The essential heresy of freedom

It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.

Pierre Bayle

In the history of human civilization, no large society has ever come close to achieving consensus, be it on values, life styles, or standards of taste. Yet there have been many that have tried. Today, they are known as theocracies.

By theocracy I do not mean a strict religious society, at least not in the usual sense of religious. Rather, I define theocracy as any society with a strong commitment to moral and political perfectionism. Perfectionism is a term that refers to any attempt to prescribe a theory of what constitutes “the good life,” as it was known by Aristotle. Perfectionism comes in many shapes and sizes, from suppression of so-called sexual deviants, to the soft paternalism of Michael Bloomberg.

Classical liberalism is in essence the repudiation of perfectionism. That’s why advocates of “libertarian paternalism” are still properly understood as illiberal even though they abstain from direct coercion. When policy has the aim of shaping our lives based on a bystander’s substantive theory of how one ought to live, be it who to love or how much soda to drink, it runs the principle of liberal neutrality through the shredder.

Liberal neutrality is essential for ensuring legitimate laws don’t discriminate against adherents with irreconcilable conceptions of the good life. This does not mean liberal neutrality is itself value neutral, in the sense of amoral. Rather, liberal neutrality is better thought of as embodying a Paretian or win-win standard—a norm which transcends the depths of human particularity—and in turn makes classical liberal constitutions minimally controversial. As Joseph Heath puts it:

The normative intuition underlying the Pareto standard is essentially contractual. Pareto improvements are changes that no one has any reason to reject. Making these improvements therefore means making some people better off, under conditions that everyone can accept. Recalling that the purpose of these normative standards is to permit cooperation, efficiency as a value permits social integration while requiring very little in the way of consensus about basic questions of value.

The alternative is a world with perpetual unanimity around inscrutable disputes, and the imperative that any deviation in the form of dissent be crushed. In that sense, free expression in theocracies is despised not due to the particular content of the speech, but due to the subversiveness embodied in the volitional act itself—what G.L.S. Shackle referred to as the “cause uncaused.”

This is why striving for perfect consensus around the good life leads invariably to moral and cultural stagnation. Without a “cause uncaused” the pursuit of happiness comes to resemble seminary. Theocracies are like a static equilibrium, a Walrasian box from which there’s no escape. That includes Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and North Korea which, without irony, enforce their impoverished status quo by banning unsolicited expression as “counter-revolutionary.”

New ideas are transmitted by equally novel acts of speech. When speech is unbounded and permissionless, new ideas can diffuse, ear by ear, through the rest of society, disrupting a closed system from within. Take the free thinking Athens of ancient Greece, and then contrast it with its monolithic and Spartan neighbor. One fostered innovations in philosophy, mathematics, science, arts and culture.  The other is synonymous with militarized asceticism, and a laconic rationing of thought.

Freedom of thought and life-pursuit are therefore engines of creative destruction as well as inescapably heretic. Today, however, we are forgetting how tightly the two roles are entwined. We desire the benefits of a flourishing society without exposure to words and concepts that challenge our eudaemonic preconceptions.

That’s why the Enlightenment concept of toleration did not require one man or woman to endorse the views of another. On the contrary, classical liberals defended free expression as a matter of mutual respect, not mutual acceptance. Toleration contains the seeds of disagreement and argumentation, and doesn’t sacrifice human flourishing for false consensus.

Modern proponents of universal acceptance have a natural affinity with traditional theocrats. Both prove themselves by their piety to an immutable creed, conveyed through zealous displays of righteousness. And both endeavor to inquisition any who depart from the flock.

The culture war demonstrates how much the ink on our Paretian contract has faded. But if traditional theocrats continue in their attempts to regulate virtue they cannot justly complain when proponents of universal acceptance force them to acquiesce in other settings, and vice versa. Defection from liberal neutrality opens a perfectionist Pandora’s Box that cuts in both directions.

There is no way around it. The essential heresy of freedom means we either live with imperfection or all burn at the stake.

burned at the stake

( PS: This is apparently Sweet Talk’s 500th post. Here’s to 500 more. )

 

Why Bother?

