Bryan Caplan  

Introduction to Microethics

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When they teach their subject, economists almost always start with microeconomics.  Why?  Because it's easier to reach clear-cut answers when you start small.  Once you know what you're talking about, you can build on it.  When economists can't give their macroeconomics strong microfoundations, they worry.  Those who skip straight to macro have a serious risk of ending up with a bunch of half-baked floating abstractions.

This doesn't mean that starting at the macro level invariably leads to half-baked floating abstractions.  But there is a solid presumption in favor of "micro first" - and this presumption is hardly specific to economics.  The best way to reach clear-cut answers is normally to start small, then build on what you know. 

An immediate implication: If a field (a) focuses on the macro level and (b) has been spinning its wheels for centuries, you should consider the possibility that (a) and (b) are connected.  Ethics is a case in point.  Major ethical theories start big - making sweeping moral claims about all actions for all people.  Utilitarianism is the most obvious example.  But the same goes for Kant, Rawls, and Rand.  And even according to philosophers themselves, the field of ethics hasn't made a lot of progress over the centuries.

My prescription: Ethicists should reallocate most of their effort to microethics.  Start with simple cases where right and wrong are obvious.  Is it wrong to punish an escaped murderer by torturing his infant child?  Is it wrong to welsh on a $20 bet?  Is it wrong to steal an alcoholic's liquor?  To refuse to give all your surplus income away to needy strangers?  Then build from there.  Once you've got these conclusions under your belt, you can move on to slightly harder cases - like movies.  Last night I saw the surprisingly watchable Assassination Games, and I'm still pondering the ethics.

I'm not saying that microethics would instantly resolve macroethical controversies.  (Though perhaps it should).  But a decade of microethical research would do more to advance ethics than another century of academics as usual.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Kevin L writes:

Isn't that the idea behind the Golden Rule, especially the Bible's "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Is the ethics wheel-spinning a result of ignoring the most-taught interpersonal ethical principle in all of history?

Vipul Naik writes:

Is microethics really that widely neglected? For instance, business ethics seems like a branch of microethics. Most religious teachings (and their secular counterparts) are about microethics. Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save seems like microethics. So do the trolley problems (albeit, perhaps they're not the kind of microethics you like).

I think your real complaint is not so much the absence of microethics, but that macroethics isn't informed by microfoundations. This was (I believe) a problem with macroeconomics in the past, too, with its excessive focus on aggregates and statistical trends.

Also, I sense a hidden libertarian agenda: microethical intuitions tend to be much more libertarian than macroethical intitions. So, stronger microfoundations for macroethics would push macroethics in a more libertarian direction. As the author of blog posts such as The Stranger, this may be exactly what you want.

Daniel Klein writes:

Bryan, your message here is extremely congruent with Smith's TMS. I could elaborate quite a bit about why, from the contextuality of propriety; to the whole cast of Part VII (the review of other doctrines and connections to his own); to his critique of the casuists; to the first three (of the four) moral sources being micro-foundational; to the great emphasis throughout on commutative justice, the grammar of which resides only in the "sentence" in the context; to the Solonic aspects of his political outlook; to the centrality of sympathy ...

Matt writes:

Is this different than a call for intuitionism? Start by compiling hypothetical actions that induce intuitive moral judgments, then build of from there. This is somewhat similar to Rawls' reflective equilibrium.

The problem is--what if our intuitions about a variety of small cases are wrong or contradictory? I can't think of another domain of knowledge where peoples' intuitions are unerringly correct, or can be synthesize in a consistent manner; I would assume that this applies to ethics as well. Even microeconomics starts from a set of extremely broad, generally applicable axioms about preference and choice. Microeconomics is closer to utilitarianism than to your version of microethics.

Ken B writes:

Hear, hear. We always know more about the specific case at ahnd than the putative general principles, much less their exceptions.

Matt writes:

Is this different than a call for intuitionism? Start by compiling hypothetical actions that induce intuitive moral judgments, then build of from there. This is somewhat similar to Rawls' reflective equilibrium.

The problem is--what if our intuitions about a variety of small cases are wrong or contradictory? I can't think of another domain of knowledge where peoples' intuitions are unerringly correct, or can be synthesize in a consistent manner; I would assume that this applies to ethics as well. Even microeconomics starts from a set of extremely broad, generally applicable axioms about preference and choice. Microeconomics is closer to utilitarianism than to your version of microethics.

DougT writes:

And, in the era of neuroeconomics and behavioral finance, what microeconomic principals can we agree upon? It seems that a devolution to microethics begs for a neural, reductionistic approach to morality. But that is just another application of philosophical materialism, and we're back to Aristotle vs. Plato all over again.

