Morally Bogus Debates

Daniel Larison writes:

Wilkinson would prefer instead morally bogus debates about whether caring for the poor means abolishing borders and swamping our country with millions of immigrants.  For my part, I get really tired of Wilkinson’s lectures about things and people he identifies as ”nationalist,” when he has made it quite clear over the years that he makes no distinction between nationalism and patriotism, lauds others who fail to make this distinction and in any case doesn’t understand what patriotism is.

It’s amusing how the defense of the human right to travel and associate freely is so often and so desperately cast as “abolishing borders.” But I don’t think I’ve ever defended “abolishing” borders. When Kerry I move to Iowa next month, we will cross the borders of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and I have no problem whatsoever with any of them. Jurisdictions need to be bounded. I’m for borders. What I defend is making national borders more like state borders — making it easier to legally cross and to gain legal residency. I defend this on the grounds that the severity of the restrictions placed on freedom, the extent of the violation of rights to movement and association, and the amount of harm to human welfare, cannot be justified on moral grounds by any imagined compensating benefits. If Larison thinks such restrictions can be morally justified, then I am more than happy to have that debate, because I think I will win. Of course, if he thinks the need to justify coercion and harm is “morally bogus,” then we may share too little normative vocabulary to understand each other. But I think we do understand each other.

If Larison is right that I don’t even understand what patriotism is, then I’m probably right that he doesn’t even understand what morality or justice is, which would explain why he seems not even to grasp that he bears the burden of defending his moral chauvinism. But it might also be that we understand all these things fairly well and just disagree about them at a pretty fundamental level.

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord on Free Will

That’s “appearing on” not “talking about”. This week on Free Will, I chat with philosopher Geoffrey Sayre-McCord about the nature of metaethics in general and moral realism in particular. Since metaethics was, at one point, my academic specialty (I went into the Ph.D. program at Maryland with a mind to work on the nature of moral concepts), I really, really enjoyed this chat. I hope to have Geoff back on to talk about issues of naturalism and evolutionary thinking in moral philosophy.

Patriotism and Monogamy

In the comments below, David Stearns asks:

Is there any room left in the concept of ‘patriotism’ for the deep appreciation of the freedoms and independence of thought that the states are at least supposed to embody, and that they do embody in their finer moments?

I don’t think so. Freedom and independence are general features of a place or people and are valuable wherever they occur. I may love America for it’s freedom, but then I should love Canada for its freedom, too. And I do! To love a place because of its general features implies that love may wane or disappear as the manifestation of those valued qualities change. But Patriotism, the love of country, is particularistic. It is a “monogamous” sentiment. If you claim to be an American, Canadian, Danish, and Japanese patriot all at the same time, because you love qualities all these societies excellently exemplify, people will look at you funny. Patriotism requires that you “pick one,” which implies that it is not about the general features of a place, but about special attachment. (Dual citizens may get away with picking two, but that’s just because there are two attachments, and even this is suspect.)

If you meet a women with all the attributes you claim to love about your wife, only better, and you run off with her because of their excellence, then you never really loved your wife. You loved her attributes. You can rightly claim never to have been unfaithful. Indeed, to stay would have made you untrue — to your values. But to fully love a woman, or a country, is to love some one particular thing. Now, it is surely better to love a woman than to love her qualities. But when it comes to countries, it is better by far to give your heart to freedom, and to love countries themselves incidentally and faithlessly.

Justifying the Prohibition of Markets in Sexual Services

I liked Ross Douthat’s first post on prostitution. He identifies the real question at issue, which is the truth or falsity of this claim:

[R]enting out your body to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence serious enough to merit legal sanction …

The whole case for banning trade in sexual services stands or falls on the defense of this claim and the assumption behind it. Even granting the assumption that paternalistic efforts to protect adults from the consequences of their own choices are justified, which I certainly don’t, the claim that prostitution is, by its nature, a kind of self-harm is pretty clearly false.

Again, it bears emphasizing that absolutely every form of labor involves renting out your body. The language of “selling your body” is generally intended to elicit a “wisdom of repugnance” disgust response, but it just doesn’t when you consider that folks like Ross and me get paid for things we do with our bodies — thinking, typing. Surgeons rent out their brains, and steady hands, to meet people’s health needs. Construction workers rent out their arms, legs, backs, brains. Etc. I sell my body for a living. So do you.

