I Want it All, Baby!

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.

9 thoughts on “I Want it All, Baby!

  1. Yeah, I can’t wait until Jim offers his thought on it, not to mention you and the other Pilei.

  2. I appreciate the invitation, Grover, but I was waiting for others to weigh in. By my count, Sven’s list of “moral axioms” contains at least two that are clearly false and at least two others that are at best misleading as stated. I will wait to elaborate, however, until others have had a crack.

  3. I wouldn’t call my list “axioms.” I tried to avoid doing so, calling them “principles” in the title, but wasn’t very clear on that point. My reference to axioms was just that if you want to get true principles or prove true propositions, you have to start with true axioms, but I don’t think I could ever specify a list of axioms that would lead to these principles, and I have sort of turned against the whole idea of deriving moral propositions from axioms–which was kind of my point!

    I look forward to being taken apart. But my response is likely to be, “Whatever!” (as my teenagers would say).

  4. One of my hopes is that a philosopher far more competent than me with my amateur attempts at it will help Sven come to appreciate moral philosophy. And knowing Sven, he won’t say “Whatever” but will engage and be swayed by good arguments!

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