You'd think, after 2500 years, we might have learned something.

Ted Craig writes:

"Is it wrong to steal an alcoholic's liquor?"

Let's say the alcoholic dies from seizures caused by the withdrawl. Was it wrong then?

I'm not sure your simplicity exists.

Nathan Smith writes:

I agree, and I would call the microethical starting point natural rights.

Zubon writes:

How do you answer microethical questions? If two intuitions differ, which do you privilege? Do we poll?

Trolley problems seem to show the problems with ethical intuitions, and it is hard to get much more micro than "is it okay to pull a switch and kill/not X people in circumstances Y?" People disagree with each other and even themselves.

Your next post quotes someone whose ethical intuition is that a single pinprick makes your entire life worse than not existing. If we cannot agree on that intuition, we may have trouble getting to even basic mico questions.

In microeconomics, we have objectives measures like price and quantity. Even assuming ethical realism, which is a big macro assumption, cannot tell you what the sign on that "moral barometer" variable is beyond "it feels wrong."

Evan writes:

@Zubon

How do you answer microethical questions? If two intuitions differ, which do you privilege? Do we poll?
I think the typical approach is to do something called a "reflective equilibrium" where you try to reach an appropriate compromise between conflicting intuitions. It's sort of like the way you pick appropriate ratios of goods to buy when you're shopping on a budget, only for ethics.

Even assuming ethical realism, which is a big macro assumption, cannot tell you what the sign on that "moral barometer" variable is beyond "it feels wrong."
It can tell you more than that if you think analytically. What you do is look at the various times something "feels wrong" to you and then figure out what properties those times had in common. You can then deduce from that what "right" and "wrong" feelings are actually detecting.

I agree with Bryan's basic premise. My own quasi-utilitarian ethics start based on the way I desire to treat people I know. They then recognize that the only thing stopping me from knowing everyone on Earth is the physical limitations of my limited brain capacity and inability to be everywhere at once. From there it becomes obvious that I would desire to treat everyone on Earth with basic moral decency if not for my physical limitations. So I try to value everyone, even strangers living millions of miles away, because I know it's what a smarter more capable Evan would want to do.

Hume writes:

"And even according to philosophers themselves, the field of ethics hasn't made a lot of progress over the centuries."

I wonder what this means, "progress", and what it would look like. Is it simply a function of (dis)agreement? Are philosophers themselves just not really satisfied with their ethical theories? I also wonder if economists, in a moment of self reflection and sincerity, would (should?) admit the same thing.

cameron writes:

What philosophers say that ethics hasn't made a lot of progress over the centuries? In a course on contemporary ethics, students see the progress that has been made in the past few years. David Schmidtz, Larry Becker, Marsha Baron, Rosalind Hursthouse, Barbara Herman- these ethicists' books were not around a few centuries ago, and they are great.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

All of the cases you list as 'simple cases' are hugely complicated, difficult cases. This is one of the problems with ethics; it is not a linear theory. Just because we can solve a small problem does not mean that we can necessarily solve a large problem composed of many small problems. We certainly all have immediate intuitions about the cases you listed, but that doesn't make them simple or correct.

Also, I think the way you asked your questions seems to betray a deontological bias. What I mean is that a consequentialist (or more specifically a Utilitarian because I can think of some condequentialist systems where some can be answered from first principles) can't answer any of them with a 'yes' or a 'no.' The answer will always be 'it depends!' By not describing the circumstances or effects you rob the 'problem' of necessary information.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I like the idea of doing ethics the way we do classification in computer science. Find a bunch of training points (specific cases where you can know right from wrong) and then derive larger principles which match the existing training set.

For the more mathematically minded, one common option works like this: Plot all the small easy cases in hyperspace. Now, draw a hyperplane that puts the "wrongs" on one side and the "rights" on the other. The hyperplane is your principle. (The hyperplane need not perfectly divide the space. Some error rate is acceptable)

That's not necessarily an endorsement of objective morality. That's also a good way to think about your own subjective morals or laws in general.

Mario Silar writes:

Bryan, I strongly suggest you to reconsider the path (Aristotle)Anscombe-Finnis-Rhonheimer. According to their classical approach what they are doing is exactly what you are trying to stress. For instance, Do you heard abot the expression "ethics from the perspective of the acting person" or "first perspective ethics"?
http://www.amazon.com/The-Perspective-Acting-Person-Philosophy/dp/0813215110

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