Sunday, 9 June 2013

A Shortcutting Method For Sorting Out Ethical Problems


A few scientists and philosophers have tried to reduce morality to a scientific discipline - mostly with minimal success rate.   Here’s why.  The underlying quality of science is that it pays no regard to our wants or wishes - its concern is strictly about what can be said to be factual in the natural world.  It doesn't matter whether we like Newton's laws, or electromagnetism, or evolution, or the age of the earth - the scientific edifice is no respecter of what we want to be factual, it only concerns itself with what is factual.  Ethical consideration, on the other hand, despite being imperfect, is a respecter of our wants and wishes.  We base our ethical rules and ideas on what we want the world to be like – and we do this primarily by constructing laws of the land to prohibit the behaviours and practices we don't want to see in society.  Those laws don't permit us to murder, act violently, steal or drive while drunk - but we’re generally glad to refrain from those acts, because we want to live in a society in which people are reluctant to murder, act violently, steal or drive while drunk. 

Even though ethical rules and ideas are based on what we think is good for society, we are pretty free to draw our own conclusions when it comes to our own morality, with only our conscience to wrestle us to the ground.  Unlike in science with the laws of nature dictating what is true of the natural world, there is no absolute law of morality dictating our view on, say, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, abortion or fair taxation, so outwardly we can (if we choose) adopt views that best suit our own ability to adhere to those views, which, at an individual level, is what many people find easiest to do.  But inwardly, of course, we don’t choose our moral feelings – they come upon us uncontrollably, based on the power of the conscience, on experience and on what others have culturally imprinted on us. 

My experiences have shown me that most people don’t have an established set of moral views that they could jot down off by heart. Rather, I think people have broad-brush generalised notions that they apply to more specific cases on a post hoc basis - taking things more case by case, rather than doctrinally or with a rigid pre-established set of rules.  

While personal journeys of moral growth are about self-commitment to betterment – it is also true that constructing a short-cut to solve all our ethical queries can only be done by establishing a foundation from which to begin.  In science the universe is a bit like a supercomputer, into which we can plug all our empirical queries and return the output of evidence-based conclusions.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a supercomputer into which we could plug all our ethical queries and return the output of optimum conclusions?  Thanks to John Harsanyi, we do have something like that.  In this blog post I introduced you to a theory which closely resembles the very thing we are looking for – Harsanyi’s ‘amnesia principle’.  This is about as close as we can get to treating morality scientifically, where we arrive at the conclusions to any ethical issue irrespective of whether we like them or not. Harsanyi’s principle also pays no regard to whether we’ll find them easy or hard. Here’s a quick recap:

John Harsanyi’s principle states 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 because you are behind a veil.  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 notion means in terms of ‘amnesia’ 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 from behind that veil. 

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 Harsanyi’s principle you would construct a fair immigration code without knowing whether you were an indigenous man or an immigrant; you would construct a fair 'euthanasia' maxim without knowing if you were a member of the public concerned about assisted suicide or a suffering person desperate to have your life ended to end the pain and misery; and you would construct a fair tax rate without knowing if you were a high, medium or low earner. 

Let’s try to use Harsanyi’s principle to solve many of the big ethical issues, by basing the conclusion on the premise that 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.  Not knowing where we’ll fit into that society we are compelled to construct an honest conclusion to each ethical issue one by one.  Obviously as you’ll see, the issues covered here are the contentious ones that usually require lots of debate and consideration.  I don’t think anyone reasonably doubts that our society would be better if things like murder, rape, theft, assault, bigotry, vandalism, infidelity, arson and fraud were removed from the picture. 

What I will do is plug seven commonly discussed ethical issues into Harsanyi’s model and se what I think the model tells us about the maximally efficient outcome for all concerned from behind the veil, not knowing where they will fit into that society. To make the cases more compelling, I will consider each in terms of our having a 50% chance of being in one situation or the other, because this better illustrates what is being argued.  Here are the seven - what would Harsanyi’s principle tell us about them:

