Arnold Kling  

Robin Hanson on Ethics

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He 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... Beware the easy confidence of advising worlds far from your knowledge or consequence.

Read the whole thing.

Suppose that we over-estimate our ability to make ethical judgments about distant problems. Think about the implications this would have for our political behavior.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
jb writes:

Well, if we can't properly craft solutions for distant problems, that would call our expertise into question. And if our expertise is in question, our right to control other people's lives is suspect. And if our right to control other people's lives is suspect, that would diminish our status as Elites. And we can't have that!

So Hanson is wrong, of course. We are perfectly capable of telling redneck southerners how to live their lives and what to think. It's for their own good, after all.


Kurbla writes:

He is right - that we easily make premature conclusions about distant world. And that we should think more about close problems. But not here:

    "I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better."

It is not that people have fixed energy for ethics, and they already spend all energy they have on a daily basis, so it is smart to rationate. Maybe few are doing that, but for majority, it would be better to think more about both close and distant ethical problems.


CJ Smith writes:

Hanson's article merely states the obvious, and your comment on how it relates to politics should be self-evident to anyone who has ever had to do any type of forecasting or historical analysis for a governmental entity.

Any time someone considers something outside "now," they have to make assumptions and simplifications, to make the problem understandable, and to aid in analysis. "Now" also encompasses both physical distance and time. The farther from "now," the more dramatic the simplifications become. The assumptions underlying economics provide some great examples - market participants are always rational, always act in their own self-interest, and always act to create an efficient market, etc. Each of these base-line assumptions had been either criticized or proven wrong when applied to "real world" situations for being overly simplified or invalid assumptions.

Hanson's bum is just such an example - an oversimplified forecast creating a normative assertion that may not survive a real world test. In concept, charity is a moral good, so help the bum out if you are able to. In reality, that moral good is often outweighed by numerous collateral considerations not incorporated into the normative assertion - will your act of charity be perceived as an insult; will it create personal safety concerns; will you need the money you donate today for food tommorrow; will your act encourage sloth and apathy rather than self-reliance and motiviation, etc.

Hanson presumes that people who don't give to the bum are merely making ex-post justifications for not following his normative imperative. In fact, they may just be demonstrating that real world situations in the "now" are exceeding more complex and difficult to analyze than "from far away."

Applied to politics? ROFLMAO! Anyone who has ever attended a government meeting can answer that one - the overly optimistic assumptions, the inability or outright refusal to consider contingency planning or worst-case scenarios, the massive oversimplifications (aside - was the financial bail-out really so simple and immediate that it could be addressed by a plan laid out in a three page memorandum?), and the hubris of the "we know what's best" attitudes.

CJ Smith writes:

In reviewing my prior post and Hanson's article, I realized something - I was merely restating the first four paragraphs of Hanson's article. The prior comments appear to have also made similar restatements. Why?

We're all responding to the October 29th addition, which directly conflicts with the prior article! Hanson spends 4 four paragraphs talking about the problems of making ethical decisions and normative imperatives from oversimplifications and assumptions, and then concludes by asserting a normative imperative based on a single moral consideration.

Now I have to wonder if both Hanson and Dr. Kling were merely being ironic and suckered all of us.

Nathan Smith writes:

The Iraq War is a good example of people over-estimating their ability to make ethical judgments about distant problems. A lot of people just assumed that "war" and "imperialism" are bad things and that you can't impose democracy and one nation shouldn't dominate another, etc., etc. These are very ignorant views. Saddam's Iraq was a brutal totalitarian state than which hardly any post-war outcome could be worse, and it *is* possible for one nation to benefit another by dominating it temporarily and imposing democracy, as history (in the form of post-WWII Germany and Japan) shows.

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