Who Owes Who What?

One of the reasons I’ve always shied away from moral questions is that I’ve lacked a relevant analysis system as powerful as those I rely on in many other areas. My thinking has always relied heavily on intellectual systems. Oh sure, one can ask what social norms might evolve culturally or biologically, and which norms might individuals deeply internalize. But that framework seems at quite a distance from our usual moral questions.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a relevant relatively-systematic framework that seems closer to our usual moral questions. And that framework is: debt. Not only is this framework quite ancient, and robustly recognized by most cultures, but it offers some quite clear and concrete prototypical cases on which to build.

For example, if I borrow money from you now, then I owe more money back to you later. Or if I ask a favor from you now, I owe you a comparable favor back later. As these scenarios can be seen as contracts, we can inherit to them our many good principles (elaborated in the field of law and economics) regarding when one may be excused for breaching contracts. And we often extend these concepts to include implicit versions. For example, you often are still seen as owing someone for doing you a favor, even if you didn’t ask for the favor, and even if you explicitly asked them not to do it.

Often when I talk to you, I seem to be promising to tell you the truth, in which case I owe you that truth, and thus owe you more if I instead lie to you. Many other actions seem to have associated expectations to do them in certain ways, so that I owe others more if I fail to meet such expectations. And sometimes when an initially-similar and connected-enough pool of people diverge in terms of later success, we see the more successful as having as later owing something to the less successful; some sort of implicit insurance contract re this risk.

This framing of moral questions in terms of debt seems more local and concrete compared to two other popular frameworks. One such framework asks what actions you have good reasons to choose, while the other asks what rights people have. From the point of view of the debt framework, the reasons framework suppresses the particular parties you have reasons to repay, while the rights framework suppresses who it is exactly that owes you the effort to guarantee these rights. For example, instead of saying that it is good to help sick people get well, or saying that everyone has a right to medical care, we can ask to whom in particular you might owe what sort of medical help, and why.

A few recent Twitter polls of mine found that 4.5 times more people think they owe the world, compared to the world owing them. And their median estimate is that roughly 2/3 of others owe more than they are owed. So many do feel that they and others owe a lot; the urge to repay can drive a lot of moral action.

Here are some other nice features of a debt analysis framework. First, repaying debts seems humbler and less braggy than doing or being good, and thus it induces less envy and contrary responses from others. Yes, you are entitled to go beyond repaying your debts, to do more to be virtuous or to help others, in which case maybe you do claim more virtue and goodness, which yes may induce envious responses.

Second, debt repayment can make sense of partisanship and selective allegiances. If you have had different interactions and relations to different actors, and thus don’t owe them the same amounts, you don’t have to treat them all the same. You can owe your family more than you owe distant foreigners.

Third, a debt framing calls for more flexibility and effectiveness, and less paternalism. If I did you favors re X, you may return the favors re Y, as long as these favors are similarly valuable. And if you owe me $10,000, neither I nor observers may credit you for repayment if you give me magic beans that you say cost this much. Even if you really really believe in magic beans. For debt, the relevant standard is anchored more in what what the party who is owed sees as valuable than in what the party who owes sees as valuable.

Graeber’s book Debt suggests that debt is older than money, and first arose in the context of legal rulings. Interestingly, he and other progressives seek to undermine the moral framing of financial debt, as they see debt default and forgiveness as forms of redistribution. Ironically, they try to convince the rest of us that we owe debtors such forgiveness.

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