I think the real claim is not about bodies, but about vaginas and penises in particular. These should not be rentable. (Do note, however, that it is legal to rent a uterus and vagina for the purposes of surrogate gestation and childbirth, but no one really enjoys that and a lot of conservatives don’t like it anyway. And there is always porn, which is nothing without genital rental.) But bracket your intuitions about the commercial use of genitalia for a moment and consider that a good volume of trade in sexual services involves renting an expert hand. Could using your hand to give another person an orgasm possibly be a form of self-inflicted violence? Delivering manual relief is a great kindness, a sweet thing to do … unless you do it for money! At this level, Ross’s claim is evidently ludicrous. Sweet charity cannot be transformed into self-inflicted violence by a twenty dollar bill.

Does Ross think that loaning out your body, for free, to satisfy another person’s sexual needs is a form of self-inflicted violence? Should all sex outside of marriage, or outside a serious relationship, be subject to legal sanctions? If not, then using your body to satisfy another person sexually is not the problem. It is renting it. Again, bringing sex inside the cash nexus is thought to work some kind of profound psychological alchemy, which is plain nonsense.

There is a huge amount of question-begging going on in this debate. The degree to which sex work may be reasonably seen as self-inflicted violence is mainly due to the immense legal and social stigma attached to it. An honest inquirer cannot take the humiliation and loss of esteem connected to the status quo legal and social sanctions as evidence of the necessity of those sanctions. That is the purest logical shenanigans.

Moreover, the effects of this paternalism, enacted specifically to protect women from making the “wrong” choices about how they will use their bodies, inevitably bleed into broader cultural attitudes toward women and women’s sexuality. I can’t possible do better than Kerry when she says:

Just as the drug war contributes to the broadly held assumption that young black men are inherently violent and must be restrained, the criminalization of sex work reinforces the idea that sexually active women are damaged and deranged. In both cases, the activities themselves are surrounded by all manner of tragedy, abuse, and violence. In neither case is the liberal humanitarian policy response: Ban it harder, further reinforcing our worst assumptions about entire classes of people.

Get Your Laws Off My Body!

Meditations on Collective Action and Moral Norms

All this collective action problem debate is delightful. Here are some not-very-structured musings….

The topic of my unwritten dissertation was how solutions to “the contractarian compliance problem” (the fact that an individual can often do better for herself by ignoring moral constraints on self-interest that, if generally heeded, more than compensate for the short-term sacrifices moral constraints require), and the boundary between ideal and non-ideal political theory, turn on assumptions about human motivation that are open to empirical investigation. My position was (and is) that both pure rational choice (as represented by James Buchanan) and modified rational choice (as represented by David Gauthier) are less satisfactory as a matter of empirical psychology than a more deeply-moralized conception of motivation (as represented by John Rawls), but that rationalist accounts of the “moral capacity” or “sense of justice,” like Rawls’s, are also inadequate (in part because of the failure of the Universal Grammar analogy and in part because of naivete about the power of the moral sense to regulate self-interest in many contexts, especially politics).

Anyway, the point is that I don’t accept strict rational choice reasoning about collective action problems. Indeed, I think the fact that we do successfully solve so many of them basically refutes strict rational choice assumptions. (Even if coercion needs to come in to solve a coordination problem, you’ve got to ask why the guys with the guns are doing what they are supposed to, and not just using their powers to plunder, etc.) But if we’re talking about whether or not a certain constraint on self-interest ought to be normatively binding, I think you have to ask: Why? Because I’m a soulless, reductive, naturalist, I think there’s a good answer to that: because heeding the constraint will tend to make the person who heeds it better off, conditional on others heeding it, too. This is where a lot of people will part ways from me. They feel uncomfortable seating normativity in individual flourishing. However, I find all the relevant alternatives to be basically religious.

I am entertained by the examples at hand — gifts to the U.S. Treasury, meat avoidance, and carbon minimization — largely because I see people fighting over whether or not to try to establish or reinforce a moral norm, and that is really interesting. I found Henry’s rational choice-style answer to the question of gifts to the government amusing, because it suggests that he is not interested in reinforcing a moral norm that would motivate us to give money voluntarily to the Treasury. But if he wants the government to have more money, why not? Perhaps such a norm of voluntary giving might undermine a sense of the necessity and/or moral legitimacy of coercive taxation, which he believes it is important to maintain. Perhaps he thinks that this is an area where we cannot realistically expect the moral sense to sufficiently regulate self-interest, and so appealing to morality to do a job only coercion can do will be self-defeating. A new set of moral norms might crowd out a more effective coercive solution.

