Bryan Caplan  

Bad Social Science: A Consequence of Consequentialism

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From my response to Mike Huemer's target essay on this month's Cato Unbound:
As a free bonus, Huemer dulls the urge consequentialist libertarians often feel to stretch the truth, to make stronger claims about the benefits of libertarian policies than the evidence warrants. Thus, libertarians who oppose a war with Iran don't need to confidently assert, "This war will clearly make matters even worse." We should just stick with what we really know: "We shouldn't murder thousands of innocent people unless we have strong reason to believe doing so will make matters vastly better. And we don't have a strong reason to believe this."
Needless to say, the consequentialist urge to stretch the truth is not limited to libertarians.  In fact, Robin Hanson may be the only consequentialist I've ever met who seems to lack the urge to stretch the truth. 

On what grounds, you may ask, do I make this accusation?

First, consider the policy views consequentialists held before they studied philosophy and social science.  Then look at the views they hold after studying these subjects.  Notice the suspiciously high correlation?  <sarcasm>It's almost as if people grandfather in their pre-existing policy preferences rather than meticulously judging them case by case against the facts.</sarcasm>

Second, consider the very high stability of the policy views of the typical mature consequentialist.  A real consequentialist should be constantly fine-tuning his policy views as new evidence arrives.  After all, as soon as the net expected benefits of your current favorite policy fall $.01 below the net expected benefits of any alternative policy, consequentialism requires you to purge your old favorite policy and adopt a new one.

Finally, consider the very high certainty of the typical mature consequentialist.  No human being has the time to consider more than a small fraction of policy-relevant evidence.  And even if you did have the time to review all existing evidence, you'd still be very far from fully understanding what's going on.  Call it a cliche, but the real world really is extremely complex.

Are people with more nuanced moral theories really better social scientists?  That's complex, too.  Consequentialists do spend more time studying social science than non-consequentialists.  But non-consequentialists profit more from a given study time, because they don't need empirical closure to look themselves in the mirror.



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Tom West writes:

The trouble with *any* principle based moral system is that there are *always* going to be corner cases (usually thought experiments) that lead to unacceptable results.

It's why I claim that I don't have any moral principles, only moral guidelines. Unlike a principle, where you end up disputing the case or bending into pretzels to somehow fit the principle into an acceptable action, I'll simply junk the guideline in this case.

The depth of human experience and thought isn't going to completely neatly parse into *any* neat moral philosophy that fits into a volume or two (or Lord help us, ten lines).

Henry writes:
First, consider the policy views consequentialists held before they studied philosophy and social science. Then look at the views they hold after studying these subjects. Notice the suspiciously high correlation?

I'm pretty sure nearly everyone rationalises their political beliefs.

Vipul Naik writes:

My guess is that consequentialists with libertarian leanings would view libertarianism as a Bayesian prior about what produces good consequences rather than as a presumption that shifts the cutoff point of consequentialist analyses. For a consequentialist of this sort, the reason they are libertarians is that they believe that libertarian policies are to be favored because they are likely to produce good consequences, a prior that one should go with in case of limited information. This differs from your "presumption" of liberty.

The organ transplant case would probably be justified using rule consequentialism rather than act consequentialism, whereby it is argued that rules that respect liberty generally produce good consequences. If pressed, such a consequentialist may argue that if in fact you were in a situation where nobody else would come to know that you were doing this, it would in fact not be immoral to steal organs from a healthy patient. One such scenario might be where the healthy patient mistakenly believed that he is on the verge of death and thinks that you are performing a high-risk operation with a low chance of success. In this case, by stealing the healthy patient's organs, you are not creating any perverse incentives such as distrust of doctors or surgeons, while still saving five lives at the cost of one.

Henry writes:
The trouble with *any* principle based moral system is that there are *always* going to be corner cases (usually thought experiments) that lead to unacceptable results.

It's why I claim that I don't have any moral principles, only moral guidelines. Unlike a principle, where you end up disputing the case or bending into pretzels to somehow fit the principle into an acceptable action, I'll simply junk the guideline in this case.

But what makes those results unacceptable? Is it simply intuition, or popularity? Then doesn't that make your moral philosophy basically intuitionism (or populism/democracy?)

I think having "unacceptable" results is a feature, not a bug, of a moral philosophy. It shows that you aren't being wishy-washy in order to appease visceral responses.

Steve Sailer writes:

Some of us adjust to new information. For example, from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, I was a combination of libertarian fellow traveler and neoconservative. I hold more sophisticated views today for a couple of reasons:

- Libertarianism and neoconservatism enjoyed a number of major policy successes from the end of the 1970s onward, which naturally leads to declining marginal returns on new policies in the same old veins. All successful ideological movements run into this problem.

- I'm older and I know more. Now, I consider myself a Franklinite, someone who recurrently finds that Benjamin Franklin was there ahead of me 250 years ago.

James writes:

Steve Sailer: Can you give some examples of positions you've adopted that are distinctly Franklinite?

