Posts tagged Moral Philosophy
Morality and ECON 101

In Fall 2018, I was assigned to teach International Economic Policy (Econ 385) at George Mason University, a trade class for non-economics majors.  As a student of Adam SmithFrederic Bastiat, and Don Boudreaux, I was excited to teach this class. The miracle of the market was such an eye-opener for me as a high schooler. I could not wait to share my love of economics with students!

My enthusiasm was immediately dampened as I realized I faced many students whose mindset seemed hostile.  Extolling the virtues of trade in the standard mutual-gains manner would not fly with this crowd.  I had to find another way.

These are the opening lines to my guest post on EconLog entitled Morality and ECON 101. Do check out the whole thing.

Today's Quote of the Day...

…is from Henry Home, Lord Kames’ 1751 treatise Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion and can be found on page 87 of the 2005 Liberty Fund edition:

It is agreed on all hands, that justice is established among men for making them good citizens, or, in our author’s words, for public utility; consequently that public utility is the sole end of justice. It ought however carefully to be attended to, that in no case is it made our duty to act for the public good: we are left at liberty by the moral sense to act for the public good if we incline; but the moral sense lays us under no obligation. The good of mankind, or even of our own country, resulting from an endless variety of combined circumstances, is an object too complex and intricate to be taken under consideration by a creature so limited in capacity as man.

JMM: For Lord Kames, a duty is something that is compelled by a [natural] law. It is something heavily imbued within us that goes beyond mere approval or disapproval and can often be compelled. They are “plain and simple acts” (this quote appears later on the same page): things like obeying parents, being grateful to benefactors, not robbing or causing violence, etc. It does not entail benevolence, as these rules are (as Adam Smith would put it about 8 years later) loose and vague and what constitutes a “public good” is highly complicated. Thus our duties are simple to one another, and other virtuous acts are applauded but not compelled; what is virtuous and what is vicious can depend heavily on the situation at hand.

Why Let the State Define Morality?

Over at EconLog, Dave Henderson has a short, but excellent, post on liberty and morality. Henderson discusses the desirability to have non-coercive means of discouraging undesirable behavior. He uses the example of Youtube using their power to de-platform a popular but controversial individual and the subsequent conservative backlash. Henderson does not believe that the government should have the power to censor, but that a private organization may choose who or who not to host. What follows below is an edited and elaborated version of what I commented at EconLog.

I think this is a good example to distinguish between (how I understand) jurisprudence and ethics.

Jurisprudence is rules for how a sovereign should behave, which inherently means what things should be illegal (ie, punished through a coercive state behavior).

Ethics, on the other hand, are the rules for the good life.

Jurisprudence rules are typically precise and accurate (like the rules of grammar). They are often designed and arbitrariness is typically seen as a bad thing for jurisprudence.

Ethical rules, on the other hand, tend to be more loose. “How to live the good life” can have many answers. Some may live the good life by being generous with their resources (and what does this mean?). Some may live the good life by trying to be kind (whatever that means). There are many ways and various combinations of ways to answer the question. It’s worth mentioning that, while these rules are loose, it is not imply they are arbitrary or moral relativism wins the day. For example, what makes a movie good may be relative to a certain degree, but there do appear to be certain barriers that cannot be crossed before a movie is considered “bad.” Things like : clear focus of camera, comprehensible plot, proper sound, etc.

Libertarians tend to conflate jurisprudence with ethics, and as such they tend to make the state the arbiter of morality (despite their frequent objection to such).  An example of this is some of these disgusting behaviors; some libertarians will argue that any behavior that discourages these actions, even when done by private individuals, is bad.  The logic is since these actions do not violate jurisprudence rules, then they must be tolerated. This, then, leaves the distinction of morality solely in the power of the state; so long as the state determines it is legal, it must consequently be moral since it cannot be punished in other ways. Consider segregation: many libertarians will argue (justly or unjustly, I’ll leave to the reader) that the state has no right either in enforcing segregation or enforcing integration. “Of course a person has the right to segregate! Of course they have the right to discriminate who they do business with!” But then they will resist shaming attempts at those same people who are discriminating (they’ll tend to support not shopping there or not inviting them to parties or something, but not other forms of shaming).

