You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘morality’ tag.

Adam has some interesting thoughts on Will Wilkinson’s critique of moral nativism. Will’s core thesis appears to be

The nature of the principles of universal grammar limits what can count as a natural language grammar. There is no language in which a suitably translated version of the sentence “Sock burger insofar loggerheads” counts as grammatical. Yet there have existed moralities in which cannibalism, ritual mutilation, slavery, and rape count as morally permissible. If the putative moral capacity can produce moralities that allow things that strike our judgment as monstrously immoral–if it doesn’t really rule anything out–it can’t account for the normativity of our judgments and the linguistic analogy fails.

My purely amateurish take is that native morality seems to exist and that it takes a form that is far more basic than what Will is describing here.

For example I propose this as an incorrect moral system:

It is morally right to cause great harm to Adam to prevent minor harm to Ben AND it is morally right to cause great harm to Ben to prevent minor harm to Chris AND it is morally right to cause great harm to Chris to prevent minor harm to Adam.

This system is incorrect because there is no way to assign moral weight to the harms on Adam, Ben and Chris such that this moral ordering makes sense.

In the language of mathematics our native moralism forces a partial ordering on the world of moral entities. Further a – perhaps the – relation in our partial ordering is harm.

For example, suppose we replaced “harm” in the scenario with “laughter.” Now the system is no longer morally incorrect.

Admittedly this is not well worked out but my sense is that the “moral entities” are key and that a partial ordering exists over them is important.

Brad Delong got me interested in the details of a few of these cases

You can sleep easy if you play by the rules even if you think the rules are non-optimal, as long as you point that out. That’s Milton Friedman.

You cannot sleep easy if you play by the rules if you think the rules give you a license to steal. That’s Robert Nozick, Robert Bork, and Ayn Rand.

That’s the difference between utilitarian and deontological theories. Deontology is a bitch.

To catch up, Robert Nozick freely entered into a lease with his landlord, Eric Segal. After living in apartment for a year or so, Nozick then sued Segal for violating rent control laws and further refused to move out unless paid additional compensation. According to his moral theories this constituted extortion.

Ayn Rand, received Social Security and possible Medicare payments to cover lung cancer treatment. This is despite her characterization of the welfare state as theft and a particularly egregious form of theft because it is legal.

Robert Bork sued the Yale Club after suffer a slip and fall, despite arguing against frivolous lawsuits. I couldn’t find enough information on Bork – in the short time I looked – to get a real sense of his moral philosophy concerning slip and falls.


For Nozick and Rand, however, these are clear breaches of the most common interpretations of their moral philosophy. Does this undermine their philosophy at all?

On one level we are of course tempted to say, no what is true is true regardless of whether the popularizer of those truths honors them. On the other hand “ought” implies “can.”  If not even Nozick and Rand can hold to these principles are they a meaningful guide to how we ought to structure our society? While these are by no means view-killing breaches, they do raise the question: is anyone capable of living according to these maxims?

I looked a little in Nozick and Rand’s response. By my reading Nozick’s offers a fair degree of absolution for his philosophy while Rand’s leaves me scratching my head.

Nozick via Julian Sanchez

I knew at the time that when I let my intense irritation with representatives of Erich Segal lead me to invoke against him rent control laws that I opposed and disapproved of, that I would later come to regret it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

This reads to me as this: Yes, what I did was wrong. I knew it at the time, but I was pissed.

This statement moves the onus from the philosophy to the individual. Had Nozick dithered and said “Well, but Segal deserved it” that would be different. Instead, he seems to admit that he acted immorally.

Said another way, its one thing to abandon your principles you when find that they are inconvenient to you. It’s another to fall victim to weakness of will and do something you know you will later regret. We don’t have any philosophy, save perhaps hedonism, that protects people from weakness of will.

Rand on the other hand claimed

It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling co-workers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.

This is much iffier. Here she does seem to be saying that different rules apply to her followers simply because they are her followers. This has the feel of ad hocery. There might be significantly more, but it seems to be a more eloquent way of saying “We were just sticking it to the man, that was sticking it to us.”

Doesn’t the taking of benefits imply that more resources will have to be confiscated to support the program? And, while appealing for a refund makes perfect sense, simply using the system without a guarantee that you are matching funds put-in with funds taken-out and certainly without the express permission of the people who are currently being taxed seems morally ambiguous in Rand’s own terms.

Will Wilkinson asks, what things are we doing now that our grandchildren will condemn? Both Will and the op-ed that inspired him noted, among other things, industrial meat. I agree with this one.

On the dissenting side, Josh Barro argued in a recent twitter conversation that the slaughter of animals for food is morally equivalent to torturing animals. No, Josh is not a hard-core animal rights activist arguing against carnivorousness, he is arguing for the legality of torturing animals. In contrast, one could embrace his argument as support for banning the slaughter of animals, after all most people are against the legality of animal torture. But I don’t believe that taking an animals life for food is always ethically equivalent to torturing it.

