Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Morality and Government Part II

January 23, 2012 4 comments

There are two ways to think about government.  By far the most common is to think of government as a force over and above the citizens which has always just been there, which provides for them, which they are inherently bound and subject to, and which can be petitioned as one petitions God or a child petitions its parents for whatever they want by appealing to its morality.  This is a bad way to treat government and I’m sure my libertarian friends will agree.  The correct way of thinking about government, at least government among free people, is as a contracting problem.  Most people have trouble thinking of it this way because when they hear the word “contracting” they think of contracting in a legal sense.  This type of contracting requires a third-party enforcer (a government) to enforce the contract.  In the absence of a third-party enforcer, there is still the possibility for contracts but those contracts must be self-enforcing.  Consider some examples.

Contract 1: I come to you and ask for a loan.  You give me $100 today and I will give you $110 one year from today.  This contract is not self-enforcing because 1 year from now there is no incentive for me to pay you back.  I already got what I wanted out of it, why should I fulfill my end of the agreement?  If there is a third-party enforcer, it is in my interest to uphold the contract because if I don’t, then the enforcer will come and punish me.  But without a third-party enforcer, this contract will not be possible even if it would be mutually beneficial.

Contract 2: I am a farmer and you are a swineherd.  We agree that every autumn I will give you a portion of my crop and you will provide me with meat throughout the year.  This contract may be self-enforcing because the benefits to both parties are continuous.  This will be the case as long as the benefits to both of us from continuing the agreement are always greater than the benefits from breaking it.

The last post was intended to establish a framework for thinking about morality and ethics in the context of government.  The purpose of this post is to analyze the morality of a specific government action, namely taxation. [Editor: it actually goes a little beyond that…] In order to do this we must assume a few things.  Here’s the scenario we will consider: A group of people come together who want to form a libertarian government.  They believe it is immoral to initiate violence against another person.  So I aim to evaluate certain functions of government through this moral lens.  I’m not trying to argue that this morality is the one true correct morality but this post is intended for people who generally share my libertarian views. Read more…


On Means, Ends and Ethics

January 5, 2012 3 comments

I promised I would write a post explaining why taxation is ok following this exchange on The Compassionate Conservative.

Thomas H.: Government can be funded through voluntary donation only. A lottery and payment for the protection of contracts are one way this can be achieved. These methods of raising funds, as well as private donations, would be enough to provide funding for a righteous system. The U.S. Patent system stands as an example of how this can be done.

Free Radical: A lottery wouldn’t be very profitable without a government-enforced monopoly which I assume you wouldn’t support. In fact this would just be the government competing in a market activity for profit which is a very bad idea. It would be better to just have taxes you just need to keep them from being used to redistribute wealth which is not all that complicated.

Thomas H.:  I agree with you about the lottery comment, but that doesn’t change the fact that taxation is theft by definition and theft is wrong.

But that ended up opening a big can of worms so I have to do a preliminary post establishing some things about morality.  I begin with the proposition that the ends justify the means.  However, most people who rely on this adage are not applying it correctly because they are not accounting for all of the ends.  For instance, if a man wants to bring about world peace, and goes about this by conquering the world leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake and then claims that the ends (world peace) justify the means (trail of death and destruction) he is  mischaracterizing the latter.  The trail of death and destruction is part of the ends.  You may still claim that it’s worth it for world peace but you are weighing ends against ends.  If you must lie to accomplish something and lying harms someone else or harms your reputation, these are all ends.  Depending on your morals it may or may not be worth it, but again, it’s ends against ends.

If all of the ends of a certain course of action taken together are justified then the means are justified.  In fact there is no other way of justifying any means but the ends.  The thing that makes a hammer a good tool is the fact that it is a means of driving a nail (an end) that is relatively easy (another end) and inexpensive (another end).  You take all of these ends, put them together and if they are good, then the means (the hammer) are justified.  If you tried to drive a nail with a herring you would most likely find that, if you can manage to get the nail driven at all, it will be at a much higher cost than some alternative method, thus the herring is not a justified means of driving a nail.

Believe it or not, that’s basically economics, so let’s turn to ethics now.  For the purpose of this post, allow me to put forth two definitions.  These are not exactly the common definitions of these words but they highlight an important distinction for our purposes.

Morals: The sense someone has about what is right and wrong.

Ethics: A rule or set of rules a person uses to make decisions about their actions and behavior.

