Utilitarianism as a lodestar (Constructive Criticism for Caplan)
By Scott Sumner
I’m happy to see that Bryan Caplan is planning a new book on poverty, as his forthcoming book on education already looks like it will be a classic. He asked for “constructive criticism” in a recent blog post, so I’ll take a stab at it. My basic suggestion is that we need to be very, very careful when evaluating the life choices of people that we have never met. Here’s are some items from his PP slides, which I’d like to address:
If there are reasonable steps A could take – or could have taken – to avoid poverty, A is part of the “undeserving poor.” Otherwise, the deserving poor. Reasonable steps like:
* Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn’t fun.
* Spend your money on food and shelter before cigarettes and cable t.v.
* Use contraception if you can’t afford a child.
. . .
In poor countries, responsible behavior at least makes absolute poverty much less likely.
* Global poor spend around 5% of income on alcohol and tobacco, and 10% on festivals. (Banerjee and Duflo 2007; see also Collins et. al, Portfolios of the Poor)
* Journalistic accounts.
Many people take great pleasure from activities that others might view as frivolous. For instance, my father took immense pleasure from smoking, an activity that seems pointless to me. For others, drinking alcohol provides a lot of enjoyment. If I was a poor person, living a life that was bleak in many respects, I might want to set aside a modest portion of my small income for activities that gave me great pleasure.
If I were a poor woman who had a difficult time finding a husband, I still might want to have a child. Perhaps raising that child provides great meaning to the life of an otherwise depressed young woman. Does the child suffer? Maybe, but on balance they’d probably rather grow up poor in America, than not be born at all. I seem to recall that Bryan is very “pro-life” (not in the sense of anti-abortion, but rather in viewing population growth as a good thing.) So if having a child is good for the mother and baby, why criticize the mother?
Does that mean society must provide welfare? Not necessarily, that’s a separate issue. I’m just trying to get at the issue of whether we are in any position to evaluate the life choices of people we have never met.
My core premise: blame matters. Blames affects…
* What counts as a “social problem.”
* Who’s morally obliged to change their behavior.
* Why [who?] should be shamed for failing to change their behavior.
Again, I’m reluctant to “shame” people I have never met, unless they engage in an activity that is clearly anti-social, like robbing a bank. But the decision to smoke or to have children on a very modest income doesn’t count in my mind as an activity deserving of shame.
So far my post might seem to take the “liberal” perspective. And in a sense I am a liberal. But I’m not a left liberal. While I don’t condemn a poor young woman for having a child, I also don’t necessarily view her, or the poor in general, as victims. Sometimes they clearly are victims, say African-Americans operating under Jim Crow laws or the people in North Korea who are impoverished by bad economic policies. And of course lots of poor people are the “victim” of bad luck—say being born with some sort of mental disability. As you move from the US to a country like India, it’s more likely that a person would be impoverished by things like natural disasters. In America, people find it easier to bounce back from disasters like a tornado destroying their property, but even here luck plays a role.
So I’m trying to strike a middle position between the “victims and villains” caricatures that dominate the left/right debate in modern America. Don’t focus on blame; focus on solutions. As an aside, it’s quite possible there are no solutions, although I can think of several policies that seem like no-brainers to me, like ending the war on drugs and deregulating entry into various types of employment. I’m an agnostic on the effectiveness of income transfers, but on balance favor subsidies to low-wage workers.
One other point about life choices. Intellectuals tend to come from one extreme of the time preference distribution. I look forward to retirement, when I’ll finally have time to read Proust. I can imagine an unintellectual guy who was the quarterback of his high school football team, and then worked his career as an auto mechanic. Perhaps he visualizes old age as just decrepitude and misery. A walking death. That sort of person might want to pack most of the thrills in their life into their younger years. An intellectual academic might see some of their life choices as shortsighted, but from their perspective it all might make sense.
