An article at the NY Times opens:
The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.
Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.
Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.
Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.
My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.
The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)
I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.
It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.
For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.
There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.
So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.
Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?
Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.
This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.
I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.
Last school year I had to deal with a pair of students (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) I caught cheating on a takehome final. When confronted with the evidence, each insisted that it was the other’s fault, and that only that other student should face any consequences.
Bear in mind that if they complete their degrees, they would be in the top 30% of the population in terms of educational attainment. In today’s world, that basically means they’re among the best and brightest, they’re high status, and they’re “the future”. If we could meaure status on a linear scale, getting a college degree still pushes you high up on that scale.
At the time I figured that they were at least towards the bottom of that top 30%. Certainly, I still hope they’ll grow out of it. Unfortunately,
Draco Malfoy’s Junior’s latest scandal shows that being bad at cheating isn’t the social hinderance we might have hoped for.
I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for Pres. Obama. That’s why they voted for Mrs Bill Clinton against all strong evidence (known evidence, verifiable, not just suppositions) of her moral and intellectual unsuitability. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse with respect to Mr Obama. That’s why they can’t collectively face the results of the 2016 election. So, conservatives have a special duty to wash out their brains of fallacy often.
It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read, and from Internet comments, including many on my own Facebook:
“Government does not create jobs,”
“Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others).”
Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.
First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.
Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out. After a while, I have two employees.
In the historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs? Sure, absent government tax-supported initiative, canals may have been built as private endeavors and with private funds. In the meantime, denying that the government contributed to the creation of two new jobs in the story above is not true to fact.
Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services, beginning with mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are provided elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. This fact allows for an estimation of the economic value of the relevant government services. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances. (The only difference is that, in France, the EM guy immediately hands you a shot of good cognac. OK, it’s not true; I am kidding.)
In both countries, the value of the service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it does in fact appear in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP of each country thus increases by something like $500 each time an ambulance is used. Incidentally, the much decried GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. One version of GDP (“PPP”) is roughly comparable between countries. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it, happy; also some who don’t know it. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If the GDP change shrinks below zero for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including usually a rise in unemployment.
Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.
Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.
Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.
By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such disparate things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.
Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “No,” for three reasons. These three reasons however should only show up after we have resolved the issue described above, after we have convinced ourselves that government does provide service and that it and does create real jobs, directly and indirectly. Below are the three questions that correspond to the three reasons why conservatives should still not rejoice when government enlarges its scope. Conservatives should ask these three questions over and over again:
1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.
Often, the answer to this question is not clear or it is changing. Public primary and secondary education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real, or the expected service, “education,” is not delivered, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service; also people who are difficult or impossible to replace.
2 Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it better provided by government although the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about anything, it would seem. That’s enough reason to be skeptical. The indirectness of the route between collecting the necessary funds and their being paid out to providers should often be enough to make government service more expensive than private, market-driven equivalent services. Note that the statement is credible even if every government employee involved is a model of efficiency.
The US Post Office remains the best example of a situation where one would say the private sector can do it better.
Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)
3 This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.
To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.
I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some citizens more docile than they otherwise would be. So much power about such real issues must have a chilling effect on the many.
The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of. And this is not an abstract view. The well-intentioned and in other ways laudable recognition of homosexual marriage was followed in short order by threats and fines against a hapless baker who declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding. We must keep in mind at all times that, of course, the power to fine, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.
An efficient but ethically objectionable government service is not something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare specifically, by the way. It is inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.
Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.
Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.
I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)
The recent Carrier deal has caused some controversies in liberty-oriented circles. For example, The Mises Institute published a defense of the deal, arguing (along other lines, please read the article yourself):
there is nothing inherently wrong with an administration focused on keeping jobs in America — especially if this is accomplished by relieving tax and regulatory burdens.
The point I wish to make here is a general point, so I won’t go into the specifics of the Carrier deal. Among other reasons: I don’t know the specifics of the deal (I don’t know the content and I don’t know how the deal came to pass.) What I wish to do here is to argue the general case on how to view these kinds of tax exceptions.
The point we ought to remember, I think, is that there are a trade offs between two important liberal values, although they are important in different ways. On the one hand, we have the idea of rule of law, the idea that the law is general, not specific, applies to everyone rather than some, and that it’s not designed to favor some because it should serve an open-ended order. Things that contribute to such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie good, things that take away from such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie bad.
