment about stakes, and a judgment about tractability.

      The probability judgment concerns the probability that a certain risky event will obtain (itself dividable into subjective and objective probability).

      A judgment about stakes is a judgment about the effects on human well-being if the risky event takes place. This can be divided into a causal judgment and a normative one. Causal: assuming that the event takes place, what are the expected causal consequences? Normative: given the causal consequences, what are the normative ones?

      A judgment about tractability is a judgment about what can be done about the event. Tractability can refer either to our ability to affect the occurrence of the event, to affect its causal consequences, and/or to affect its normative consequences. At the limit, tractability can simply concern one’s psychological attitude toward the event. If a comet were about to collide with Earth (with 100% probability), tractability might simply concern the internal attitude one took on the inevitable event and its inevitable consequences. (See Lars van Trier’s “Melancholia.”)

      I take it that a sufficient condition of paranoia is that it gets every dimension wrong. All-out paranoia misjudges the probability, misjudges the stakes, and misjudges the tractability of a risky event. It’s not clear whether paranoia in this sense can track the truth in any counterfactually stable way at all. In fact, described this way, a paranoid can’t really be right about anything. It becomes hard to think about what she deserves in this context. If an all-out paranoid happens to be right in a purely fortuitous sense, she can’t deserve epistemic credit for being right. And if she doesn’t deserve credit, it’s not clear to me what else she can deserve.

      I’d have to sit here for awhile and play with the variables, but the question arises whether we can generate a conception of paranoia that’s reasonable enough to track some truths, or be epistemically justified, or overlap with epistemic virtue, etc. enough to permit us to speak intelligibly of giving the paranoid person epistemic credit for being right. Part of this turns on how we want to use the word “paranoid.” Do we want to name a vice? Or a problematic mood? Or a psychiatric condition? Or what? If caution is the virtue between means of paranoia and complacency, is there a border region between caution and paranoia where paranoia is approximately justified rather than just messed up?

      Anyway, I think my three-fold taxonomy helps to clarify things. Someone who gets one dimension wrong but one or the others right may be on to something, and deserve partial epistemic credit when she gets things right. Even if, all things considered, she leads a miserable-ass life.

      That should clarify my hesitation about agreeing with (c) in your first paragraph. That claim only deals with probability, not stakes or tractability. But a person can reasonably fixate on a low probability event because the stakes are high and it has high tractability. Probability by itself is not conclusive, and doesn’t necessarily yield the verdict that the obsessive person has gotten something wrong.

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