Bryan Caplan  

Hanson on Morality

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In other news, my debating partner Robin Hanson has come up with the least plausible moral principle since "Might makes right":
[U]sually 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.  But then he could have just as easily said, "What people do is usually fine."  The problem with both principles is that they don't tell us anything about what isn't fine.  If there's anything we learn from the Austrian action axiom, it's that everybody always does what they want, to get what they want.

It turns out, then, that Robin's entire moral theory hinges on the word "usually."  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?  As far as I understand Robin, all he can say is, "Let's make a deal," "I don't want that," or "OK" - even in response to Hitler or Hannibal Lecter.  Robin calls this "moral minimalism," but I'm afraid his "moral minimum" turns out to be zero.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Murraymises writes:

This post reminded of a question I had about something you wrote a while back. In your intellectual biography, you said: "Mises and Rothbard saw no role for quantifiable probabilities outside of games of chance and actuarial tables.[2] They insisted that it was impossible to assign numerical probabilities to unique events."

I was just wondering what you make of Taleb's recent work on unique events and the impossibility, as he argues, of assigning "numerical probabilities" to them. Or, at least, that is how I understood his recent discussion on EconTalk.

Second, if you had to recommend one book on economics to a high school student just getting his or her feet wet in the subject what would you suggest? I thought of Economics in One Lesson, but worried it might be too strident.

Thanks.

Tom B. writes:

Reminds me of an essay by Fred Foldvary (at http://www.foldvary.net/works/ue1.html) defining a "universal ethic". His essay argues that:
1. An act is good if and only if it benefits others.
2. An act is evil if and only if it coercively harms others by initiating a direct, actual invasion.
3. All other acts are neutral.
4. If an act includes good and evil elements, the good does not cancel out the evil.

Robin doesn't go quite so far. As you suggest, his thought seems incomplete.

Randy writes:

Tom B,

Interesting, but, what is the quantitative difference between my action that benefits me and my action that benefits someone else? None that I can see, so I don't see the point in declaring that good must be for an other. The same concept follows to item 2. Certainly there are times where my action may benefit me at the expense of another, that is, the same action could be good and evil. Number 4 becomes irrelevent, which leaves me with only a modified number 3. All acts are neutral.

El Presidente writes:

Bryan,

I hope this isn't offensive, but his doesn't seem that much different from yours. Both of you are basically either appealing to relativism or to the notion that individuals are self-sufficient moral authorities rather than collaborating moral agents. I gather this from your statement:

"The strength of my position is precisely that I’m not offering you a phony seventeen-step “proof that murder is normally wrong.” Instead, I begin with concrete, specific cases where morality is obvious, and reason from there. I don’t have a mathematical formula like “Maximize the sum of willingness to pay.” That’s OK. Unlike Robin, I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong."

To me, that's like Potter Stewart describing obscenity, specifically hard-core pornography, in Jacobellis v. Ohio:

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Les writes:

What about Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, which says do only what you would want others to do to you - in other words do only what you would wish to be a universal rule - also known as the Golden Rule - more technically known as deontology (Greek word for "duty").

Robin Hanson writes:

Preference utilitarianism is the same as goodness of outcome being an increasing function of each person's utility of that outcome. For most scenarios where we imagine only one person cares about the outcomes, our usual moral intuition is that the best outcome is the outcome that one person wants most. That implies goodness of outcome being locally increasing in that person's utility.

RL writes:

Bryan writes: "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 I'm sure Bryan remembers the Nozickian argument about marrying one's wife not violating the rights of one's wife's second-favored suitor, despite the fact you'd be preventing the suitor from getting what they want, hand of fair maiden.

So while I agree he's getting to the problem with Robin's position, I don't think he has fully articulated his own.

Peter writes:

Ethical systems must be inconsistent or incomplete. Usually they are both.

Most forms of human ethics are ad hoc agglomerations that make less sense the longer they survive.

The seeds of recurrent ethical systems are innate in human genetics. Socialism, democracy, monarchy, warlordism, keep popping up through history.

Constitutional republicanism with limits on central power was something new. Obama is having none of that, however. No limits for this gang.

Robin Hanson writes:

I replied here.

mattmc writes:

It does remind one of Aristotle's Golden Mean...sure, don't do anything too much, but how much is too much?

I think the broad point is that the PURPOSE of a moral system should be to ensure that people get what they want. This is to contrast with moral systems that start with a bunch of historical axioms, which aren't universally agreed upon.

Of course, the content of the moral system is TBD, but the principle seems to be a good one.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

There are people who prevent others from doing/getting what they want for no other reason than to satisfy their desire to control others.

I guess that people who engage in such behavior could rationalize that by satisfying their egos, they are acting in their own self-interest; but wouldn't the negative affects of the physical, financial and emotional harm to others caused by such self-interest far outweigh the positive impact on that person's ego?

Les writes:

I think it is difficult to disagree with Rabbi Hillel's famous 3 questions:

If I am not for myself, who will be?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

ws1835 writes:

At the risk of sounding like a simpleton....

I would suggest as a first principle that one must accept the intrinsic selfishness of all humanity. Not exactly a big stretch since most moral philosophers have subscribed to a similar theme. Once you accept that basic truth, the task of a society is to define what is acceptable in terms of implementing the individual's selfish urges and then regulate those urges accordingly.

In defining what is acceptable, there are two broad perspectives that prevail from age to age. Some societies restrain individual action in an attempt to balance each individual's rights and perogatives (golden rule oriented). Other societies allow the strongest interest to prevail (might makes right oriented).

How a society justifies its choice between these two approaches varies widely. Might be morals, might be legal, might be the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. Not sure it really makes a difference in the end result.

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