Bryan Caplan  

The Margins of Moral Weaseling

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Chris Hallquist's recent post begins with a critique of my "Against Human Weakness."  Chris:
The problem is that once you've committed to "do the right thing all day, every day," you've given yourself a powerful incentive to rationalize whatever you do do as being the right thing. I find it interesting that Bryan is a deontologist, and has pressed a version of the argument that utilitarianism is "too demanding."
He's correct.  Once you commit to always do the right thing, you do indeed have a powerful incentive to rationalize the morality of your choices.  But Chris misses the bigger picture.  There are three distinct margins along which people have powerful incentives to weasel out of their moral obligations.

Weaseling Margin #1: Moral principles.  The laxer your principles, the easier they are to satisfy, as Chris explains.

Weaseling Margin #2: Morally relevant facts.  Your moral principles can be incredibly strict as long as you're willing to fudge the empirics.  Being a utilitarian is easy if you can convince yourself that your ski trips to Colorado maximize human well-being.

Weaseling Margin #3: Moral adherence.  Strict moral principles and a clear-eyed view of the facts are painless if you see little need to actually take the actions you consider morally right.

From a microeconomic standpoint, these three margins of weaseling are close substitutes.  Indeed, as long as one margin is totally flexible, the other two can safely be perfectly strict.  Puritanical rationalists like me can seek refuge in low-key deontological moral theories, as Chris suggests.  But even the most fanatical consequentialists have two escape routes of their own.  They can, as Chris suggests, plead moral weakness.  But they can just as easily combine self-righteous puritanism with corrupt social science.  The latter is, in my experience, rampant.  As I've explained before:
[C]onsider 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.
Chris identifies a real problem: moral weaseling is very very very bad.  But moral weaseling is hardly unique to puritans.  And holding the other two moral margins constant, puritanism helps mitigate the problem.  So why not criticize moral weaseling in all its guises, instead of apologizing for one form of moral weaseling in the strange hope that your excuses will, on net, make human behavior better?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Princess Stargirl writes:

Chris Hallquist himself has changed his behavior, as an adult and at a personal cost to himself, based on his consequentialist moral arguments. He has both become a vegan and an "effective altruist" in the sense of donating a high (10% plus) of his income to charities that he believes maximize utilitarian outcomes.

He describes his conversion from vegetarianism to veganism here:

His explicit reason for considering conversion to veganism was a cost benefits analysis of eating eggs vs eating meat. For the record he became vegetarian in college which consider part of one's adult life (he then struggles with eating meat for 3 years before going vegan).

Perhaps Bryan's critique holds for most utilitarians. But Christ Hallquist certainly takes his morals very seriously.

Joe Teicher writes:

I'm not an expert on christianity but it seems like moral weaseling (aka forgiveness of sin) is a big part of it. And there must be some reason that christianity became so popular. So, perhaps at least a bit of moral weaseling is a good thing.

Christophe Biocca writes:

Joe Teicher:

Not a christian either, but I'm pretty sure their concept of forgiveness has more to do with forgiving other people, rather than holding yourself to a lower standard than you otherwise would.

As to the post itself:

The empirics-fudging path is scarier than merely allowing you to wave away what you'd otherwise believe to be your moral obligations.

It's also the most effective mechanism for successfuly justifying acts that more conventional humans would shy away from doing. It seems like the most effective short-circuit when it comes to justifying truly evil behaviour.

Tracy W writes:

I agree with Christophe. Moral weasling 2 is more dangerous, because you can justify active evils to yourself. A person who genuinely believes that, say, eugenics is the right thing, and does not suffer at all from #1 and #3 can go on to do a lot more damage than someone who believes in eugenics but also suffers from #3 and thus never gets around to imposing eugenics on people.

Daniel Kendrick writes:


The problem with deontology is, yes, you get to set whatever rules you like for morality—because you completely divorce morality from the real world and from any practical application.

All of deontology is an absurd fetishization of "rules", as if having rules was what mattered and not the object that legitimate moral principles are designed to attain. The deontologist is like a savage who sees civilized people coming up with answers after they read books, and so he carves meaningless squiggles into a plank of wood and prays to that for guidance. We read books because we want answers, not because we want to look at words. We have moral principles because they are effective means of achieving goals, not because they are inherently valuable.

Your "common sense", intuitionist deontology at best categorizes common mental prejudices of many people in a descriptive way. That may be a legitimate goal of psychology, but not of ethics. Your deontology can by no means convince someone who does want to do something "immoral" that he shouldn't do it. All you can say is that many people disapprove. So what? That doesn't prove anything.

The reason it is possible to point out so many absurdities with utilitarianism is that "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" is in no way a rational goal for anyone to pursue as an individual. Since the individual only counts as a single unit of that "greatest number", the system effectively amounts to altruism—and as such is completely self-destructive. The only way in which utilitarianism gets a veneer of plausibility is that, within certain narrow contexts, it can work as a guide for cooperative action among many people.

But the absurdity of utilitarianism says nothing about the wider idea of consequentialism. Consequentialism, as an approach to ethics, is summed up best by what Ayn Rand quoted as "an old Spanish proverb: 'God said: take what you want and pay for it.'" That is, we ought to decide what our basic goals in life are—and in particular whether these are necessary goals—and then decide what principles are best to achieve them. The rest is details.

Finally, I will not that it simply does not follow that consequentialists must be continually updating their evaluations of political systems and policies based on the latest research. There may be, for example, extremely strong instrumental reasons to have a government that protects individual rights. The danger of corruption, abuse of power, perverse incentives, suppression of innovation, etc. may far outweigh any alleged benefits of a "small" intervention into this or that area for an uncertain gain.

brad writes:

Re: Christianity

I consider myself a Christian (although not at all literal) and attend Church every Sunday. I think the Christian idea of forgiveness is much more than just forgiving others.

Christianity puts out an incredibly impractical moral standard, but offers an easy path to forgiveness for not meeting that standard. I would guess it is closest to #3.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I sure hope EVERYONE in this world is constantly updating and fine tuning their policies, no matter if they are consequentialists, utilitarians, deontologists, Christians, Muslims, or whatever.

Even if you are sure exactly what principles to hold, one's version of reality is constantly changing is one is paying attention. One may have say a strict rule that says killing another person is a moral outrage, but one can still be buffeted by new facts that this person didn't actually kill that person, or perhaps that it was self-defense or an accident, if those are acceptable reasons, as they would be for most. The always unknown facts should result in any thinking person constantly re-evaluating, regardless of one's moral rules.

Hazel Meade writes:

I suspect that moral weaselling is easier for intellectuals, especially those that subscribe to the doctrines of moral and cultural relativism.

That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with moral or cultural relativism. I'm just saying that if you believe that truth is malleable then you're going to more willing (and able) to rationalize arguments to support the morality of whatever it is you want. Or, put another way, you're going to be more susceptible to the tempation to rationalize.

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