Morals are subjective and are beyond our control.  They can change but we can’t choose to change them.  If we had perfect information about all the ends which would result from a course of action, then we could evaluate the morality of them in relation to our own subjective morals and decide whether that course of action is “justified.”  If this were the case (perfect information), we would have no need for ethics.  But of course this is not the situation in which we find ourselves.

In reality the consequences of any course of action are usually numerous and either partially or entirely veiled in mystery.  Because of this it would be impossible to actually evaluate our actions based on the ends.  If someone were to take this approach to morality, they would almost certainly commit frequent moral transgressions out of pure ignorance.  In addition, in the presence of this ignorance, there are many forms of bias which are likely to creep into their decision-making.  For instance, they may tend to minimize the importance of potential but uncertain adverse effects on others and magnify more certain advantages to themselves, or they may favor current benefits over those which are far-off.  The bottom line is that, by adopting certain ethical rules, they may force themselves to make decisions which add up to a better life than if they tried to address the morality of every situation independently.  These ethics may not lead you to make the correct moral decision every time, it is enough that they cause you to err less often than you would without them.

For instance, take the boy who cried wolf.  This is a story about a boy who does not understand all of the implications of his actions.  He knows that lying causes amusing results in the short run but is entirely unaware of the long-term consequences for his reputation.  This condition applies to most children and that is the reason for the fable.  It is meant to teach children about this other consequence and ideally instill in them the ethic “thou shalt not lie.”  It is clear to most parents that if their child were to adopt this ethic they would end up better off than without it.  Of course if they could somehow grant their child complete knowledge of the consequences of every action they take, this would be even better, but in lieu of this, “thou shalt not lie” is a helpful rule of thumb.

Of course, the boy who is convinced to adopt the ethic “thou shalt not lie” may eventually get married and be asked by his wife whether or not she looks fat.  Assuming she does in fact look fat, a man who approaches each decision independently is likely to conclude that this is a situation where a lie is justified by the ends.  Alternatively, if he makes the decision based on an ethic against lying, he will not even attempt this calculation and will simply tell the truth.  The consequences of this may add up to something undesirable in this case.  However, if the cost in this case and other similar cases where he may make the “wrong” decision based on his ethic are less than the costs from the “wrong” decisions he would make our of ignorance when making decisions in the absence of the ethic, then the ethic is beneficial.  Similarly, he may find himself in a situation where the fate of the entire universe depends on him telling a lie, but this scenario is probably so unlikely that it is worth the risk. (In practice, of course, reason may often overrule an ethic in situations where it is sufficiently obvious that the result of breaking it will be more desirable than following it).

Notice that the boy who cried wolf has no moral aversion to lying.  If he did, then he would have no need for an ethic against it.  This too is representative of most children.  The things our morals relate to are all ends.  Admittedly I am defining “ends” in such a way that this must be true, so if a child did have a natural moral aversion to lying (which is certainly possible since morals are subjective) then not lying would become an end in itself.  But typically, we don’t have this moral naturally which means lying is a means to some other set of ends (known or unknown) which allow for some moral evaluation.  If someone did have a moral aversion to lying, then the ethic may not be necessary (it’s possible that this moral may come into conflict with another moral and if, when this happens, the complete consequences are unknown and tend to favor not lying, then the ethic may still be beneficial).  Indeed, the ethic often becomes a moral aversion to lying eventually and this is relevant to my ultimate point about government but you will have to wait for the next post to see what I mean.

It’s worth noticing that children, whose knowledge and reasoning capability are much less developed than those of an adult, rely most heavily on ethical rules.  Ethics are a way of taking some widom about the world that someone may not be able to completely grasp and put it into a form that is easy to understand.  It is not possible to explain to a child all of the possible consequences of lying, but it is possible to convince them that lying is bad.  (I think the largest cause of casualties among the ranks of objectivist types who decry all systems of ethics is that they eventually have children) As we grow older and wiser we often relax some of our ethics because we become more comfortable with our ability to make decisions individually without that guidance.   However, most of us still hold on to many of our ethics because our knowledge and reasoning ability always remain far short of perfection.

