Reasonable Homunculi Can Disagree: The Impossibility of Welfare Economics

I’ve just uploaded a new working paper, which is a slightly edited version of a chapter from my thesis, to SSRN. Here’s the abstract:

This paper draws on the “preference reversal” literature in psychology and behavioural economics to argue for the impossibility of welfare economics. The effect of normatively-irrelevant contextual factors shows that humans do not have a coherent preference function which pre-exists and informs choice. Every choice is a constructive act which forces us to choose among incommensurable values: choice creates preference. This rules out the possibility of a value-free welfare economics and forces social scientists wishing to make normative conclusions to engage in indeterminate moral reasoning.

Philip Zimbardo Interview

Believer Magazine has a very interesting interview with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford prison experiment. There’s a lot of great stuff, but I particularly liked Zimbardo’s emphasis of the inertia of institutions:

Yes, even there, you know, what comes out of that is the guilt or innocence of each of the leaders. So tribunals say, “We have the power to put leaders on trial, even though they in fact—none of them actually killed anybody—it’s just they created a policy, they created a system.” But I would hope they would go to the next level and make explicit: “In punishing this person we are really publicly declaring that this ideology produced the crimes against humanity. And so we, as an international body of humanists, of jurists, decry the horrors of this kind of system.” So you’re really sending out a message: it’s the system that’s wrong, and these people helped create it. Hitler helped create it, and Pol Pot.… But once it’s created, once the Stanford Prison Experiment was created, I’m irrelevant. If I had died during the thing, it would have gone on. The guards would have been happier. If Hitler had been killed, the whole thing would have gone on only because it had already corrupted the legal system, the educational system, the business system. With all these mechanisms in place, he became irrelevant. In fact, he would have been a big martyr.

There’s also a lot of talk about the implications of Zimbardo’s situational theory of evil for moral responsibility, how Zimbardo was sucked into the situation and became evil himself, and the war on terror.

Read the whole thing, especially if you enjoy despair.

Blameworthiness and Moral Capacity

William Galston (The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, p. 97) suggests that moral obligation depends at least in part on moral temperament:

The fact that altruism is possible for some individuals does not prove that it would be possible of all, even under the most favourable formative circumstances. On the contrary: I do not have a knock-down argument, but I defy anyone to read Monroe’s depiction of the rescuers [of Jews during the holocaust] without seeing just how exceptional they are, and how misguided it would be to expect such behavior of everyone. The diversity of human character-types constitutes an obstacle to any understanding of altruism as a universal moral obligation. The dictum that “ought implies can” must be applied in a manner that is sensitive to the deep differences of individual moral capacity. For example, the solitary, self-willed courage most rescuers displayed would simply be beyond the powers of most individuals. I would hazard the conjecture that that this crucial difference is not (entirely) the product of upbringing or social context but represents the expression of deepseated differences of temperamental endowment. If true, this conjecture would not reduce our admiration for the rescuers, but it would relax the rigorous judgment we might otherwise want to pass on those who had the opportunity to rescue, but out of fear failed to seize it.

I think this rests on a thoroughly confused understanding of moral blameworthiness. Without defending the idea that all Germans were morally required to be rescuers, I would suggest that no moral duty should depend on a particular individual’s moral capacity. When we say that someone ought to have done something but did not, we do not normally assume that they had the moral capacity to do so. Without getting too virtue-ethicsy, it seems we are often criticizing their moral character itself. The fact that the brave and selfless have a temperament absent in others which disposes them to perform brave and selfless acts may causally explain their actions, but it does not explain them away. Similarly with the selfish or morally timid: we criticize the man who does not rescue the drowning child for fear of getting his shoes wet not because he was a morally capable person who made a bad choice, but because he is obviously morally deficient. A person with less moral capacity than another is a less moral person. To criticize their action is also to criticize their moral constitution. We are criticizing them as moral agents, and unless we fall back upon some inner citadel of personhood, there is nothing else to criticize or forgive but a person’s behaviour.

As I have argued with relation to free will and determinism:

If we take humans for what they really are, i.e. meat machines conditioned to behave in certain ways by natural selection, the free will problem becomes tractable. There is no brute mental entity making choices in a vacuum, but it is us making choices nonetheless. We are physical things (we are also mental things, but every mental thing is a physical thing, differently described), and the causal determinism of the universe flows through us, as just another part of said universe, to produce our actions. Who we are and the choices we make may be entirely predetermined by the prior state of the universe, but this does nothing to alter the fact that we act based on preferences and reasons.

We could have acted differently had we been different people with different preferences and reasons, even if we could not have been different people. It doesn’t matter how we came to be the people we are, only that we are those people and that we make choices. That’s the only freedom we are are ever going to have and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Quote of the Day: Bigotry and Utilitarianism Edition

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Ch. 4, paragraph 12.