Same-sex marriage
Many people are against same-sex marriage, usually on religious grounds. Those in support of same-sex marriage simply argue that everyone should have the same basic rights, and that it is wrong to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, skin colour and so forth.  Who is right?  With Harsanyi’s principle and the above 50% rate, you are either going to be a person who is opposed to same-sex rights, or you are going to be a homosexual who wants the same basic rights as heterosexuals.  The costs and benefits in this 50-50 situation are as follows; if we choose a society that supports basic equal rights for homosexuals, the best thing that happens is that a lot of homosexuals are no longer discriminated against, and the worst thing that happens for the opponents is that they have to live in a society in which some people who they think shouldn’t be married are married.  To me it’s a no-brainer; given that other people’s relationships are none of their business, it’s a tiny price to pay for those against homosexuals.  Conversely, if we choose a society that denies basic equal rights for homosexuals, then the best thing that happens is those who are against homosexuals get their way on an issue that’s none of their business, but the worst thing that happens is that homosexuals have their lives ruined (or partially ruined) by feeling abnormal, marginalised and discriminated against.  The conclusion is that you should construct a society that supports same-sex rights, because once Harsanyi’s amnesia is lifted you might find yourself in a society in which you’re a homosexual feeling marginalised and discriminated against as you have your basic equality rights perverted, compared with the much less onerous outcome of finding yourself living in a society in which some people who you don’t approve of are married.

Euthanasia
Can Harsanyi’s principle tell us whether euthanasia should be preferred to denial of assisting your suffering loved one in suicide?  In Harsanyi’s model you have a 50% chance of being someone who is opposed to euthanasia, but you also have a 50% chance of being a person paralysed from the neck down, desperate to be put out of your misery.  Again, just like the same-sex marriage issue, we probably should allow euthanasia, because the person who wants to die has a lot more at stake than the person being merely opposed to desperately suffering people dying wilfully.  Those who oppose only have to endure the small price of living in a country where a few people are assisted to suicide to relieve themselves from suffering - whereas if those who oppose get their way the sufferer has to live in a country in which he or she is forced to stay alive against his wishes merely to satisfies those opposed to it, of whom it is none of their business anyway.  That’s why the model says we should support euthanasia.  One proviso though, all cases would have to be handled through a professional regulated health authority.

Abortion
Although we could construct a fair 'abortion' maxim without knowing whether we are a pregnant woman or a member of the anti-abortion group, if we follow the euthanasia model, then you could be a pregnant woman, but you could also be the unborn foetus in this 50-50 equation.  If the consideration is between a pregnant woman’s right to decide or the desires of someone in anti-abortion group, I’d choose a pregnant woman’s right to decide.  But I find it trickier if the consideration is between a pregnant woman’s right to decide and an unborn foetus’s right to life, for the simple reason that in Harsanyi’s principle I have a 50% chance of being a pregnant woman and a 50% chance of being the unborn foetus that might never make it to birth.  Consistent with the above deliberations, the cost seems greater if I’m an unborn foetus about to be aborted than it is if I’m a woman who has to give birth and decide whether to send her baby for adoption or keep it.  We have to be careful here, though, because I am fully seized of the difficulties that arise with unwanted pregnancies, and I would be sympathetic and supportive of any woman who felt that a termination was the most viable option.  Clearly most women that choose an abortion do realise it is not the ideal solution, but rather the most preferable (or perhaps the least unbearable) amongst a set of difficult alternatives – so my aim here has only been to show that under Harsanyi’s principle abortion should not be thought of in the same way that a women would think of the morning after pill, or as a useful form of contraception. 

Taxation, welfare and benefits
In the situation of taxation, welfare and benefits you don't know if you're a high or low earner, so you need to create a fair system for tax, welfare and benefits to which all would be attracted irrespective of where they’d be in that society.  As I've explained before in a previous Blog, the idea of assuming we should tax richer people more heavily is flawed - but equally, it is good to live in a society in which those less well off get a leg up from those who are most well off.  Through compulsory taxation the Government takes a portion of what ideally, in a perfect world, we’d all give according to others’ needs.

Military intervention in foreign countries
Can Harsanyi’s principle tell us whether we should we intervene in fractious foreign countries like Syria, Mali, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?  This one’s much more complex, and I will have to Blog about it at a later date.  But for now, I can offer the following analysis.  It can be said that if using Harsanyi’s principle you have a 50% chance of being a citizen from a highly developed country with a strong army, and a 50% chance of being an oppressed citizen in a country with a cruel regime, you almost certainly would choose intervention and emancipation, for fairly obvious reasons.  That, of course, only gets us far as saying that generally in times of oppression intervention is the right thing to do – it doesn’t tell us whether specific military mobilisations are prudent.