On the other hand we have the idea that taxes are bad. Things that lower taxes are prima facie good, things that increase taxes are prima facie bad.
But neither of these things trump all other considerations. Let me give you two examples.
- Suppose there was a law that said that the taxes on, for example, business started by family members of politicians are automatically exempted from taxes. Would this be a good law?
- Suppose there was a law that said that everyone has to be drafted and has to serve mandatory military service overseas, except the family members of politicians. Again: would this be a good law?
In both of these questions, the answer depends on the liberty-inspired framework you use to answer the question. If you think the value of the rule of law outweighs the value of individual liberty of those family members (who are, after all, not responsible for the actions of their political family members) than you think these are bad laws. If you think the increase in individual liberty for those family members is more important than the violation of a rule of law principle, than you think these are good laws. My point is not to say how one should determine this, my point is that there are two liberty-inspired frameworks that can justify an outcome, and both of these frameworks are relevant in determining what kind of laws we ought to support.
To make the issue slightly more applicable: is the increased damage on the rule of law (created by allowing a specific exception on the general laws on taxes) larger or smaller than the benefits that allow a company to have less taxes?
Some people have tried to argue by analogy – for example, comparing it to the draft. The problem is that analogies quickly run into the problem of changing the relative values of the two important concepts. For example: is it a good thing that women are exempted from the draft? Yes, this seems like obviously a good thing. Would it be a good thing that male children of politicians would be automatically exempted from the draft? This seems like less obviously a good thing.
Would it be a good thing if white people were automatically exempted from the draconian drug laws? Maybe it would, but maybe that also lowers the chance of getting rid of the drug laws altogether. Different margins matter in these kinds of evaluations.
The wrong thing to think is that all policies are pro tanto good just because they increase liberty on some margin for some people, especially if this allows for the prolonging of bad policies by the current ruling class. Some policies can be bad on some margins and good on others and reasonable people can disagree whether the complete net effect of this is good for all.
Maybe it’s a good thing that some people are exempted from evil laws (such as taxes), but it’s not good that the political class gets to choose who does so. Because those who will be exempted will be those who are connected to the political class. So one can absolutely like lower taxes, oppose politicians’ power to choose who is exempted and oppose that, and still be happy for a company that they got a tax cut. (Unless, of course, the company itself is evil. This is certainly possible if they are partners in, for example, the wars that the USA commits.)
So tl;dr. As I posted somewhere on facebook:
Rule of law and lower taxes are two good things. A president (or important person connected to the ruling class such as the president elect) getting to pick and choose winners isn’t desirable, but a tax break is. A higher tax isn’t desirable, but a rule of law is.
Trying to argue the case based on principle seems wrong. It depends on the margins. In the case of the draft, the margin *against* rule of law seems important enough to say it’s a clear victory for liberty to not have women included.
In the case of tax breaks, this is less obvious and reasonable people can come out on different sides of this, I think.
No meu último post ofereci uma definição de capitalismo baseada nos conceitos de escolha pessoal, trocas voluntárias, liberdade de competição e direitos de propriedade privada. Em resumo, um capitalismo liberal ou uma sociedade de livre mercado. Neste post eu gostaria de começar a desfazer alguns mitos, equívocos e objeções comuns ao capitalismo (se entendido nos termos que defini anteriormente). A lista não é exaustiva, mas acredito que cobre bastante terreno da discussão. Aí vai:
- Ser pró-capitalismo é ser pró-grandes corporações.
Adam Smith observou que empresários dificilmente se encontram para eventos sociais, mas que quando se encontram não conseguem evitar combinar meios de evitar a mútua concorrência. Empresários (especialmente donos de grandes corporações) tendem a não gostar de concorrência. É compreensível. A maioria de nós também preferira não ter colegas de trabalho com quem competir, assim como vários corredores hoje gostariam que Usain Bolt não existisse. O capitalismo liberal, no entanto, é um sistema de perdas e ganhos. Numa economia verdadeiramente livre de intervenção do estado é improvável que corporações se tornem desproporcionalmente grandes. A tendência é ao nivelamento.
- O capitalismo gera uma distribuição de renda injusta
Uma das grandes objeções ao livre mercado é a desigualdade de renda. No entanto, nenhum sistema econômico na história foi tão eficiente em retirar pessoas da pobreza quanto o capitalismo. Numa economia verdadeiramente livre a desigualdade existe e é basicamente inevitável, mas não é nada quando comparada a sociedades que optam pelo controle estatal da economia. China, URSS e Cuba são os países mais desiguais da Terra.
