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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

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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My paper on the political philosophy of secession is now out in Public Affairs Quarterly, an open-access journal. Read it here. Teaser:

The United Kingdom currently sets the gold standard for management of secessionist politics. The British and Scottish governments negotiated in good faith over the terms of the independence referendum that Scotland held on September 18, 2014. If Scotland had voted to secede, the British government would have recognized its independence, thus affirming that the United Kingdom is a free partnership among its peoples.

Spain presents a different scenario altogether. Catalonia intends to hold its own “consultation” on independence, but the Spanish government has denied its right to do so, thus denying that Spain is a free partnership. The Catalan government has repeatedly sought to hold negotiations on the self-determination process, but has been rebuffed. What ought the Catalan government to do? By the criteria set forth in this paper, Catalonia has tried to conform to a just institutional regime for regulating secessionist politics, while Spain has not. Catalonia would be justified in using all proportionate means to secure a just outcome.

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Jason Brennan touts the case against voting on the Princeton University Press blog:

There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a concept used to model a strategic interaction in which actors choosing their behaviors rationally according to their own self-interest make everyone worse off than they could have been otherwise. This particular “game” is used both to understand failures of cooperation such as arms races and ethnic warfare and to prescribe particular solutions designed to elicit cooperation. The key feature of the game is that, when the game is played only once, no matter what another player does (cooperating with me or trying to exploit me), I am better off trying to exploit the other player – so in the end, every player exploits rather than cooperates, and they are all worse off than they would have been could someone have “forced” them to cooperate. What has been less often analyzed, to my knowledge, is the ethics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

Whether one has a duty to cooperate with others in Prisoner’s Dilemma-like situations is an important question both for policy and for daily life. Take the question of one’s duties toward the environment. The environment is in many aspects a public good subject to Prisoner’s Dilemma problems. Clean air, clean water, and biodiversity are benefits that we all enjoy, and from which non-contributors cannot feasibly be excluded. Therefore, people have an incentive to take less care of the environment than they would could the environment be privatized. Whether other people “do their part” or not, I’m better off not trying to contribute.

So let’s take some examples of things one could do for the benefit of the environment: eating less meat; polluting less by, e.g., driving less; propagating native species and destroying invasive species; reducing, reusing, and recycling; not littering; not spraying pesticides. Assume for the sake of argument that we will all benefit if everyone did these things. Do we then have a duty to do them? Would it be wrong not to do them?

I’ll derive my view from a very simple starting point: One has a duty not to exploit others, but one does not have a duty to allow oneself to be exploited. In the simple Prisoner’s Dilemma game, each player has only two options: cooperate (and be exploited) or defect (and exploit). In real life, however, there are different gradations of action, from, e.g., walking or riding a bicycle everywhere to driving a Hummer. Moreover, cooperation isn’t actually zero, and therefore cooperation doesn’t always entail being exploited. These considerations imply that some degree of cooperation in Prisoner’s Dilemma situations might actually be morally mandatory, but that devoting your life to providing public goods for others would not be.

Now, the latter part of the starting point could be made even stronger. Let’s say that not only does one not have a duty to allow oneself to be exploited, but one does not have a general duty to sacrifice one’s own interests for the benefit of others. Then, the benefits of the existing scheme of mutual cooperation, including your own, must be greater to you, individually, than the costs of your individual contribution, for that contribution to be morally mandatory. To see this, suppose it were otherwise. Suppose that your efforts on behalf of the environment, say, actually made you worse off than you would be if no one did what you did, including yourself. If that were the case, then you would be making yourself worse off for the benefit of others. That would count as a praiseworthy and supererogatory sacrifice, but not a moral requirement.

So here are my tentative conclusions. If your efforts, combined with the really existing efforts of everyone else, make you better off (taking opportunity costs into account) relative to a situation in which no one undertakes effort, then you have a moral duty to make those efforts. To do otherwise would be to free-ride on the efforts of others and thus to exploit them, which is wrong. If this condition is not satisfied, however, you do not have a duty to contribute – but it would still be praiseworthy to do so, unless the effort is clearly hopeless, in which case the impartial observer is more likely to have pity on your madness than praise for it. I actually think this is a rather strong conclusion and implies that we have a duty to undertake some (but not extraordinary) positive action on behalf of the environment, for instance. What remains interesting and unusual about the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that it models a set of cases for which the rightness of one person’s actions apparently depends on what others are doing.

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Arnold Kling at EconLog echoes my skepticism a few days ago about predatory lending.  This is from his post on the proposed financial reform legislation:

Finally–and this will get me in big trouble–I have to rant about the notion of a consumer financial protection agency. I know that it’s axiomatic that poor people are helpless victims. But in the case of these mortgages, that is a really hard sell. The banks did not take from poor people. They gave to poor people. If you were lucky enough to get one of these exotic mortgages when house prices were still going up, then you got to reap a nice profit on your house. If you were not so lucky, you lost…close to nothing. I’m sorry, but if you borrowed up to 100 percent of the value of the house or more, then all you really lost were your moving expenses.

What about predatory lending? As I understand it, the idea of predatory lending is to saddle the borrower with an expensive mortgage so that you can foreclose on the property and sell it at a profit. How many times did that happen? Have you read of a single instance in the past three years where the bank made a profit on a foreclosure?

I am always ready to feel sorry for poor people because of their poverty. But I cannot feel sorry for somebody who was given a basically free option on a house and the option didn’t happen to come into the money.

Very nicely said.

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I thought I’d pen a brief response to Sven’s provocative opening salvo against moral philosophy, “I Want It All, Baby!” Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I like to play one on the Internet. (Actually, I almost went into a philosophy Ph.D. program, but in the end the infamously dire job market in that discipline deterred me.)

As I see it, moral philosophy is the derivation of valid principles for normative judgment, where normative judgment is the making of (true) statements about whether particular types of conduct are and are not justifiable. Now, I don’t see how making normative judgments without a unified, underlying principle or rule is possible.

After all, we can’t have it all – we can’t have a society that combines perfect liberty, perfect equality, and absolute security. We have to make tradeoffs, but on what basis do we make those tradeoffs? We have to have a principle! To be precise, we have to have one and only one principle. If there are multiple moral principles, they can always come into conflict, and we will have to rely on a more fundamental principle to adjudicate the conflict.

More fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s quite right to view moral judgment as a process of making tradeoffs among values. This point of view implicitly assumes that we’re trying to maximize some kind of function, in which our values (liberty, equality, security, etc.) are variables. That sounds a lot like stealth utilitarianism. Defending utilitarianism is fine, but it should be done forthrightly, not slipped in through the back door. Are liberty, equality, and security  valuable only insofar as they promote the aggregate happiness of Homo sapiens (or perhaps the entire animal kingdom?).

Rather, most defenders of liberty and equality see these terms as shorthand for principles of justice (any view that fails to equate “security” with a form of “liberty” is just confused). Thus, a Marxist sees the employment contract as inherently and necessarily wrong and exploitative, while a libertarian sees that same relationship as an inviolable exercise of liberty. I don’t see any way these different positions can be “weighed and balanced.” They can only be reasoned back to first principles.

On a final note, moral philosophy makes progress by tracing first-order arguments about justice back to their atomic particles, the basic principles on which they are based. It is deductive, not inductive, so we should not hold it to the same standard of progress as inductive science. By its proper standard, moral philosophy has actually made great strides over the centuries.

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