Bryan Caplan  

Cowen on Moral Intuitionism

PRINT
Hanson's Pragmatic Pacifism... The Economy in Transition...
Tyler Cowen writes:

I am a moral realist and intuitionist, as is Bryan, but my view on applications is very different.

[...]

...Bryan wants to "coin" a large number of (non-trivial) moral truths this way, such as his claim that taxation is morally wrong for violating the precepts of common sense morality ("don't take things from other people").  Last I looked, a lot of common sense people support taxation and the interpretation of common sense maxims depends very much on context. 
I actually don't disagree with this point.  Common sense does both oppose theft and support taxation.  My response: Once we recognize the conflict between these two common sense premises, intuition also helps us resolve it. 

Our intuition against theft creates a moral presumption against taxation.  To defend taxation, you've got to point to differences between taxation and ordinary theft that are strong enough to overcome that presumption.  Plenty are on the table, from "Society could not otherwise survive" to "People should pay for what benefits them" to "Taxation solves a mild free rider problem."  Once someone advances one or more of these arguments, we can then both (a) intuit whether they would be strong enough to justify ordinary theft, and (b) see how empirically plausible they are.

Since Tyler is an avowed moral intuitionist, I can't fathom why he is so unwilling to actually play this game.  Of course our intuitions often clash; but the wise intuitionist response isn't to throw up our hands, but use further intuition - and empirical evidence - to reach a consistent and intuitively plausible conclusion.
 

Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (28 to date)
ajb writes:

The problem is that the very process of conscious ratiocination leads to a misspecification of many ideas and leads us to abandon strong intuitions for facile reasoning. The more Aspergery you are, the more you tend to be value clearly articulated mechanisms over the pull of socially powerful but fuzzy and seemingly contradictory impulses. Yes, it makes sense to understand the rational sources of these impulses, but too often intellectuals are content to abandon intuition for reasoning in an arbitrary and often foolish way.

RobertB writes:

Aren't you assuming that your moral intuitions are describing some coherent body of principles? For example, you say people's moral intuitions are in conflict about taxation, but they're not. People don't simultaneously think that taxation is right and wrong, they think taxation is right and stealing is wrong. Obviously whatever brain hardware spits out moral intuitions just puts the two scenarios into different classes and applies different rules. End of story, there's nothing to resolve.

Jason writes:

Theft isn't always wrong. If its the only way to feed your starving family, it can be morally justified.

By analogy taxation is not always wrong for similar reasons.

Jeff G. writes:

It seems to me if you're willing to sort through empirical evidence, you cease being a moral intuitionist, at least by any sense of the word intuition I've ever encountered, i.e. intuition => instinct/immediate perception.

Doc Merlin writes:

"Of course our intuitions often clash; but the wise intuitionist response isn't to throw up our hands, but use further intuition - and empirical evidence - to reach a consistent and intuitively plausible conclusion."

For some, the claim of moral intuitionism is just to avoid self-examining one's moral tenants.

Constant writes:
to avoid self-examining one's moral tenants.

As long as they pay rent, you should not examine them too closely...

Andy Hallman writes:

The doubts from the commenters should be answered after reading a few ethical intuitionist texts, such as Michael Huemer's book "Ethical Intuitionism," which Bryan has mentioned numerous times. The fifth chapter of the book is online and can be read here

RobertB, people do not simultaneously think taxation is both right and wrong. They may have an intuition that taxation is just, but also an intuition that theft is wrong. Caplan is arguing that the intuition that stealing is wrong is stronger, and the proponents of taxation do not adequately show how taxation differs from theft, which means we should also think taxation is wrong since taxation is theft and our intuition against theft is stronger than our intuitions about taxation.

Jason, intuitionists do not believe that our intuitions are inerrant, merely that we are justified in believing them. We presume them to be true unless further evidence comes in to discredit them. In that case, the intuition still constitutes evidence, but we cease to believe it because the evidence against it is stronger, which is itself grounded in intuitions.

Jeff, an intuition is exactly as you describe: the way something seems prior to reasoning. Intuitionists do not believe that intutions represent the end of moral reasoning, simply the beginning.

Doc Merlin, there is nothing about moral intuitionism that removes our duty to examine our intuitions to see how they may be in error.

Vladimir writes:

Bryan Caplan:
To defend taxation, you've got to point to differences between taxation and ordinary theft that are strong enough to overcome that presumption.

That's easy: the state owns the land you live, move, and work on, and you pay taxes as rent. Yes, compared to most instances of "ordinary" rent, the bill is complicated and irrational, and the subsequent use of these funds even more so. However, this happens to please the sovereign landlord, and if you don't like it, you can get out.

Now of course, you would argue that there is some essential moral difference between a private and a sovereign landowner, but now the ball is in your court to justify this distinction that to me seems rather scholastic.

This is also why your attempts to portray deporting illegal immigrants as cruel and immoral fall flat. You're not a mushy-headed leftist who claims it's always wrong to "hunt [people] down like animals and cast them back... from whence they came." If people squat on your property, or even a huge property of some billionaire or a private corporation, you would have no problem at all with hunting them down and throwing them out. Like with rent vs. taxation, here you switch your sense of wrongness on and off whenever the arbitrary boundary between land ownership and sovereignty is crossed, but very few people have the ability and inclination to do so.


