Am I A Moralist?

Imagine that a “musicalist” is someone who makes good and persuasive musical arguments. One might define this broadly, by saying that any act is musical if it influences the physical world so as to change the distribution of sound, as most sound has musical elements. Here anyone who makes good and persuasive arguments that influence physical acts is a good “musicalist.”

Or one might try to define “musicalist” more narrowly, by requiring that the acts argued for have an especially strong effect on the especially musical aspects of the physical world, that musical concepts and premises often be central to the arguments. Far fewer people would be see as good “musicalists” here.

The concept of “moralist” can also be defined broadly or narrowly. Defined broadly, a “moralist” might be anyone who makes good and persuasive arguments about acts for which anyone thinks moral considerations to be relevant. This could be because the acts influence morally-relevant outcomes, or because the acts are encouraged or discouraged by some moral rules.

Defining narrowly, however, one might require that the acts influenced have especially strong moral impacts, and that moral concepts and premises often be central to the arguments. Far fewer people are good “moralists” by this definition.

Bryan Caplan recently praised me as a “moralist”:

Robin … excels as a moralist – in three distinct ways.

Robin often constructs sound original moral arguments.  His arguments against cuckoldry and for cryonics are just two that come to mind.  Yes, part of his project is to understand why most people are forgiving of cuckoldry and hostile to cryonics.  But the punchline is that the standard moral position on these issue is indefensible.

Second, Robin’s moral arguments actually persuade people.  I’ve met many of his acolytes in person, and see vastly more online.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that Robin’s moral arguments persuade most readers.  Any moral philosopher will tell you that changing minds is like pulling teeth.  My point is that Robin has probably changed the moral convictions of hundreds.  And that’s hundreds more than most moralists have changed.

Third, Robin takes some classical virtues far beyond the point of prudence.  Consider his legendary candor.

I accept (and am grateful for) Bryan’s praise relative to a broad interpretation of “moralist.” Yes, I try to create good and persuasive arguments on many topics relevant to actions, and according to many concepts of morality most acts have substantial moral impact. Since moral considerations are so ubiquitous, most anyone who is a good arguer must also be a good moralist.

But what if we define “moralist” narrowly, so that the acts must be unusually potent morally, and the concepts and premises invoked must be explicitly moral ones? In this case, I don’t see that I qualify, since I don’t focus much on especially moral concepts, premises, rules, or consequences.

Bryan gave two examples, and his readers gave two more. Here are quick summaries:

  • I argue that cryonics might work, that it only needs a >~5% of working to make sense, and that your wanting to do it triggers abandonment feelings in others exactly because they think you think it might work.
  • I argue that with simple precautions betting on terror acts won’t cause terror acts, but could help to predict and prevent such attacks.
  • I argue that the kinds of inequality we talk most about are only a small fraction of all inequality, but we talk about them most because they can justify us grabbing stuff that is more easily grabbed.
  • I argue that cuckoldry (which results in kids) causes many men great emotional and preference harm, plausibly comparable to the harm women get from being raped.

I agree that these arguments address actions about which many people have moral feelings. But I don’t see myself as focused on moral concepts or premises; I see my discussions as focused on other issues.

Yes, most people have moral wants. These aren’t all or even most of what people want, but moral considerations do influence what people (including me) want. Yes, these moral wants are relevant for many acts. But people disagree about the weight and even direction that moral considerations push on many of these acts, and I don’t see myself as especially good at or interested taking sides in arguments about such weights and directions. I instead mostly seek other simple robust considerations to influence beliefs and wants about acts.

Bryan seems to think that my being a good moralist by his lights argues against my “dealism” focus on identifying social policies that can get most everyone more of what they want, instead of taking sides in defined moral battles, wherein opposing sides make conflicting and often uncompromising demands. It seems to me that I in fact do work better by not aligning myself clearly with particular sides of established tug-o-wars, but instead seeking considerations that can appeal broadly to people on both sides of existing conflicts.

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  • Kevin Erdmann

    Illuminating the subtle distinction between loyalty and morality is about the most important thing a moralist could do. And it’s very important, since the worst moralizing comes from a lack of understanding about this distinction.

