Tag Archives: morality

The Economic Perspective On Moral Standards

[Content warning: scrupulosity. Some recent edits, see Mistakes page for details.]

I.

There are some pretty morally unacceptable things going on in a pretty structural way in society. Sometimes I hear some activists take this to an extreme: no currently living person is morally acceptable. People who aren’t reorienting their entire lives around acknowledging and combating the evils of the world aren’t even on the scale. And people who are may be (in the words of one of my friends who is close to that community) “only making comfortable sacrifices that let them think of themselves as a good person within their existing comfortable moral paradigm, instead of confronting the raw terrible truth.” IE “If you think you’re one of the good ones, you’re wrong”.

I have heard this sentiment raised by animal rights activists. The average meat-eater isn’t even on the scale. The average vegetarian still eats milk and cheese, and so is barely even trying. Even most vegans probably use some medical product with gelatin, or something tested on lab rats, or are just benefitting from animal suffering in some indirect way.

And I have heard it raised by environmentalists. The average SUV driver isn’t even on the scale. The average conscientious liberal might think they’re better because they bike to work and recycle, but they still barely think about how they’re using electricity generated by coal plants and eating food grown with toxic pesticides. Everyone could be doing more.

And I have heard raised by labor activists. Most of us use stuff made in sweatshops. Even if you avoid sweatshops, you probably use stuff made at less than a living wage. Even if you avoid that, are you doing everything you can to help and support workers who earn less than you do?

Even if you aren’t an animal rights activist, environmentalist, or labor advocate, do you believe in anything? Are you a Christian, a social justice advocate, or rationalist? Do you know anyone who really satisfies you as being sinless, non-racist, and/or rational? Then perhaps you too believe nobody is good.

We shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea that nobody is good. By our standards, there were many times and places where this was true. I am not aware of any ancient Egyptians who were against slavery. By Roman times, a handful of people thought it might be a bad idea, but nobody lifted a finger to stop it. I doubt you could find any Roman at the intersection of currently acceptable positions on slavery, torture, women’s rights, and sexuality. Maybe a few followers of Epicurus – but is there much difference between 0.01% of people being good, and nobody being good?

But let’s back up here philosophically. There’s a clear definition of “perfectly good” – someone who has never deviated from morally optimal behavior in any way. “Nobody is perfectly good” is, I think, an uncontroversial statement. If “nobody is good” is controversial, it’s because we expect “good” to be a lower bar than “perfectly good”, representing a sort of minimum standard of okayness. It might be possible that nobody meets even a minimum standard of okayness – the Roman example still seems relevant – but we should probably back up further and figure out how we’re setting okayness standards.

My subjective impression of what we mean by “good” in the sense of “a decent person” or “minimally okay” has internal and external components. Internally, it means a person who is allowed to feel good about themselves instead of feeling guilty. Externally, it means a person who deserves praise rather than punishment.

Some people would deny one side or the other of this dichotomy. For example, some people believe nobody should ever feel guilty. Or, on the other hand, the “do you want a fucking cookie?” attitude activists sometimes take toward people who expect praise for their acts of support. This seems to rest on an assumption that even socially rare levels of virtue fall within the realm of “your basic minimal duty as a human being” and so should not get extra praise.

But I find the “good person”/”not a good person” dichotomy helpful. I’m not claiming it objectively exists. I can’t prove anything about ethics objectively exists. And even if there were objective ethical truths about what was right or wrong, that wouldn’t imply that there was an objective ethical truth about how much of the right stuff you have to do before you can go around calling yourself “good”. In the axiology/morality/law trichotomy, I think of “how much do I have to do in order to be a good person” as within the domain of morality. That means it’s a social engineering question, not a philosophical one. The social engineering perspective assumes that “good person” status is an incentive that can be used to make people behave better, and asks how high vs. low the bar should be set to maximize its effectiveness.