So to sum up, God (or nature or whatever you want to call this thing) has endowed us with some set of morals.  In addition, we have been endowed with the ability to reason but this is imperfect and cannot always inform us of all the consequences of our actions before hand.  This leaves a gap between where we stand at any moment and the ends which we ultimately wish to pursue or avoid.  “Means” are the various ways in which we can bridge that gap.  Our morals determine what we want to pursue or avoid but do not tell us how to get there.  Approaching every situation with the pure force of our own reason is likely not the most effective way to approach life so we adopt certain ethics which are rules of thumb regarding means designed to lead us more often than not to the ends which we find morally desirable.

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More Musings on Morality

If you haven’t noticed by now I’m a fan of alliteration.  I was driving today and ran into some road work that had closed down one lane out of two in my direction creating a bottleneck.  As usual, they put signs up well before the bottleneck saying the lane is closed and to merge into the other lane.  And as usual most people do this in an orderly fashion and a few people casually drive right by all those  people waiting in line until they get right up to the point where the lane closes and then try to push their way into the line.  Whenever I see this I think of a book I once read an excerpt from.  Apparently someone wrote an entire book about people’s driving habits and the parallels between them and their overall morals or something like that (I can’t remember the name or I would give it a plug).  What he said is that there were basically two kinds of people and they both feel incredibly strongly about their point of view.  One type thinks it’s unfair for people to cut the line and the other thinks this is perfectly fine, that everyone should do it and that it is more efficient because it makes better use of the space on the road. 

Now it’s been a while since I read the argument made by the second type and I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here so I will just say it wasn’t exactly right when they claimed it made more efficient use of the road in general (though it might be in a special case).  As far as I’m concerned, a fair rationing system in this case would let people through in the order that they arrive.  Now if someone were directing traffic, cars could line up in both lanes and take turns going through.  If this happened, people would get in whichever lane was shorter and they would all get through in the order in which they arrived at the line.  However, this is not how it works.  The people in one lane do not have to let people in.  This means the people in the lane that has to merge can be kept out so they may have to wait longer.  This is a property rights issue.  The cars in the lane that goes through have the right to go through and the cars in the lane that has to merge have to rely on the “charity” of drivers in the other lane to get in.

This is not a problem though.  If everyone in the through lane refused to let anyone merge, nobody would be able to get through by taking the merging lane and everyone would line up in the through lane and they would get through in the order in which they arrive at the line.  The thing that makes the system break down is that there are some people who don’t think they need to wait in line with everyone else and there is always someone in the line willing to let them in.  It is the people letting them in that are the real villains.  Without them, nobody would be able to cut the line.  The system doesn’t break down because some people are acting in their own self-interest.  If everyone was doing that, it would function perfectly efficiently.  It is because some people are not acting in their own self-interest that it breaks down.

Actually, it’s more than that.  If people wanted to sacrifice their own time for someone else, it wouldn’t be a problem.  The problem is that these people aren’t just sacrificing their own time.  In fact, most of the sacrifice is made by people behind them in line.  If you let someone in and there are nineteen people behind you, you are only sacrificing 1 twentieth of the total sacrifice.  The rest is other people’s time that you are choosing to sacrifice.  Why do people do this?  Because the people who drive right by the line get up to the front and then they act like you are an ass if you don’t let them in.  They make you feel like you are selfish if you aren’t willing to sacrifice the time of all the people behind you who waited in line for the benefit of some jerk who thought he didn’t have to.  When people let a jerk in, they feel like they are being altruistic.  Like they are doing a good deed.  They are making a personal sacrifice for the benefit of a stranger.  They don’t even think about the 19 people behind them who they are stealing from.  The 19 are the forgotten men.

The people who drive right by the line of waiting cars know what they are doing.  They either feel they are in the right or they just don’t care.  We’re not going to change their minds.   If we’re going to solve the problem, we have to do it by changing the minds of the people in line who let them in.  We have to convince them that they are not doing a good deed by making somebody else who is playing by the rules into a sacrificial lamb for those who survive on the “charity” they can extract from unwilling victims via some third-party.  The people who cut the line are well aware that they are dependent on their ability to hold your conscience hostage to get what they want.  Their whole lives have been a battle to twist people’s morals into something that benefits their cause.  They are skilled at it.  We are not used to this fight because we haven’t been fighting.  We have abandoned the moral battlefield to these people.  If we are ever going to fix this situation we have to take it back.

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Atlas Now?

“…Objectivist ethics is the moral base needed by that politico-economic system which, today, is being destroyed all over the world, destroyed precisely for lack of a moral, philosophical defense and validation: the original American system, Capitalism.  If it perishes, it will perish by default, undiscovered and unidentified:  no other subject has ever been hidden by so many distortions, misconceptions and misrepresentations.  Today, few people know what capitalism is, how it works and what was its actual history.”