Well, I can buy that as a real possibility. But then I become very interested in how to apply this kind of reasoning to other similar cases. A lot of people seem to want to pursue a joint moral-coercive strategy to carbon emissions. Might that be self-defeating? Or is it supposed that an optimal carbon tax is politically infeasible without some moral ground-softening? Ethical vegetarians can be very evangelical but don’t seem to be very interested in banning or taxing meat at all. Why not? Maybe all these subjects are more dissimilar than I’m assuming. Then how so?

My philosophy leaves me very skeptical that norms about any of these things (much less coercively-enforced rules) would have any justified normative force — would be rationally binding. I don’t think higher taxes in the U.S. will leave the average person better off over time, much less the person who pays them. I have no idea how to tote up the net externality of carbon emissions (I don’t even know if the sign is positive or negative) and neither does anybody else. And since I think morality is for enabling human flourishing, I care about animals only insofar as our attitudes toward them affect patterns of interaction that bear on human well-being.

“Culture wars” are largely ongoing fights about what the governing norms are going to be. Certain kinds of arguments are useful in discouraging people from adopting or internalizing a new norm. I think a lot of rational choice arguments are like that. Because I think a lot of fledgling moral norms are likely to be harmful if they go viral, I like to encourage people to think like an economist, both to help them understand why the norm may not do any good as a matter of fact, but also to promote a generally inhospitable psychological climate for faddish moral memes.

Did you really read this far?

More Fun with Collective Action

Here’s a question and answer from AskPhilosophers that bears on the question of individual moral obligation in matters where only coordinated collective action can make any meaningful difference.

If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so that’s morally bad.If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly that’s also morally bad.Which is the morally correct thing to do?

December 4, 2007

Response from Thomas Pogge on December 7, 2007

In dilemmas of this kind, always start by thinking about whether they are really inescapable. One escape in this case it to speak with your sister. If she likes New Zealand, she is unlikely to be indifferent to the environmental degradation that is already so much in evidence elsewhere. Plus you can offer to donate the flight cost to a good cause of her choice, in honor of her wedding. In any case, it is much easier for her to understand and accept the decision if she was herself involved in making it or at least in thinking it through.

BTW, I checked your numbers because 4 tonnes seemed like a lot. But you are basically right. A Boeing 747-8 takes a bit over 200 tonnes of fuel (over half its take-off weight), roughly 137 gallons of fuel per passenger. Each gallon produces 20 lbs of carbon dioxide. So that’s about 1.3 tonnes per person. But then one tank does not get you there, plus you’ll have to fly back as well. So 4 tonnes is a very good estimate. Way too much, indeed.

Well, I sure wouldn’t have given Thomas Pogge’s answer, which I think is really quite silly. Even granting what I’d guess are the underlying extreme AGW assumptions, surely the correct answer is this:

Your choice is very unlikely to determine whether or not a airplane leaves London for New Zealand. So, chances are extremely high that the same amount of carbon will be emitted whether or not you choose to go. Staying or going will make no difference at all to the condition of the atmosphere. But even if your choice quite improbably keeps that plane in the hangar, the effect of that flight is infinitesimally small in the overall scheme of things. Your choice is also likely to do nothing whatsoever to improve the probability of enacting some kind of future global climate treaty or some kind of scheme for incorporating the cost of the environmental externality into the cost of plane tickets. So, if not being a horrible selfish brat of a brother matters to you at all, then you should go. In fact, you sound suspiciously like a shit trying to find a bogus, holier-than-thou excuse to wriggle out of ponying up for a flight to your sister’s wedding. If you’re broke or cheap you’ve got to tell her the truth about why you won’t go. You are emphatically not allowed to hide behind Al Gore.

Thomas Pogge is an eminent moral and political philosopher, and not a complete idiot, so what’s going on here?

Moral Duties in Contexts of Partial Compliance

Megan’s debate with Henry Farrell over voluntary taxation is fun to watch. Megan says if you think you are not paying your fair share in taxes, then you can always write a check to the government. She is correct. Henry says that when people say that they want to pay higher taxes, generally they mean that they want to pay conditional on other people also paying higher taxes. It may be well worth $x to me to increase government revenue by $10,000,000x, e.g., but not to increase it just by $x. He is correct.