But I do think we need to make a distinction here, that we can frown on something for ethical reasons, want to discourage it, but also not think coercion is the proper way to do so. Allowing non-coercive forms of behavior acts as a means of transmitting morality as well. When the state ends up defining morality, it can very well lead to faction and violence.

Today's Quote of the Day...

…is from page 20 of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl’s 2005 book Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (note that when the author’s say “liberal,” they mean in the classical sense):

Liberals are tempted by the argument that the effects of liberal politics speak for themselves, but this gives the entire moral enterprise over to nonliberals. The effect of this is what we find today: widespread material success due to liberal policies coupled with equally widespread cynicism about or hostility to the moral dimensions of those same policies.

JMM: Yup. Truer now than when those words were written, liberalism seems to lack a moral compass at times. I began reading this book at the insistence of Aeon Skoble when I complained to him of this problem. Many classical liberals focus too much just on economics or the other social sciences, or are interested in classical liberalism as a way of “owning the Left/Right.” But, without a moral foundation, we have no leg to stand on and we cede the argument to our critics.

Upset about Donations to Notre Dame? Then Praise the Commercial Society

Last week, after Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral burned, there was an outpouring of emotion and funds to restore the centuries-old building.  However, not everyone has been thrilled by this outcome:

“So when wealthy Frenchmen quickly pledged massive donations, some associated with the movement balked. “If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” The Washington Post quotes Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union.”

This is a reason for us to celebrate the rise of the commercial society in our world.  As Adam Smith discusses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we tend to sympathize much more with those people and things closest to ourselves.  We sympathize with our family very much, our friends to a lesser degree, and beyond that our acquaintances, neighborhoods, towns, country, etc.  A small misfortune to our brother or child is certainly going to trouble us much more than a larger misfortune to someone far removed from us.

Of course, it would be best if we all could engage in that universal benevolence and knew, without question, where our resources could be best spent to best help people.  But that would require far more knowledge, information, and compassion we have or can possibly have.  That sort of universal benevolence, Smith argues, is best left to some deity above us.  Rather, we have it within ourselves to devote to those most local to us are benevolence and beyond that mere justice and virtuous behavior can carry the day.

Notre Dame is a symbol for many people.  It is a symbol of Christianity, of Western Civilization, of French Pride, of many other things.  As such, many people feel close to Notre Dame and thus their benevolence is directed toward that cause.

But it is not by benevolence alone that the world becomes a better place.  Indeed, little else is required but honesty, justice, and prudence.  And that is where the commercial society comes into play.  The commercial society tends to promote these mundane virtues (to borrow a phrase from J.R. Clark and Dwight Lee).  The pursuit of honest dollar can foster growth around us by requiring us to help one another to help ourselves.  We must appeal to the self-interest of the brewer, baker, or butcher for our dinner; we must offer them money (or something else they want).  In turn, they help us by providing us our dinner.  And the same is true across the world.  In my lifetime, billions of people have risen out of object poverty.  It is not because the worlds has suddenly gotten much more charitable or because those charities have gotten better at helping people.  It is because companies, wanting more profit, expanded operations into these poor areas and gave them jobs, and food, and clothing, etc.  It is because the human mind is infinitely creative, and people have found new and better ways to help and serve one another. 

If we were to rely solely on the benevolence of the wealthy (and this includes forced benevolence, such as re-distributive taxation) to solve the world’s problems, we will be unsuccessful.  Compassion is a scarce resource, after all.

