Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘morality’

Four quadrants of moral law

I commented last week about the fascinating panel discussion at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies that brought together rabbis from three different denominations — Reform, Masorti, and Modern Orthodox. All were insightful and eloquent advocates for their version of Judaism, and they responded creatively to a wide variety of questions. (Michael Harris, the Orthodox rabbi, had the hardest job, since a significant portion of his movement rejects the very notion of sharing a platform with rabbis from other denominations. I asked him whether, given that, it might not be misleading for progressive Jews to pay attention to what any Orthdox rabbi says who is willing to participate in such a panel, since they are then, inevitably, outliers. He responded graciously that, in this respect, British Orthodoxy is not representative of the movement worldwide, and he hoped that this insularity would decline.)

Someone asked the panel whether they thought that moral principles and values change over time. Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said, of course they do, citing slavery and other examples; Rabbi Harris said no, the core moral laws are eternal and unchanging.

That’s the way their sort are expected to answer. But that got me to thinking: Don’t they have it backwards?  Why is it that the people who declare that moral laws are external to human society and human choice tend to be the same ones who think that these laws were correctly formulated thousands of years ago? Consider two dimensions of beliefs about moral laws: X is the dimension of social construction, ranging from “Something humans make up completely arbitrarily”, to “law that we cannot influence, but can only know or not know”; Y is the dimension of permanence of our values, ranging from “constantly changing” to “fixed and unchanging”. It seems clear that all four quadrants are possible, but there is a rhetorical presumption in favour fo the main diagonal: upper right or lower left. Either socially constructed laws with mutable social values or external moral law with unchanging values.

Why is that? You wouldn’t expect someone to say, “I believe the laws governing the motions of falling bodies are facts external to human society. Therefore I object to any suggestion that we could improve upon Aristotle’s version.” (more…)

The Tin Woodman as Anti-Antinomian

Antinomianism — the belief that the intrinsic holiness of believers liberates them from petty concerns with moral, much less humane, behaviour — often seems depressingly prevalent. At least as prevalent as the mirror-image disposition that many believers attribute to atheists, that if there is no God to set rules, all things are permitted.

I was just reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the first time, and I was struck by the morality of the Tin Woodman, who hopes that the Wizard will bestow upon him a heart. Of course, the running joke is that the everyone is going to the Wizard to get something that they already have. The Scarecrow wants brains, even though he repeatedly proves himself the cleverest of the company; the Cowardly Lion wants courage despite the fact that he repeatedly performs heroic and self-sacrificing deads. The Tin Woodman, although he is made of metal and lacks a heart, is the most tenderhearted of all. At one point he rusts himself through crying over a beetle that he steps on accidentally.

“This will serve me a lesson,” said he, “to look where I step. For if I should kill another bug or beetle I should surely cry again, and crying rusts my jaws so that I cannot speak.”

Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.

“You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful. When Oz gives me a heart of course I needn’t mind so much.”

Replace “heart” by “grace”, and you see that far too many of the devout believe they have been to Oz.

Holes in the Brussels underwear

One felicitous phrase that has long stuck in my mind, and even substantively affected my thinking, came at the end of an essay by Garrison Keillor, on the social value of hypocrisy. He told of a small town that lost multiple upstanding citizens, including the minister, to serial revelations of adultery. “Sinners are more important to a town’s economy than saintly people are, and they are better citizens. A gnawing sense of guilt makes them more willing to serve on committees.” He concludes with a paean to the communities built by

people with enough holes in their underwear to make them careful crossing streets.

I wonder if EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker may be just such a person. The Commission is under pressure to take action against tax avoidance schemes. He is being attacked by some for his role in making tax fraud the driving engine of the Luxembourg economy during his many years as prime minister. His embarrassment has become particularly acute since investigative journalists recently published secret Luxembourg government files on corporate tax affairs. But maybe this makes him just the person to oversee the cleanup. It’s not just the “takes a thief to catch a thief”, knowing-where-the-bodies-are-buried qualification. It’s that he’s sufficiently embarrassed by his past misdeeds to be seeking redemption through honourable work, and he knows that whatever he does will receive an extra measure of scrutiny.

While I’m on the topic, I just want to mention again how irritating I find the disclaimers that always appear in articles on this topic, that “These arrangements… are perfectly legal.” This is wrong for two reasons:
1. Often the laws pertaining to international tax arrangements allow certain transfers to be made for valid business reasons, but not for the purpose of avoiding taxes. Now, they are structured in such a way as to make it impossible to prove that tax avoidance was the purpose, so they can’t be convicted in court, but that’s different from “legal”. As I commented before, it’s like pushing someone off a cliff when no one else is around. No one can prove that it was murder, but that’s different from it being legal.
2. These arrangements are extremely complicated. Their legality depends upon the precise details of how they are structured. This means that only a very careful analysis of the details can determine whether they are indeed legal. What the journalists have found out is that Luxembourg basically rubber-stamped the reports, suggesting that the details have not been authoritatively vetted by anyone. If someone is making good-faith attempts to comply with the law, then it seems fair to treat the result as presumptively valid. If, on the other hand, he is making every effort to evade the intention of the law through technical compliance, then it seems fair to judge only the technical accomplishment of the task, and hammer him for any technical error, even it’s just a misplaced comma.
Live by the technicality, die by the technicality.