Liberals and libertarians need to think very carefully about the kinds of preferences/harms should be considered valid policy concerns. The are obvious cases: I wrong you when kick you in the shin, but not when I wear clothes you find distasteful. It seems that this is so even when you have a very high tolerance for shin pain and a low tolerance for fashion crimes, and the harm/disutility is equal in each case. Most people find it reasonable that people have a presumptive right not to be physically attacked, but no such right not to be visually offended by poor taste. There is a large grey area in between these two cases.  Utilitarianism as a moral theory is incapable of considering this question, or even admitting that it is a problem. This, more than anything else, is why I am not a utilitarian. The Mill of On Liberty was not a utilitarian in this respect either. On some readings, not even the Mill of Utilitarianism was really a utilitarian.

Update: Eric disagrees. Update 2: Not really. See the comments on Eric’s post.

Quote of the Day: Death by Warm Fuzzies Edition

Eric Crampton debating the proposition ‘that sweatshops are good’ today:

If you’ve been working to ban imported products produced by child labour or in sweatshops, you are buying warm fuzzy feelings at the cost of pushing some of the world’s most vulnerable children into even worse conditions: the garbage dump, begging, child prostitution and starvation. It’s no good to complain that that isn’t what you wanted: you’re just wishing for ponies.

Damn straight. Eric had the only appropriate response to do-gooders who claim the moral high ground while agitating for the further immiseration of the world’s poorest: anger and ridicule. I liked his suggestion that anti-sweatshop folks should give money to effective charities to offset the harm they doing by opposing sweatshops. Stephen Hickson was more restrained, but no less convincing.

I thought the negative side, represented by philosophers Carolyn Mason and Simon Clarke, did pretty well considering there are no good arguments for their side of the debate. If it wasn’t obvious where the debate was heading when the negative side began by agreeing that sweatshops are better than any feasible current alternative, it was one they were forced to admit that it would be better if there were more sweatshops, while maintaining that they’re bad. The least bad argument they had, put forward by Simon, was that corporations could treat workers better than they currently do by reducing their profits or charging higher prices. If he really believes that, it proves that moral philosophers should be required to take an introductory economics class, but little else.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the degree of support for the proposition among the audience. I’d have expected far more pony-wishers.

The Philosophy and Economics of Dollhouse

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Overall, I really like the show and think it deserves a second season. If it doesn’t get one, though, I won’t be nearly as bitter as I remain about the cancellation of Firefly. Dollhouse raises some interesting questions of moral philosophy and economics. My thoughts, containing spoilers, below the fold.

Continue reading

The Abolitionist Project and Coercive Eugenics [updated]

David Pearce, guest blogging at Sentient Developments, has a lengthy post on the Abolitionist Project:

In 1995 I wrote an online manifesto which advocates the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering in all sentient life. The Hedonistic Imperative predicts that world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event in the next thousand years or so – probably a “minor” pain in some obscure marine invertebrate. More speculatively, HI predicts that our descendants will be animated by genetically preprogrammed gradients of intelligent bliss – modes of well-being orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.

I consider myself a transhumanist and have reasonably utilitarian (N.B. not aggregate utilitarian) intuitions, but I find the Abolitionist project fundamentally wrongheaded, and see the potential for some pretty severe totalitarian eugenic politics were it ever to become a basis for policymaking. I like pleasure, dislike pain, and see no reason for an individual not to increase the former and reduce the latter through whatever technical means are available.

I don’t, however, see pleasure and pain as the only morally relevant things, and I think it’s important that individuals are free to weigh competing values for themselves as much as possible. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone else their view that pleasure and pain are the only things that matter (in fact, in some of my more reflective moments I suspect that pure utilitarianism is the only moral theory capable of avoiding taboo and mysticism). I only ask that they respect the pluralism and uncertainty which is surely an unavoidable feature of moral judgement. The Hedonists may well think they are doing me a favour by  forcibly (but humanely, of course) taking me to their wireheading lab, but that’s just not what I want. ‘A-ha,’ the Abolitionist will respond, ‘but you’ll enjoy it once you get there.’ No doubt I will, but I value things other than pleasure. Once you perfect the drugs that let me live a full human life in constant bliss, then I’ll be on board. Until then, I want no part of your utopia.

Even then, though, I would ask you not to force those who think pain is character-building into living painless lives. You may think their views are foolish, but you do not have a monopoly on moral truth. Eliminating suffering in all living things should not be anyone’s goal, any more than removing homosexuality or disagreeableness. Providing the technological means of the removal of suffering and letting individuals choose whether or not to use that technology is fine and noble. Forcibly redesigning people – which is what the abolition of suffering would presumably require – is not.

I have no problem, by the way, with Abolitionist types reducing the suffering of animals, and think that’s a very commendable activity. I don’t think animals do have any preferences other than the ansence of pain and the presence of pleasure, and can’t meaningfully give or withhold consent.

