Category Archives: Morality

Ethical heuristics

I would like to think I wouldn’t have been friends with slave owners, anti-semites or wife-beaters, but then again most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about the suffering of animals, so I guess I would have been. – Robert Wiblin

I expect the same friends would have been any of those things too, given the right place and period of history. The same ‘faults’ appear to be responsible for most old fashioned or foreign moral failings: not believing that anything bad is happening if you don’t feel bad about it, and not feeling bad about anything unless there is a social norm of feeling bad about it.

People here and now are no different in these regards, as far as I can tell. We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred years ago did. People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues, but that can’t make much difference to issues where the problem is that people’s hearts don’t automatically register a problem. So even if you aren’t a slave-owner, I claim you are probably using a similar decision procedure to that which would lead you to be one in different circumstances.

Are these really bad ways for most people to behave? Or are they pretty good heuristics for non-ethicists? It would be a huge amount of work for everyone to independently figure out for themselves the answer to every ethical question. What heuristics should people use?

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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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Minimal Morality

(Inspired by my conversation with Will Wilkinson.)

In a typical moral philosophy paper, an author proposes a principle to summarize his specific intuitions about some relatively narrow range of situations.  For example, he might propose a principle to account for his intuitions about variations on a scenario wherein passerbys learn one or more folks are downing in a lake.  This practice makes sense if such intuitions are very reliable, but much less sense if intuitions are very unreliable, as clues about moral truth.

In the ordinary practice of fitting a curve to a set of data points, the more noise one expects in the data, the simpler a curve one fits to that data.  Similarly, when fitting moral principles to the data of our moral intuitions, the more noise we expect in those intuitions, the simpler a set of principles we should use to fit those intuitions.  (This paper elaborates.)

The fact that our moral intuitions depend greatly on how situations are framed, differ greatly across individuals within a culture, and vary greatly across cultures, suggests lots of noise in our moral intuitions.  The fact that moral philosophers don’t much trust the intuitions of non-moral-philosophers shows they agree error rates are high.  So I wonder: what moral beliefs should we hold in the limit of expecting very large errors in our moral intuitions?

It seems to me that in this situation we should rely most on the simplest most consistent pattern we can find in our case-specific moral intuitions.  And it seems to me that this simplest pattern is  just our default rule, i.e., what we think folks should do in the usual case where no other special considerations apply.  Which is simply: usually it is fine to do what you want, to get what you want, [added: if no one else cares.]
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Animal Morality

A New Scientist book review:

Wild Justice makes a compelling argument for open-mindedness regarding non-human animals. It also argues that social behaviours such as cooperation provide evidence for a sophisticated animal consciousness. In particular, the authors propose that other animal species possess empathy, compassion and a sense of justice – in other words, a moral code not unlike our own. … They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans. …

Bekoff and Pierce make their case by calling on a wide range of animal studies, from field biology to the laboratory and from the anecdotal to the statistical. … [In an] experiment, rats refused to push a lever for food when they realised their action meant another animal got an electric shock.

Some possible responses:

  1. Apparent animal "morality" isn't real morality, because it lacks human factor X.
  2. To the extent animal morality differs from human, animals are just wrong.
  3. Each species only intuitively knows what it is moral for that species to do.
  4. Creature have preferences and social norms; there is no further "morality."
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Toward Honest Ideals

In Generous Lust, I quoted:

In women, mating goals boosted public— but not private— helping. … In men, it did induce more helpfulness in contexts in which they could display heroism or dominance. … Overall, romantic motives seem to produce highly strategic and sex-specific self-presentations best understood within a costly signaling framework.

In Far Thoughts Fit Ideals, I said:

We tend more to say we will act in accord with our verbally expressed and proudly embraced abstract ideals, e.g., individualism, collectivism, universalism, environmentalism, when we are put into the mental mode that was designed more for talking relative to doing – the far mode.  In contrast, when we are in our usual near mode … we tend to ignore those abstract ideals, … practically achieving our usual ends.

I asked:

In what sense, if any, are folks who act these ways mistaken about what they want?

I'll say we tend to be mistaken about how much our wants depend on contextual details.  As I said in Generous Lust:

The disturbing thing is that these folks were probably unaware that their generosity was caused in large part by romantic feelings.  They probably thought they just wanted to help, not that they wanted to help especially when it might impress potential mates.