Somebody to blame

Jonathan Cohn — one of the best-informed voices on healthcare in American journalism — has a new article in The New Republic about the reductions in provider networks that insurers are imposing, due to constraints in the Affordable Care Act. Except, as he points out,

Even before Obamacare, employers and insurers were already moving in the direction of limiting networks and penalizing costly hospitals like Cedars. Kominski notes that his employer, the University of California system, aggressively restricted its provider network two years ago. The change affected thousands of employees—and was one of many such decisions employers made around the country. But it didn’t generate a national controversy. The city of Los Angeles just took Cedars off the network for one large plan in order to keep premiums for city employees low. And while it’s possible Obamacare accelerated a trend toward limited networks for direct consumers, it’s also possible that insurers would have made that switch anyway—and that they’re introducing these changes now, in one big wave, because Obamacare gives them a convenient excuse.

This is a genuine bias, particularly in American democracy, toward leaving problems unaddressed, because as soon as you start trying to deal with the problem, voters will hold you responsible for any remaining defects.

I remarked on this shortly after I came to the UK, that it seemed to me that the British underrate the NHS, because any health problem that occurs anywhere in the country, whether it’s unhygienic conditions in a hospital, or GP surgeries not being open at sufficiently convenient hours, is blamed on “the NHS”. That is a strength, but it’s also a temptation for politicians to offload the responsibility onto “the market”. The political culture hasn’t  gone that far in this country, but that’s why there’s a major US political party whose political philosophy is, conveniently, essentially “There’s nothing we can do”.

(Physicist David Deutsch has written a book-length quantum-utopian manifesto whose main lesson seems to be that the fundamental criterion for the progress potential of a political system is the extent to which it makes it clear, when things go wrong, who is to blame.)

This is a well-known problem in torts law — a public danger that has never been touched is nobody’s responsibility. If you try to make it safer, but cannot eliminate the danger entirely, suddenly it has become your responsibility if someone is injured. I first encountered this many years ago, when The Economist published a somewhat surprising plea for a planetwide defence against rogue asteroids. Like (I think) most people, on the rare occasions when I do think about asteroid strikes, I generally do not consider the legal implications. The article pointed out, though, that while an unmolested asteroid that obliterates London is an Act of God, as soon as some government tries to divert it, it becomes a legal liability.

This is an issue that I’ve never seen raised in the famous trolley problems that moral philosophers love to natter about. If you’re the trolley driver then you have a real moral dilemma. If you’re a bystander who happens to see a switch that could be thrown, you’d best call your lawyer first. She’ll tell you, under no circumstances should you touch anything. If 5 people die, that’s not your fault. If you save the 5 but kill one — if you even hurt the one’s finger — his family will sue you.

Intellectual property is theft

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has pointed to this paper by esteemed Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, in which he raises the temperature on the tired old “taxation is theft” thesis. In Bertram’s pithy summary, “Taxing the 1 per cent would be like the state forcibly ripping out their spare internal organs!” This just shows how easy it is to get people to accept almost any moral argument once you frame it to appeal to their squeamishness.

As mathematicians know well, from an inconsistent logical system any proposition may be derived, and human moral calculus is nothing if not inconsistent. Here we see that you can make a perfectly coherent-sounding argument for why taxation is in principle just like forcing people to give up their second kidney to someone who needs it, and that obviously seems wrong, when the alternative might be a situation where people literally need to part with their second kidney in order to eat, or to obtain needed medical treatment for their children.

But I’m interested in another feature of this essay. Mankiw sets the stage as follows:

Imagine a society with perfect economic equality. Perhaps out of sheer coincidence, the supply and demand for different types of labor happen to produce an equilibrium in which everyone earns exactly the same income. […] The society enjoys not only perfect equality but also perfect efficiency.

Then, one day, this egalitarian utopia is disturbed by an entrepreneur with an idea for a new product. Think of the entrepreneur as Steve Jobs as he develops the iPod, J.K. Rowling as she writes her Harry Potter books, or Steven Spielberg as he directs his blockbuster movies. When the entrepreneur’s product is introduced, everyone in society wants to buy it. They each part with, say, $100. The transaction is a voluntary exchange, so it must make both the buyer and the seller better off. But because there are many buyers and only one seller, the distribution of economic well-being is now vastly unequal. The new product makes the entrepreneur much richer than everyone else.

The society now faces a new set of questions: How should the entrepreneurial disturbance in this formerly egalitarian outcome alter public policy?

The sharp-eyed reader may be wondering, why are these people paying $100 to J.K. Rowling for a pile of paper with printing on it? Why didn’t someone take the first copy, reprint it, and sell copies for $5? Oh yes, because there’s copyright, and the strong arm of the state willing to use force to prevent you from printing certain words on the page. Without that implicit threat of violence, Ms. Rowling’s creation would be worth very little. So what does she owe us in return? A thank-you card? The cost of enforcing her copyright? Or maybe just some constraint on how much of the potential profit she should be allowed to retain, from the monopoly position that wouldn’t exist without the effort and investment of many other people, both living and of prior generations.

The fact that this guy is considered one of the top minds in economics today is sobering…

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