Lord writes:

Property is theft.

Handle writes:

And what of people's intuitions on controversial and law-implicating topics such as: Abortion, Homosexuality issues, Death Penalty, etc...?

You probably see the problem. The only thing moral intuitions are good for is when many people already share them, in which case, so what?

"Torturing Babies is Wrong" says Cowen, but that's no different from "Nearly everyone is willing to support a legal rule that outlaws baby-torture".

When moral intuitions collide because of a biomodal distribution and lack of consensus, what can we do with them?

You just end up with absolutism in some areas and valueless relativism in others. This is difference between "everyone is entitled to their own intuitions" (which implies that intuitions are as meaningless as mere taste) and "everyone that doesn't have intuition-X is *wrong*" (which nullifies intuition in general as so fallible as to provide no meaningful guidance."

Or one can choose Solipsism, "Only my intuitions are all perfect and valid." The essence of the dictatorial mindset.

Constant writes:
That's easy: the state owns the land you live, move, and work on, and you pay taxes as rent. ...  If people squat on your property, or even a huge property of some billionaire or a private corporation, you would have no problem at all with hunting them down ...

So which is it? Is the land owned by the private corporation or by the government? Is your point that it's owned by both? So they are co-owners? But then why is the private owner paying what you call "rent" to the state? Or are you saying that the private landowner is a tenant of the state and he is subletting the land when he rents it out? But then why isn't the state charging him the market rate of rent? Instead, the state charges its supposed tenant some tiny fraction of the market rent for his property - which is, interestingly, similar to sales tax, which is also a tiny fraction of the sales price. Strange coincidence that, don't you think? And yet you conclude that the state is the real owner of the land and the private owner is merely the renter. So, applying this to sales, is the state also the real owner of goods and services that are sold, seeing as it charges a sales tax? And what about tariffs that the state charges on imported goods? Does this mean that the state is the owner of those goods - goods which were created in a completely different part of the world? So does each state own the whole world?

So, no. The idea that the state is the "owner" of land is merely an attempt to justify taxation, and one which immediately dissolves into a mess the moment you prod it even lightly.

Now of course, you would argue that there is some essential moral difference between a private and a sovereign landowner, but now the ball is in your court to justify this distinction that to me seems rather scholastic.

The idea is incoherent and doesn't fit the facts. The application to land is ad hoc, doesn't fit the immediate facts (such as the fact that the state does not charge anywhere near the full market value to its supposed tenants) and doesn't extend to other forms of taxation (such as tariffs on imported goods).

john personna writes:

Seems to me Byran's worldview is that of a man who jumped into a modern world fully formed. (A lot of econ is like that. As is old-school AI, perhaps for related reasons.)

Tribal societies have sharing rules, as do (I'm told) simians.

Let's pretend we are rational computers and not pants-wearing monkeys?

john personna writes:

(Perhaps the link I'm sensing to AI is that it's possible to be 'too cognitive.')

Vangel writes:

I am sorry but you have failed to make a convincing argument that taxation is not theft. When 50% one's earned income is taken from you after you reach a certain level of income without your consent you can't call the action anything but theft.

Vladimir writes:

Constant:
Or are you saying that the private landowner is a tenant of the state and he is subletting the land when he rents it out?

In English-speaking countries, that is actually what any private landowner legally is. What is commonly called "owning land" under common law is in fact fee simple, i.e. you're legally a vassal of the Crown, or, in the U.S., of the legally personified government (the "fee" part is just an alternative form of "fief").

As for the income taxes, sales taxes, tariffs, etc., once you grant that the sovereign owns all the land, you must recognize his right to mandate any conditions he pleases for the people who wish to live there, roam around, do business, and bring stuff in and out, no matter how complicated and silly. Private landowners may impose all kinds of regulations and fees for people who want to live on their grounds or even just visit, and their difference from governments is one of degree, not kind. (Especially if they operated under Bryan's favored anarcho-capitalist order!)

Now of course, it's not my intention to develop this into an elaborate political theory. My point is that identifying taxes with theft while at the same time recognizing the right of private landowners to charge rent requires postulating some special difference between the two, and the intuitions of most people aren't going to follow this distinction. (Just like it requires a rather special mental switching ability to feel injustice when illegal immigrants get deported but not when trespassers and squatters get kicked off of private land.)


Jim Ancona writes:

I find the premises behind Vladimir's argument interesting. Let's see:

I pay taxes on my land, but the sovereign actually owns it, so I should think of property taxes as rent.

Similarly, I pay taxes on things I buy, so I guess the sovereign owns them too, and I should thing of sales taxes as a use fee.

I also pay taxes on my income. What's the relevant analogy in that case? That I'm a slave or a serf and must therefore pay the sovereign rent for the use of my own labor?

