[ Question ]

Moral dilemma

by Tormented1 min read4th Sep 202117 comments



Hello to all,

I have been tormented for several weeks by moral questions to which I find no answer and which prevent me from functioning normally and from sleeping.

They put me in a state of great psychological distress.

These ideas all revolve around Pascal's wager, questions of infinite utility, of the "right" moral system and of the "right" way to make decisions.

Here are a few questions in bulk:

- A well-known religion forbids eating pork. By letting people around me eat pork, don't I increase a little bit their probability of going to hell and don't I make an infinitely bad decision?

- Are there moral systems that avoid negligible probabilities and are consistent

- Is it necessary to have first found the "right" moral system before making moral decisions

- If we think that a behavior has a greater chance of causing infinite unhappiness than of causing infinite happiness, should we prevent that behavior or rethink the case where we have stumbled on the initial probabilities?

Sorry if these questions are unclear or poorly posed, my brain has been completely obsessed with these ideas for the last 3-4 weeks and I really don't know where I stand. Is there any theoretical content that could help me?

Thanks to those who will take the time to answer me :-)

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4 Answers


Grateful for your post. It sounds like you are in significant amount of distress, and the fact that you reached out to discuss it is commendable. 

You mentioned that your concerns are preventing you from sleeping and functioning normally. I am concerned about you and ask that you reach out to a counselor or psychiatrist if that is available to you. If not, I think reaching out to someone you trust and sharing your feelings is important. 

When someone is not sleeping normally, emotions, fear, and reactivity can compete with one's ability to think things through and function normally. The nervous system can becomes stuck in a short-circuited sympathetic overdrive, or "fight-or-flight" mode. This is the mode you would likely be in if you were being chased by a bear and running as fast as you could to get away. The chemicals released by your brain are likely preventing you from being able to sleep and contributing to more anxiety and fear.

I would also encourage you to reach out to others in your community. Are you involved in an EA group? If so, please reach out to group members for support. Share with them that you are not sleeping or functioning normally because of these thoughts. If you are not involved with an EA group, are there other community members that you can engage with? 

Some other considerations might be meditation, guided imagery, exercise or yoga. I have found these very helpful in my own life, and there are plenty of free online resources available.

I think making a conscious effort to put aside concerns that are not directly related to your self-care might be the best thing you can do right now. There is only so much that any one of us can control. Not sleeping or functioning normally is an indicator that you need to focus your energy on your own well-being. 

If you are worried that you will lose track of your concerns if you don't address them all, you could keep your concerns written down somewhere. However, I would encourage you to try and avoid re-reading your concerns or spending a lot of time trying to think of concerns right now. Your own well-being is the most important thing that you have control over right now; focusing on this is the most important thing that you can do right now.  

Again, I am very grateful that you reached out to share your feelings and concerns. That was brave. If you can see a psychologist or psychiatrist, I think they will be able to give you better, more tailored advice.

Wishing you the best. 

Thank you for your answer.
In fact, I am already followed by a psychologist and a psychiatrist :-(
The diagnosis is between obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
I'm doing a CBT with the psychologist and the psychiatrist is managing an antidepressant treatment that should help me decrease my obsessive thoughts.

The psychologist has advised me to think about these topics for one or two hours a week at a scheduled time. Apparently, this can help deal with the obsession. The psychiatrist thought it was also a good idea for me to find a p... (read more)