The Internet has opened up new vistas for the intellectually curious or the lovers of art and literature. It has also unleashed a barrage of sophomoric and abusive arguments, terrible reasoning, and amateur garbage without redeeming value.

Most of us are not reaching new commanding heights of intellectual or artistic brilliance. But that does not change our desire to participate in these conversations. The eternal question, then, is how to participate when we are no Aristotle, no Einstein, no da Vinci?

The two questions I ask myself, more and more, are: what am I trying to accomplish with this one post, or in this one discussion? And what do I hope to contribute?

The first question is largely selfish—what do I hope to take away from whatever form participation takes? What can I learn, how can I grow from it?

The second question is about striving to give at least as good as I get. Why would anyone bother to enter into a discussion with me, or read my posts? What can I give to the specific person I am attempting to reach?

There are two standpoints that most people will find themselves in at some point, if they invest in learning or improving their art at all. In intellectual matters, this can be summarized by two conversations I have had in recent months.

In one case, a fellow Sweet Talker said to me that he felt a few of us had really gotten away from him, and he wasn’t sure what he could contribute on the subjects we were talking about. Philosophy wasn’t really his thing to begin with; why would he try to catch up to us when he could invest in areas more important to him? But we often touch on things that do matter to him, yet the way we discuss it is not exactly inviting.

In another case, a fellow Sweet Talker who is far more of an expert in philosophy than I am said that he had basically withdrawn from all serious Twitter debates. The gulf between the background he had invested in, and that of the typical person he might encounter that would want to discuss some philosophical matter there, seemed too vast to bridge. How can you debate moral philosophy with someone whose entire experience of it is a few blog posts? It’s hard enough to approach these subjects after reading many, many books.

The reality is that we are almost always in the shoes of both of my fellow Sweet Talkers at once. When talking to someone else, there is usually a great deal we know that they do not, and vice versa. It must be so, unless we think only a specific set of life experiences or the content of some specific books is all that counts for anything. Sweet Talk itself is meant to be a shrine to the possibility of conversation across many standpoints and life experiences—I hope that some of our more obscure or jargon-filled posts do not detract from that.

Often the conversation is itself the goal—there is a joy of what Gadamer called “the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding.” Scoring a point can be harmless in this context, so long as it is understood by both parties to be a matter of play rather than hostility, and so long as you are graceful when a point is scored against you. In this way, we both enjoy the game, and so I both contribute and receive.

But I also crave that live feedback, the connection with another human being with a different perspective who can be perplexed by things I find obvious, and so help me see how it might be perplexing. Intellectual insulation is intellectual decay; it’s just a matter of how long it takes. Someone who has not read a word of philosophy is just as capable of helping me in this way as someone who has read the entire western canon, in the original languages.

And what do I have to offer?

I am less confident in my answer to that question than I have ever been. But if I can learn from people, regardless of their specific expertise or interests, surely people can learn from me. It is this bare minimum of value, simply by having lived my life, simply by having a standpoint, that I believe I can contribute. And I am trying to live more, and learn more, and get better at determining what I might have to offer that would be valuable to a specific person I am talking to as well as people in general, so that I can increase the value of my contributions.

What more can any of us do, as writers, conversation partners, artists, and human beings?

It’s A Living

My dad’s friend knows a horse masseuse. No, that’s not a typo. Horse. Masseuse. Weird, right?

My dad and his friend volunteer at SCORE, a pro bono business consultancy for the small-business set (think of it as sort of like a Legal Aid for retired MBAs to hang out at), and it was through SCORE that my dad’s friend met this woman who massaged horses as a career. (There may have been a physical therapy angle to it as well, but I can’t say for sure) The problem she had was a good one for any entrepreneur (too much business), and she came to SCORE to get her accounting and pricing strategy straightened out. They did that and as far as I know she’s still driving all over New England doing her thing.

