Bryan Caplan  

Do Normative Economists Need Explicit Moral Premises?

Earthquake Science... Caplan's Talk in Sweden...
At the Mont Pelerin Society, the Swedish economist who commented on my paper criticized me for stealth utilitarianism.  Since economics by itself has no policy implications, any economist who gives policy advice requires a moral premise.  Since I didn't explicitly endorse any moral premise, he concluded that I was blithely taking utilitarianism for granted.

Most of my reply was fairly obvious: (1) Of course you need moral premises to give policy policy; (2) I'm not a utilitarian; and (3) You don't have to be a utilitarian to accept my policy advice.  Yet in the process of saying the obvious, I realized something: In many cases, there is no need to state your moral premise, because (economics + almost any moral premise) will do. 

Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich.  What moral premise would imply "don't legalize"?  Sheer malevolence?  Blind adoration of the status quo?  While these are coherent moral premises, they're so rare that addressing them is a waste of time.

Think about it this way: If a doctor told you to wash your hands, would anyone demand to hear his "moral premise"?  If you can prevent serious disease with ten seconds of your time and a penny of soap and water, exactly what moral premise would raise doubts about the propriety of hand washing?  Yes, it's trivial to produce logically consistent answers to this question; try the moral premise that "washing hands is infinitely evil."  Frankly, though, who cares about people who morally oppose hand washing?  If a view is both ridiculous and rare, why don't we just silently note that "the marginal benefit of merely acknowledging its existence is less than the marginal cost" - and leave it at that?

I grant that popular moral premises occasionally give conflicting policy recommendations.  But if an economist finds that protectionism sharply reduces economic growth and hurts the poor, or that labor market regulations increase unemployment and reduce happiness, he might as well go ahead and condemn these policies without apology - and without further explanation.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Brandon writes:

Of course you do--I'm not even sure I understand the post. There are plenty of economists who recommended the bailouts on utilitarian grounds--and they may even have been right that the bailouts were a good idea from the perspective of saving us from economic collapse.

And yet it's still possible to say, "the bailouts were repulsive, I disagree with them, and I will never say they were a good idea despite what would have happened in their absence."

Isn't it?

Not to mention any normative system, i.e. Marxism, Christianity, Islam, for which material wealth tends to incur spiritual costs.

Barkley Rosser writes:

What? Name calliing at the Mont Pelerin Society??? Good heavens.

Repeat after me: I am not a utilitarian, I am not a utilitarian, I am not a utilitarian...

El Presidente writes:

An economist can make the leap between policy as it relates to present circumstances and policy as it relates to future circumstances, but they should be very careful in doing so. As Keynes said, "When the facts change, I change my mind." That isn't a moral relatvist's argument. It is a far more subtle and respectable position.

That is to say, we know certain things about how policies affect outcomes, but we don't know everything. We know that in the first instance and under certain circumstances a given policy will tend to produce one set of outcomes, and in other circumstances it will tend to produce the opposite or something entirely different. Without a goal/objective of moral consequence, the theorist is left to wonder which way to push. If he decided that the pushing is righteous and that experience recommends a particular direction, he may be suckered into believing that one must always push and always in that particular direction, no matter what consequence might result.

I believe this is the crux of the recurring disagreement between contributors here and Mr. Krugman. He used to suggest one set of policies and now he is said to suggest another (I think this is inaccurate, but that's the claim). That can be entirely consistent with respect to a goal when circumstances change, but not with respect to policies as ends in and of themselves. Either we are pursuing outcomes or we are pursuing policies. Which is it?

If we are pursuing policies, we are fundamentalists. If we are pursuing outcomes, we are pragmatists. Both can be equally disturbing and equally wrong in a moral sense. But, if we know which one we tend to be we will know in which manner we are most likely to be mistaken or offensive. Thus the wise counsel: "Know thyself", and, "Nothing to excess".

hacs writes:

1). "Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. What moral premise would imply "don't legalize"?"

H). Assuming a forward-looking, perfect foresight, rational individual, so, why are moral premises so important?

For each decision problem there are options, which are defined by environmental parameters and constraints, as by other individuals, and chain effects, which can be visibles - pollution, climate changes, etc. - or invisibles - incentives, fear, politics, etc. -, working heterogeneously on the environment and individuals, including the own decisor.

