Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).

On the other hand, Kant’s argument that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will has always seemed extremely persuasive to me and founded upon a deep, virtually universal moral intuition. If I pursue my own happiness at the expense of what I know to be right, any happiness I thereby win is not a blessing but a curse. We root for the “bad guys” not to profit from their wrongdoing. Further, we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by the state of someone’s will. If I accidentally save someone falling from a burning house while I am engaged in trying to rob it, my “action” is not praiseworthy: there was no intent to do good. On the other hand, if I try to do the right thing, but the facts later turn out to show that I was mistaken, my actions may be regrettable but not blameworthy. For instance, if I see a man accost a child roughly and interpose myself thinking to stop an aggression, I am not to blame for my action even if it turns out the man was trying to stop a child who’d committed a serious theft, so long as, if I had known the truth, I would have acted differently.

But surely, good intentions are not enough! If I know that my actions will cause harm, but do them anyway under the guise that my intentions are good, my actions are still wrong. Politicians do this all the time, in raising subsidies or the minimum wage or in creating monopolies or in innumerable other ways. So reckless or negligent disregard for the consequences of one’s actions is blameworthy. But you don’t really have good intentions if you are reckless or negligent! A well-intentioned person will try to figure out what is best to do, and then act on that understanding.

So it’s settled: the only good thing is a good will. But wait: there’s another problem. What if I act on a moral principle that is false but which I sincerely believe to be true? Am I acting wrongly if I vote for drug prohibition on the grounds that hard paternalism is sometimes morally justified? Am I acting wrongly if, wrongly believing that hard paternalism is morally justified, I nevertheless vote against drug prohibition? It seems that Kant’s answers must be “no” and “yes,” respectively. And I agree: under some circumstances, it is morally wrong for a sincere paternalist to vote against drug prohibition, even though drug prohibition is, in the final analysis, morally wrong. Whaaa…?

This was the hardest part of Kant’s philosophy (or Adam Smith’s too, actually) for my intro political philosophy students at Buffalo to swallow. And it may be hard for you too, dear reader. Can we make sense of it in such a way that does not lead to absurd conclusions like, “It would be morally wrong for Hitler not to have commanded the Holocaust”?

Reading Jerry Gaus’ Order of Public Reason has helped me to sort out this difficult problem. (He’s drawing heavily on P.F. Strawson here, whose work I had not previously read.) From page 253:

The reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons. . . [E]xpert advice and the growth of social knowledge allows increasingly sophisticated and complex conclusions to be accessible as reasons to all with simply an adequate amount of deliberation. Think about all the reasons to believe and act that one has after twenty minutes on WebMD.

To have a reason to act in a certain way requires that reason to be cognitively accessible to you. You are not to blame for failing to act on very subtle reasons that only specialists could know and of which you are justifiably unaware. Then there’s this on page 254:

[T]he practice of morality is not an elite practice such as physics or moral philosophy, but a basic human practice in which all adults who have grasped the Principle of Moral Autonomy are competent. We cannot ascribe to moral agents reason to accept infinite utility calculations, the noumenal self, or the original position. These may be elements of philosophical theories that explain or further justify people’s moral reasons, and the philosophers who advocate them may argue that they are in some way the upshot of what normal moral agents do believe, but they are the result of specialist constructions based on long deliberations, and even their teaching is difficult.

Again, having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy. Ordinary people can be expected only to act according to their good-faith understandings of their moral duties, having done a “respectable (more…)

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We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)

How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.

It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?

While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to (more…)

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I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. (more…)

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Newsweek reports on the fundraising woes of cheating website Ashley Madison, despite their profitability:

“You’re basically talking about a company that’s in the sin business,” says Lloyd Greif, president and chief executive officer of the L.A. boutique investment bank Greif & Co. “I think there are quite a few institutions that would have some explaining to do as to why they’re owning this stock.”

Lise Buyer, an IPO consultant who helped Google prepare for its 2004 public offering, says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a nonstarter out of the gate. But given the company’s, um, unusual business, investors will likely apply a discounted multiple when comparing this business to others with similar growth and profitability prospects.” (Translation: Ashley Madison shares could be a bargain.)

Investors in Ashley Madison can expect to make unusual profits: “Ashley Madison made $30 million in profits on $90 million in revenues last year, and expects $40 million in profits on $120 million in revenues this year.” Other investors’ reluctance to invest has driven down its share price, meaning you should be able to get bigger dividends for a smaller buy-in than for the average stock.