- O capitalismo é responsável por crises econômicas, incluindo a mais recente
A crise de 2008 foi causada por intervenção do governo norte-americano nos setores bancário e imobiliário. Sem intervenção do governo, instituições financeiras teriam um comportamento mais cuidadoso e a crise seria evitada. A mesma observação vale para basicamente qualquer crise econômica dos últimos 200 anos.
- Capitalismo explora os pobres
A livre concorrência, por definição, não é um sistema de exploração. Quando eu pago cem reais por um par de sapatos, isso significa que eu valorizo mais o par de sapatos do que os cem reais. O sapateiro, por sua vez, valoriza mais os cem reais do que o par de sapatos. Isso não quer dizer que não existam vendedores inescrupulosos, ou que não existam compradores injustos. Mas numa sistema de livre concorrência as possibilidades de fraude são mitigadas justamente pela concorrência: se o produto ou serviço não agrada ao consumidor, há sempre a possibilidade de procurar a concorrência. Em resumo, no capitalismo o consumidor é rei. Para concluir este ponto, apenas uma observação: o salário é nada mais do que o preço que se paga pelo trabalho de uma pessoa. E as mesmas observações se aplicam.
- Capitalismo é injusto
Algumas pessoas nascem com deficiências. Algumas pessoas nascem em famílias pobres ou desestruturadas. Isso é injusto? Por quê? Uma definição clássica de justiça é “dar a cada um o que lhe é devido”. O que nós é devido? O que nós merecemos? Eu merecia ter nascido com boa saúde? O que eu fiz para merecer isso? Estas perguntas facilmente nos levam a grandes indagações filosóficas e teológicas, e logo demonstram o quanto a acusação de injustiça numa economia livre é superficial. Ainda assim, nenhum sistema político ou econômico permite a ajuda aos desfavorecidos como o capitalismo. Se você considera injusto que existam pessoas sem dinheiro, sem saúde ou sem famílias estruturadas, sugiro que seja coerente e use mais do seu tempo e dinheiro para ajudar estas pessoas.
- Capitalismo não traz felicidade
Pensando num sentido aristotélico, felicidade possui significados diferentes para cada um. Para um cristão significa ter um relacionamento pessoal com Deus através de Jesus Cristo. Provavelmente um não cristão não irá concordar com este conceito de felicidade. Dito isto, a liberdade econômica não tem como objetivo trazer felicidade para qualquer pessoa, e assim é injusto culpá-la por algo que não propõe fazer. Porém, dentro de um sistema de liberdade econômica a tendência é que a liberdade para a busca da felicidade também esteja presente. Além disso, com liberdade econômica é mais provável que consigamos buscar nossa felicidade através da criação de uma família, do envolvimento com instituições religiosas, ou mesmo ficando ricos simplesmente.
- Capitalismo não é estético e é poluidor
Os países mais poluidores do século 20 foram URSS e China. Proporcionalmente ao tamanho da sua população, EUA está longe do topo desta lista. Quanto ao fator estético, sugiro pesquisar por imagens da Alemanha Ocidental e da Alemanha Oriental, ou da Coreia do Sul e da Coreia do Norte. Dizem que a beleza está nos olhos de quem vê, mas me parece bastante óbvio que esta acusação estética é simplesmente falsa.
- Corporações são cheias de escândalos e extorsão
Com certeza elas são. Mas possuem o mesmo nível de corrupção de governos? A matemática é bastante simples: quanto mais governo, mais corrupção. Além disso, com uma corporação é possível simplesmente levar o dinheiro embora dali. Governos não são tão permissivos com evasão de impostos. A proposta de criação de mais sistemas de vigilância governamental apenas aumenta o tamanho do governo e as possibilidades de corrupção. A ideia de transparência e de consulta popular também é simplesmente falsa: a não ser que possamos passar 24 horas de nossos dias vigiando os governantes, estes sistemas simplesmente não terão possibilidade de funcionar. A solução mais simples continua sendo menos governo.
Há mais alguns tópicos que podem ser acrescentados e que deixarei para um futuro post. Por enquanto basta dizer que capitalismo (definido como livre mercado) pode ser bastante diferente daquilo que popularmente se entende.
Para saber mais: