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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

I’ve recently begun the Ethics & Economics Challenge program with students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord, N.H. We’ve been discussing what Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments can tell us about what types of moral duties may legitimately be enforced. I’m blogging my reflections as we go. Here is a selection from the first installment:

Last week, I talked with the students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness. So, as Smith sees it, acts of beneficence are always right. Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?

Bring me some coffee.
The simplest example we discussed in class is that of a friend who usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?

There is a clear answer here using Smith’s logic. An impartial spectator wouldn’t empathize with your resentment against someone who merely failed to be generous one morning. And an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind.

Smith believed that we do have duties to be beneficent toward others, but they’re not duties we should enforce. To go further, duties of beneficence are what philosophers call imperfect duties, that is, they are not owed to specific people in specific circumstances. We have a duty to live beneficent lives, helping others freely and cheerfully, but we don’t have a duty to perform specific beneficent acts to specific people, like bringing coffee to my friend on a specific morning.

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Just came across this Templeton Foundation conversation on the role of reason in moral thought and action. Very enlightening. Over time, I have become more of a “Smithian” in acknowledging the role of moral emotion in guiding our intuitions and appropriately establishing moral commitments, though I also see a role for reason in systematizing those intuitions. My own view comes quite close to that expressed by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The main problem with the compatibilist-determinist view expressed by brain scientists is that the discovery that people give all sorts of reasons for their moral acts doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t play a role in establishing the truth about morality, just as the fact that people come to their understanding of the world (say, color or the laws of physics) in different, imperfect ways doesn’t undermine the validity of experimental induction to discover the truth of the matter.

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Bryan Caplan argues that social conservatives should prefer libertines to hypocrites, contrary to the common meme that “at least hypocrites have moral standards.” The argument is pretty simple: hypocrites seem to share your values, but when you least expect it, they will betray you. So far as it goes, the argument is pretty convincing.

But libertines and hypocrites aren’t the only two possible types of people who fail to live up to putative moral standards. A true hypocrite doesn’t actually have moral standards but merely pretends to them. After all, if one has moral standards, they should affect your behavior appreciably, but the hypocrite simply does what (s)he wants anyway while feigning belief in a stricter standard. That’s what makes hypocrites so dangerous.

The third type of moral failure is weakness of will. The weak-willed believe in moral standards and generally live up to them, but occasionally fail due to weakness of will. The weak of will acknowledge their flaws and try to do better, but you know they will sometimes fail. Unlike the hypocrite, the weak-willed is open about his/her failings, and therefore when dealing with them you know better what you’re dealing with. Unlike the libertine, the weak-willed often actually do live up to moral standards, so long as it isn’t too hard to do so.

Therefore, social conservatives should rank moral failures thus: 1) weakness of will, 2) libertinism, 3) hypocrisy. What some social conservatives praise when they praise “hypocrisy” is probably actually weakness of will, if they took some time to reflect on the distinctions.

I thought about these distinctions while considering the case of corrupt socialists. In the Spanish news today is the number-three man at Podemos, the extreme-left party in Spain (more or less their answer to Greece’s Syriza – the relations between the two parties are extremely close). This man, Juan Carlos Monedero, took half a million dollars from left-wing governments in Latin America (most particularly the Venezuelan dictatorship) for “consulting” and failed to pay taxes on it. He also defrauded his university, a technical college in Madrid, which was contractually guaranteed 20% of his consulting contracts.

Does this fraud evince hypocrisy or weakness of will? After all, Podemos has taken the lead in denouncing corruption in other parties, whom they call “la casta.” Withholding taxes from the government has to be a cardinal sin for socialists. Can true-believing socialists excuse the act on the grounds that “at least he has principles”? Or is he really pretending at having socialist principles at all?

It’s difficult to answer this question, because socialism attracts the unprincipled. If you want to enrich yourself through government, there’s no better way to do it than to denounce corruption and promote populist measures against the rich in order to get elected, and then once elected, use state-controlled companies to feather your own nest. When the state controls the economy, it controls wealth, and it will be extremely tempting to funnel some of that wealth to yourself and your friends.

Not knowing more about the man, it’s difficult to know whether Monedero – and quite possibly the other leaders of Podemos – are hypocrites or merely weak-willed. But that fact alone shows one of the inherent problems of socialism: really existing socialism either brings about rule by the already corrupt or corrupts those who rule.

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Over at Reason, Stephanie Slade has a nice, thoughtful piece on whether watching football – providing the NFL and college football programs with revenue – is unethical, given the immense harms to players through traumatic brain injuries and the diseases they cause. A selection:

A person can believe an action is wrong even if she doesn’t believe it should be legally prohibited. As libertarians, we generally respect a person’s autonomy under the law to weigh risks against benefits and decide how to make a living. But we aren’t required to accept or encourage her behavior if we believe what she is doing is objectionable. Even if this particular example [prostitution] doesn’t strike you as immoral, chances are you can think of something you view as wrong without believing it should be illegal. Adultery is often a good example. Could playing professional football be one as well?

Now, adultery is wrong because it is a breach of the marriage contract. Even a “libertine libertarian” could acknowledge that. But I agree that there are some moral obligations that have nothing to do with respecting rights, like being kind and considerate to people, acting with beneficence toward those whom one can help, and, yes, respecting one’s own body and mind. If it’s immoral to do heroin, then a fortiori it’s immoral to play football, because football does much more damage to the mind than heroin, and the mind is what really gives us personhood and moral worth. And if it’s immoral for us to play football, it’s also immoral for us to encourage others to do so through financial incentives.

Would you watch a consensual gladiator show in which someone is killed? Or would you think it barbaric and wrong? If a gladiator show is barbaric and wrong, why not a football game? The argument against such a view might be that we don’t think coal mining or deep-sea fishing are immoral occupations even though they carry above-average risks.

To this I would pose three counterarguments. First, the severity of the risks of playing football were not fully known until quite recently. Thus, players have not been adequately compensated for the dangers. Second, even if they were adequately compensated, it seems wrong to accept extreme risks to oneself even for compensation. Would it be morally OK to pay someone to play Russian roulette for one’s own amusement, or to accept such a bargain? There’s good reason to think not. An elevated risk to one’s life – like the risks carried by deep-sea fishing or coal mining – is different from an extreme risk like that carried by football players (you are likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy). What’s the line where risk moves from acceptable to unacceptable? I don’t know. We have to be comfortable with moral gray areas if that means not implausibly drawing the line at either the black or white extreme. Third, there’s something relevantly different between entertaining yourself by watching people injure or kill themselves (like paying someone to play Russian roulette or fight to the death or play football) and paying someone to do a risky job that results in a valued good or service. In the first set of cases, the viewer risks debasing herself by taking pleasure in the violent, destructive activity itself, not just in the outcomes of that activity (like a fish or a warm house).

Now a defender of football might say she doesn’t enjoy the violence of the game, but (more…)

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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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