  • Cahokia

    Robin: “But people disagree about the weight and even direction that moral considerations push on many of these acts, and I don’t see myself as especially good at or interested taking sides in arguments about such weights and directions.”

    Yet elsewhere you seem to have very much taken a side about such weights and directions, namely when you declare in the post “Why Not Sell Cities?”:

    “Actually difficult people don’t have to live anywhere. If people are so difficult that the sum of what they can earn plus their assets plus what charity others will give them still isn’t enough to get any place to take them, it isn’t clear that they should exist.”

    • “It isn’t clear” is exactly a statement of not taking sides. Of course you might insist that your side is so obviously right than anyone who is even unsure if you are right must be evil.

      • I find this response disingenuous.

        To test it, apply the premise if someone were to utter, “It isn’t clear that Robin Hanson should exist.” Or to, “it isn’t clear that [choose your ethnicity] should exist.

        To claim that whether folks should exist is a reasonable consideration in a discussion of their welfare is to take a very extreme ideological (moralistic) position.

      • I take you as saying your side is so obviously right that even to be uncertain is to be evil.

      • Dain

        Introducing doubt and uncertainty is, to your opposition, simply a more arcane and subtle way of being the enemy.

        It’d be more believable that Hanson is nobody’s “moralist” if he were speaking primarily to issues placed upstream that were equally applicable to conservatives and liberals. But since the zeitgeist is with the left, taking an above-it-all stance with the issues of the day places one in the conservative camp.

      • Two distinct questions here: 1) is Hanson a moralist? and 2) Does Hanson take an unpopular moral position? You say question 2) has biased or even swallowed question 1).

        We’ve defined “moralist” as someone who uses moral arguments (as opposed to factual arguments robust to moral considerations). In the instance Cahokia brought up, Hanson made a moral argument the fulcrum of decision concerning the welfare of “undesirables.” I don’t understand the stubbornness in conceding he was a moralist in this instance. This seems to have been embarrassing, which I take to show some element of misdirection. I might call Robin a crypto-moralist.

        Surely I see the point that Hanson often appears amoral. An amoral moralist? I can almost see why you see this as some kind of leftist demonization. But as with all good crypto anythings, Hanson’s moral position is complex and hardly transparent. I would say he is essentially an agnostic on moral realism. But his moralism on undesirables shows how it is an unusual kind of agnosticism, as he expressly invokes moral uncertainty as an argument.

      • No, “evil” is your category (if anyone here’s), certainly not mine.

        What I’m arguing is that to condition the welfare of a set of people on an assessment of their moral value (whether they “should exist”) is to be a moralist–and to be one in a very extreme way.

      • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

        ” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2012 annual point-in-time count found that 633,782 people across America were homeless.” What range of of actions do you mean your “it isn’t clear that they should exist” to encompass? What actions are you regarding as acceptable possibilities?

      • arch1

        Robin, in the unlikely event that I ever run for office, would you please oppose me?

      • That would have to depend on your positions, or track record.

      • Peter David Jones

        I might well. It was, for instance a ery blatant case if treating people as means, not ends.

  • I agree that these arguments address actions about which many people have moral feelings. But I don’t see myself as focused on moral concepts or premises; I see my discussions as focused on other issues.

    This is lacking in “legendary candor.” Whether you’re a moralist or not depends on whether your intent is to change people’s ethical beliefs. [Or do you think it morally permissible to try to change people’s moral sensibilities while trying to purvey a contrary impression?]

    By the way, Robin, do you think it’s true that you have changed hundreds: in their moral convictions rather than in the way they argue for them?

  • charlie

    Don’t know why the quality of the argument determines whether or not one is a moralist rather than the subject matter or intent behind the argument (one could be an ineffective/effective moralist).

    Surely a moralist is one who spends lots of time and words labeling certain behaviors as moral/immoral and urging people to adopt their definitions. Another characteristic would be that moralists are prone to frame issues in good v. evil narratives.

    • I could accept that definition as well. In this post I was following Bryan’s lead in how to use the term.

  • Omegaile

    Robin Hanson’s morality is not about morality.

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