Bryan Caplan  

The Hansonian Moralist

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I've repeatedly criticized my dear friend Robin Hanson's subordination of morality to the view he calls "dealism."  Not only is the doctrine absurd.  It also fails on its own terms because Robin's proposed deals consistently fail the market test. 

Indeed, Robin's whole persona violates the basic principles of salesmanship.  Instead of trying to show the world that he's a regular relatable Joe, Robin routinely publicizes views most people find abhorrent.  He positively goes out of his way to inform people that they're a bunch of hypocritesDale Carnegie would not approve.

Only recently, though, did I realize that where Robin fails as a dealist, he excels as a moralist - in three distinct ways.

First, Robin often constructs sound original moral arguments.  His arguments against cuckoldry and for cryonics are just two that come to mind.  Yes, part of his project is to understand why most people are forgiving of cuckoldry and hostile to cryonics.  But the punchline is that the standard moral position on these issue is indefensible.

Second, Robin's moral arguments actually persuade people.  I've met many of his acolytes in person, and see vastly more online.  This doesn't mean, of course, that Robin's moral arguments persuade most readers.  Any moral philosopher will tell you that changing minds is like pulling teeth.  My point is that Robin has probably changed the moral convictions of hundreds.  And that's hundreds more than most moralists have changed. 

Third, Robin takes some classical virtues far beyond the point of prudence.  Consider his legendary candor.  Strategically, it's folly, provoking mockery and abuse.  Unless, of course, you embrace the virtue of honesty as essential to a life well-lived.  St. Jerome once had a dream where God told him, "You are not a Christian, but a Ciceronian."  Robin should have a dream where the Singularity tells him, "You are not a dealist, but a puritan."

Two requests for the comments:

1. List original Hansonian moral arguments, whether or not you accept them.  They need not be explicitly framed as moral arguments; any determined effort to debunk conventional moral judgments counts.  Please provide URLs.

2. Identify original Hansonian moral arguments that led you to revise your moral views.

Closing testimonial: While I think Robin's quest for immortality is conceptually flawed, I would be overjoyed to know he will live forever. 

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Kevin Erdmann writes:

Robin Hanson absolutely changed my life. It's hard to find individual representative posts. Here is a post at my blog that lists three of Robin's posts on inequality and sharing rules:

The homo-hypocritus idea seems cynical. But, I think it actually can make us more generous. It can be infuriating to watch people dodge basic understanding in defense of their priors, but it is more forgivable when we realize that we aren't just asking someone to acknowledge a fact. If it is a contentious fact, we are asking them to make a complicated and dangerous statement of disloyalty to the community that enforces their priors.

And, looking at ourselves, understanding that sometimes we are the least reliable regarding the very things we feel most strongly about and regarding the doubts or questions that most offend us is a powerful idea. It's too built in to our wiring to avoid it. But, we can choose to arrange our work so that our incentives are aligned with our conscious goals and not by those loyalty signals that make us so crazy.

Understanding what we are capable of and what drives us, we can change our expectations about each other and focus on areas where we are capable of learning. And, where we feel the most compelled to change other people, we feel that way because either we or they are wrong in a way that we or they are predisposed not to understand. Learning from Robin has helped me to be more concerned about learning and less concerned about whether other people are learning.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Sorry, here is the link from the first comment.

Sean writes:

I second the Erdmann posts. That description of inequality talk as being about grabbing is one of the most profound observations of human societal behaviour. The best moral philosophy, and the best economic understanding arises from a recognition of our evolutionary biology/psychology.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Here is an example. Before meeting Robin, I thought it was reprehensible to place bets on violent event (e.g., terrorism). Even though I thought it should be legal, I thought that it was morally suspect to make profits from violence. After hearing Robin and reading his work on betting markets, I now think betting markets (even on violent events) are actually permissible and even praise worthy ways of creating less biased information.

liberty writes:

"Contrarian? No. Meta-contrarian."
-- sounds like signalling to me....

Stargirl Princess writes:

Does Robin Hanson think ethical altruism isn't about Altruism?

David Condon writes:

I had to think back through a lot of posts. The moral angle eliminated many of my favorites. I had remembered reading this on Hanson's blog, but hadn't remembered that he wasn't the one who originated the idea. I had always known that our imprisonment laws were cruel, but I had never considered that they're often more cruel than whipping somebody 10 times.

In Favor of Flogging

Musca writes:

Is the "legendary candor" link in the main post incorrect? It seems to bring up a comment by Bryan on Tyler Cowan, instead of a comment of Robin Hanson on... anything.

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