I certainly don’t want to generalize about all poor people, but I’d guess that on average it might make sense for them to have a much shorter time preference than I do. I roll my eyes when I read about the “tragedy” of some former NFL star that has medical problems at age 58. Do they regret playing football? Maybe a few, but I’d guess that there are far more poor people who wish they could have chosen that trade-off, who wish they could have been NFL stars, and lived the glamorous life for a decade when they were young.
Many other smart people accept precisely ONE totally implausible moral truth: Utilitarianism, the view that everyone should always do whatever maximizes aggregate happiness.
Utilitarianism also proves too much. Ex:
* Everyone with more resources than he needs to keep working is morally obliged to give 100% of his surplus income away to needier strangers.
* If you can secretly, painlessly murder a homeless person to harvest his organs to save two people, you are morally obliged to murder him.
Every grand moral theory suffers from similarly compelling counter-examples.
The alternative? Build moral theory from simple cases where right and wrong are obvious. (“Micro-ethics.”)
I don’t always trust our intuitions as to what is right or wrong. At one time it was viewed as obviously immoral to lend money at interest, or insure against the death of one’s spouse, or marry someone of a different race, or the same gender. Over time our intuitions can change.
I prefer to rely on utilitarianism. I think Bryan is misled by the term “morally obliged”, in his criticism of utilitarianism. It’s true that utilitarianism implies that the world would probably be a better place if I gave away most of my fortune to poor peasants in the Third World. And I think that’s right. So why don’t I? Because I’m selfish, as are many other people not named Mother Theresa. But that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with utilitarian theory; it just tells us that it’s hard to be unselfish. (As an analogy, Christians believe that it is very hard to live a sin-free life. But sins are still sins.)
I tend to use utilitarianism for public policy purposes, and fortunately the right public policies require much less self-sacrifice than giving away most of our wealth, at least for the majority of voters in a country. Are there exceptions to this claim? Yes, open borders might be one exception to the rule that the right public policies require only modest self-sacrifice. Thus while I believe the world would be a better place if Switzerland had open borders, I also think it’s unrealistic to expect the Swiss to be that unselfish. The messiness of mass immigration from the Third World to Switzerland is simply not something that one should expect voters to accept. (But I wish they would.) In contrast, I would expect the Swiss to provide foreign aid of a few billion dollars each year, if we assume that foreign aid is effective (itself a questionable thesis, on which utilitarianism is silent.)
I think of utilitarianism as a sort of “lodestar” that helps us to steer our culture in the direction of social progress. We don’t know what the next “interracial marriage” issue will look like–the next case of a practice that once looked unacceptable but later looks like something that should obviously be allowed. But utilitarianism helps me to make educated guesses as to likely future policy reforms:
1. A market in kidney transplants, to save many thousands of lives each year.
2. Legalizing pot and releasing thousands of innocent men and women from prison.
3. Legalizing the publication of our nation’s laws, which are currently protected by absurd copyright rules.
I predict that in the future these policy changes will seem like no-brainers, just as today it seems obvious that lending money at interest is OK. (I wonder what the early Christians would have thought of negative IOR.)
Bryan wants to rely on our moral intuitions, but those are full of cognitive illusions. Our intuition might tell us that it’s wrong to sacrifice one life to enhance the pleasure of many others, but we do that when we use vaccines that kill one in a million, to prevent unpleasant but non-fatal conditions. Framing effects throw us off course.
Simple moral examples are also hard to interpret in complex cases. We all agree that stealing is wrong. But does the wrongness come from stealing’s lawlessness, or its reduction of total utility (in which case forced income redistribution might be OK), or does stealing’s wrongness come from its involuntary nature, in which case forced redistribution is not OK.)
And it does no good to point out that some moral intuitions have passed the test of time, as those moral intuitions that we later abandoned also had passed the test of time for centuries, until we abandoned them. Rather I think it’s better to search for policies that make the world a happier place; that’s the only fundamental moral principle that seems to have passed the test of time. That should be our lodestar.
HT: Tyler Cowen