Bryan Caplan  

Morality, Prudence, Desire: A Lexicographic Ordering We Can Live With

PRINT
Patent Law... Single-Payer vs. Socialism...

Economists are deeply suspicious of lexicographic preferences - that is, preferences which are supposed to take absolute precedence over other preferences. "You can't be serious." If you have a lexicographic preference for lifespan over other goods, for example, you would have to spend ALL of your time and other resources protecting yourself, and couldn't take the smallest risk for the largest joy.

But in his new book Ethical Intuitionism, Michael Huemer plausibly argues that everyone ought to have the following lexicographic ordering: (1) morality; (2) prudence; (3) desire. As Huemer explains:

Why does prudence take precedence over desires? Because a prudential judgment, if formed correctly, already takes into account one's present desires. This judgment is not itself a desire, but it is made in the light of a consideration of what one presently desires and how strong such desires are. If one's prudential judgment is that one should act in such a way as not to satisfy some present desire, then one has already evaluated some other end as more important than the satisfaction of that desire. To then proceed to weigh the present desire against that judgment would be an unwarranted double-counting of the desire...

[...]

Now why does morality take precedence over self-interest? The answer, I suggest, is structurally the same: because moral judgment, if formed correctly, already takes self-interest into account...

Thus, if one judges that one is morally required to act against one's own interests on some occasion, that means that one has already weighed one's particular interest in the circumstances against whatever considerations are at stake, and found one's own interest to be outweighed by those other considerations. To then proceed to weigh one's self-interest against that moral judgment would be an unwarranted double-counting of one's own interest...

I'm convinced.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (11 to date)
T.R. Elliott writes:

This guy writes like Hegel. I'm having trouble finding a way to argue with it. I've spent a good part of the last 25 years reading a plethora of western and eastern philosophy, so it's not like I'm not used to reading on topics such as this. But I find his writing and ideas bordering on gibberish. Not quite. But close.

He's basically made a definition: Moral judgements incorporate self-interest. That is his definition of morality. I see no reason to define morality in such a fashion. I understand that an objectivist would orient all philosophical arguments such that they hinge upon the self, or self-interest.

And I love the "if formed correctly" phrase. Definitely self-serving.

Summary: I don't think morality necessarily incorporates self-interest as described in this quote. Though I do think the author of the quote is exhibiting his own self-interest (in his ideology) by making this argument. Unfortunately, I find his argument immoral.

FXKLM writes:

I'm not convinced.

If desire influences prudence and prudence influences morality, then prudence isn't taking precedence over desire and morality isn't taking precedence over prudence. He's suggesting that all three factors are considered simultaneously. I don't see the hierarchy.

conchis writes:

What FXGLM said.

paul writes:

What conchis said....

ps to TS Elliot the only good thing thats come out of Mass. happened in the late 1700s

John T. Kennedy writes:

Bryan,

So do you now disagree with Glen Whitman's conclusions? Seems to me he sought to refute by counter-example any lexicographic preference for morality over prudence. Does his argument fail?

Timothy writes:

He begs the question.

Glen writes:

If Huemer's morality already takes both prudence and desire into account, then it has already dealt with the problem of lexicographic orderings that I discussed in the linked post. Huemer's morality wouldn't make absolutist claims that apply regardless of all consequences, because prudence would rule out such claims.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Glen,

How does the fact that one has weighed one's self-interest rule out absolute moral principles?

John T. Kennedy writes:

Huemer writes:

Thus, if one judges that one is morally required to act against one's own interests on some occasion, that means that one has already weighed one's particular interest in the circumstances against whatever considerations are at stake, and found one's own interest to be outweighed by those other considerations.

Why should I weigh my correctly judged self-interest against any consideration at all?

It can't be in my interest to do so.

Frankly I don't even see *how* I can weigh anything against my correctly judged self-interest.

T.R. Elliott writes:
ps to TS Elliot the only good thing thats come out of Mass. happened in the late 1700s

Actually, I kind of like RADAR. It's cool when flying. And for knocking out German U boats.

I thought the mini-computer was a pretty cool idea as well. For its time.

Patri Friedman writes:

What everyone else said. This is not a lexicographic ordering.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top