Friday, April 07, 2017

Yes, Virginia, a Compromise on Moral Principle Is a Compromise Between a Healthy Body and a Monotonic Toxin

Stuart K. Hayashi

Virginia Postrel

When discussing the folly of compromising on moral principle, Objectivists are fond of saying, "In a compromise between food and poison, only death can win." In a paragraph wherein she ridicules Objectivists and other free-marketers she accuses of being too narrow-minded, the writer Virginia Postrel, the former editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, offers this smug riposte to the claim that one cannot survive a compromise between food and poison: what you said is "news to toxicologists."

Technically, that's correct. In the cases of most substances, what makes something toxic to you or not is the dosage level. You need oxygen to live, but a high enough dose of oxygen will make the oxygen poisonous to you; it will kill you. A high dose of lead will kill you, but if it is diluted enough, it won't. A high dose of chlorine, by itself, will poison you, but if a small enough dose of it is in a swimming pool full of water, it can protect you.

In a compromise between food and dioxin, death won't win if the dioxin is diluted enough.

By contrast, something is a monotonic toxin if even the tiniest dose of it has the same overall adverse effect as a larger dose. An example would be a malignant tumor or HIV.

A compromise with a malignant tumor would involve cutting out but a portion of it. Removing half a malignant tumor won't reduce your chances of mortality by fifty percent. Likewise, in a compromise between a healthy body and HIV, a greatly increased chance of mortality is what will win.

Corruption is a malignant tumor -- cutting out half the corruption won't stop the corruption from growing. Psychologists have scientific evidence of this. Erica Goode writes in the New York Times that once someone tells a small lie, that precedent makes it easier to compound the lies.

The finding, the researchers said, provides evidence for the "slippery slope" sometimes described by wayward politicians, corrupt financiers, unfaithful spouses and others in explaining their misconduct. 
"They usually tell a story where they started small and got larger and larger, and then they suddenly found themselves committing quite severe acts," said Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. She was a senior author of the study, published on Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience. . . .

Participants in the study were asked to advise a partner in another room about how many pennies were in a jar. When the subjects believed that lying about the amount of money was to their benefit, they were more inclined to dishonesty and their lies escalated over time. As lying increased, the response in the amygdala decreased. And the size of the decline from one trial to another predicted how much bigger a subject’s next lie would be. 
These findings suggested that the negative emotional signals initially associated with lying decrease as the brain becomes desensitized, Dr. Sharot said.

Check out that paper on Google Scholar over here.

When you dabble in "just a little bit" of an activity you consider corrupt, just that "little" dabbling helps normalize the activity for you, and thus makes it easier to continue at a more intense level.

When a healthy body compromises with a monotonic toxin, that's a net loss for that healthy body.  A compromise on moral principles is a compromise with a monotonic toxin.

The title of this post originally said "Healthy Body and HIV."  Later I felt "HIV" being in the title was too sensationalistic; on April 21, 2017, I changed it to "Healthy Body and a Monotonic Toxin."