Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Shortcut to Moral Excellence

By and large, moral thinking can be summarised as the problem humans have in finding a system of thought that compresses all the multitude of possible scenarios into a more succinct rule of thumb that applies to everyone.  The best rule of thumb I know is the edict known as The Golden Rule.  When stripped of all the extraneous objections related to different tastes, and different levels of human ability, I think The Golden Rule remains the strongest moral principle we have considered.  "Do to others as you would want done to you" beautifully summarises the human heart, mind and emotions, and what it means to have consideration of others.  What’s so brilliant about it is that it is a succinctly compressed statement that acts as blueprint for just about every moral situation.

But although the Golden Rule is a great rule regarding how to treat others, the one thing it doesn’t do is tell us which of the many tastes, beliefs and practices are best.  Do to others as you would want done to you is a good rule of thumb, but it doesn’t tell us whether the abortion clinician has better views than the leader of the opposing anti-abortion group, or whether the man campaigning for heavier taxation of the rich is arguing more proficiently than the man who thinks the rich pay enough tax.  The Golden Rule only tells us that we should behave towards others as we want them to behave towards us.  

Hungarian Economist John Harsanyi

Thankfully, someone else has constructed a theory of what is better, by elaborating the Golden Rule to an economic principle.  The man’s name is John Harsanyi – a Hungarian Nobel prize winning economist who conceived the theory that ‘better’ means what is morally preferred when all self-interest is stripped away.  This means constructing moral principles based on a diverse society of people without your knowing how those principles will affect you.  If that sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s probably because it is more widely known by what the philosopher John Rawls called a 'veil of ignorance' - meaning that the society we should choose optimally would be the one we'd choose for maximal fairness, equality and opportunity without knowing who we'd be in that society. This creates a template for moral propositions that avoid self-interest and work on the basis of probability. 

But it isn’t original to Rawls.  Rawls appropriated it for his theories of justice, but Harsanyi’s model is the original; it shows that most moral truths are true outside of the biases of the man who has stake in them.   He called his model ‘The Amnesia Principle’, and he wrote mathematical models to prove its efficacy*.  In practical everyday terms, it works like this; there may be a moral imperative to choose X over Y or Y over X, but the most lucid moral cogency comes from those who cannot remember whether they personally would benefit from X or Y. 

What Harsanyi’s ‘amnesia’ notion means is that moral optimisation is defined as the world you would hope to be born into without being able to remember which particular set of circumstances apply to you.  In other words, your basis for morality is constructed from conditions under which you have forgotten who you are in this society.  For example, under this principle, you would construct a fair immigration code without knowing whether you were an indigenous man or an immigrant; you would construct a fair 'abortion' maxim without knowing if you were an abortion clinician, a pregnant woman or a member of the anti-abortion group; and you would construct a fair tax rate without knowing if you were a high, medium or low earner. 

A moral precept or ethical rule about any situation has to be made with it bore in mind that those making the decisions could be affected by them negatively or positively once they find out where they fit into that society.  If you’re going to make moral systems, and you don’t know where you’ll fit into that society you are best making it as fair and proficient as you can.  It’s rather like the two hungry brothers who have a chocolate bar to share - their mother insists on ultimate fairness, so she lets the first boy cut the chocolate bar in half and then lets the second boy choose which piece he wants.  You can be sure as anything the first boy is going to try his hardest to cut it bang in the middle.  If he doesn’t, he feels the costs because his brother will leave him the smallest bit.

The idea behind the combination of the Golden Rule and Harsanyi’s Amnesia Principle is that those making the moral decisions without knowing how those decisions will affect them will try their hardest to get everything as good, accurate and fair as possible.  I think of moral reasoning as an application of our thinking used for fulfilling an overall purpose of progression. But what do we base the progression?  I think it is based on the something shared by all minds - the human conscience.  Even though we are flawed creatures, we still are able to conceive of a reality in which our failings are significantly lessened.  We do this because our minds are designed with a conscience that acts as an indicator of what is right and wrong, and how we can apply what is 'right' to an overall progression.

To use an analogy, I see the situation as being rather like piecing together a jigsaw.  The picture on the box is our shared goal of creating a supreme set of moral maxims that benefits humanity, and our jigsaw pieces are the individual ideas and experiences that we attain along the way.  Naturally each generation benefits from the work of the previous generation, with each succession of adding to the jigsaw producing a more complete picture for the next generation to work with. 

One way to object might be to say that everyone's final picture would be different, or that there may not be one definitive final picture for morality.  But that's to miss the analogy; the picture that equates to the shared goal of creating a supreme set of moral maxims is, in fact, the conscience - because it is the conscience that acts as the map of the territory.  And humans have more or less the same inherent conscience because we all have brains built in more or less the same way by natural selection.

You may ask, if we all have the same sort of idea about the moral picture that we ought to be trying to attain, why has it taken us so long to progress?  And why do we fail so miserably so much of the time?  The answer goes back to the very thing Harsanyi was trying to eradicate from his equation - the burden of self-interest.  While we can all see the picture we are trying to build piece by piece, our individual interest (and interest related to family and friends) outweighs our interest in the collective.  Under Harsanyi's principle combined with the Golden Rule this problem is no longer there, because moral reasoning becomes a matter of maximising the overall good through the picture of a society in which we'd all like to live.

* For further elaboration of the amnesia principle check out the very interesting work of Nobel prize winning economists William Vickrey and James Mirrlees, who took Harsanyi's principle and applied it to situations in which economic information is asymmetrical (like the moral hazard theory), and used the mathematics to determine the extent to which they should affect the optimal rate of policy making (which can be applied to a broad range of issues including moral situations, the economy, incentives, and various issues of prudent political practices).


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