Bryan Caplan  

Haunted By the Hitler Hypothetical

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When you play with fire, you get burned.  And when you philosophize with hypotheticals involving Nazis, you get misrepresented.  In the Caplan-Hanson debate, I began:

Let me begin with a disclaimer: Despite his moral views, Robin is an incredibly nice, decent person...

Nevertheless, Robin endorses an endless list of bizarre moral claims.  For example, he recently told me that "the main problem" with the Holocaust was that there weren't enough Nazis!  After all, if there had been six trillion Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere six million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.

Let's consider another example.  Suppose the only people in the world are Hannibal the millionaire, a slave trader, and 10,000 penniless orphan slaves.  The slave trader has no direct use for his slaves, but likes money; Hannibal, on the other hand, is a ravenous cannibal.  According to Robin, the "optimal outcome" is for Hannibal to get all 10,000 orphans and eat them.
When the Faith Heuristic responds to this transcript, he seems to take my side: Contrary to a lot of economists, there's more to right and wrong than efficiency.
Consider slavery. There is an unavoidable tradeoff between letting slaves keep the fruits of their own labor and having that go to the slave owners. How does the Law and Economics crowd respond?

I've always assumed, wrongly it appears, that they would argue that the slaves could never be the least cost avoider. But I stand corrected. I learned in the debate that they would bite the bullet and accept slavery and genocide.
The last paragraph is strange.  If you tell a person, "Your view implies that if slaves were the least cost avoider, then slavery would be justified," the non-bullet-biting response is "My view doesn't imply that."  Contrary to Faith Heuristic, "Slaves could never be the least cost avoider," is an example of bullet-biting.

Still, I wouldn't say that FH is misrepresenting either side in the Caplan-Hanson debate.  It is unfortunate, then, that Brad DeLong excerpts and edits the last paragraph to make it sound like Robin and I both accept the very position I attacked Robin for holding!  Brad's version:
I've always assumed, wrongly it appears, that [libertarians] would argue that the slaves could never be the least cost avoider. But I stand corrected. I learned in the debate that they would bite the bullet and accept slavery and genocide...
Notice: In Faith Heuristic's original post, "they" clearly refers to "the Law and Economics crowd," not libertarians in general.  (Earlier in the post, FH notes notes that Law and Economics is a "school of libertarianism," but that doesn't change the referent of the passage Brad quotes).

Still, isn't Brad correct to point out that at least one self-styled libertarian endorses monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals?  True, but it's awfully misleading.  It would be better to say that all consequentialists endorse monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals, and some libertarians are consequentialists.  The same is true, of course, of every other political philosophy I'm aware of.  Libertarians have our Robin Hanson, and social democrats have their Peter Singer.  These bullet-biters can sound pretty scary, but I've known my share.  In practice they're often thought-provoking and almost always harmless.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Andy Wood writes:

The obvious question asks itself: Which monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals do you endorse?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Still, isn't Brad correct to point out that at least one self-styled libertarian endorses monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals?" -Bryan Caplan

Yes, that is true. So what? Some social democrats (of the Rawlsian flavor) admit that their theory of justice reduces to the "dictatorship of the worst off man". That doesn't mean that you can dismiss social democracy outright.

Justin Martyr writes:

Hi Bryan, If I had known that a post on such a little-trafficked blog would attract so much attention I would have taken more effort to be clear! I thought I was just adding a little color commentary until DeLong linked to it.

My general point is that I side with Caplan in the debate. I think you have to start with secure cases of concrete moral intuitions and build a theory of morality around that, even if it isn't quite as parsimonious. Sometimes that theory may force you to reanalyze one of those secure cases, but I do think you need to start with concrete moral intuitions. Thus I think the Law and Economics crowd is mistaken for cleaving so tightly to the principle of efficiency.

Having said that I also found Friedman's argument against the efficiency of slavery persuasive.

Justin Martyr writes:

P.S. Non-consequentialists have their their troubling aburdities too. Suppose Dr. Evil gets an earth destroying technology (or at least a bunch of nukes) and threatens to use it unless you kill one innocent person. Do you stand by your principles and let the human race go extinct?

The intuition-saving option is to define a right to life in consequentialist terms. The right of an innocent person to be free of intentionally being killed is worth X utils. A life is worth 1 util. Thus intentionally killing someone is morally justified when it saves more than X lives. Define your X such that it corresponds to your moral intuitions.

Bryan Caplan writes:

It's true that non-consequentialist theories *can* require monstrous actions. But unlike consequentialist theories, they don't *have* to.

For example, on a non-consequentialist view like that of W.D. Ross, we have many *prima facie* moral duties, but they're all defeasible.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Justin Martyr,
if Dr. Evil kidnapped and put you in a hospital bed hooked up to a machine that was going to kill you to save the world's greatest violinist (who has also been kidnapped and has no willing involvement in the evil scheme), would taking the opportunity to escape be "monstrous" on your part, or would the whole thing simply be monstrous on the part of Dr. Evil? I'd say the later, and employ parallel reasoning in your hypothetical, although there is probably a trolley version that escapes this reasoning.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Andy Wood,
I'd respond that Bryan's pursuit of anarchism is "monstrous" by common (by which I mean "wrong") standards.

Justin Martyr writes:

Hiya Josh,

It would not be wrong to try to escape if you could do so without hurting anyone. But what if Dr. Evil (or the society of music lovers) chained you in such a way that the only way you could loosen the chains was by first killing the violinist? Would it then be morally permissible to kill an innocent person on a rights-based view?

Joshua Lyle writes:

Justin Martyr,
sorry, I meant to frame the situation such that escape would lead directly to the violinist's death and not escaping would lead directly to yours but was not clear. I do escaping to valid moral choice under those circumstances.

Andy Wood writes:

I'd respond that Bryan's pursuit of anarchism is "monstrous" by common (by which I mean "wrong") standards.

I'm not sure that answer quite fits. The disagreement in that case is over how an anarcho-capitalist society would really turn out: a Hobbesian war of all against all, Mafia-like protection rackets oppressing people, or protection agencies peacefuly maintaining law and order?

In Bryan's hypothetical there isn't any disagreement over the facts - there are enough Nazis to outbid the Jews in the utilitarian calculation. The disagreement is over whether, in that situation, the Holocaust would have been acceptable.

I'm curious whether any particular ethical theory can be proven not to endorse monstrous actions in weird hypotheticals.

Robin Hanson writes:

I provide a bit of clarification here.

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