We tend to talk as if we "really" want to follow our ideals but are sometimes thwarted by "distractions" or "weakness of will."  But we probably favor our ideals more when:

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Far Thoughts Fit Ideals

Back in January, a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article found:

Values are more likely to be expressed through value-congruent judgments and behaviors when individuals think abstractly about their actions, and not when they think concretely.

This wording sounds strange to an economist; to us someone's "values" are just whatever preferences explain his behavior.  The behavior of folks thinking in near (concrete) mode is just as explainable as for those thinking in far (abstract) mode – it is just explainable via different preferences.

However, by "values" these psychologists actually mean what I'll call "ideals" – abstract, as opposed to concrete, goals that we verbally, and usually proudly, embrace.  They include:

individualistic goals (e.g., “For unique individuals like you”). … collectivistic goals (e.g., “For spending quality time with friends and family”) …  universalism (i.e., understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and of nature) and self-direction values (i.e., independent thought and action choosing, creating, and exploring)

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Morals From Stories?

Scott Sumner suggests utilitarian stories drive our moral intuitions:

One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness.  Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves … Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. …  At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.

I have several interrelated objections to this style of philosophical inquiry.  I’d like to start with Richard Rorty’s assertion that the narrative arts (novels and film) produce liberal values. … So if Rorty is correct, how do we know that slavery was so awful?  Because we have been exposed to accounts of slavery in the arts which vividly showed how the suffering of slaves was immeasurably greater that the frivolous pleasures of the slave-owner.  Can we then turn around and use an imaginary slave-owning society that passes the utilitarian test as an argument against utilitarianism?  I’m not sure that we can, unless one can show that our initial visceral reaction against slavery is based on non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle.  And that’s much harder than many people might imagine.

This seems to me a powerful argument.  What data could test it?

Added 9pm:  As I understand it, the argument isn't that we can't now imagine compelling stories of, e.g., non-utilitarian-maxing slavery.  The argument, I think, is more that we overgeneralize from the stories where we first picked up our morals.  For example, we first hear stories where slave owners gain less than slaves lose, and then come to see all slavery as bad. 

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On Liberty vs. Efficiency

To "win" a debate you aren't supposed to tip your opponent to the arguments you'll use.  But to promote a more productive conversation, that is exactly what you might do.  So in this post I'll lay out my basic (rather technical) argument for tonight's debate.  I've said:

The topic, as I see it, is the relative value/importance for economists of pushing "liberty," i.e., a policy of minimal government interference, and "efficiency," a standard policy evaluation metric that attempts to neutrally weigh policy consequences for different people.

Humans often find themselves in conflicts where they might make (and enforce) "deals" instead of "fighting" (or doing "nothing").  Such conflicts are often complex enough for many parties to be uncertain how they would fare, relative to fighting, under various possible deals.  In such situations, I see a noble and important role for expert arbiters who are "neutral," i.e., who develop deserved reputations for suggesting "win-win" deals where most or all parties should expect to benefit, relative to fighting.  Given access to such neutral expert advisers, conflicting parties can make better deals, to their mutual benefit. 

One reason I'm proud to be an economist is that we often fill this neutral expert arbiter role to varying degrees, and could do so even more if we tried.  And "efficiency," also known as "cost-benefit analysis," helps make this possible.  To estimate the efficiency of a deal, relative to a status quo, one adds up estimates for each person of the dollar value that person would place on this deal. 

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Self-Haters Donate More

Psychological Science told us "Haters Cheat Less"; now it tells us "Self-Haters Donate More":

We propose a framework suggesting that moral (or immoral) behavior can result from an internal balancing of moral self-worth and the cost inherent in altruistic behavior. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story containing words referring to either positive or negative traits. Participants who wrote a story referring to the positive traits donated one fifth as much as those who wrote a story referring to the negative traits. In Experiment 2, we showed that this effect was due specifically to a change in the self-concept. In Experiment 3, we replicated these findings and extended them to cooperative behavior in environmental decision making. We suggest that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. However, when moral identity is threatened, moral behavior is a means to regain some lost self-worth.

So when can it be good to make people feel bad about themselves, so that they will be good to others?

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Haters Cheat Less

From a recent Psychological Science:

In Experiment 1, our confederate cheated ostentatiously by finishing a task impossibly quickly and leaving the room with the maximum reward. In line with social-norms theory, participants' level of unethical behavior increased when the confederate was an in-group member, but decreased when the confederate was an out-group member.

So folks will cheat less when they believe outsiders cheat more.  When can this justify preaching that other nations, religions, races, genders, etc. are evil or immoral?

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