I am reminded of this because of a conversation I had today with Adam Gurri and Jordan Peacock on Twitter today. The topic was of robots, automation, and the future of jobs. Jordan, like many people, is concerned about automation destroying jobs and making people’s skills redundant. Adam and I were generally more sanguine about the economy’s ability to create new jobs at a sufficient clip to (more or less) maintain employment levels. We both acknowledge that the transition from one economic model to a new one can be very difficult for some people, and some individuals may never make the transition, but overall (from a big picture point of view), I’m not worried about vast swaths of humans becoming unemployable.

Ultimately we are predicting the future, so who can say whom is right, but given the economy’s past success at finding jobs for redundant labor (a process that has been going on in earnest for nearly three centuries now), why do many people share Jordan’s sense that future jobs won’t be there when we need them? To answer my own question, I think the center of if is this Tweet and this one where Jordan qualifies that he’s skeptical the economy will make “non-B.S.” jobs. Presumably then he thinks that the economy can always put people to work digging holes or something, but is hoping for something more than that.

Jordan’s hope for “non-B.S.” jobs (which I will henceforth call “important jobs”) is, I think, a fair one. No one wants to feel like they are useless, and while charity is appreciated by those who really need it, a lifetime of charity is grating. Most people want to feel that their work is important, that its value is appreciated by others. As Good Will Hunting said, there’s honor in being a bricklayer. Those are people’s homes you’re building, where families are raised. It was important to Will that the honorable nature of a bricklayer’s work was acknowledged by his therapist, and I can understand why. I would also have a bleak outlook about the future if I thought there might be jobs to be had in the future but no honorable ones.

Is a horse masseuse an honorable profession? If you’re like me (being among the 99.9% of Americans who don’t own horses or know much about their care and needs), it’s an impossible question to answer. We have no basis for assessing the worth of a horse masseuse. But we can say this much: Many horse owners are willing to pay a handsome sum (plus travel) to have someone perform this service.

With each step-change in technology, as subsistence needs are automated and employ fewer people, the work most of us do strays further away from providing the basic necessities. But this isn’t a bad thing! The misleading thing about future jobs is that many of them will be considered trivial by today’s standards, but the people of the future will value them nonetheless. This is equally true (from the perspective of the past) of the jobs that exist today. To a subsistence farmer, a web developer or pedicurist does profoundly unimportant work. The farmer grows food, and what’s more basic and central to life than food? We don’t need many farmers these days though, so people find other things to do – things that no one before realized would be valuable. And they are valuable! There is value in creating an enjoyable mobile video game, or driving an Uber car. These things make other people’s lives more enjoyable or convenient. You can do them well, and be thanked for them.

I look forward to the day when so much of what we currently do has been automated away that people are free to dedicate their working hours to making my life even easier and more convenient than it already is. For instance, I have tight muscle in my back and could use a masseuse myself. Do you think Uber could bring one to my home at this hour of the night?

 

Sancho’s Occupational Options

quijote

The reference to Sancho Panza is to suggest a less cavalier attitude toward the future of labor opportunities for less-productive workers. I’m just not clever enough to formulate a better title for this post.

Jordan wants us to think about what will happen in the labor market when the productivity of some people increases exponentially relative to others. His argument grates against my priors, so I had better reinvestigate those biases.

He provides “Four Theses about [American] Work:”

1/Average company could lose 30-40% of staff without unacceptable output quality decline.

2/Average company is just competent enough to not go out of business.

3/Most employment is a form of privatised welfare tolerated because society lacks a compelling counternarrative to finding meaning in work.

3.5a/Corollary: we are still only in the beginning stages of technological unemployment, and

3.5b/the pressure against it will be rooted in existential angst and the failures of a welfare system predicated on near-full employment

4a/Competitive pressure strips resources needed for antifragility.

4b/Then, when pressure abates, excess resources do not (necessarily) improve resilience.

4c/Resources that could be spent on a second lung or kidney go toward additional fingers instead.

