Moral Philosophy


New podcast episode finally out. I interviewed Carson about The Ethics of Locavorism. Essentially, the question is: if we want to be ethical consumers, should locavorism be a priority in our consumption habits? I won’t spoil the answer, but we examine the case for locavorism through the environmental lens, economic lens, and trying to foster communities. Find the RSS feed here, iTunes here.

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I’m currently reading Bourgeois Equality, Deirde McCloskey’s final installment in a trilogy. I have a lot of thoughts that will be for another day, but for now a quick observation…

Among the many ideas and arguments brought up in the trilogy, McCloskey criticizes modern-day economic thought as relying only on one of the seven principal virtues: prudence. Ethical philosophers and psychologists throughout time have recognized that human behavior is (and should be) guided not just by prudence (“rational self-interest”) but also by temperance, justice, courage, love, faith, and hope. Adam Smith, in Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued wonderfully about how human behavior guided only by any one of the four cardinal virtues (the first three plus prudence) was unreasonable and unethical. More to the point, mainstream economic analysis today is both incomplete and unreasonable to reduce all human behavior down to a rational utility maximization.

What dawned on me is how the economics discipline today is full of people worshipping this prudence-only mindset. I think the causation works both ways. On the one hand, individuals who themselves see problem-solving and behavior as largely rational calculated decisions will be disproportionately drawn to economics…because the framework they are going to be working with jives better with their own approach to life. On the other hand, students who study economics often start to shape their approach to life problems and policy decisions as if human behavior is only understood through prudence. After studying economics for a couple years, I recognize that I started to oversimplify behavioral analysis and ethics as “well, yeah, it’s in their self-interest.”

To non-economists the following parable may seem absurd, but to me at the time it sounded oddly sensical: the girlfriend of a roommate was visiting for the weekend; the roommate without the girlfriend felt this was a burden on his space and lifestyle, so he did some Coasean bargaining to allow this roommate’s girlfriend to visit and stay with them. They worked out some monetary deal to make the visit an agreeable event. Since they were sharing a room, the girlfriend visit meant the single roommate would have to sleep on the couch. What a drag! (For the record: I was not directly involved in this situation)

Another quick bit of evidence can be seen in experimental economics. Some experiments, like the dictator game or ultimatum game, are meant to isolate how altruistic humans can be in different scenarios when money is involved. Non-economists demonstrate more charity and altruism, even when the experiments are anonymous and no “self-interest” can be ascertained from their behavior. Undergraduate economics students, on the other hand, follow more closely to what “maximize utility” models would predict. Basically, they know the models. They know how they’re “supposed” to act. In a sense, they have shifted their decisions to emphasize prudence more than the other virtues. Like I said, the causation can work both ways, but I doubt that roommate would have engaged in some Coasean bargaining absent learning about the concept in economics classes. No society that I know of imposes a norm of private bargaining in such a household situation.

This reality unfortunately reinforces itself. Prudence-driven individuals are more likely to go into economics, economics is more likely to draw people towards a more prudence-based approach, and the discipline ends up staying focused on prudence only. People who are so aghast at the idea of rational self-interest being the sole driver of human behavior stop after Intro to Micro and go into other disciplines. In addition, the credibility of the subject to outsiders diminishes. On some levels, this is a fair decrease in credibility. In others, it means non-economists wrongly dismiss economic realities of scarcity and the laws of supply and demand when they shouldn’t.

I didn’t vote for President last time. A lot of people find this repugnant to some sort of degree. After all, the right to vote is something that people have risked their lives for over thousands of years to secure. Meh, so what.

I believe that a “reckless vote” is a lot worse than a “non-vote.” I think that a lot of people who vote do it based on bad reasons. Studies show that a decent chunk of people vote for candidates based on their personality only. That’s a reckless vote. I think that the large majority of voters are not as informed as they should be. Does anyone think that more than 0.1% of people voting for the Cook County judges to it on anything more than the Chicago Tribune endorsements and/or party affiliation? Am I obligated to vote just because I am a citizen? I believe voting for President is somewhat inefficient and irrational because my vote will not make a difference. I am registered to vote in Illinois, where Barack Obama will surely win. In that case, my vote is only going to be a “moral support” type thing and, frankly, I don’t want to feel in any way responsible for some of the policies he does.

Well, someone has to win Will, so you gotta vote for somebody. So do I have to vote for the lesser of two evils? Maybe I’ll vote for Gary Johnson. Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee. He also happens to be a successful businessman, a popular ex-Governor of New Mexico, and the highest elected official to ever call for an end to the War on Drugs. Johnson ran for the GOP nomination but never had the chance to pick up steam because he was shut out of the debates. But at the end of the day, if I vote, I can realistically choose between voting for one of the two candidates who have a shot at winning or a candidate in hopes of increasing LP’s federal election funding.

I also think that voting, and democracy in general, have little to do with how “liberal” America is. A ranking of the freest and most democratic countries in the developed world shows a weak correlation. America isn’t too high on the democratic list compared to other developed countries, but also has some of the most permissive speech laws and economic liberties. I’d explain democracy and liberalism as a correlation thing, not a causation thing. America has the laws that it does because of our culture and history, not because we are all huge participants in the great government machine. Proponents of democracy don’t like to talk about ‘illiberal democracies’ like Russia that have formal schemes that resemble democracies but give terrible results.

So, why vote? To get better policy? In my case, Illinois will go easily to Obama. Because I have a moral obligation? Ok, then I’ll vote for a third party candidate that I genuinely am enthusiastic about.

