Bryan Caplan  

Caplan-Hanson Debate Redux?

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Remember the Caplan-Hanson Liberty v. Efficiency debate?  Robin stood firm for maximizing efficiency in all conceivable circumstances.  I argued, in contrast, that ethical reasoning should begin with simple cases and tentatively generalize:
Sensible moral reasoning begins with concrete, specific cases.  For example: It would be wrong for me to walk over to Robin right now and punch him.  From there, we can start to generalize.  It would probably be wrong for me to walk over and punch any of the people in this room.  At the same time, we can note exceptions.  If Robin had consented to box me, then punching him would be OK.  In fact, it would probably be wrong not to try to punch him, because I'd be cheating you, the audience.
I'm awfully pleased, then, that Robin now writes:
Humans overwhelmed by the social complexities of helping a bum nearby think they know enough about societies far away, so that ethics becomes the main concern there.  I see the same thing in discussions of future biotech or nanotech - ethics becomes the main frame, even though we only have the faintest ideas of how future societies might integrate those techs.  Beware the easy confidence of advising worlds far from your knowledge or consequence.
Does this mean that Robin is giving up on dogmatic efficiency maximization?  I severely doubt it.  He's tentative about knowledge and consequencesGiven knowledge and consequences, however, I bet that he still favors maximizing efficiency no matter what. 

My question: Why is Robin so humble about his factual knowledge, but so confident in his One Moral Principle?


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jason Brennan writes:
Daniel Kuehn writes:

I hadn't seen this before - but I just read your opening statement. Needless to say, I agree with it in it's entirety. My one question is - "how is that libertarianism"? You're really just describing all variants of liberalism. It certainly describes libertarianism too, but if you had just made that opening statements and left out the libertarian reference I never would have known you were a libertarian.

If you accurately related his views on genocide and canibalism, Hanson comes across as a caricature of a position compared to you. But where does that leave us? It seems to leave us concluding that efficiency is important but it should be cognizant of foundational ethics. That seems pretty vague. I think you'll find almost everyone agreeing with that, and yet still having a lot to disagree with each other about.

Justin Martyr writes:

Robin seems to be referring to justice as the outcome of a bargaining problem. Well, consider this bargaining problem. There is a state of nature with a technologically advanced society and a primitive society. The advanced society would like the fruits of the labor of the primitive society. The primitive society disagrees. Thus we have an irreducible tradeoff. The primitive society is the least cost avoider.

What is the efficient thing to do?

I see two responses.

1. Claim that the primitive society could never be the least cost avoider.
2. Bite the bullet and put liberty ahead of efficiency.

Justin Martyr writes:

Well, I sure feel like an idiot. I did not read Caplan's opening until after my comment. As Caplan points out "Robin’s devotion to efficiency is so strong, however, that he will bite any bullet you present." So apparently he takes a third option: slavery and genocide. That is so shocking that I don't even feel comfortable writing it.

Bob Smith writes:

It seems to me that Robin might categorize your outlandish examples (e.g. trillions of Nazis), as examples of "far" worlds that are too different from ours for our moral intuitions to be informative.


Justin Martyr writes:

Hi Bob,

I don't think all those cases are "far" worlds (I like that term by the way - did you create it? Very useful for the unorthodox critical cases). For example, if you set aside morality it might be profitable for a corporation to hire some mercenaries and use slave labor for manufacturing.

Bryn writes:

yeah Justin! I agree with your point of view. They are only useful for those unorthodox critical cases.

Robin Hanson writes:

I don't mean to be very confident in the general rule; I'm just less confident in most case specific intuitions. Such intuitions are usually about *hypothetical* scenarios far away from the person's immediate experience. So they are pretty far. I might trust my personal intuitions about specific concrete situations in which I might find myself, but I haven't been in a very wide range of situations yet.

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