Consider the way companies set targets for their employees. At good companies, goals are ambitious but achievable. If the CEO of a small vacuum company tells her top salesman to sell a billion vacuums a year, this doesn’t motivate the salesman to try extra hard. It’s just the equivalent of not setting a goal at all, since he’ll fail at the goal no matter what. If the CEO says “Sell the most vacuums you can, and however many you sell, I will yell at you for not selling more”, this also probably isn’t going to win any leadership awards. A good CEO might ask a salesman to sell 10% more vacuums than he did last year, and offer a big bonus if he can accomplish it. Or she might say that the top 20% of salesmen will get promotions, or that the bottom 20% of salesmen will be fired, or something like that. The point is that the goal should effectively carve out two categories, “good salesman” and “bad salesman”, such that it’s plausible for any given salesman to end up in either, then offer an incentive that makes him want to fall in the first rather than the second.

I think of society setting the targets for “good person” a lot like a CEO setting the targets for “good vacuum salesman”. If they’re attainable and linked to incentives – like praise, honor, and the right to feel proud of yourself – then they’ll make people put in an extra effort so they can end up in the “good person” category. If they’re totally unattainable and nobody can ever be a good person no matter how hard they try, then nobody will bother trying. This doesn’t mean nobody will be good – some people are naturally good without hope for reward, just like some people will slave away for the vacuum company even when they’re underpaid and underappreciated. It just means you’ll lose the extra effort you would get from having a good incentive structure.

So what is the right level at which to set the bar for “good person”? An economist might think of this question as a price-setting problem: society is selling the product “moral respectability” and trying to decide how many units effort to demand from potential buyers in order to maximize revenue. Set the price too low, and you lose out on money that people would have been willing to pay. Set the price too high, and you won’t get any customers. Solve for the situation where you have a monopoly on the good and the marginal cost of production is zero, and this is how you set the “good person” bar.

I don’t have the slightest idea how you would actually go about doing that, and it’s just a metaphor anyway, so let me give some personal stories and related considerations.

II.

When I was younger, I determined that I had an ethical obligation to donate more money to charity, and that I was a bad person for giving as little as I did. But I also knew that if I donated more, I would be a bad person for not donating even more than that. Given that there was no solution to my infinite moral obligation, I just donated the same small amount.

Then I met a committed group of people who had all agreed to donate 10%. They all agreed that if you donated that amount you were doing good work and should feel proud of yourself. And if you donated less than that, then they would question your choice and encourage you to donate more. I immediately pledged to donate 10%, which was much more than I had been doing until then.

Selling the “you can feel good about the amount you’re donating to charity” product for 10% produces higher profits for the charity industry than selling it for 100%, at least if many people are like me.

III.

I can see an argument for an even looser standard: you should aim to be above average.

This is a very low bar. I think you might beat the average person on animal rights activism just by not stomping on anthills. The yoke here is really mild.

But if you believe in something like universalizability or the categorical imperative, “act in such a way that you are morally better than average” is a really interesting maxim! If everyone is just trying to be in the moral upper half of the population, the population average morality goes up. And up. And up. There’s no equilibrium other than universal sainthood.

This sounds silly, but I think it might have been going on over the past few hundred years in areas like racism and sexism. The anti-racism crusaders of yesteryear were, by our own standards, horrendously racist. But they were the good guys, fighting people even more racist than they were, and they won. Iterate that process over ten or so generations, and you reach the point where you’ve got to run your Halloween costume past your Chief Diversity Officer.

Another good thing about the number 50% is that it means there will always be as many good people as bad people. This can prove helpful if, for example, the bad people don’t like being called bad people, and want to take over the whole process of moral progress so they can declare themselves the good guys.

I’m not saying the bar should be set exactly at average. For one thing, this would mean that we could never have a situation where everyone was good enough. I think the American people are basically okay on the issue of fratricide, and I don’t want to accidentally imply that the least anti-fratricide 50% of people should feel bad about themselves. For another thing, it might be possible to move the generational process of moral progress faster if the bar is set at a higher level.

But I think these considerations at least suggest that the most effective place to set the bar might be lower than we would naively expect. I think this is how I treat people in real life. I have trouble condemning anyone who is doing more than the median. And although I don’t usually go around praising people, anybody who is doing more than the average for their time and place seems metaphorically praiseworthy to me.

IV.

A friend brings up an objection: even if low standards extract the most units of moral effort from the population, that might not be what’s important. In some cases, it’s more important that a few very important people put forth an extraordinary effort than that everyone does okay. For example, whether a billionaire donates some high percent of their money matters more than if you or I do. And whether a brilliant scientist devotes their career to fighting disease or existential risk matters much more than the rest of us.

