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The latest in my series of blog posts based on discussions with Ethics & Economics Challenge students is up at e3ne.org. It’s on whether it’s possible for us to have a right to do wrong in some cases, i.e., for there to be some moral obligations that it is not morally permissible to enforce. A selection:

The students correctly understood that the right to free speech doesn’t mean that whatever you speak is accurate. They also picked up on the fact that the right to free speech even covers speech that is immoral. One student brought up the case of Westboro Baptist Church. They engage in hateful protests where they say hateful things, yet it would be wrong to imprison or otherwise punish them for their hateful, morally (and factually) wrong speech.

Read more.

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.

Read more.

The Eight Year Mirage

The search for a legacy always begins in earnest as presidents approach the final years of their time in office. Josh Kraushaar (National Journal) has an interesting piece on the Obama legacy. A key passage:

By ignoring the electorate and steering the country in an unmistakably progressive direction his final two years in office, he’s ensuring that his presidency will be more of an eight-year mirage for liberals, rather than one known for winning lasting support for policies that would move the country in a leftward direction.

All presidents have legacies, of course, but they are rarely what they might have imagined when they entered office.

The Reformicons

Thomas B. Edsall has an interesting piece in the New York Times on the “Republican Discovery of the Poor,” the embrace of economic populism, and the promotion of reforms, including changes to the tax code. Edsall understands the potential challenge to Democrats as Republicans “plan to bring the fight to the Democrats on their own turf.”

None of this is good news for Hillary Clinton. As Edsall concludes:

The obligation to counter the Republicans falls on Hillary Clinton. Her supporters are aware that she must navigate between the party’s competing constituencies while simultaneously demonstrating that she is not beholden to the Democratic special interest group network. If the 2016 election becomes a Clinton-Bush contest (or Clinton versus someone else who is committed to reformicon principles), its outcome will be determined by the ability of each candidate to surmount the same hurdle, but from opposite directions. How do you speak for the economically insecure without offending the very secure?

Edsall may not fully appreciate the longstanding disdain for corporate welfare and tax expenditures among libertarian elements of the GOP. What he presents as strategic calculations on the part of some Republicans may be more correctly understood as a longstanding commitment among some factions of the GOP. Whether this will constitute a threat to the Democratic candidate will depend on whether the reformist elements can survive the primaries.

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.

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.

The Big Chill

Despite candidate Obama’s promises of greater openness and transparency, the last few years have not been good ones with respect to freedom of the press. As Al Hunt observes: “The Obama administration has pursued more journalists than other administrations, secretly looking at phone records and credit card transactions and surreptitiously tracking their movements.”

A new Pew survey reveals that the administration’s policies may have a chilling effect:

About two-thirds of investigative journalists surveyed (64%) believe that the U.S. government has probably collected data about their phone calls, emails or online communications, and eight-in-ten believe that being a journalist increases the likelihood that their data will be collected. Those who report on national security, foreign affairs or the federal government are particularly likely to believe the government has already collected data about their electronic communications (71% say this is the case)

Although only 14 percent say that concerns over government surveillance have kept them from pursuing a story, it has forced 49 percent to change the way they store or share documents.

Following the terrorist attack in Paris, President Obama proclaimed: “Free expression and a free press are core values they are universal values, principles that can be attacked but never eradicated.” Let’s hope he is correct.

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