7more better 1moI'm relieved to hear that you have the self-insight and wisdom required to seek help and I am still concerned about you. What I think I have heard you say is that you're in treatment for OCD and generalized anxiety disorder, have been prescribed an antidepressant to decrease obsessive thoughts, and have been feeling tormented and experiencing psychological distress for 3-4 weeks due to preoccupation with certain worries related to major concepts like right vs. wrong, your own potential role in influencing whether people to Hell, and fanaticism. I think you've discussed these issues with family members but not felt that responses were satisfactory. I also heard you express a sentiment that when you think about a need to focus on your well-being you feel selfish, that you are struggling with trusting your own reasoning, that on a daily basis, you consider not taking your medication due to fear that you will stop thinking about these important issues, and that you have a voice in your head taunting you or telling you that you are being irrational. Is that right? That sounds incredibly painful and I am so incredible sorry you are experiencing this. From my past experiences working with individuals struggling with OCD, anxiety, and other ailments and from hearing you describe your current situation, I imagine contending with the concepts you feel preoccupied by may be exacerbating your struggles. I wish I could be more helpful than just giving you informal advice over the internet, but unfortunately, this is the situation. And the best informal advice I can give is as follows: First and foremost, if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, please look at this resource and contact a helpline here: https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/ [https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/] Next, please reach out to your psychiatrist today. If you have not shared the information you posted here in both your original and your subsequent post with you
8Tormented1moHello, You have perfectly summarized my state of mind. For now, my problem with medication is not so strong. I have returned to live with my parents and my partner is with me. They make sure I take my medication every morning. I have noted the link you sent me in case of suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, I don't have my psychiatrist's email address because I got the appointments with him through the emergency room. But I can easily access the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital near my home in case of problems. I did send the link of this discussion to my psychologist that I saw yesterday. He is also very concerned about the situation and I am considering hospitalization with him. On the other hand, since one of my compulsions is to search on the internet for resources related to my questions. He strongly advised me not to do it anymore. I have asked my family to take away my phone and computer except under their supervision. So I may not be able to go on the internet anymore or hardly at all in the next few days. He also took seriously the risk of suicidal thoughts. But I think the risk is low for the time being. Until yesterday, I was still going to my job. I am a high school math teacher. I called in sick today because my classes were getting messy and I can't grade tests at home. But I have not had any risky behavior in class. Just a lot of fatigue and a lot of math mistakes. Fortunately, my students are good and they were correcting me :p Thanks for your time :-)
1more better 1moHello, I am so glad to hear that you took some very important steps and are treating your own well-being as the priority that it is. I think you are making wise decisions in taking steps to actively avoid feeding the obsessive-compulsive cycle. I am glad you made note of the link to connect you with someone in the event of suicidal ideation ( https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/). [https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/).] Informal non-medical advice that I'd ask you to consider: If you cannot see a psychiatrist, reach out to a primary care doctor and share what you've shared, with added information about what medication(s) you are on, their dosages, and how long you have been on them. Different medications affect people differently, and it's import to ensure you are on one that is likely to help you. Rare adverse reactions being rare, they still do occur, and unless you've been stable on the same medication for several months, a physician should oversee your care and rule out the possibility that you are experiencing an adverse reaction. Also, the physician can tell you more about what to expect and whether the drug should be working at this point if you tell them how long you have been consistently taking the drug as prescribed. If you've been on it for a while and things are getting worse, the doctor might consider a different medication and/or treatment plan. I'm so sorry to hear that your going through this. I am really glad that you have family and a partner to support you, and that you have wisdom to know that you need their support right now. Way to go. Wishing you the best.
4Tormented1moHello, Thanks for your answers :-) I've gone a week without doing compulsive research on the issues that bother me. It was a hard effort but I am already much better. I am able to read again, spend a pleasant evening with friends, talk about unimportant subjects such as video games and most importantly, I am sleeping well again. I continue my efforts :-) Have a nice day!
1more better 1moGreat work and thanks for letting us know that you are doing better. I am very happy to hear this. Please continue to take care of yourself!
5Tormented18dHello, Thank you for paying attention to my concerns. My condition has improved greatly. I was able to return to work and a normal life. The work with the psychologist was very beneficial. I will keep these moral questions in a corner of my mind if I ever feel like thinking about them calmly one day. Thank you again for your advice and for taking my well-being seriously!
5more better 18dI am extremely relieved to hear this. I imagine your choice to prioritize your own self care here directly benefited not only you and your loved ones, but also your students. Being a positive role model & good teacher for high school students while one's sympathetic nervous system is short-circuiting for a duration sounds pretty impossible to me. I think taking care of yourself had a counterfactual positive impact, that prioritizing your own well-being was the best thing you could have done here, and that continuing to prioritize your own health will serve everyone. I envision behavior rippling outward, permeating social circles and beyond like waves. Being self-aware and intentional can amplify our waves of impact, helping us shape them so that they are cogent, cohesive, cumulative....constructive. Constructive interference is the metaphor I'm looking for, I think. If you continue being mindful and caring for your well-being, you can be a positive, high impact force just by being a caring person and a good teacher to your students. Thank you for having the wisdom and courage to reach out, for being so receptive to advice and following up with your psychologist, and for letting us know that you are okay. πŸ’šπŸ’šπŸ’š

Re your 3rd question, this may be a relevant starting point (and see the bibliography and related entries):


Thanks for your answer :-)
I'll store this somewhere and try to think about it when my brain is able to :-)

Sorry to hear you're struggling! As others have said, getting to a less tormented state of mind should likely be your top priority right now.

