Sunday, September 22, 2013

Moral Heuristics

Contrary to certain myths, here never has been a prophet or sage or messiah who brought us the law. Neither an exhaustive list of rules we should follow, nor a set of general principles that can reliably used in all circumstances to determine the rightness or wrongness of an act. All attempts to formulate such a set of rules which would be superior ot individual human judgement have met with failure, and I see no reason to think future attempts will be more successful. People persist in attempting to formulate such rules because they see no other alternatives than a pure nihilism in which every individual acts according to his current whim, and a consequentialism by which we judge the rightness and wrongness of acts according to the foreseeable particular consequences of those acts. Consequentialism must fail, because trying to calculate all the possible consequences of an action, along with their probabilities and utilities, must be a hopeless task except under very restricted circumstances. Pure nihilism must obviously lead to disaster. What we have are moral heuristics: general rules of behaviour, based on reason and experience, which tell us whether the consequences of an action are likely to be good or bad. Attempting to transform these heuristics into absolute laws which trump all practical considerations must fail, because it is only the fact that these heuristics (usually) lead to good results that causes us to respect them in the first place. Telling the truth is good, lying is bad. But if you're living in occupied Holland during world war 2, and someone asks you if you know where an Jews are hiding, and you've got a whole family of them hiding in your attic, of course you straight up lie and say "nope". Trying to figure out what the consequences of lying is in general is hopeless, but in this particular case the consequences of telling the truth are obvious and disastrous. We could imagine attempting to formulate a complete set of rules, including exceptions to te exceptions, but I don't see any point going down that road. We are human beings with human judgement. At least in circumstances, we must allow our judgement to outweigh the general rule, when exactly we must do this is something each of us must decide as an individual. Nor is there any procedure which we can use to resolve disputes when our judgement differs. There will always be the potential for circumstances where the minority refuses to abide by the decision of the majority, and rightly so. So we have heuristics like truth is good, coercion is bad, voluntary cooperation is good, security of private property is good, ability to make enforceable contracts are good. Are they? Good for whom? Good by what standards of goodness? And what about kindness, or simple courtesy? What about equality? equality for whom? Equality in what sense? and how are we to weight the tradeoffs when goods conflict? Our choices here are rooted in our beliefs about what the consequences of these beliefs will be, whether for ourselves, our families, or anyone we feel sympathy for. Charismatic megafauna, if you're in tom that sort of thing. Which personally I am; if I have a choive between saving a random human being and saving a blue whale, I am totally saving the whale. There is no reason to think we should ever come to agreement on these issues. If I assert that I can be as rude to everyone else as I please, but everyone else has to eb polite to me, then people would rightly dismiss me as a hypocritical asshole. But I could to assert that everyone has a right to be as rude as he pleases, or that rudeness for the sake of rudeness should be considered a form of agression and justifies a physical response, and either point of view could be internally consistent. Personally, I would prefer a world in which we are free to speak without fear of physical retaliation, but fundamentally that's just a personal preference. "You don't have a right not to be defended" can be answered, perfectly reasonably, with "you have no right not to have your ass kicked". We have those rights which we can defend, and those which others will defend on our behalf. Depending on what society we live in, a "right not to be offended" or a "right not to have our asses kicked" may or may not be among them. Similarly with the right to freedom of contract, and property rights in general. It's easy to see how security of property and enforcement of contracts can lead to increased production, and how forbidding certain kinds of contracts or uncertainty of property rights can lead to what are called dead-weight losses. But that does not imply that all contracts should be permitted, nor that property rights must be absolute; if it turns out that a free market leads to conditions in which a very few are extremely wealthy (and I don't concede that it does, but I can conceive that it could), it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the majority from using whatever tools they have at their disposal to improve their situation. But the same argument applies tom the other side: if the wealthy few feel they deserve their position, if they feel contempt for or dislike of the masses (and I'm not claiming they do, but certainly they could) then it would be unrealistic not to expect them to use whatever tools they have available to maintain their position, and even to improve it. Why the hell wouldn't they? Som where does that lead us? It's misleading to express this in a form as simplistic as "might makes right". But fundamentally the only that happens, the only thing that can happen, is that a coalition forms whose members have at least a reasonably compatible conception of the good, and they will make rules in accordance with this conception, and will enforce them, both upon members of the coalition and upon dissenters. The coalition membership will change over time, and the rules will change. People will refuse to comply, either overtly or covertly with rules which they consider to be unreasonable, and they will be punished for doing so. We'll never have anything like universal agreement, it's just not in the cards. Not on the rules, not on the methods we use for determing the rules, not on the general principles that guide our decisions as to what teh rules should be. No universal agrement, but we can do a hell of a lot better than we are doing now. What we need are 1) an honest assement of what we want for the world, as opposed to what we think we ought to pretend to want in order to appear virtuous and 2) an honest assesment of what the effects of our proposed policies will be, as opposed to what we claim the intended effects are.