Very good, and a challenge to the laissez-faire economist’s usual cavalier attitude toward laborers. The first simple result is to say that if some people can’t match others’ productivity they will starve and die off, society will be richer on average and so much the better. This echoes the approach adopted by eugenicists that preferred a negative check on population, like Darwin. Survival of the fittest among people just as among animals. Birth control is problematic to these folks because the fittest are actually more likely to cut out the fittest rather than the weakest, the fit having better access to contraceptives. The eugenicists that preferred a positive check on population also treated humans like animals, but domesticated animals, desiring active management of the herd. Contraceptives should be forced upon the unfit specimens, up to sterilization in many cases.

The progressive discussion over eugenics (that I think included Keynes’ optimism) was possibly a response to never-before-experienced increases in productivity and quality of life. The distribution of improvements in productivity was possibly more even in the progressive era than the increases in productivity Jordan is concerned about looking forward from today. I say possibly because we have a problem of survivor bias. The distribution may have been every bit as lumpy as what we may experience imminently. I don’t know how many people starved to death in the industrial era because they were left behind by progress. Was the Irish Potato famine an example? What about the Chicago slaughterhouses? Did many elderly farmers simply die of starvation? How would that have been reported and recorded? I don’t know. I think Progressives might have said, cavalierly: good riddance.

Of course the lesser classes also had a lesser voice in that era. They were not included in any deliberative form of democratic decision-making. The survivors of that era may all have been of “better stock” than those that experienced it. Our great-parents may have experienced an era of relatively evenly distributed levels of productivity because the previous generations’ under-productive members died off. Or maybe the improvements in technology were such that everyone’s productivity improved apace. Just last might I recounted to a friend how in my family only one person in my parent’s generation was above a blue-collar worker, and none of may grandparents were above blue-collar. Yet they all owned houses and cars. I don’t know, but it may be worth investigating.

Considering a general, ahistoric case of skewed distribution of productivity improvements what options are available to the low-productivity laborer, and how will the rest of society treat them?

I consider my barber for a moment. I can’t remember where the example was introduced to me, possibly Bastiat, but I pay my barber $12 for a haircut (plus a tip that operates as an efficiency wage such that I always get my preferred barber whenever I go to the shop). I remember paying $6 for a haircut in North Jersey as a kid. Has barbering technology improved greatly over time? Not really. But the opportunity cost to the average client of cutting his own hair has increased apace to his productivity. Hence, barbers’ wages increase along with my productivity.

This can be applied generally. As the ultra-productive increase in productivity their opportunity costs also rise. They become willing to pay more to have more menial tasks done for them. Witness the rise in the services sector.

But suppose a haircutting machine is developed such that I can stick my head into something resembling the odd domes our grandmothers used to stick their heads in at the salon (what were those things for?!?). I sit under the dome and the machine cuts my hair to perfection, every time. Capital supplants labor, and the owners and technicians of barber-domes see an increase in personal productivity while barbers are the newest victims of creative destruction.

Is there any shortage of new service-opportunities for former barbers? The cavalier economist typically shouts “no!” with little evidence to support him. There is an infinite supply of unmet-wants. New service industries—witness personal trainers, life coaches, dog walkers, etc.—will emerge, and those laborers will earn wages that reflect high productivity workers’ opportunity costs.

But we must consider the elasticity of labor supply. As ultra-productivity increases fewer workers are actually engaged in making stuff and more workers are engaged in pampering people. But if the supply of service workers increases to perfect elasticity the ultra productive will be able to capture greater shares of the surplus from hiring pamperers.

Inequality of quality of life follows, generating envy at least, at worst we are back to the eugenic negative check. Worse yet if the classes become further separated and sympathy fails to cross class lines.

I find at this point that many critics of inequality become concerned about the deliberative process. If the political sector can be captured by the ultra-productive we may observe a move toward an effectively positive-check sort of eugenics. That is, introduction of policies that cause the least productive to be removed from legal protections. The extent to which cronyism is an example of this should be considered.