(I think this would be true even if  you only cared about understanding these issues and acting accordingly, because they're difficult enough that it's hard to make progress without being able to think clearly about them. I think that focusing on getting better would be your best bet even if there's some probability that you'll care less about these issues in the future, as you mentioned worrying about in a different comment, because decent mental health seems really important for grappling with these issues productively.)

But here's a concrete answer, for whenever you want to engage with it:

- Are there moral systems that avoid negligible probabilities and are consistent

Stochastic dominance as a general decision theory is a decision theory that agrees with expected-utility-maximization in most cases, but says that it's permissible to ignore sufficiently small probabilities. It's explained in a paper here and in a podcast here (on the 52:11 mark).

I don't think that infinite utility or disutility is a common feature of Pascalian wagers, only a very large amount of utility or disutility. For instance, myself going to Hell isn't infinite disutility--there are worse things, such as two people going to hell. 

(Unless we consider a finite amount of utility or disutility extended perpetually to be an infinite amount, in which case everything we do is equally infinitely positive or negative utility and no good or bad deed is better or worse than any other good or bad deed. Which seems very wrong to me, though I admit I don't have a reason off the top of my head why that's the case.)

Once you've accepted Hell as a finite (though very large) disutility, you can multiply it by the (utterly minuscule) odds of a logically inconsistent religion being true and everything anyone knows about physics being wildly off base. 

Thanks for your answer :-)
I thought that in the classic presentations of the bet, the usefulness of heaven was infinite: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/

Even assuming I consider it finite, I make a reasoning like "some people consider hell to be of infinite utility, so there is a tiny probability that hell is of infinite utility so the number one moral priority is to try to prevent as many people from going there"

For the counter-argument that two people going to hell is worse than one, I would tend to think of it as some infinities being gr... (read more)

1Lumpyproletariat1moI know that people presenting Pascal's wager usually claim that the utility of being accepted to their favorite heaven or their least favorite hell is infinite--but I don't think it is. But we'll leave that aside, because as you point out other people believe that the utility of heaven is infinite and I could be mistaken. If different infinities are allowed to be better or worse than each other, than you shouldn't need to worry about heaven or hell! You should be focused on maximizing your odds of infinite utility by doing the things most likely to lead to such a state. The odds of any given religion being true is very, very small. Especially considering that they are all logically inconsistent. The odds of me being an extraterrestrial being of phenomenal power, able to create heavens and hells, is substantially higher than Sunni Islam or the Church of England having the right of things. Because at least the idea isn't logically impossible. So making me happy with you is more important than abiding by the laws of any earthly religion. The chance of you being yourself an omnipotent alien who'll come into your power once you feel less tormented is larger than the odds of an earthly religion being true--because while it's a silly idea with no evidence backing it and the entire edifice of science flatly refuting it, at least it doesn't contradict itself. But now that we're focusing on maximizing our odds of getting infinite utility, there are even more promising prospects than supposing impossible things about strangers or ourselves. The odds of future humans reversing entropy (or finding a way to make infinite computations using finite resources, or any other solution given trillions of years to think about it) is much higher than the odds of any of Earth's religions being true. So if we take that view, the most important thing one can do is maximize the odds of human civilization surviving and maximizing the daily positive utility of that future civilization.
5Tormented1moThank you very much for your answer. It seems to me very convincing :-) As explained above, I won't be spending much more time here in the next few days because my psychologist has wisely advised me not to think about these issues until my condition improves considerably. But you have lucidly answered some of my fears. Which I can't do right now. I hope to be able to discuss these issues with you or with other members of this community in the future. Thanks for your time :-)
4Lumpyproletariat1moI'm very glad to have helped in any way. Take care of yourself!