“When I say ‘capitalism,’ I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism–with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.  A pure system of capitalism has never yet existed, not even in America; various degrees of government control had been undercutting and distorting it from the start.  Capitalism is not a system of the past; it is the system of the future–if mankind is to have a future.”

“…altruism…regards man as a sacrificial animal, which holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.  The differences occur only over the question of who is to be sacrificed to whom.  Altruism holds death as its ultimate goal and standard of value–and it is logical that renunciation, resignation, self-denial, and every other form of suffering, including sefl-destruction, are the virtues it advocates.  And, logically, these are the only things that the practitioners of altruism have achieved and are achieving now.”

“…The social theory of ethics substitutes “society” for God–and although it claims that its chief concern is life on earth, it is not the life of man, not the life of an individual, but the life of a disembodied entity, the collective, which, in relation to every individual, consists of everybody except himself.  As far as the individual is concerned, his ethical duty is to be the selfless, voiceless, rightless slave of any need, claim or demand asserted by others.  the motto “dog eat dog”–which is not applicable to capitalism nor to dogs [that’s my favorite part]–is applicable to the social theory of ethics.  The existential monuments to this theory are Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.”  [recall that the author has some familiarity with the latter]

-Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness,” 1961

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Collectivist and Individual Morality

March 8, 2010 1 comment

In a recent post Scott Sumner argues that utilitarianism would be a good thing if it weren’t for the cost of all the measurement that would be required.  I won’t make the academic argument here that utility is an ordinal measurement and cannot be compared across individuals.  Nor will I make the argument that it is impossible to measure utility.  These arguments are both correct, but there is still room in the real world for a loose conception of utilitarianism.  In fact in some ways I am a utilitarian.  However, I will argue that the way in which most utilitarians advocate applying the concept is in direct opposition to individual freedom.

In Sumner’s example (which he is taking from somewhere else) the representative agent (if you will) is faced with the decision of whether or not to push a fat guy in front of a train which will kill him but somehow save a bunch of other people.  The utilitarian argument is that the moral thing to do is to sacrifice the one life to save the many.   It may be true that one fat guy dying is a more desirable outcome than a large group of skinny people dying but the problem with this is that it assumes the right of some third-party to take responsibility for the lives of all those involved and then impose his opinion of what is more desirable on them. 

Utilitarianism is a reasonable moral philosophy when applied on an individual level.  That is, it is very reasonable to say that if I could save a lot of people by sacrificing myself then I should do that.  And it is reasonable to think that if someone else could save a lot of people by sacrificing themself then they should do that.  I won’t sit here and tell you that I would throw myself off a bridge to save two strangers but in small ways I apply this philosophy to my life and make sacrifices that I think will provide disproportionately large benefits to other people.  When I see other people doing this I respect them for it and when I see people doing the opposite I show them some degree of disdain.  This is how individual morality works.

Once the concept of utilitarianism is applied on a collective level, it’s no longer me sacrificing my well-being for the well-being of others or you sacrificing your well-being for the well-being of others, it’s me sacrificing your well-being and you sacrificing mine.   There is no virtue in sacrificing someone else.  Giving the moral authority to decide when to sacrifice myself or my wealth to another party is a way of relieving myself of the moral obligation to decide for myself.  Some people may prefer this.  I do not.  More importantly, it’s a way of relieving others of the right to make it for themselves.  Because of this such measures will often garner widespread support. 

I may want you to sacrifice for some cause that I think is worthy and will help a lot of people who are more important than you.  When someone offers me the ability to force you to make that sacrifice it will be very tempting.  It will be especially easy to convince me that this is morally justified because, the nature of the situation implies that you follow a moral code which is different from mine in some way (you don’t think it is a worthy sacrifice and I do).  This will make it easy to convince me that you are just an evil person and it is a righteous act to impose my morals on you.  If I am wise though, I will realize that I probably don’t have an identical moral code to the rest of society either and if this is allowed, they will soon be doing the same thing to me.  In a free society, I must have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property).  This idea of collective utilitarianism gives the right to deprive me of these things to the state, under no condition other than that they think the benefits to someone else will be greater than the cost to me.  Some people may prefer to trade their individual rights for a utilitarian state but all I ask is that we not fool ourselves into thinking that we can have both.

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