Modern Progressives (I’m thinking of the Bruenigs, for example) might suggest radical redistributive schemes to prevent the capture of the political sector. Of course, that is not the typical appeal, rather they attempt to awaken our sympathies more generally. The political challenges attached to such an agenda frighten many, but particularly the ultra-productive, who stand to lose both wealth and status. Perhaps the loss of status is more important to some, witness Trump’s supporters. To what extent are Nozik’s arguments for Wilt Chamberlain’s income really just upper-class propaganda?

Another option for the under-productive is to abandon society and try to eek out a living in the wilderness, or the trash heaps, where we see some living today. In the extreme we experience the antifragile result that the peasants revolt, and the ultra-productive are either stripped of their lives, their work, or their marginal productivity. In any case society will have fewer resources in total to distribute by whatever criterion afterwards.

What is to be done? Mass public education has not overcome the problem of unequal distribution of talents, and has perhaps only exacerbate the problem, pushing lower-productivity workers into student debt, and effectively subsidizing their higher-productivity counterparts’ education, with no productivity gains to speak of.

We do observe lower levels of fertility among the wealthy, so maybe the long-run labor supply becomes more inelastic.

Or maybe new technologies will have a more even distribution of productivity gains.

I’m hesitant to make any prescription, because moving in any direction presumes knowledge we just can’t have. I hope I’m a little less cavalier than I used to be though.

 

 

Psychological Foundations for Morality: Some Problems

In my previous post, I made a rather bold proposition: maybe our moral beliefs can be based on notions of mental health. The sound-bite version of this was:

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral.

I then solicited feedback in hopes of finding the most glaring holes in my idea. That feedback came in the form of comments under the post, as well as private conversations with my fellow Sweet-Talkers.

In this post, I’d like to summarize that feedback in hopes of highlighting what many perceived to be the major weaknesses of the idea. I’ll defer my own responses, where applicable, to a later post.

Morality Is Not An Individual Phenomenon

One of the most interesting (to me) criticisms I received came once again from Samuel Hammond, who not only agreed with the Mises passage I quoted, but took the idea even further.

My understanding of his view (i.e. my words, not his) is that morality is basically only ever a social question. In other words, we can talk about character development or mental health from an individual perspective, and raise all sorts of interesting points. However, since morality is only an assessment of the extent to which a given action is “pro-social,” such individual considerations are not questions of morality. They might be interesting. They might be worthy of examination. But since morality itself is a social question, individual choices can’t really be called “moral” or “immoral” except in reference to how those actions relate to the society in which they’re made.

Truth be told, if this criticism is true, then it is indeed devastating to my idea. If morality really is a purely social construct, then when one finds oneself at odds with society, I was right to have written, “Better luck next social order.”

Psychology Is Subjective

Several objections were raised that I might broadly classify as complaints that psychology, being highly subjective in a number of ways, cannot objectively solve moral problems.

One version of this objection, quite well articulated by Andrew, highlighted the fact that behaviors and mindsets have been considered mental illnesses at one point in time and completely normal and healthy at other points in time. In other words, “what is and is not considered a mental illness changes depending on the culture.” One very obvious example is homosexuality, but perhaps a less-obvious and more powerful example is autism. In psychology’s infancy, many autistic people were simply considered invalids, or mentally deranged. Today, however, we know them to be simply atypical, but fully capable of leading happy, mentally healthy lives as valued – often times superior – contributors to human society. Under the argument that mental illness classifications change radically over time, isn’t psychology poorly equipped to serve as a foundation for moral choices? Wouldn’t it have been wrong in the year 1850 to call an autistic person immoral for reasons of her mental health classification under the prevailing psychological theories of the times?

To complicate matters further, psychology isn’t just subjective across cultures, it’s also subjective within them. Another point Andrew raises is that the moral conclusions of a true sociopath will differ radically from those of a “normal” person. (See my comment to Andrew for a brief answer to the question of sociopathy.) Suppose we are to analyze the morality of a malignant narcissist. Such a person can feel no remorse and no empathy for other human beings, and consequently derives pleasure from taking advantage of and/or abusing others. If “mentally healthy” is to mean “baseline emotional equilibrium for the individual,” then such a person might feel morally entitled to engage in behaviors that the rest of us would consider obviously abhorrent. How, then, might psychology be able to answer that malignant narcissist’s moral justifications?