The US fought a revolution in order to reject that conception of the relationship of citizen to state. You may not think that "taxation is theft", but you will need a better justification than "we are all slaves" to persuade many of us.

twv writes:

Hmmm. Lots of reasons why moral realism and ethical intuitionism are poor avenues for conflict resolution.

I'm a quasi-realist at best, observing that ethics' origins are subjective, its ends are intersubjective, and limitations, objective. We get furthest, I suppose, by examining the limitations of the whole ethical project. "Intuitions" range from subjective desire to control self and others in particular ways, to the end of providing a universal standard based on disinterested perspectives on conflict resolution.

Crucial to the project of sorting out the many, many strains in the ethical emprise is making the right distinctions on every level of the concept grid, from particulars to generalities.

So. Is taxation theft?

Well, taxation is a form of expropriation. Theft is a form of expropriation. We should see why one is often held to have positive normative weight, and the other prohibition-worthy.

One can't decide such issues to general satisfaction without a complete theory of social causation, a fairly complete model of the social order - and its variations, contingent on different norm sets. And results of same.

So, considering most people do not want to do this work, the provisional judgment must be "one can't decide such issues to general (mutual? universal?) satisfaction."

Franz writes:

When intuitions clash, then the obvious move isn't to appeal to further intuitions. By that time intuitions have been exhausted. Then it's time to appeal to reason.

SheetWise writes:
Plenty [of differences between taxation and ordinary theft are] on the table, from "Society could not otherwise survive" to "People should pay for what benefits them" to "Taxation solves a mild free rider problem."

I'm sure society would survive fine, if the government closed down the only people I would miss are the trash collectors and the water works -- both which the market could provide as well as it provides electricity, cable, and Internet.

As far as people paying for what benefits them, that would be a user fee -- that's different. Paying a "tax" on gasoline that pays for the building and maintenance of the roads I use isn't really a tax.

I don't see how taxes can solve a free rider problem -- it seems to me they promote it. Unless we believe that government adds efficiency to the provision of services, the only reason for the government to provide a service with tax revenue is to gather resources from all of the people who don't use the service. Otherwise, we'd all just pay for it ourselves.

SheetWise writes:
Constant: "Instead, the state charges its supposed tenant some tiny fraction of the market rent for his property - which is, interestingly, similar to sales tax, which is also a tiny fraction of the sales price."

If the state charged you sales tax for every year you owned the things you bought, you wouldn't own them either.

Will writes:

The rent is not just property tax! Income tax is a form of rent as well, payroll tax, etc. The state, being a landowner, can charge any form of rent it wants.

You are not a serf, but as your workplace is owned by the state, the state takes a cut of the proceeds. Yes, it's a large cut, but if you don't like it, find a different state!

Daublin writes:

An example of Bryan's approach in the past is the way Harriet Beecher Stowe attacked slavery as an institution. She juxtaposed, among other things, the following intuitions:

- the intuition of the day that slavery is an ordinary and fine part of society

- the intuition that slaves are at least approximately human beings

- the intuition that we should help people that are suffering


Striving for consistency among these different moral intuitions led to real progress in society. In what other cases might this work in the future?

Gene Callahan writes:

"I am sorry but you have failed to make a convincing argument that taxation is not theft. When 50% one's earned income is taken from you after you reach a certain level of income without your consent you can't call the action anything but theft."

Well, yes, you can call it taxation. Which, to most of us, is quite obviously not theft.

Gene Callahan writes:

"Once we recognize the conflict between these two common sense premises, intuition also helps us resolve it."

What if we "recognize" that no such conflict exists?

j r writes:
Our intuition against theft creates a moral presumption against taxation.
This seems empirically wrong. It would imply, for instance, that Scandinavians are more tolerant of being robbed than are Americans. That story might flatter us as libertarians, but it does not seem particularly true.

In general, when people use theft as a metaphor, they are not commenting on the amount of force being wielded, but, rather, on an underwhelming value proposition. If I say, "What Safeway charges for eggs these days is highway robbery," my interlocutor understands that I'm not actually claiming to have been mugged by the cashier. Likewise, when people complain about taxation, most are voicing an objection to being taxed too much in relation to these services they are provided.

Peter writes:

Theft is a thick moral term: saying that x is an act of theft presupposes that it is wrong. So to say that taxation is theft is to say that it is wrong. But no one, including the libertarian, should find anything compelling about this. After all, if someone thinks taxation is moral, then they should obviously not say that taxation is theft. And it is not hard to shore up this position: though taxation involves taking money from a person, if one thinks a form of taxation is morally permissible then one should think that in taxing its citizens the state does not take what is RIGHTFULLY another's. That money is rightfully the state's, and not the citizens'. Repeated libertarian mantras prevent many from seeing that this second position is actually quite sensible. Some of these points are argued for in Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy's book on the morality of taxation.

SheetWise writes:
Peter: Theft is a thick moral term ...

So is "tribute" ... so is "ransom" ... so is "protection" ... so is "offering" ...

Peter writes:

Sheetwise,

Obviously there are lots of thick moral terms, including the ones you list. What is your point? Please spell it out for me. Thanks

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top