Reply to Caplan

Regarding Minimal Morality, Bryan Caplan complains:

Robin Hanson has come up with the least plausible moral principle since “Might makes right”: “Usually it is fine to do what you want, to get what you want.”  Robin manages to make his principle seem less crazy by focusing on mundane self-regarding activities. … When is it not fine to do what you want, to get what you want?  When you’re preventing other people from doing what they want, to get what they want.  But what if you want to prevent other people from doing what they want, to get what they want?

Let me clarify:

  1. I was focused on moral intuitions about goodness of outcomes, not rightness of actions.  I set aside issues of when it is wrong to do good, or not wrong to not do good.
  2. Wanting to want, wanting others to want, and wanting others’ wants to be frustrated, all count as wants, and can be weighed just like ordinary wants when considering outcome goodness.
  3. I was only trying to argue that most case-specific moral intuitions on goodness fit the pattern that it is usually good for someone to get more of what they want, if everyone else gets the same of what they want, and no other special considerations apply.  Elsewhere I told Bryan why economic efficiency is a good metric if goodness increases as each person gets more of what they want.
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  • Dagon

    if everyone else gets the same of what they want, and no other special considerations apply

    This is an insanely big clarification. I see you’ve added such notes to your original post (all else equal, if nobody else cares, etc), and it changes the entire meaning.

    If you’re just trying to skip the “is it ok to sleep with a sibling if nobody is likely to be hurt”, fine, but that’s about the least interesting moral question possible. The question of “when is it permissible to cause or allow someone else’s reduction in happiness” is the primary moral question.

  • Jim Babcock

    This comes from a confusion between morality as philosophers use the term, and morality as normal people use the term. In common usage, morality refers exclusively to actions that affect other people, as they affect other people. Under this definition, mundane self-regarding decisions are excluded as out of scope. In philosophy, on the other hand, “morality” is more of an attempt to unify all decisions, from the trolley problem to choosing where to have lunch, into a single framework. This is an entirely unrelated question and an almost entirely unrelated definition, but it hijacks the same terminology, and the two definitions are routinely confused with each other. Robin used the philosophical definition, but did not clarify the distinction; Caplan interpreted his essay as though it were using the English definition, which produces a very different, unintended and highly objectionable interpretation.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Jim, yes Bryan treats “morals” differently, but I’m not sure he’d accept that its a matter of definition. My point is that our attitudes toward acts that don’t affect others, if just accepted as our simplest pattern about moral intuitions about goodness, picks out a preference utilitarian approach to goodness.

    Dagon, I’m happy to be seen as making a much weaker claim, since I think this weaker claim is sufficient to draw the conclusion I present.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    But does anyone disagree with your weakened conclusion (that “it is usually good for someone to get more of what they want, if everyone else gets the same of what they want, and no other special considerations apply.”)? Why would you even bother arguing for such an uncontroversial claim? As Dagon points out, you’ve bracketed away all of the interesting/contentious questions.

    I’m reminded of postmodernists who initially make outrageous claims about the world being socially constructed, but then when pressed retreat to the vacuous claim that our understanding of the world is mediated by our concepts.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Richard, the point was to find the one pattern in our case-specific moral intuitions which is the most simple and consistent. So of course I hoped it would seem non-controversial. The novel part of my analysis is to suggest that in the limit of high intuition noise that we trust only this simple pattern, and accept a measure of goodness derived from this one pattern alone.

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net Richard

    Ah, I see. You’re effectively arguing as follows: in the easy cases (without conflict, etc.) it’s better for people to get more of what they want. So we should extend this simple rule to the hard cases also, even if it’s not exactly right, since (given “high intuition noise”) any alterations are likely to lead us further away from the truth.

    Is that a fair summary?

    Critics might then respond by arguing any of the following:

    (1) Although this is a simple rule, it is not “the most simple and consistent” way to systematize our intuitions, since it only captures a very few of them. There might be other relatively simple patterns that do a better job. It could be that our preferences tend, in the easy cases, to correlate with some other property, which is the genuine good-maker. (But then the onus is on the critic to produce such a pattern or property.)

    (2) It’s less obvious that our intuitions about “goodness” (as opposed to “rightness”) are subject to “high intuition noise”.

    (3) Even if there’s lots of “noise” in general, in some particular cases we may still be justified in trusting some refinements [e.g. to exclude malicious and/or ‘disowned’ desires] to bring us closer to accuracy. (Perhaps certain classes of intuitions, say those that are most widespread and strongly held among reflective persons, are less “noisy”.)

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Richard, yes I think you’ve got it. So yes, I must be open to hearing of other equally simple and comprehensive patterns, yes one might argue goodness intuitions are less noisy, and yes they might be especially low noise in particular identifiable situations. But I do think goodness intuitions are usually rather noisy.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Minimal Morality

  • http://liberalvichy.blogspot.com/ Vichy

    Robin Hanson has come up with the least plausible moral principle since “Might makes right”

    Am I the only person who finds ‘might = right’ the only plausible principle? I mean, what else would be true if not efficacy?

  • Michael Sullivan

    For economic efficiency to be a good maximizing criteria, you need more than simply that it is good for people to get what they want.

    Delong pointed out some time ago that economic efficiency maximizes a world utility function which weights individual utilities in inverse proportion to each individual’s marginal utility of money.

    So for pure economic efficiency to be world utility maximizing, you would have to agree with this weighting, which implies that ceterus paribus it is far more important to satisfy the desires of those with a lot of wealth, than those with only a little.

    That seems like a very strange and undesirable value system to me, so it’s hard for me to jump on the economic efficiency as utility maximization bandwagon. In fact, it strikes me as a fairly devastating critique of the “economic freedom über alles” attitude of typical self-described libertarians.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Michael, you misunderstand what policies efficiency supports.

  • http://liberalvichy.blogspot.com/ Vichy

    So for pure economic efficiency to be world utility maximizing, you would have to agree with this weighting, which implies that ceterus paribus it is far more important to satisfy the desires of those with a lot of wealth, than those with only a little.

    Again, with might = right; people with more money will have more access to goods and therefor potential for material satisfaction. This isn’t a problem, it’s a tautology.