It would be great if the complications ended there, but in fact they get worse. The line between “mentally healthy behavior” and “mentally unhealthy behavior” isn’t even all that well-defined for any given individual. As in the Paradox of the Heap, a patient who slips into major depresssive disorder from a previous state of “mere” profound grief doesn’t suddenly become majorly depressed as a matter of 1, 2, 3, go! It is a gradual process in which the extremes are easily identified, but for which there is no one, defining moment that delineates between mental health and mental illness. And so it goes for other kinds of patient experiences as well. If lines can be so fuzzy for an individual in a single experience, how could we ever hope to delineate concrete moral precepts from sets of experience that have absolutely no perceptible demarcation?

Psychology Is Corruptible

Another powerful criticism against the notion of basing our morality on psychology is that psychology itself can be, and has been corrupted. I received a lot of examples of this this kind.

Andrew worried that my proposal runs the risk of “pathologizing moral disagreements,” and to buttress his case, he pointed out that Soviet dissidents were often psychologically “determined” to be unfit, and institutionalized. He also pointed out quasi-psychological theories exemplified by Liberalism is a Mental Disorder and The Reactionary Mind, both of which seek to dismiss leftist and rightist political ideologies as psychological problems rather than valid, informed, principled disagreements.

Adam, for his part, pointed to the experiences of the transgendered, namely Dierdre McCloskey and her experience being forcibly institutionalized by her own sister, a psychologist. In that case, it may genuinely have been true that McCloskey’s sister believed that Dierdre needed to be institutionalized, and yet when we take a step back and assess the matter more stoically (and within the context of a more modern culture), the reaction seems both heinous and extreme. That experience echoes the well-documented cases of homosexuals subjected to shock therapy in order to “fix” their homosexuality, and of all manner of torture our society has unfairly unleashed against innocent people whose only real “crime” is deviation from the norm.

If Psychology Is Founded On Moral Premises (Even Partially), Then My Proposition Assumes The Consequent

Paul offered what I thought was a rather novel criticism. He says, “[P]sychology… rests on certain axioms or assumptions. These axioms touch on moral topics. So it’s tricky to make psychology the singular foundation of morality.”

Restating this position in slightly different terms, if morality is logically prior to the axioms of psychology, then employing psychology as a foundation for morality is probably impossible. At the very least, any morality contained in the foundations of psychology will necessarily end up in our moral foundations, not because the evidence pointed that way, but because the way we have chosen to investigate the evidence can only ever perceive those moral precepts, and never contradict them.

This is a bigger problem than it first appears, and one that I will never likely solve. This is a foundational question about the philosophy of science, not really even unique to psychology specifically. How can a human mind seek to understand itself in objective terms? How can three-dimensional physical beings ever hope to understand the physics of an M-dimensional universe?

I must quickly and readily acknowledge my inability to respond to this question. It is much bigger than the present discussion, and indeed one of the biggest problems that exist in philosophy.

Conclusion

While I don’t agree with all of the criticisms above, I nonetheless hope I have done an adequate job in summarizing them in a way that makes them seem not only plausible, but also compelling. My objective here was to poke serious holes in my own idea, and where possible, I tried to elaborate on the ideas expressed by others in order to make their points even stronger than they were in the context of off-the-cuff, casual conversation.

If you, the reader, are now in serious doubt of my original proposal after having read the above, then I can consider my endeavor a success.

I can only hope that any subsequent response I provide to these concerns is equally successful.