For one thing most people, including those who highly value the utility of animals, are willing to call an animal “better off dead” and say we should “put it out of their misery” much faster than we would for a human. Despite putting not suffering before life, this is widely understood to be the most humane choice. Animals are unable to appreciate life qua life as humans can. A horse would not be content to rest on broken haunches and enjoy its golden years reminiscing and visiting with younger relatives. They want to walk, run, and be as a horse. When they are too injured to do walk we put them down because it’s the most humane thing to do. I don’t think you’d make the same argument for grandma. We seem to intuitively understand that for animals the moral calculus between suffering and dying is different than it is for humans.

This is not to argue that putting an animal out of its misery is the only time it is morally acceptable to kill them, it’s just to show that relative to humans one should weigh suffering higher than the value of life when considering the welfare of animals.

Likewise, I don’t think you can argue that we should be indifferent to the suffering of animals. What is it that privileges human animals such that we should consider their suffering but not other animals? There are surprisingly few mental characteristics that humans have which one could plausibly consider that some animals don’t also have. There are also few characteristics that most humans have that some percent of humans, especially the mentally disabled, do not.

There are also non-humans of the homo genus and non-human intelligent life to consider. Any moral system should be able to encompass previously existing and potentially existing creatures. By what criteria would we decide whether we should consider their suffering or not? Or, for that matter, by what basis should our vastly superior future alien overlords consider our suffering? Or shouldn’t they?

In one place I do think Josh is correct. He argues that there are many things we do to animals in leading up to the slaughterhouse that make the illegality of explicit animal torture hypocritical. As there are many animals in these situations that would be better off dead, I agree with him. Unlike Josh, however, I take the logical conclusion that those kinds of industry practices should be banned, not that animal torture should be legalized.

Because I don’t want to call Josh a monster, I have to presume he is deluding himself to justify egregious conditions in industrial meat industry. Here is why I don’t believe him: imagine if Josh walking down the street and came upon a man beating a perfectly healthy dog to death (it looks exactly like Lassie). Do I really think that Josh wouldn’t a) call out to the policeman, and b) be very, very glad that it is illegal to beat a dog to death. I don’t think this would be a momentary selfish attempt to end something he finds viscerally unappealing. He would go home and be glad it was illegal. He would wake up the next day, still glad it was illegal.

In reality, Josh probably eats meat that has been tortured every day, but rarely witnesses animal torture; it would be a lot harder to end the former than to rationalize the latter. My guess if Josh had to witness more than a little animal torture he would change his mind. And if not then, with all apologies, I actually do think he is a monster. Which would be a shame, since he seems like a nice guy.

As a final note I want to add that deciding the “correct” policies with respect to animal welfare is difficult. At a bare minimum I think explicit torture should be illegal, and that anything where an animal would be fairly judged better off dead should be banned as well.

Why won’t you consider my suffering

in your social welfare function, Mr.Barro? I too

have von NeumannMorgenstern preferences.

Say a machine is invented that allows one individual to transfer years-of-life to another individual. Should people be allowed to buy and sell their years-of-life or should these exchanges be outlawed?

If your answer is yes, picture the cults that would arise with the sole purpose of breeding and brainwashing people so that they give life-years to their now immortal Leader.

If you’re answer is no, then does the morality of kidney exchanges hinge on the evidence that donating a kidney doesn’t lower life expectancy? As far as I know randomized studies on this have never been done, and the selection bias and unobservables here seems potentially insurmountable. If these results were overturned by a  randomized trial, how many kidney exchange supporters switch positions?

I do support kidney exchanges, but I also don’t have good answers to these questions.

Reading David Post and Matt Yglesias on copyright and artists has me thinking about the popular justification for copyright laws in contrast to the economic justification.

The economic justification is that free markets will not provide enough profit for artists to undertake some projects for which the social benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Optimal copyrights will compensate artists just enough so that they are willing to create the works, anything above that is inefficient rents* (you hear that Metallica!).

The popular justification seems to be more about maintaining some “fair” balance between consumer surplus and producer surplus. The measure usually being that people who create things that generate a lot of social benefit (e.g. they write hits) deserve to get proportionally rich. Even after the artists are dead people feel that the benefits should flow to his children, wife, estate, etc. in proportion to the social benefits. This, I suspect, is simply the status quo bias. In this country artists who create very popular art have tended to get very rich from it, ergo we have come to see this as the “fair” outcome.

People seem much less concerned that the payment to roadworkers be in proportion to the benefit that society gets from that roads they created, and that the payments continue to flow long past when the work is done. The same is true of the designers of those roads.

Why should we be disproportionately concerned about artists ability to capture economic rents? Why should we be concerned about the ratio of producer to consumer surplus in the arts and not for other workers? Wouldn’t we be better off in a world full of middle class artists but more art?

This, to me, seems like yet another area for liberaltarian agreement.

*For more on this, see Alex Tabarrok’s “Patent Theory versus Patent Law”.

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