I accept Henry’s reasoning. But a lot of folks with roughly his politics don’t. I’ve heard any number of ethical vegetarians reject the claim that the irrelevance of any individual’s choice to the aggregate demand for meat renders the individual’s obligation not to consume meat moot. Likewise, there is no change in my behavior that could possibly have a causally appreciable affect on the aggregate output of carbon. But there are evidently many many people who think I am under a strong moral obligation to bicycle, buy local produce, etc. whether or not a credible scheme of global carbon regulation is ever implemented. And aren’t a lot of the people who think they should not eat meat whether or not other people do, and a lot of the people who think that they should reduce their carbon footprint whether or not other people do, the same people who think tax rates ought to be higher as a matter of distributive justice? If so, then it seems like those people are logically committed to sending big checks to the government, or directly to poor people, whether or not other people are forced to. And so it does seem that many people who should think they ought to are avoiding sending checks to the government.

Maybe if there was a special “tax patriot” armband you got to wear around for paying extra taxes that allowed people to signal, and take public credit for, an otherwise invisible act — a Prius of taxation — we’d see more of it.

Nationalist Moral Chauvinism

The argument between the moral chauvinist and the moral universalist is an argument over the standard for moral justification. For the chauvinist, if a rule or policy benefits the group to which the chauvinist happens to be a member, then it is justified. One of the chauvinist’s many problems, besides getting morality fundamentally wrong, is that she is a member of many groups. She may be a Catholic, of Chinese origin, and an American citizen. She may be a loyal Michigander, a stalwart of the local community, and a member in good standing of clubs and associations. The chauvinist who prioritizes the nation needs to provide some justification for choosing this membership as especially salient.

I don’t find communitarian conservatives confusing, but I do find communitarian nationalist conservatives confusing, especially when the nation in question is something so sprawling, diverse, and abstract as the United States of America. The USA is already more like, say, a North American Union than it is like the kind of tightly-knit gemeinschaft traditionalists crave. The massive, pluralistic, modern state is already so far down the anti-communitarian slippery slope that communitarian moral chauvinism asserted at the level of the state seems patently ridiculous, like a steam-powered laptop.

What I really think nationalist, anti-immigration conservatives would like is to establish some kind of strong right of cultural preservation without at the same time getting caught in a morass of relativistic identity politics. Well, good luck. At bottom of that desire, I think, is the conviction that cultural and moral chauvinism are necessary conditions for a rich and deeply meaningful life. But if you, like me, have actually been persuaded by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment about the universal nature of morality and rights, then this basically amounts to the claim that meaning in life requires immorality. Of course, it won’t do to baldly assert that the good life requires systematically harming outsiders and violating their rights as human beings, so the chauvinist generally answers the “Why be moral?” question be redefining morality as group partiality, or denying that it is even intelligible to recognize moral obligations simply in virtue of our shared humanity rather than in our shared sectarian identities.

I think low-brow, right-wing pop ideologues are rather more up front than most would-be right-wing intellectuals. They see the world as a place of irreconcilable conflict. Our culture is the best one. Our people are the best people. We are at war to preserve our culture and people against the interlopers, which requires keeping them away. The very presence of people speaking other languages in public threatens our culture, the best culture. And mixture of cultures and genes threatens to lead our people, the best people, to extinction. We may impose almost any cost on outsiders to preserve our culture and our people, because our culture and people are best, and those people are not us. Liberty, free association, dynamism, cosmopolitanism: these are code words for our destruction and those moralizers who rely on them are traitors.

The Moral Claims of Non-Citizens

So…, James Poulos had said:

The big problem with Gerson’s ‘moral internationalism’ is not that it has a big heart or a goofy smile. The big problem is that it’s inimical to citizenship. Gerson and his ilk long for the day that Americans don’t get a better shake in life just because they’re Americans.

I was a bit confused by the possibility of a decent person denying the fundamental moral equality of human beings, so I asked in comments:

Just to be clear, you think Americans ought to get a better shake in life just because they’re Americans?

In the comments, James ends up endorsing this view, from J.A.:

Whether you subscribe to the notion that America’s prosperity and stability are undeserved accidents of a less-than-honorable history, or, alternatively, happy results of the Constitution and better than average leadership — or, in fact, if you believe neither or a combination of these — do other peoples, less fortunate in their circumstances, have legitimate moral claims on us for access to them? If you take as a given that America is, comparatively speaking, a really good place to live, work, and raise a family — which I think is obviously a true statement — then the question is not whether Americans should get a better shake in life; they do get a better shake in life by virtue of being citizens in a “really good place to live, work and raise a family.” The question isn’t even one of just deserts. The question is, what moral claims can non-citizens make on American citizens given the fact of American prosperity and stability?