Update: David Pearce responds in the comments, saying that Abolitionists are only interested in the abolition of involuntary suffering. I’m all for that, but that’s not the impression I got from a casual reading. A casual reading is all I’ve given Abolitionist ideas because reducing suffering on a voluntary basis seems so appealing that I don’t feel the need to be convinced any further.


Tom M. has a thoughtful post at Defective Equilibrium on coercion (a rejoinder to Paul Walker’s response to Tom’s post on private property and liberty). He provides a descriptive definition of coercion which stipulates that the action the coercer intends to bring about must make the coerced worse off and the coercer better off, suggesting that a normative definition of coercion would require a specification of the rights people have and thus a normative baseline. His descriptive definition:

A is coerced to Q iff:
1) B threatens A to perform Q, perhaps by imposing negative consequences for A if he/she performs R
2) In light of 1), A strictly loses when performing either Q or R
3) B gains from A performing Q.

An upshot of this definition is that taxation is not necessarily coercive in the descriptive sense:

Is taxation coercive? Under a descriptive framework it seems only coercive if the taxpayer loses from paying tax. If you are better off after paying your tax (and receiving the benefits of Government services, if any) you wouldn’t need to be coerced into paying your tax – the fact that you are threatened seems irrelevant. In a descriptive sense it seems then that the only people who are coerced into taxation are those people (if any) who lose out from the Government taxation.

I don’t like arguing over the definition of words, since every word is ambiguous to some extent and none has any True Meaning, but this just isn’t what most people seem to be talking about when they use the word ‘coercion’. I don’t see conditions 2 or 3 in Tom’s formulation as being implied in most political discourse, and it’s certainly not what I (and, I suspect, most libertarians) mean when talking about coercion. I can’t think of a single philosopher who takes Tom’s view (that is not to say that there are none, but that they are probably few).

Conditions 2 and 3 are, of course, likely to be empirically related to coercion: If A wanted to perform Q anyway, B wouldn’t normally need to bother coercing him, and if B didn’t gain from A performing Q, it’s unclear why he would want him to. It’s easy, though, to construct examples in which force is used even where conditions 2 and 3 aren’t met, especially once we introduce uncertainty and asymmetrical information.

A moral baseline is relevant, however, in specifying exactly what is to count as a threat. I largely agree with Nozick when he says that coercion requires a threat would need to shift A’s preference away from Q towards R, and that A would rather not receive the offer at all. Nozick, however, ignores actual force. I would say you’re coerced if you’re tied up in order to prevent you from performing an action.

My definition of coercion would be more like:

B coerces A iff:

1) B uses force to prevent A from performing Q, or threatens perform action S if A performs Q

2) A is harmed by S

Things are complicated slightly by the possibility of B withholding benefits rather than imposing costs. Suppose B is the major customer of A’s business, and wants A to marry B’s daughter. He threatens to withdraw his custom if A refuses. We might find this despicable, but those committed to property rights would say that B has every right to take his money elsewhere. This does, however, shift A’s preference towards marrying B’s daughter, and is an offer he would rather not receive. We could amend the definition of coercion to remove such instances, specifically excluding the removal of benefits as a form of threat. I’m inclined to bite the bullet and call this coercion, but insist that it’s not a rights violation.

This definition seems much more in line with our intuitive understanding of what coercion is, and surely proves more useful in political debate. On Tom’s definition we couldn’t talk about paternalism, if it really makes the individual in question better off, being coercive. The distinction between coercive and noncoercive paternalism is surely a useful one. If you’re a utilitarian who thinks that people often act against their best interests, you may want to say that coercion is often justified, but to deny that it is coercion seems a touch Orwellian.

I don’t see coercion as necessarily wrong. I agree with Tom that private property is a coercive institution, but justified on (broadly speaking) utilitarian grounds, and I think some level of taxation is justified, but maintain that taxation is inherently coercive. Coercion is, however, a prima facie wrong, and requires justification in each case, with the burden of proof lying with the coercer.

Wise Words

From Bryan Caplan:

Weird hypotheticals are philosophers’ equivalent of controlled experiments.  When a scientist wants to test a physical theory, he sets up weird laboratory conditions that make it easy to find an exception to the theory.  Similarly, when a philosopher wants to test a moral theiry, he sets up weird examples that make it easy to find an exception to the theory.

Counterfactual resistance is the bane of my existence.

Quote of the Day: Pluralist Liberalism Edition

Liberals do not ask that all forms of life be justifiable to all persons, only that they be justifiable to the persons that live in them. Cultural options, practices, and traditions [that] only social groups can provide are important for individuals and may be inegalitarian…. Pluralists are wrong to suppose that … [liberal] political norms exclude the expression of inegalitarian and communitarian practices in society. What they do is prevent such practices from being imposed upon people without their proper endorsement.

Albert Dzur, quoted in Galston (1999), fn 6.