Posts Tagged ‘Moral Philosophy’

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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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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Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest (more…)

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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This semester I will be teaching a political philosophy course for the first time since graduate school, and have just finalized my syllabus. For all the ethicists and political philosophers out there – what do you consider to be the most underrated works of political philosophy for each period (ancient, modern, contemporary)? To elaborate, I’m essentially asking what you consider to be the best political philosophy in terms of originality and persuasiveness of argument, which one would not expect to find in standard readers.

Not really being a political philosopher, I haven’t read all that widely in the field, but, off the top of my head, here are a few works that I believe are underrated:

Early Modern

  • Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Right (often overlooked part of Kant’s oeuvre, and admittedly maddeningly poorly argued at times, such as when Kant argues that no matter how terrible the state, it can never do wrong or be justly resisted, but the first few chapters are a succinct deduction of formal principles of liberty from Kant’s general ethical system. You can’t argue with this: “Freedom is Independence of the compulsory Will of another; and in so far as it can co-exist with the Freedom of all according to a universal Law, it is the one sole original, inborn Right belonging to every man in virtue of his Humanity.”)

19th Cent.

Early 20th Cent.

  • Franz Oppenheimer, The State (perhaps more anthropology than political philosophy, but relevant all the same)


UPDATE: I should note that most of these are not in my syllabus for this class, mostly b/c it’s an intro class, and I want students to be acquainted with the well-known classics first. However, I do recommend them to readers who are already familiar with the “big names.”


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On Rawls

My colleague and friend Ralph Hancock has sparked an interesting exchange on his blog,  Postmodern Conservative (a  First Things blog).

The discussion is on Rawls.  The foundation of Ralph’s critique is

[Rawls] affirms the absolute priority of the Right to the Good: it must be possible to frame an ethical theory for the public/political realm in complete abstraction from any conception of a good human life.  This is Rawls’ central assertion, and one that must be fundamentally contested.

As I understand it, Ralph is arguing from a Straussian perspective.  I’m wondering what non-Straussians think of this critique.  On the question of what is more imporant, the right or the good, I’d have to say I have no clue.  But it makes sense that neither can have an absolute priority and that, as Ralph argues, the public and private spheres cannot be neatly divided.

His post comes in response to a new survey of political theorists just published in PS, identifying Rawls as the most important (by a significant margin) scholar of recent decades.

See also the comments and follow-up posts, including this partial defense of Rawls.

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It has been widely reported that in 2003, Elena Kagan wrote that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the military was “a moral injustice of the first order.”

The first order?  Really?  Surely there are some implicit qualifiers in there.  When you consider genocide, mass rape, sex trafficking, murder, slavery, Jim Crow, and a host of other high crimes and injustices, not letting someone volunteer for the military seems decidedly not first order.  I’m not even sure it is second or third order.

Perhaps if we constrain the discussion to moral injustices that are actively being contested these days, her statement makes more sense. But not really.  Even if I imagine myself an American leftist, I can’t quite come up with first order.  There would be things like abortion, contraception, voting rights, fair housing, collective bargaining and a host of other “rights” ahead of gays serving in the military.

I can’t serve in the military because I’m too old and too fat.  Certainly this is unjust discrimination because  there are definitely assignments around the world where I could make a positive net benefit to the cause, and if I had a strong desire to serve, I would be upset about it.  The military disagrees with me.  Maybe discrimination based on sexual orientation is more serious than age discrimination or weight discrimination, but how much more?

I can understand why people feel passionately about the issue, and I don’t want to debate here the merits of the policy one way or the other (especially since it is mostly dead).  Rightly or wrongly, the military makes policies it thinks will improve the performance of the military.  Certainly they are capable of unjust discrimination, and perhaps the policy really is unjust, but first order?   (Forcing gays to serve in the military might be first order.)

I’m not a moral philosopher and would hesitate ranking moral injustices that exist in the world, but this one seems pretty far down the list.

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I’m interested in people’s opinions on the new Arizona anti-immigration law.  I have a hard time coming to a consensus in my own mind about the immigration issue and laws like the one Arizona passed.

My civil libertarian mind hates the police state and harassment of anyone—citizen or otherwise.