When someone is confronted to a given decision problem with given options, causing certain chain effects, it is natural to act reflectively questioning the hidden motivations which have given birth to that situation. Questions as "do I need to choose?", "are those options all the existent alternatives?", etc., come naturally to the mind, and the answers to them often remit to moral questions.

In (1) that is very clear because a market in human organs can be good if it is the best existent solution to make poor people richer or sick people healthier, from a broad standpoint, thinking outside of that specific situation. If not, there are serious moral questionings to be made about that. Besides, that mechanism can imply a market of life time, flowing life time from the poor healthy people to the rich sick people, an eugenic ideal. Moreover, all that licentiousness authorizing the alienability of life to promote what? Free market? An economic mechanism? Or free market like arguments intending an eugenic plutocracy?

In other words, there are many human made situations, and given that, yes, their moral premises need to be explicited.

The comments above assumed (H), but many other points could be made if (H) was false.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I think any cost-benefit analysis presumes some utilitarian argument. It might really bother me to wash my hands, or more realistically,to give up my job by allowing cheap imports that generate $10 of economic surplus for each dollar I make. These seem bad reasons, but that assumes some regularity about interpersonal comparisons of utility, does it not?

Pamela JSW writes:

This position is somewhat oversimplified, I'm afraid. You write:

"Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. What moral premise would imply "don't legalize"? Sheer malevolence? Blind adoration of the status quo? While these are coherent moral premises, they're so rare that the cost of addressing them is a waste of time."

There are a number of moral principles at least worth considering that would endorse not legalizing markets for organs, even in the case that legalizing would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. Natural law theorists might reject the selling (or even giving) of one's organs as contrary to the inviolable value of life. Kantians might try to argue that to use people as sources of organs fails to treat them as ends-in-themselves. Or, a moral philosopher could worry that, in the absence of sufficient alternate choices for making a living, the decision to sell an organ is not free enough to be morally unproblematic (and that receipt of compensation does not mitigate the injustice).

Now, certainly there are applies available to all of those objectors. Natural law theory is kind of deficient in general. A Kantian could also argue that NOT to allow someone to sell her organs is what really fails to treat her as an end-in-herself. And, there is good reason to think that in a generally freer world, people would indeed have more choices regarding how to make a living, so that all or nearly all instances of organ selling were morally unproblematic.

I hope this has gone to show that there is plenty of work to be done in order to defend and elucidate an economist's prima facie moral premises that is not a "waste of time."

Peter Twieg writes:

There are so many possible "acceptable" (non-exotic, to borrow Will's term) moral principles to invoke that I think Bryan ends up underestimating the space of moral statements which people can at least convince themselves are supportable through some combination of these principles.

Granted, many of these statements may not stand up to much inquiry ("so you support sex changes... and abortion... and being able to sell sperm/eggs... but not being able to sell a kidney?"), but this process of challenging moral beliefs isn't economics. Ultimately, I think this is just one of the rare moments where Bryan ends up having too much faith in people and underestimates their ability to make up deontological principles that favor their pre-conceived policy stances when the relevant consequentialist principles are shown to no longer apply.

hacs writes:

That is really a mess.

The understanding that

"It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the
concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil."

"On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life."

"The standard is the organism’s life, or: that
which is required for the organism’s survival."

"No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is."

"that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

"This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is
good if it is intended for one’s own benefit."

make difficult to sell life (of course, everyone is free to disagree of those ideas).

All the passages above were extracted from The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand.

Joe writes:


Isn't the objection here not so much that you're assuming the truth of utilitarianism on top of your economic analysis and more that most forms of economic analysis already presuppose utilitarianism?

I mean, consider two propositions:

(1) All goods are commensurable.
(2) Money is a reasonable proxy for all values.

It seems that you really need to assume that both of these claims are true just to get something as straightforward as a cost-benefit analysis off the ground. But both of those propositions are fairly contentious among moral theorists. Certainly any utilitarian will agree to them. But one of the central insights of virtue theory is that there is a whole range of diverse goods which can't really be directly compared. And the Kantian simply denies that some goods (freedom, say) can be exchanged for other goods.

And that's even before we get started on (2), which is contentious even among fellow-utilitarians.

So if you really think that policy just falls out from the right CBA, then it has to be because you've already assumed the truth of (1) and are hence smuggling in your utilitarianism. If, OTOH, you think that there are some values that aren't adequately captured by a CBA, or if you think that some values can't be trumped by a CBA, then your thesis that policy is independent of moral theory is false.

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