I’m still trying to think about this, but naively it seems that we can treat the set of all exceptional people the same as the set of all people in general, and standards which extract the most moral value from one will also apply to the other. This especially makes sense if the standards are normed to effort rather than absolute results – for example, “everyone should donate 10%” extends to billionaires better than “everyone should donate $100”; diminishing marginal utility issues do argue that billionaires should donate more than that, but once you find the right unit the same argument should work.

One exception might be if we would otherwise hold exceptional people to higher standards. For example, if everybody tries to pressure a billionaire to donate most of their fortune, or on a brilliant scientist to work very hard to fight disease, then having a universal standard that it’s okay to do a little more than average might make this pressure less effective. Maybe trying to hold the average person to high standards usually backfires, but everyone would be able to successfully gang up on exceptional people to enforce high standards for them. If this were true, then a low bar might hold in Mediocristan, and a higher bar in Extremistan. Things like “not eating animal products” or “not driving an SUV” are in Mediocristan; things like curing cancer or donating wealth might be in Extremistan.

Another exception would be if it’s more important to extract many units of moral worth from the same people, rather than distributed across the population. For example, if cancer research (or AI research) turns out to be the most important thing, then even in the counterfactual world where everyone is equally intelligent, it’s important that somebody be the person to spend five years laboriously learning the basics so that they can make progress, and then that this person spend as much effort as possible doing the research and exploiting their training. A random person donating one hour of their time here or there is almost useless in comparison. In this case, we might want to have the highest standards possible, since a world in which most people give up and do nothing (but a few people accept the challenge and do a lot) is better than the alternative where everybody does a tiny bit. Again, this seems more applicable to issues like curing cancer or aligning AI than ones like not driving an SUV or using products made with unfair labor practices.

V.

I tried being vegetarian for a long time. Given that I can’t eat any vegetables (something about the combination of the bitter taste and the texture; they almost universally make me gag), this was really hard and I kept giving up and going back to subsisting mostly off of meat. The cost of “you can feel good about the amount you’re doing to not contribute to animal suffering” was apparently higher than I could afford.

For the past year, I’ve been following a more lax rule: I can’t eat any animal besides fish at home, but I can have meat (other than chicken) at restaurants. I’ve mostly been able to keep that rule, and now I’m eating a lot less meat than I did before.

This is a pathetic rule compared to even real pescetarians, let alone real vegetarians, let alone vegans. But I can tell this is right on the border of what I’m capable of doing; every time I go to the supermarket, I have an intense debate with the yetzer hara about whether I should buy meat to eat at home that week, and on rare occasions I give into temptation. But in general I hold back. And part of what holds me back is that I let myself feel like I am being good and helping save animals and have the right to feel proud when I keep my rule, and I beat myself up and feel bad and blameworthy when I break it.

I am sure any serious animal rights activist still thinks I am scum. Possibly there is an objective morality, and it agrees I am scum. But if I am right that this is the strictest rule I can keep, then I’m not sure who it benefits to remind me that I am scum. Deny me the right to feel okay when I do my half-assed attempt at virtue, and I will just make no attempt at virtue, and this will be worse for me and worse for animals.

Sticking to the economics metaphor, this is price discrimination. Companies try to figure out tricks to determine how rich you are, and then charge rich people more and poor people less: the goal is everyone buying the product for the highest price that they, personally, are willing to pay. Society should sell me “feel good about the amount you’re doing for animals” status for the highest price that leaves me preferring buying the product to not doing so. If someone else is much richer in willpower, or just likes vegetables more, society should charge them more.

Companies rarely try price discrimination except in the sneakiest and most covert ways, because it’s hard to do well and it makes everybody angry. Society does whatever it does – empirically, not care about animals unless someone is torturing a puppy or something. But we-as-members-of-society have the ability to practice price discrimination on ourselves-as-individuals, and sell our own right to feel okay about ourselves for whatever amount we as experts in our own preferences believe we can bear.

I don’t know the answer to the question of where “we” “as” “a” “society” “should” “set” “moral” “standards”. But if you’re interested in the question, and you have a good sense for what you are and aren’t capable of, maybe practicing price discrimination on yourself is the way to go.