My rule-of-law mind hates that we mostly look the other way when our immigration laws are flouted—not just by the immigrants crossing the border, but by businesses who hire them and by local governments who provide them sanctuary from the law.

My utilitarian economist mind realizes how essential low-wage immigrant labor is to our economy.  A sudden extraction of illegal immigrants (not that that is possible) would be disastrous, economically speaking.

My selfish elitist mind realizes that I am part of the socioeconomic class that benefits most from this immigrant labor, since I don’t face much wage competition from them (though American academics do face a lot of pressure from educated immigrants in both obtaining jobs and getting into graduate schools).

My partisan political mind understands the importance of the Latino vote in the future.  Even a small-brained Republican like George W. realized this and tried to avoid alienating Hispanics.  Of course even smaller-brained Republican Congressmen have succeeded in sticking a racist knife into the party’s future.  Democrats (who, ironically, rely much more on electoral support from the unskilled laborers who are the principal losers from illegal immigration) just get to sit back and laugh as the Republicans do themselves in.

My cosmopolitan egalitarian mind hates that ugly racism underlying the anti-immigration view and sees open immigration as lifting at least some people around the world out of poverty.

My Christian mind is cognizant that many of these illegal immigrants are surely among “the least of these” that Christ talked about when he said, “For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in.” (Matt. 25:35)  I generally don’t like to use religious arguments as policy justifications, since the things that determine private morality often cannot justify public policy,  but I have to say these biblical verses definitely come to mind.

So what is a civil-liberatarian-rule-of-law-utilitarian-economist-selfish-elitest-Republican-cosmopolitan-egalitarian-Christian to do?

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As an economist, I’m trained to apply positive models and empirical methods to (hopefully) illuminate important phenomena in the real world.  That is what I want to do in this blog, preferably in an engaging and helpful fashion.

But what really interests me is the moral groundwork of public policy analysis.   Unfortunately, my fellow Pileus bloggers know far more than about moral philosophy than I.  Fortunately for me, moral philosophy has accomplished precious little in the past three millennia , so I am not that far behind.

So, what do I think a moral groundwork should consist of?  Here is my view.  I will call it Sven’s Principles of Public Morality:

* Human autonomy and freedom must lie at the bedrock of any human society that has a claim of moral legitimacy.

*All human beings have equal moral value.

* Any moral system that ignores the centrality of human happiness and flourishing is fundamentally silly.   (Technical terms such as “silly” will not be defined at this point).

* Freedom without responsibility does not lead to human flourishing, though it can lead to a lot of fun.

* The factors determining human happiness and human flourishing vary across individuals, but the most important determinants are human relationships.

* Communities can have strong instrumental value in producing a society of free, responsible, and happy individuals.

* The idea that communities have non-instrumental value, meaning they contain something worth promoting independent of the people belonging to or affected by the community, is very silly (not to mention the whole slippery-slope to totalitarianism thing).

* Similarly, the State can be a useful concept with instrumental value as long as we remember that it does not really exist.  People exist.

* Other intellectual constructs such as “social contracts” or the “state of nature” can be useful, but only to the extent that they are not used to obstruct moral principles, such as the equal moral value of all human beings.

* Some notion of positive liberty is useful, even necessary.  However, public policy should generally be concerned with negative liberty (freedom from coercion) and avoid the explicit promotion of positive liberty (the capability to act).

* Limited coercive power is necessary in a free society.  But citizens should be greatly concerned about any concentration or use of coercive power.

* Morality is not the product of the biological or natural world, even though many moral norms often make sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Indeed, many natural human tendencies are profoundly immoral.

* Moral reasoning requires the specification of true moral axioms.  Otherwise, we are just playing games.

* As far as I can tell, my moral axioms are the true ones—though I reserve the right to change my mind.

Fundamentally, a policy analysis focused on justice and right is about weighing and balancing core public values—liberty, utility, equality, community.   So I have no patience with those who say I have to pick just one value and run with that.   To be useful and relevant moral philosophy must acknowledge the need for balancing.   Determining the appropriate public policy that accounts for all these principles is not a simple endeavor.

Now some would say that these propositions are not internally consistent, ignore a variety of nuances, and rely on different philosophical traditions (or no tradition at all).  Others might say we would need a lifetime to define and discuss all the terms used and how they relate to one another.  But I don’t care.  I want them all.

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