Nathan Smith writes:

In partial defense of people's tendency to stick with their initial biases, I think "before they studied philosophy and social science," most people who eventually study those fields had already done a good deal of thinking about it in an informal way. They don't come to the field as blank slates, and what the learning does isn't just teach them new stuff but also give them new vocabularies and help them to be more systematic. Also, many people do change their minds somewhat after studying philosophy and social science.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Steve Sailer: Can you give some examples of positions you've adopted that are distinctly Franklinite?"

- Affordable family formation

- Immigration restriction

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/value-voters/

Ritwik writes:

Consequentialists are non-Bayesian hypocrites.

This is as opposed to non-consequentialists who who don't need to be hypocrites to be non-Bayesian.

Yeah, I know which poison I'll choose.

anonymous writes:

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Maurizio writes:
The trouble with *any* principle based moral system is that there are *always* going to be corner cases (usually thought experiments) that lead to unacceptable results.

Actually, Walter Block has repeatedly shown how libertarian theory is immune to these alleged corner cases, because it is a only theory of restitution. For example, take the alleged "corner case" where you steal my gun to shoot the madman who is about to kill 1000 people; all that libertarian theory says is that, if you do the above, I am then entitled to use the force against you to collect a proportionate compensation. I don't see any "unacceptable result".

Tom West writes:

Is it simply intuition, or popularity? Then doesn't that make your moral philosophy basically intuitionism (or populism/democracy?)

True (and I'm not certain we can distinguish the two as one's intuition is often based on what was popular as one was growing up).

I think having "unacceptable" results is a feature, not a bug, of a moral philosophy. It shows that you aren't being wishy-washy in order to appease visceral responses.

While I do check my intuition against principles, I trust most people's intuitions more than their moral reasoning.

Perhaps it's because I view most terrorists as people who've placed their moral framework over their intuition.

Honestly I've only met two people (well, one over the net) who I felt placed their moral philosophy over their intuition. They both convinced me that if their moral reasoning led them murder, they would murder utterly without compunction (not that either felt it likely to occur - but if it did - oh well...). (One religious, one 'libertarian'-ish.)

A real consequentialist should be constantly fine-tuning his policy views as new evidence arrives.

I wonder. Information has costs and attention has opportunity costs. Perhaps what you see as the moralist's explicit moral absolutes and the consequentialist's unexamined moral absolutes are a shorthand way of summarizing large empirical arguments that they consider costly to reassess. The difference between the language of "rights" and what you call the "consequentialist" formulation may vanish on close inspection.

Morality is a result of biological and cultural evolution. See Posner, "The Law and Economics Movement" (AER, May, 1987).

Ari writes:

Morality is production of biological and cultural evolution like writer above said. It is all consequentialist anyway. Maybe it serves some higher purpose, but I doubt we'll find it anytime soon or that we should be looking in that direction on the margin.

Kind of like trying to find some higher meaning and final structure in human language instead of accepting it as just noisy sound signals. Same way Chomsky is stuck in 1800s when engineers are fixing real world problems. http://norvig.com/chomsky.html

Somehow I think people stuck in libertarian or whatever political movements have rather narrow view on world. Experience life in many ways to understand it better. My views on morality and whatever is good for society have changed over time in according to information many times just like it should. It has been ages since I was a libertarian. Somehow I look at sadness who are still stuck in that.

I agree with Tom West here the most. People who place their moral reasoning over their intuition are the worst. I think in psychology we could call this the near-far bias. Common sense morality can harm and possibly even get us all killed but I think in many ways its the the best moral heuristic we have. Like Tyler Cowen said, there's probably some synthesis between common sense morality and economic way of thinking that we have not quite yet made.

Talking of psychology, for example some people who do really immoral acts try to rationalize it away in their conscious thought but their subconscious never really believes that. Or someone who suffers a trauma, tries to rationalize it away, but the subconscious never really believes it and the person avoids dealing with the issue honestly. Only by pressing hard enough the ego can be surpassed and reality accepted.

You can learn a lot from Robin Hanson. My guess is that I don't think morality per se exists. We're slave to our genes and signaling games but it doesn't really help many real world problems and it certainly does not help to live a better life. So it doesn't really matter that much. But there's one lesson there (relevant to this discussion), and that is we're just products of nature and nurture. Second is that all talk about how someone "deserves" something is very self-serving in one way or another. This why my current take is that all human suffering that can be avoided with a reasonable cost, should be avoided. This also aligns strongly with my moral intuition too.

Simply talking to a person and his background I can easily have a decent guess of some of the life experience, and what kind of biases this causes. Everyone have their own biases. Especially political groups. Let's just say I honestly think that most people with any sort of strong "moral theory" are naïve in some way or another. I tread moral theories like macroeconomic models, with caution. G. Box said it best, "all models are wrong but some are useful".

You could also take the Bayesian view that you are very likely to be wrong drawing moral theory on your own. But just like people who want to beat the stock market, they never accept they are likely incorrect.

I agree with Caplan that real world is an extremely complex system. I think you could all learn a lot from Tyler Cowen.

It is all consequentialist anyway. Maybe it serves some higher purpose, but I doubt we'll find it anytime soon or that we should be looking in that direction on the margin.
Right. It's like asking whether we select food for taste or survival value. Our sense of taste evolved through differential reproduction.

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