Questions About A Better Foundation

Ryan suggests a new foundation for moral judgements

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

Certain parts of this formulation are left ambiguous, so in the spirit of inquiry, lets kick the tires a bit

  1. Is this fundamentally agent based? Which is to ask, is our hypothetical moral agent working to maximize the total global mental health, the average mental health, or only their own mental health?
  2. If agent based, what advantages do you think Mental Health has over eudamonia in answering giving moral guidance? Is there any circumstance in which self-sacrifice is a virtuous act? Is there any cause or action which you would be justified in taking on behalf of another, even at the expense of your own sanity? To save their life?
  3. If maximizing an external quality, don’t you run into the same Omelas problem?
  4. Are there any moral dilemmas you think Mental Health can answer, which any of the existing big three frameworks cannot?
  5. There are stories of well off, educated classical greeks selling themselves into Roman slavery as a tutor or scribe, so that after a period of time they would be able to buy their freedom, and with it a Roman citizenship.  Was this an immoral act, and if so, why?
  6. Aristotle believed some people, due to circumstance and upbringing, were incapable of virtue. Is a sociopath capable of being a moral agent? If so, is it immoral for a sociopath not to seek to become neurotypical? If not, by what standard should they live?

Toward A Better Foundation For Morality

In Liberalism: In The Classical Tradition, Ludwig von Mises writes, “Everything that serves to preserve the social order is moral; everything that is detrimental to it is immoral.” For my money, this represents the clearest, most concise way to frame the notion of of morality as a social institution.

Recently, fellow Sweet Talker Samuel Hammond elaborated a bit:

For my part, I think ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norns that you can call trancendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.

I don’t know the extent to which Samuel agrees with Mises, but his statements seemed consistent with the “liberal-subjectivist” interpretation of morality Mises seemed to describe in his oeuvre. In short, our notions of right and wrong change with the times, and with the circumstances. Something once considered immoral is today anything but (think casual sex); something once considered common practice is now considered utterly heinous (think child brides). Morality seems to flex and change with the society experiencing it, at least according to Mises’ view. And even if Hammond himself looks at ethics differently, it’s not controversial to suggest that what I’ve just described is a view widely held by many people of many different political and philosophical persuasions.

Still, problems arise with this point of view. Here’s a big one, for example: Suppose you were a slave in 19th-Century America. Then, for you, your position in society and society’s treatment of you is perfectly ethical – even though you know quite rationally and reasonably that this cannot be the case.

For an ethicist like Mises, slavery is perfectly ethical until the social order evolves; then, we need to change the ethics to serve the new social order. If the new social order happens to enslave you, well, that’s just tough cookies. Better luck next social order; today, your beliefs about human equality are immoral.

Subjective Ethics: Alternatives To

I’ll readily admit my bias here: I don’t think a world in which social orders allow us to enslave each other until such time as a new social order comes along is a particularly ethical world. I have a bias in favor of liberating the enslaved and oppressed. I think human beings are capable of a better system of ethics. Unfortunately, many of the alternatives pose problems of their own.

One alternative, for example, is deontological decree, i.e. the word of god. The appeal here is obvious: god is perfect, surely his system of ethics is a pretty good one. But deontology poses two main problems for people like me.

The first is that, if I don’t believe in the particular god making the decree, then for me the system is identical to the “liberal-subjectivist” scenario described above. In other words, if your god happens to decree that my daughter can be made a child bride, and I object, that’s just too bad for her and me. To object is to contradict god’s will, and only evil (unethical) people do that.

The second problem with deontology is that, as a purely empirical matter, it tends to be absolutely miserable in practice, leading to ethical catastrophes like the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Taliban, “honor” killings, caste systems, and so on. Deontology is so atrocious in practice that almost no one thinks it’s a good idea anymore, not even most theists.

Another possibility is utilitarianism, a favorite among rational types and academics. Calculating the choice that results in the most net total (subjective) happiness is an attractive proposition because it gives us a way to apply objective thinking (economic models and the like) to legitimately subjective questions. It’s a democratic approach to ethical problems. Here again, however, I spot two primary problems.

The first I shall illustrate by repeating an example I read in Steven Landsburg’s excellent book, The Big Questions. While he tells it better than I do, the example in my words goes something like this: Suppose everyone in the entire world were experiencing a dull but perpetual headache which could, for some strange reason, be stopped by killing a single innocent man. According to Landsburg and most other utilitarians, unless that man happens to be a Utility Monster, the right ethical choice is to kill one man in order to spare the rest of the world a mild headache. The moral of the story is: Don’t be the guy.