Yes, Americans get a better shake in life than most people in the world in virtue of having had the good sense to get born in the United States, which does have relatively excellent institutions. Yes, those institutions are a main reason so many people come to live and work here. But I cannot make sense of the concluding question. Does J.A. think that the fact Americans are so rich weakens the obligations of Americans to non-citizens? I guess that would be an… interesting thing to think.

There is no need for confusion about the question at hand, which is clear enough: What justifies state-imposed limits on the human rights to movement and free association?

A country is not a big plot of land owned by its citizens. It is a jurisdiction of government within which there are many free people and many pieces of privately-owned property — at least if the government is decent. But suppose one is simple and thinks citizens own countries in much the way a family can own a farm. What then?

First, back up to the question of the justification of a system of private property. The division of the commons into parcels, and the use of government coercion to enforce private claims over these parcels — which include the right to exclude — requires a justification. Dave Schmidtz provides that justification here [doc]. In short, dividing the commons leaves each with more than had it remained open. The right to exclude enables general prosperity.

So, think of the Earth as a big commons, and imagine borders as fences. Can we justify the system of nation-states and its migration controls in the same way? Evidently not. The welfare gains that would come from even a mild decrease in coercive limits on travel and free association are awesomely huge, which of course implies that the status quo system of limits does not leave most people better off than they would be in a feasible alternative system. And this suggests that the global-level system of division and exclusion lacks moral justification.

Citizens may have stronger claims on one another than they have on non-citizens. And they may have stronger claims one another than non-citizens have on them, because they share the burdens and benefits of a set of common institutions. But everyone, no matter who printed their passport, has equal claim to the respect of their basic rights. Citizens are under a strict obligation not to harm or violate the rights of non-citizens. The status quo system, which limits the freedom to travel and cooperation without benefiting most of those whose freedom is limited, amounts to both a substantive and moral harm; it denies some basic conditions for human flourishing and a thereby constitutes a violation of basic rights. What non-citizens have coming to them, is the recognition of their rights, moral respect as persons.

Limiting basic rights to travel and associate may be justified if it is necessary to maintain the integrity and stability of instutitions that tend to make people better off overall. The United States economy and its supporting institutions are hugely beneficial not only to those who live and work within them, but more broadly. I am open to serious, empirically-minded arguments about the location of the point at which additional openness to migration leads to diminishing benefits. But, I’m afraid, one sees very little of this.

Pinker on the Moral Sense

Nice overview. But I found the ending part on why the Haidt calibration view doesn’t imply relativism a bit shady—a bit Straussian even!

Pinker struck me as arguing that there are real external facts about human flourishing that help underpin the authority of the harm and reciprocity dimensions of the moral sense, whereas the new science of morality helps us to see that we are subject to all sorts of “illusions” when it comes to the authority, in-group, and purity dimensions.

Now, I agree about a trillion percent with what I imagine Pinker is going for here: improving real human well-being by establishing the cultural dominance of a distinctively liberal calibration of the moral sense. That is, in fact, the ticket. But I simply don’t see how this stands as an adequate reply to someone who says that it is better that millions suffer and/or die for the greater glory of the tribe, or the Prophet, or to prevent the defilement of the blood of the Motherland. Yes, it is an objective fact of the world that if the well-being of each is our aim, then liberal morality, and its concomitant institutions, such as the extended order of market cooperation, are the necessary means. But, tragically, we do not all share this aim.

Must we? From the perspective of morality per se and not just from the perspective of one among many moralities? Is human flourishing of overriding importance–does it get greater weight than alternatives—because of it’s very nature. Or are those of us with an already liberal moral sense simply willing to go to the mat for the idea? To my mind, Haidt’s views do leave us with relativism. And the obviously correct thing to do is to fight and win a global culture war for a liberal morality. The ongoing fight against liberal morality is sometimes so savage because, well, because the people fighting it are not liberals for one thing, but also because the advantages of liberalism—greater wealth, better health, longer lives, more deeply satisfying individuation, etc.—are so attractive, so enticing, and therefore so dangerous to those whose sense of meaning is bound up in an illiberal calibration of the moral sense.

Why not just say that a more thoroughly liberal calibration of the moral sense will deliver a huge list of incredibly attractive goods for everyone in the world, and leave it at that? If some can’t be persuaded to care about those goods, then their kids can be. And their happy, health, wealthy, long-lived kids will little lament the loss of their backwards ancestral codes.

My unpublished essay on Haidt and politics, here.