Even Gary Johnson has ideas I disagree with. Hell, if I ran I’d probably disagree with myself. So every candidate is the “lesser of x evils” to the extent that no candidate will ever really be 100% in line with one’s beliefs. So when’s it appropriate to not vote, and when is it appropriate to just vote for one of the major party candidates? We’re not dealing with a Hitler vs. Stalin situation here, but I think most people agree that situation would warrant some sort of non-vote (in addition to a major uprising). So there’s a gray area. My next post, which hopefully will come soon, will deal with whom I would vote for in Barack vs. Mitt.

Will Wilkinson:

If, like [Peter] Singer, we are utilitarians, we need not be too vexed by the problem of identifying the best morality. The best morality–the one that produces the largest sum of happiness–is the morality of liberal market societies.

I find Wilkinson’s argument compelling, because liberal market society is the main source of moral progress in the modern world (some people disagree, but I think this is pretty obvious). As Peter Singer and many others have convincingly argued, global poverty is one of the most important ethical issues of our time. Innocent people (including children) suffer and day everyday from preventable causes, such as hunger, disease, and lack of clean water. Singer, being a utilitarian, argues that we all must give substantially more money to charity than we currently do. This seems right. But consider the historical evidence on people escaping severe poverty. How many lives have been saved by the kinds of charitable donations that Singer advocates? Relatively few. How many lives have been saved by societies transitioning toward market liberalism? An astronomical amount. In China alone, virtually the entire population (at the time just under one billion) was in severe poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Thirty-five years later, according to Singer, just over 200 million Chinese (out of a population of about 1.3 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. In China alone, a shift toward market liberalism has brought many hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty in just a few decades. So if you care about poor people, spreading market liberalism seems like the way to go more so than donating to charity (although the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

However, there’s good reason to think that consequentialism and the  morality that serves as the foundation of market liberal societies are mutually exclusive, because the morality of market liberalism is not consequentialist. As David Schmidtz points out, the utility-promoting institutions of market liberal societies depend in large part on their ability to create “conditions under which people can trust each other not to operate in an act-utilitarian way.” Effectively promoting utility depends largely on not acting on the motivation to promote utility.

Sasha Volokh goes off the deep end:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

If a conclusion to a sound argument is this absurd, it means there’s a problem with the premises, and the fact that Volokh is “willing to be absurd” doesn’t get him off the hook. There’s no reason to think that the reasoning that leads us to accept a certain theoretical moral principle is any more reliable than our intuitions about specific moral cases. Therefore, if an argument leads to a conclusion that is this unintuitive, it means that the principles that led to the conclusion should be revised.

The idea behind Volok’s right theory seems to be that having a right places a negative duty upon another person not to violate that right. It doesn’t, however, place people under duties to protect the right holder from any specific outcome. So if I cut down a tree and kill you, that violates your right to life, whereas if a tree falls on its own and kills you, morality has nothing to say.

Consider the implications of this sort of view for disease control, an area in which government intervention is widely viewed as legitimate. Polio is a debilitating infectious disease, and governments can play an important role in giving out vaccines to prevent epidemics. In normal cases of transmission, no person engages in the kind of deliberate harmful action necessary for Volokh to consider something a rights violation, and therefore morality actually prevents the government from doing anything. Now, Volokh himself has said that he’s immune to reductio ad absurdum on this matter, so this wouldn’t be convincing to him, but hopefully other people will have an easier time recognizing the sheer nuttiness of Volokh’s position.

I’ve been reading Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues which, among other things, argues that the free market is virtuous and the capitalist middle class needs to to stop apologizing for its success. Somewhat related to these ideas is this video with Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame, who answers questions about the morality of the market, the greed of bankers, and the wonderfulness of globalization.

Matt Yglesias is worried about what climate change will do to poor farmers in the developing world:

Farmers have particular land and particular crops they’re accustomed to growing. When the climate shifts, they’ve got a problem. Initially it won’t be an insurmountable problem for farmers in rich countries who’ll be able to draw on a lot of technical resources to try to adapt. But for poor peasants in the developing world, their livelihoods will be ruined quite rapidly.

My understanding is that, sadly, this is true: climate change will have its most damaging effects on countries that are closer to the equator.  The vast majority of these countries are poor.  Yglesias goes on:

[I]t’s worth attending to the problems of the third world and the ethical issues it raises. I doubt many members of the Chamber of Commerce would, if faced with a starving Namibian family on their front doorstep, just refuse to give them any food and say “hey, I’m greedy, get over it.” But when the climate shifts, there will be crop failures and famines and people will die. And the people preventing action to stop that outcome are doing it because it would be financially inconvenient. So how different is that?

The starving family on the doorstep example greatly understates the complexity of the ethical challenge that climate change poses.  Any climate change mitigation policy that actually succeeds in slowing climate change by enough to have a noticeable effect on the well being of subsistence farmers in the developing world will significantly retard economic growth around the world (global collective action is required for any climate change policy to work).  Unfortunately, this is bad for residents of developing countries because it reduces the export demand for their products, making it more difficult for them to rise out of poverty.

So the ethics of the effect of climate change on farmers in poor countries ends up hinging on a comparison of the cost of climate change with the cost of slower economic growth.  Because of all the uncertainties in the science (granting that there’s scientific consensus about the existence of global warming, the exact amount of warming and the extent of the future damages caused by warming are not clear), this is a difficult calculation to make.

Yglesias’s example does help to illustrate that there are moral demands upon the world’s privileged to help the world’s poor, even if the poor are far away.  But the best way to meet this demand is to donate money to charity, or perhaps to lobby for increased legal immigration and an end to farm subsidies (which indirectly hurt poor farmers).  There are just too many uncertainties for climate change action to be a sensible way of fulfilling our moral obligation to help the poor.

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