Immigration
While most people support a limit on immigration (they just disagree on what the limit should be), the ethical issue is that migrants from poorer parts of the world are looking to work in more prosperous countries to bolster their earnings, and in many cases support their impoverished families. Under Harsanyi’s principle there really is no justification for unfairly discriminating against someone based on nationality, just as there is no justification for unfairly discriminating against someone based on skin colour, gender or ethnicity.  In the amnesia model you have a 50% chance of being a person from a poorer part of the world desperate to bolster your earnings and support your impoverished family, and you have a 50% chance of being an anti-immigration person objecting from your relatively well off position of prosperity – which means I’m pretty certain you’d choose the least prejudicial of the two.  Given that the needs of the poorest outweigh the needs of the prosperous, Harsanyi’s model supports the notion that we should enable and encourage immigrants to benefit from what we have to offer.

Foreign aid and charity 
Similar to the last point on immigration, regarding foreign aid and charity for the poorer people, the issue of whether we should be mindful of those in countries less fortunate than ourselves seems pretty clear anyway, but even more so when we plug it into Harsanyi's 50-50 model.  In this situation you have a 50% chance of being a relatively well off person in a relatively prosperous country with money to spare for the needy, and a 50% chance of being one of the needy people in the world desperate for some financial help in order to get enough food and drink to survive.  Again, it really is a no-brainer – if you weren’t sure which of the situations you’d be in, in a 50-50 you’d opt for a society in which the relatively prosperous help the world’s neediest.

Those seven examples give us a good template for applying Harsanyi’s model to just about any ethical issue or moral dilemma.  If you use it henceforward in application to any ethical dilemma or societal issue you wish to consider, you’ll find that Harsanyi’s amnesia principle will give you an efficient, reliable and candid outcome.  Before closing, though, we should consider one more thing – spillover effects.

What about spillovers?
It is important to note that there are spillover effects to these considerations too, whereby if something became a policy or more widely endorsed then its abundance can end up spilling over to negatively impact society.  For example, we might conclude that it is good to allow immigrants to come into our society and work, but if we became so enamoured with the process that the country couldn’t cope with the resultant overpopulation then that would be a negative spillover for both the indigenous folk and the immigrants.  But that said, I don’t think something’s merit can be compromised merely on grounds that too much of it could be a bad thing, because there are likely to be other complex factors at work that skew our analysis of the full extent of causalities.  Some things are good because we have lots of them, and more would be better, but equally, some things are good because we don’t have them in excess.  To suggest that just because something is good then more of it would be better is irrational, as the thing that’s good might well be good because we have the right amount of it and not too much (that in itself is worthy of a future Blog post). 

Moreover, sometimes the spillover effects have a different dynamic.  If one man decided he would no longer wear a seatbelt in his car whilst driving, would that have an overall positive or negative spillover effect?  What about if a third of the drivers in the country stopped wearing seatbelts, or two thirds, or all drivers – what would be the spillover effect then?  One single man not wearing a seatbelt while driving is actually an action that more than likely benefits everyone else on the road (including his passengers), because if you drive without a seatbelt you are much more likely to drive more carefully and safely.  That’s just another way of saying that drivers feel safer with seatbelts (and airbags), so will naturally drive less cautiously than if they were without them.  Seatbelts actually had the counterintuitive effect of increasing road accidents, just like contraception had the effect of increasing unwanted pregnancies, stronger filtered cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, and lower percentage alcohol probably results in more drunkenness.

That doesn't mean seatbelts, contraception, stronger filtered cigarettes and lower percentage alcohol are bad things, as there are positive spillover effects that have to be considered alongside the negative externalities – but it does go to show that there is more to spillovers than meets the eye.  Just as an abundance of something in the single instance can end up spilling over to negatively impact society, there are other times when abundance of something in the single instance ends up positively impacting society, which is why we are best to treat each of the singular cases on their own merits. 

Final thought
Harsanyi’s model is so ingenious that you can try it yourselves any time you like. All you have to do is pick any issue, consider yourself having a 50% chance of being in either position in that scenario, and then choose the outcome you would want to be applied in the widest sense if you were choosing without the knowledge of how that choice would affect you personally.  In doing this you’ll find that the most efficient choice is the one that is strongest ethically, irrespective of your own personal wants and situations.  To that end, I think that’s the closet thing we get to a scientific resemblance in morality. 

* Photo courtesy of source.silverdane.com

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