Still not convinced? Then what if I called that one guy “the guy with slightly darker skin and a comparative advantage in picking cotton?”

Aha, there it is. We’re back to the same scenario I laid out at the outset of this blog post. If your utility happens to be in the minority, too bad for you. Under utilitarianism, the enslavement or murder of any person y is theoretically justifiable, so long as we can buttress the case with a utility function U = ∑(xi,y) for sufficiently large i.

Virtue Ethics, a favorite among Sweet Talkers – myself included – seems to work really well on an individual level, because it affords the moral agent a means by which to reason through the ethical ramifications of a particular dilemma and arrive at a strong conclusion that reflects the totality of one’s moral code.

Adam highlighted a couple of substantial problems in a previous post:

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

So, one weakness of virtue ethics is that it means our moral worth might depend on our ability to rationalize our virtue rhetorically. Anything goes as long as we can make a good argument for it, nothing is moral unless it can be argued-for. Then, another weakness is that, in a liberal democracy, we still end up putting it up to a majoritarian vote. The result is… yep, the same scenario I described at the outset of this blog post.

A New (?) Proposal For What Makes Something Moral

Is there any better standard upon which to found our systems of ethics, something that performs a little better than the ones I’ve described thus far?

I think I might have one: mental health. Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

For example, slavery is universally bad for every society in every time period, since no one could argue that being enslaved results in anything other than a mental health tragedy for the victim; furthermore, I could easily make the case that slave-ownership is corrosive to the mental health of the owner, too. The fact that slavery fails my moral test for both the victim and the perpetrator, by their own internal and subjective standards is a major advantage, to put it lightly.

The test performs equally well for minor ethical dilemmas. For example, lying is shown to be wrong not just because “society deems it so,” nor because “honesty serves the greatest good for the greatest number,” nor even because honesty is virtuous. Rather, lying is immoral because your life will be miserable if people don’t trust you, you won’t be able to live with yourself if you consistently betray the trust of others, and everyone else will be miserable, too. As for “white lies,” the mental health test shows us that uncouthly stating whatever you’re thinking in the name of total honesty is closer to a pathology than a virtue; if you can’t be sensitive to others’ feelings while telling the truth, then you might need to improve your mental health.

This seems intuitively true to just about everyone. On some level, we all know that it is only very weird people or people in a state of dire mental health who give no consideration to the feelings of others, and merely robotically act in a prescriptively “moral” fashion.

At the same time, the mental health test arms us against the prevailing attitudes of an oppressive mob. Society at large might tell you that it’s moral to force you to marry an old man or a first cousin – but if you know that it’s wrong for your mental health, then you have the moral authority to say “No!” even in the face of unanimous peer pressure. Better a mentally healthy social outcast – maybe even better a dead dissident – than a crazed or broken slave. Furthermore, a pervasive sense of conformism is itself mentally unhealthy, and going along with the crowd when one’s sense of morals suggests otherwise is a prime example of why conformism can be a big problem. And yes, contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is also problematic. So, the key question, the one that provides clear moral guidance both for the contrarian and the pushover is, “Is this good or bad for mental health?”

One conclusion that arises is that a compromised state of mental health, no matter what the reason, compromises our ability to make good moral decisions. This, too, seems to make intuitive sense: soldiers in a war zone have a reduced ability to make the same kinds of moral decisions that they do during peace time; someone experiencing profound grief will often neglect her loved ones; and so on. This underscores the importance of mental health, as it might be integral to our ability to be good people.

Conclusion

Part of my reason for writing this post is because I’m hoping for feedback. This idea is relatively new to me, and I’m still not totally sold on it. It seems robust, but I feel as though I might be missing something important – possibly a few things. This notion does tend to put me at odds with people who would ordinarily agree with me on some significant moral issues. That is sufficient to cast doubt on the idea. At the same time, the more I evaluate it myself, the stronger the idea appeals to me.

So maybe I need help spotting my errors. If you happen to notice something I’ve missed, please do leave a comment.