On Justice

My friend and colleague at GMU, Nathan Goodman, writes the following on Facebook (link added):

"To remain neutral in situations of injustice is to be complicit in that injustice."-Desmond Tutu

Nine years ago today I thought this was correct. Today, I am not so sure. After all, people have limited knowledge and may in many cases be unable to choose an action that is effective at combatting injustice. The unintended consequences of their actions may generate new injustices. Neutrality may therefore often be the best available option in a complex world. See also Michael Huemer's paper "In Praise of Passivity."

That said, I don't reject Tutu's statement here entirely. It is a useful rhetorical device to induce participation in social movements. This is important, given that the end of an injustice is non-excludable and therefore there is an incentive to free ride on the activism of others. Moreover, in some cases, Tutu's comments may be not just useful but true. There may be no option for neutral action. For instance, if the perpetrator of an injustice is a state you live under, then you are financing the injustice by paying your taxes. Absent other choices taken to combat the injustice, your impact on the injustice is not neutral.

I wish to expand on Nathan’s first point regarding the knowledge problem and justice.

Archbishop Tutu’s quote is Ciceroian in its origins. In De Officiis, Marcus Tullius Cicero writes:

But there are also two kinds of injustice: first, the injustice of those who inflict injury; second, those who, although able, do not repel injury from those upon whom it is being inflicted. For he who unjustly attacks another, whether he is incited either by anger or by some other perturbation, that person, as it were, seems to raise his hand against an ally. And he who, although able, neither defends against nor opposes the injury done to another, that person is as vicious as if he had abandoned his parents, friends, or country.

De Officiis 1.23, pg 31 (Newton Translation)

However, to Nathan’s point above, Cicero goes on to say:

[B]ecause we perceive and feel those things that turn out either well or adverse for ourselves more than those for others, we see the latter as if from a far distance, and judge them differently from our own. Consequently, such people advise well who forbid any action in which you may doubt whether it is equitable or inequitable. For equity is conspicuous in itself; doubt signifies the contemplation of injury.

1.30, pg 33

The intervention upon an injustice may, given our self-knowledge, be misguided. The prescription to intervene in the name of justice laid out by Cicero (and perhaps, consequently, by Tutu) is more nuanced and guided by our limited knowledge. Indeed, Cicero seems to urge caution in matters of justice.

Cicero distinguishes between two kinds of justice. While Cicero doesn’t name these two kinds of justice, preferring to simply call them “one kind” or “the other,” they are very similar to the kinds of justice Adam Smith lays out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: communitive justice (simply put, not messing with other people’s stuff) and distributive justice (simply put, making a becoming use of your resources) (see TMS, in particular pages 269-270.10). We cause injustice, according to the Cicero quote above, when we cause harm to another person (violation of communitive justice) or we fail to prevent an injustice from occurring if it is within our power. Cicero seems to treat the rules of this first kind of justice as “precise and accurate” like Smith does and the rules of this second kind as “loose, vague, and indeterminate”, again like Smith. To commit a violation of the first kind of justice is pretty straightforward: inflict injury (or cause “real harm” to use Smith’s phrasing). Violations of the second kind of justice are more vague and depend on one’s knowledge, one’s abilities, one’s personal circumstances, and the good of the community as a whole (see 1.27-33, pgs. 32-35). The Tutu quote that Nathan provides gives the impression that the second form of justice has precision in its rules, which is not necessarily the case (it’s possible, indeed even probable, that Tutu realized this subtlety and, in a greater context, acknowledges and discusses it).

Knowledge, temperance, and propriety do need to play a role in our actions. As with any virtue, it is possible to take it too far and become a vice. Justice burns hotly within the soul of every person; injustice inflames passions and makes us feel that extreme passion known as resentment. Resentment can be strong (how many people call for the head of a murderer?). And it’s all the more reason to intervene in the name of justice carefully. Our own perceptions and world views color our view and what may seem like an injustice may actually be not. Intervention in these grey cases may actually be the injustice.

Jon MurphyMoral Philosophy