Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 2): Moral and Politics

It is a characteristic feature of Modernity to separate between private morality and public ethics. The first concerns the ethics of principles by virtue of which each individual governs his own sphere of autonomy. Each individual, while not interfering in the interests of third parties, is a legislator, judge, and part of their own moral issues. The law regulates conflicts of interest between individuals, giving legal protection to a certain range of interests and systematically denying it to others (Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume I, “Norms and Order”, 1973). For example, in almost all modern legal systems the interest to move and, fundamentally, to leave a territory is protected through the freedom of locomotion. In the meantime, a producer may feel prejudiced by the mere existence of competition and nevertheless he may be denied the right to protection of his monopoly (since a “right” is a legally protected interest). In both cases, questions of principle and questions of social utility are combined.

In most modern systems, the interest to circulate freely is solved more by addressing questions of principles than of social utility – the right to freedom of locomotion is enshrined without addressing arguments about the utility of denying legal protection with respect to another interest. While the problems of protectionism and competition are considered mainly in terms of their social utility, the arguments about whether a certain individual or group of individuals have, as a matter of principle, the right to monopolize an economic activity by the mere fact of belonging to a certain ethnic group, estate, or guild today sounds ridiculous, but not in the past.

The widespread distinction practiced by Max Weber between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility continues in force. Individuals, in their private lives, have the right to make decisions following the ethics of conviction, although their principles may be debatable, obsolete, incongruous, and arbitrary. In any case, the consequences will have to weigh on the agents of the decision themselves. On the other hand, the consequences of the decisions of politicians extend to the whole society. The ethics of responsibility becomes relevant here, which, although it may come into conflict with the ethical principles most widely spread among members of society – that is, the current morality – it must address issues related to social utility. This is to say that a substitution of the current morality for welfare economics would be operated.

However, the Weberian notion of ethics responsibility brings with it all the problems of instrumental reason: the means-that is, the resources to be sacrificed-must be proportional to the ends-in this case, the social utility-but remains open to definition what are the values ​​that will define social utility. This is how the question of principles is reintroduced, the discussions about what is right and what is wrong, i.e. morality, in the political sphere. Correlatively, the critiques around the notion of subjective or instrumental reason once formulated by Max Weber are also applicable to the aforementioned welfare economy, so that they retain special validity.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 1 of the essay. You can find the full essay here.]

Nightcap

  1. A closer look at US hostage recovery policy Danielle Gilbert, War on the Rocks
  2. How to restore democracy in Venezuela Ryan Berg, RealClearWorld
  3. How markets and the State leave the community behind Oren Kass, New York Times
  4. I won’t drive the roundabout Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 15): Conservative Inadequacy with Respect to Immigration

Surely, in addition to those structural tendencies for immigrants’ propensity to tend left, there is a seemingly built-in electoral incompetence of conservative and other market-oriented parties. I, for example, have been waiting for years for Spanish language Republican ads on local radio (mostly cheap radio). Even modest ones, place-holding ads, would do some good because silence confirms the Democrat calumny that the GOP is anti-immigrant. And one wonders endlessly why the GOP seldom builds on the religious ethics of immigrants which are often conservative on a personal level even as they, the immigrants, are otherwise collectively on the left. Work hard, take care of your family, keep your nose clean, save, don’t bother others, are not messages that sound alien to the Mexican immigrants I know, to Latin Americans in general, nor even to some Indians who come over.

Incidentally I make the same disparaging comments about the one French political party that is unambiguously market oriented and its inactivity toward the Muslim immigrants who are numerous in France. Several years ago, Pres. Sarkozy had two nominally Muslim women in his first cabinet but this did not set an example, unfortunately. One was Attorney General. (Note: France being France, both women were very attractive, of course!) In the US, it’s as if the Republican Party and the several libertarian groups, had in advance abandoned the immigrant grounds to the Democratic Party. It’s perplexing to me personally because every time I take the trouble to describe Republican positions in Spanish to the main immigrant group in my area, I am met with considerable interest. Explaining the attractiveness of small government to Mexican immigrants fleeing the results of one hundred years of big government that is also deeply corrupt shouldn’t be a colossal endeavor, after all. Indians have had a similar experience though they would have to be approached differently. I don’t know about the increasing number of Chinese immigrants. It would be a good question to explore.

In the past ten years or so, the GOP has fallen into a crude trap. It has allowed the Democratic Party to treat its insistence on the rule of law with respect to illegal immigrants, and on the respect of sovereign boundaries, as proof of the GOP being anti-immigrants in general. The GOP, as well as libertarian groups, have failed even to point out the obvious in connection to immigration: New immigrants compete most directly with older immigrants for jobs, housing, and government services. The facts around sovereignty add to immigrants’ generic left-tropism to ensure that the bulk of new immigrants will come and replenish a Democratic Party otherwise devoid of program, of ideas, and of new blood. (The young Dominican-American woman who won a primary in New York in June 2018 is quickly turning into an embarrassment for the mainstream of the Democratic Party.) Immigrants have the power to snatch victory out of the mouth of the Demos’ defeat.

The various libertarian groups don’t speak clearly on immigration aside from emitting the occasional open borders noise that, fortunately, they seem afraid to pursue or to repeat. Who remembers anything the Libertarian presidential candidate said on the subject during the 2016 presidential campaign? I know of one dangerous exception to the observation that libertarians seldom finish their thoughts on open borders. Alex Tabarrok argued forcefully the case in his October 10th 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely.” In spite of its leftism, the Atlantic retains its high prestige and its influence, I think. What it publishes cannot easily be ignored. The article is enlightening and tightly argued but almost entirely from an ethical standpoint. Unless I missed something important, the author seems to sidestep the fact that no Western system of ethics requires that anyone commit collective suicide, or even, risk it. Thus he by-passes the lifeboat argument completely. This single article leaves pure libertarians in an intellectual lurch because it poses squarely the central issue of the moral validity of the tacit pact of mutual defense that is the nation- state: The nation-state violates your values through its very existence. Without the nation-state, it’s unlikely your values will survive at all.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 14]

The Factual Basis of Political Opinions

“Ideology is a menace.” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes it, and ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:

  • They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
  • At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)

My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:

  • “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
  • “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
  • “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.

Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means one that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.

Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but contain some factual basis in them. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.

Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television.  The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the large sport events) and– naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:

“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”

After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):

Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”

Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”

Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”

Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.

So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s positon on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!

Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.

Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.

____

*(For a comprehensive overview of the scientific knowledge of psychological differences between men and women, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate – or Pinker’s well-viewed TED-talk outline.)

Nightcap

  1. The world’s first political risk consultants John Hulsman, Aeon
  2. Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
  3. A primer on fentanyl(s) Mark Kleiman, Reality-Based Community
  4. Moral responsibility Scott Sumner, EconLog

Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

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.

A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

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.