Is it morally permissible to invest in Ashley Madison? Virtually no one would defend cheating, even those who have done it. By investing in Ashley Madison, you are facilitating cheating, but in a market economy, you also know that if you don’t invest, others will — and reap the profits you have foregone.

Still, the fact that the vicious may benefit from your virtue is not a reason to be less virtuous. And delegating wrong-doing to others is still wrong-doing. Furthermore, by withholding investments, anti-adultery investors have forced Ashley Madison to have to pay a higher cost of capital than a normal business.

Think about analogous examples. Would you invest in a company that marketed alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco to kids? (Imagine it’s legal to do so.) Would you invest in a company that helped students cheat on exams? Would you invest in a company that sold murder for hire? Or child prostitutes? Or slaves? Some of these things are worse than others, but the principle is the same. If it’s OK to invest in Ashley Madison, then it’s OK to invest in meth dealing, contract killing, child prostitution, and slavery. If it’s not OK to invest in those things, then it’s also not OK to invest in Ashley Madison.

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Belief in freedom of the will has many beneficial consequences. Lab experiments have shown that people reading deterministic, anti-free will statements are more likely subsequently to cheat in their own favor. Researchers have even identified some of the chemical processes in the brain associated with diminished belief in free will:

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action. In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Philosophers have long debated whether moral responsibility requires a belief in freedom of the will. The case in favor holds that “ought implies can.” We only have the obligation to do things that it is under our power to do. Therefore, if it is not under our power to acbrain_regionst otherwise, we cannot have any obligation to do so. Apparently, this view is widespread.

Belief in free will may also have desirable political externalities. Determinist pragmatist John Dewey claimed that bad, old liberalism (what we here at Pileus would consider the good kind) was based on a misguided metaphysics of free will plus outdated social and economic models:

Insistence upon a metaphysical freedom of will is generally at its most strident pitch with those who despise knowledge of matters-of-fact. They pay for their contempt by halting and confined action. Glorification of freedom in general at the expensive of positive abilities in particular has often characterized the official creed of historic liberalism. Its outward sign is the separation of politics and law from economics. Much of what is called the “individualism” of the early nineteenth century has in truth little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Hence it neglected the necessity of studying and regulating industrial conditions so that a nominal freedom can be made an actuality. Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have found a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony.

Source: John Dewey on Education, ed. Reginald D. Archambault (U of Chicago P), pp. 82-83

What a classic statement of turn-of-the-last-century pragmatist progressivism! What confidence in the ability of “politics and law” to “regulat[e] industrial conditions,” and in the obsolescence of “historic” traditions and beliefs!

Something of this view persists in modern-day progressivism as well. John Rawls’ difference principle, which is typically taken to justify a redistributive state, is based on the notion that no one deserves what she earns in the market, since differential skills, talents, work ethic, and even moral character are all unearned and therefore “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” We can throw all the outcomes of those characteristics into a big social pot and then reason about what to do with that pot.

Law professor John Pfaff makes a similar argument in defense of the PPACA:

Likely part of our opposition to viewing health care as a social good stems from the deep-seated libertarianism that runs through much of our political discourse. (It seems fair to say that even the American left is more libertarian than its European counterparts.) We view our money as our own (“I built it!”), and so if someone wants to take it—to, say, provide insurance for the less well-off—the justification burden is high. But there are two problems with that argument, one general and one perhaps more specific to health care issues.

More generally, our liberatarianism is likely tied to our perceptions that our economy is a meritocracy. Of course, we grossly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility (the “American Dream” is more alive in Sweden than here), but there is an even deeper problem with the libertarian/meritocratic perspective: to a perhaps-disturbing degree, meritocracies reward generic lotteries.

In our economy, smart people rise to the top, but those smart people didn’t earn their intelligence, they were born with it. And to the extent that it was nurtured and cultured, that is due to their parents (since the returns on education are greatest when we are quite young, and thus before we are making many decisions on our own). And that work ethic? Again, significantly genetic and parental.

It’s true: you really didn’t build it, or at least not all of it. Which isn’t to argue for some sort of completely-leveling socialist state. Incentives are important, and those who take risks need rewards to compensate them. But once we realize that meritocracies are largely genetic and birth-parent lotteries, the moral claim on wealth becomes a bit weaker on the margin, and the moral argument for taking care of the less-lucky-in-birth becomes stronger.

But what happens to people who believe that everything about them, down to their own work ethic and their moral character, is unearned? According to psychology experiments, they slack off. They lie, cheat, and steal. And they vote for big government.

By contrast, conscientiousness, which depends on a strong belief in one’s own efficacy, correlates strongly with academic and economic success. I can’t help but wonder whether this might be an omitted variable driving an observed correlation between income and voting behavior, controlling for education, in Western democracies. Higher-income people are more economically liberal in the “historic” sense. I doubt that is due to selfishness so much as a belief that everyone can do better by trying harder. That belief drives both classical liberalism and success in life.

So the question is: Is freedom of the will a noble lie? I argue that it’s not. (more…)

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A moral dilemma from the popular TV show “Breaking Bad” illustrates a critique Amartya Sen made of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and the reason why the refutation fails. In On Ethics and Economics, Sen makes the following critique of Nozick’s libertarian philosophy (heavily paraphrased because the book has yet to be unpacked, and Google Books was no help):

Suppose A knew that C was about to murder D, but needed a car to try to stop the murder. B is nearby in a car. On Nozick’s theory, it would be permissible for A to try to stop the murder without violating anyone else’s rights, but impermissible for A to to try to stop the murder by commandeering B’s car.

Sen seems to think that Nozick’s view is incoherent or at least implausible. Nozick’s theory forbids minor rights violations to prevent major ones. Of course, the theory is incoherent only if one adopts the premise that whatever is morally good must be maximized, a premise that Sen leaves implicit. Sen’s critique suggests a “consequentialism of rights”: always act so as to minimize the number of rights violations.

But the central plot twist of the “Breaking 312px-JesseshootsgaleBad” series shows us why consequentialism of rights is less plausible than a strict deontological view. In this plot twist (writing vaguely to avoid spoilers), the two main characters of the show murder an innocent man because: 1) (more…)

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Over at BHL, my friend Andrew Cohen has responded to my post earlier this week making a skeptical case against the normative credentials of the idea of “social justice.” Andrew thinks that part anyway of the problem with my skeptical argument is that is framed in terms of rights. He believes that “harms” are “more basic” than rights, and that if we recast the story in terms of harms, we get a plausible normative account of where exactly social justice (more specifically, moral injustice) comes to be. I had framed that question in terms of supervenience, which is the idea that somehow moral (or more generally normative) properties come to be because of or in virtue of underlying non-normative (natural) properties. Most moral philosophers accept that as an analytical framework, because (i) it seems to be the way we think about normative properties, and (ii) it is neutral between at least a wide variety of theories about what the normative properties we should care about are, and what they supervene upon. I don’t think Andrew is rejecting that bit of analytic framework: he is thinking it works better if we look at “harms” as being the base (the “subvening” class of natural properties). Andrew has a book coming out explicating this sort of framework, and I haven’t read it. No doubt some at least of what I have to say here Andrew has counterarguments for in his book. My point will be that what we have on the table now neither solves the present problem (making normative sense of social justice) nor is an advance in providing analytical tools. Let me take the second, more general, point first.

First, I agree with Andrew that rights are not the most basic normative (moral) concept. But I don’t think that matters here. We’re after an understanding of justice or injustice, and rights-talk can usefully be used as a shorthand for the moral status that is violated or abused or what have you when injustice occurs. (And I’m fine with Andrew’s suggestion that it may be more useful to get a grip on injustice than on justice.) We can differ on what rights we have, and on why we have the rights we have, but still agree that injustice occurs when rights are violated. That anyway is the tradition I think most BHL’ers have been working in (indeed most liberal political philosophers, in the inclusive sense of “liberal”), and the one I work in. I don’t think it is one Andrew offers any alternative to, as I will argue.

Here’s the problem, and it is not a new one. The notion of “harm” is under pressure from both the normative and the non-normative side. That is, we want to use the term in such a way that harms are bad, but we also want to use it to capture certain kinds of natural fact about the world, such as when for example I hit your arm with my running chain saw. Since attaching normative properties to natural properties is in some sense the very problem I think we face in thinking about “social justice,” this might be a virtue for thinking in terms of harms. In fact I think it is not, because rather than providing a careful analysis of how this “attachment” takes place, harms-talk often equivocates between the two uses. Andrew does this in his post.

Harms, he says, are not just hurts. Although he doesn’t define “hurts,” what he goes on to say about harms suggests that we could think of hurts as “setbacks to interests.” That’s fine, provided we have a (more basic) account of interests. I doubt we can do things this way, but set that aside. The point is that hurts, so understood, have no import for (in)justice. That’s because setbacks to interests, though in most cases disagreeable to those whose interests they are, don’t necessarily represent moral wrongs. I can apply to a job I really like, and which it would be in my interest to get, and be in dandy shape until you — better educated, more experienced, a better candidate in every way — apply for the job as well, and get it. You have set back my interests in doing so, and so have hurt me. But (barring some further story) you have not wronged me, and there is no injustice involved. So hurts are not what we are interested in.

To move past this point, Andrew specifies that what we are interested in is wrongful hurts, wrongful setbacks to interests. That’s what harms are. They are wrongful, hence normative.  (So, strictly speaking, “wrongful harms” should be redundant, on Andrew’s view. I think it is telling that he finds himself using that locution anyway.) But now we need an account of when harms are wrongful, and when not. Harms are not, after all, normatively basic: they are dependent on an account of when setbacks to interests are wrongful, and when they are not. It is worth considering what J.S. Mill does when he runs into this problem, in trying to establish his “Harm Principle” as a basic principle for understanding when social intervention in individual action is permissible and when not. As many observers have noted, this strategy cannot possibly make harms basic, because many (including the harms to “disappointed competitors,” as in my example above) do not trigger the Harm Principle. That is to say, they don’t carry the normative significance that the relevant harms do. Nor do harms resulting from the “inseparable” effects of the “unfavorable judgment of others” (Ch. V), nor harms that are not “direct and in the first instance” (Ch. I), and so on. Mill finds himself using the language of “rights” to pick out which harms count: it is those that violate rights! (Ch. V).

I don’t mean to saddle Andrew with Mill’s problems, but he faces the same challenge: which harms are wrongful? When Andrew tells us what that criterion is, I will say: fine. Let’s say that people have rights to not being harmed in those wrongful ways, and we are right back where we began. Where is the injustice that doesn’t occur by individuals to individuals — the harm (following Andrew) that we need the notion of “social justice” to capture?

Notice that we cannot answer simply by identifying people whose interests have been set back. Doing so is identifying hurts, but not yet harms. To show the harms necessary for injustice, we have to show that these hurts are wrongful. If we are successful, at the end we will have an account of wrongfulness that cannot be set out in terms of hurts (since it is a criterion for when hurts become harms). So the recourse to hurts and harms is a superstructure, not a foundation. I doubt it offers much to moral theory, but as I say I haven’t read Andrew’s book, so Andrew very likely offers interesting ways to address these concerns.

In any event, the problem for the case at hand —making normative sense of “social injustice” — is that the structure Andrew is providing will face a challenge: show how there is a wrongful hurt that isn’t a hurt imposed by an individual, on an individual. Perhaps his book will do this, but we don’t have an indication yet of how he can do so. As his commenters have pointed out, Andrew’s example (of a receiver of a stolen iPhone) doesn’t work. There is no question that there is wronging occurring here, and that it counts as injustice. (At least I am not inclined to quarrel with the example in this way.) But just for that reason, we don’t need “social justice” to identify the wrong: we get everything we need with plain old injustice. At least, Andrew has not shown that this is not so. Moreover, this is far from the kind of case that “social justice” is trotted out to cover: the kinds of cases that, for instance, Kevin hoped to explain with the idea that “social justice” is an emergent property. So I don’t see that we make any progress on the problem by focusing on hurts or harms.

Addendum: one other point about Andrew’s argument. He says this:

The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G.

The first clause is amenable to moral individualism, on one reading. The fact that these individuals may be collected into a group in general would not change the moral standing, entitlement, or obligations of those individuals, if moral individualism is true. But the second clause (following “so”) can be true only on a reading of the first that is not compatible with moral individualism. The question is whether the subvening base of the moral properties (in this case, justice or injustice) is the individuals in the collection, or the collection itself. These can have importantly different properties. The House of Representatives is a collection of individuals. That collection has the authority to pass laws that none of its members do. The individuals are entitled to cast votes in their respective states, but the collection is not. Thinking that all the properties of the collection are just the properties of its members is a classic informal fallacy. I think the normative purport of “social justice” depends on that fallacy, and this is an indication of how easy it is for even a good philosopher to commit it. On moral individualism, only individuals, not the collections to which they belong, subvene normative properties. That’s why there is a normative problem with “social justice.”

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