Friday, December 6, 2013

Rule-based Ethics are Uneconomic, and Therefore Impossible

Or: Why Objectivists are Wrong, and should try empathy instead.

After an exchange with Prof. Dan D'Amico on Twitter earlier today about the duty to care for others I realized my own ethical viewpoints are a bit eccentric, especially when expressed in a 140 character format. This post is to explain why I think the morally absolute arguments espoused by libertarians, objectivists, and small-government conservatives are lacking, the implication of that lack in spreading the libertarian cause, and finally some ideas of how a reformulation of libertarian ethics through empathy might lead to interesting places.

What are rule-based ethics? With this phrase I'm referring to deontological or Kantian claims, which say we should base our behavior off of universal rules. According to this logic, I should only act on a principle if I would want it to be universally enforced. Lying in general is bad, so I personally should never lie or else I break the rule against lying. I would not want to be stolen from, so I should never endorse theft being imposed on others.

Rule-based ethics have the advantage of clarity and they avoid contradictions, which is philosophically appealing. The downside is that nobody lives up to the standard of consistency and clarity that philosophers crave because the cost of doing so is too high. I'll explain why I think this is true below.

Rule-based ethics are uneconomic

In economic parlance, a universal obligation against stealing means that the demand to prevent stealing should be infinite: regardless of the price of doing so, the prohibition against stealing should never change. Otherwise it ceases to be a universal rule.

Ethical compliance can be seen as an economic good, and if so, why should it be beyond pricing? The only justification for an infinite price is that if some violations of the rule are allowed, then the rule as a whole will break down. A common libertarian argument is that if we allow government theft to support some good cause, then we lose the authority to stop government theft in general.

The difficulty with this argument is that it implies a public goods problem; if I personally refrain from supporting theft, it does not stop others from doing so. Put in another context, imagine Hardin's classic problem of the commons: I can graze my sheep in the pasture (support government redistribution for a "good cause") but if my neighbors all graze their sheep as well, the pasture is depleted (the state organizes massive theft for causes most people don't agree with). Even if everyone agrees that it would be best to let the pasture recover (theft should be universally reviled), breaking that rule brings me private benefit (ethical satisfaction) that I do not bear the full cost of.

These commons problems can be resolved in some settings, between individuals who know each other, can bargain, and have the benefit of a legal system to enforce those bargains. None of those conditions are met when trying to oppose ethical demands for government to redistribute.

Libertarians are optimistic that people can bargain intelligently to solve collective action problems, but when the good being bargained over is an absolute principle which by definition cannot be compromised, then how is it even possible for a bargain to be struck? Philosophers tackle these conflicting ethic problems (duty to protect vs. duty to non-aggression, etc.) and maybe come up with some answers, but the process of doing so is difficult. In other words, the transaction costs are very high. This is another reason to doubt that the collective action problem of enforcing a universal ethic will ever be solved.

Rule-based ethics are functionally impossible. Even if everyone agrees in the general principle, they will prefer to be able to violate it occasionally. If everyone can violate it occasionally, it is useless as a general principle.

So how do people make ethical decisions? 

My own view: people act ethically toward others because they feel empathy towards them. If I feel I can relate to or understand another person's suffering I want to help alleviate it, because it could be me suffering in their place. Moral principles are then chosen after-the-fact to justify the decision we have already arrived at through empathy.

Mental adherence to Kantian ethics makes us lie to ourselves so we can think our decision to help (or ignore) someone in need is purely rational, when in fact it is based almost exclusively on feeling. Justification is made easy by the plasticity of moral principles; given many conflicting rules to follow and with the idiosyncrasies of each still generating publications in top philosophy journals, it is easy for me to pick and choose which moral rule will apply best to get to the conclusion that I want.

Empathy easily explains the conflict between libertarians/conservatives and progressives over the welfare state. Conservatives empathize more with hard-working taxpayers than they do with the poor who made bad decisions to get where they are. Progressives empathize more with the downtrodden workers than they do with exploitative businesses who rob them of their labor surplus. Even if both sides agree that avoiding theft and helping the needy are moral obligations, differences in empathy lead to opposite conclusions. Saying "but my moral principle is stronger!" is justification after-the-fact by both sides and has no chance of being persuasive.

Empathy for others brings their well-being into my own economic calculus, so that my happiness is somewhat dependent upon theirs. This, in my view, is the best foundation for ethical action because it does not require subverting my own self-interest or reconciling complex philosophical problems. Instead, I offer help when I feel the need to do so and the cost to me is such that I find it worthwhile.

Many progressives would agree with the above paragraph, and then say that empathy necessitates even more government redistribution to help the poor. This is a misreading of empathy, however. If a progressive feels that some group is receiving an insufficient share to satisfy their feelings of empathy, they are welcome to personally give more. Saying "I don't have enough resources to do that, so society should pick up the slack" displays a lack of respect for others in deciding how their own resources are spent. It also circles back to the same imposition of universal rule-based morality which I criticize above. How can you treat others with empathy if you assume their moral judgments and autonomy are less valid than your own?

People can have different degrees of empathy for different groups, not everyone will feel the same way, and that is not a problem if charity is voluntary. Echoing Bryan Caplan's argument about the deserving poor, I feel a great deal more empathy toward people in less-developed countries who are never given the chance to become affluent than I do for Americans who had the great opportunity of being born here and then squandered it. By guaranteeing income to everyone living in America it may undercut the support for letting in foreigners who could benefit from being here even more (hat tip to Zac Gochenour, who is studying the political economy of immigration related to this idea).

Where does this leave libertarian activism? 

Saying "taxation is theft, abolish the welfare state" is pretty much a dead end strategy in my view. In spite of what I say above, neither I nor most people would feel good about the results if all social assistance were suddenly cut (whether it could be improved or reformed in many ways is an open possibility, however). The poor will always draw more empathy than the people who are taxed, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

There are plenty of other areas where the costs of government policy are easy to see: the 174,000 pages of federal regulation that cost the economy $1.8 trillion last year;  lives wasted through imprisonment in a failed war on drugs; poor health and environmental damage from sugar and corn production subsidized through our agricultural policy, and so on.

The sooner that libertarians can get away from abstract and abstruse moral claims and toward the lived reality of individuals, the better. Jettisoning the rhetoric of rule-based morality is a first step in that direction. If that means leaving some strident objectivists outside the tent, well, I'll admit that's one area my empathy is lacking.


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