Posts Tagged ‘ Ethics ’

Critical Analogies and Dis-Analogies Between the Trolley Car and Emergency Organ Harvest Experiments

I, like almost everyone else in the world, am not a utilitarian. More surprisingly, I reject utilitarianism for almost the same reasons as everyone else, almost. Is pleasure preferable to pain? Of course. Should maximizing net pleasure be the sole concern of our moral inquiries? probably not.  Utilitarianism, like almost all absolutist moral philosophies, is subject to damning counter examples, one of which I’ll focus on here.

Judith Jarvis Thomson:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

On its face, it’s identical to a trolley car experiment: kill one to save five. The difference is, here, no one regards the decision to be as easy as flipping the switch on the trolley car. I think I can safely put the variance in responses up to people simply not understanding thought experiments, but some elaboration is in order.

In the trolley car experiment, the probability of the five being killed in lieu of a track switch is 1, the probability of the one being killed and five being saved with a switch is 1. The experiment’s beauty is in its simplicity; people understand that there really are only two possible outcomes here. When hearing the emergency transplant scenario, however, people implicitly reject these probabilities even though they assent to them, their real-world knowledge weighs too heavily on them: the patients are old and sick, their donor is young and healthy, no surgeon is perfect.

The other side of the coin is viscerality: The traveler is completely innocent and you’re going to strap him to a table and carve him open with your own hands. The man tied to the rails must have found himself there somehow and he’s probably expecting a trolley to come barreling down any minute; it will never look like anyone intentionally killed him. All moot, the parameters of the experiment are such that both these men were completely safe and free from any danger until an agent’s utilitarian calculation worked against them. Each life in the experiments will be equally long and happy after they’re conducted, all there is to do is for your intuition to dictate whether five go on or one does.

The interesting thing is, when fully appreciated, these experiments tell us precisely nothing. When utility is the only value at stake, of course you maximize it. However, loosening the constraints of either experiment and actually allowing other values a stake in the decision does illustrate why people who do and don’t fully understand the experiments ultimately reject utilitarianism.

Naturally, the more easily adaptable experiment is the emergency transplant. Adding a combination of uncertainty and a reasonable person standard with regard to choices immediately engenders huge and justified sympathies for the traveler. Yes, his life still likely represents a new lease on five others (or, make it seven so we can say the expected value stays the same), but our general experience of the world tells us that a person making his sequence of choices to end up in the hospital should expect no harm to come to him and indeed deserves no harm to come to him. Of course, the same could be said of the patients, none of whom may have any behaviorally caused ailments.

It seems as though a bullet must be bitten either way. My very narrow contention is that, while the patients may not have merited their conditions, the forces of history have nevertheless placed them here at deaths door. Now, the surgeon does have the option of taking history into his own hands and establishing a principle that allows moral agents to make their mark on the procession of existence to a degree rivaling fate, The question is: need we favor the will of many to exercise their liberty over fate over one whose liberty was granted by fate?

I worry about the consequences.


People Who Complain About Growing American Income Inequality Are Sorry Excuses For Cosmopolitan Thinkers

Here is the kind of chart they like and here is another.

Here is a powerful theoretical explanation for stagnant or stalling average wages in a country and a world where many many more people are far far better off then they were in the 70s.*

Conjecture on why the theoretical explanation almost certainly applies:

The Second World War left the (only recently) industrialized world in ruins. While Europe and Japan rebuilt, American capital and infrastructure were wholly intact. When you consider the huge relative advantage of working in an industrialized economy to begin with, it becomes very hard to understate the significance of the United States’ position at the time. Moreover, Women had not broken into the peacetime workforce and bid down the wages of men. Median/Average income was at an all time high, shocking.

When would we say all of these socio-economic/historical factors began to shift against the lone male American household income earner? Hard to venture a better guess than the 1970’s. The European and Japanese recoveries/miracles were hitting full swing, we opened trade with China, women started entering the workforce in droves and the US economy hit a rough patch. By the time the domestic economy turned around, foreign competition in the labor market was well established and Reagan’s more liberal immigration policy coupled with the recovery to increase the number of low-income earners entering the American economy from abroad.

These trends have largely continued through today and they have been a boon to everyone. It would be very difficult to show that the median American family, or indeed the median Chinese or Indian family is not much better off than they were 40 years ago when we had so much more domestic equality. Technology and efficiency gains have been huge and they’ve been distributed all over the American economy; you’re reading this online article over free wi-fi on your smartphone, you’re no one-percenter and your parents would be awed by your lifestyle at this age.

So America’s middle class of old is in far better shape, the new middle class is lightyears ahead of what was likely third-world poverty a generation ago, but our focus needs to be the fact that we all live like shit because the greed and privilege of 3 million Americans making more than $250,000/yr is robbing us of the life we deserve. The truth seems to be that the middle class were the privileged ones, getting to press buttons and pull levers for fat suburban incomes while the rest of the world lived in real poverty. Now that those people who were once desperate have joined the global economy and proven themselves no less skillful than their American counterparts, the latter have lost their privilege that came at a great price to many millions of people and now sulk despite still living in the lap of luxury.

On the other side are the 1%: A tiny minority of people with highly specialized skills that few have learned despite many having the chance because they are that difficult to master and that dismal to learn even though they are the skills that let you make extremely important decisions about the structure of production that effect the income and consumption of millions. Given the boon to living standards we’ve seen due to globalization and the successful adoption of new technologies on an industrial scale, I’d say the people organizing it deserve quite a premium over the people stamping jars and balancing cash registers.

The moral of the story is that the people narrowly focusing on the slightest possibility that wealthy middle class Americans have been given a raw deal are they same people who call themselves champions of the poor and proponents of progress. My understanding is that humanism was progress in the 17th century and 19th/20th century nationalism was the conservative backlash; yet many on the left prioritize a return to a world of abject poverty for billions so a select few among their countrymen needn’t feel inferior to an even more select few, though this connection very likely does not occur to them. They are, at the very least, myopic, if not outright selfish and malicious in their drive to cultivate an elite that coheres to their aesthetic.



*The second graph was the best I could find in a lengthy search, nothing on global median income, but an endless trove of the headlining charts. This heavily underscores my point.

Completing the Redistributionist Trilogy

There is a third popular argument for redistribution that falls somewhere in between the argument from justice and the pragmatic argument. Fittingly, it’s a hybrid of the two. Despite constant attempt to re-brand it, it is the argument from reparations.

Any one who has come across them understands that arguments from reparations are riddled with potential pitfalls ranging from problems with predicting alternate realities, to measuring effects, to estimating the decay of effects over time, to it being unclear whether wealth today was actually derived from crimes passed, or whether there are undesirable social consequences for groups paying or receiving reparations etc. etc. etc. My concern may actually lend some precision to a reparationist case, but cost it considerably in terms of scale. Those who can reasonably be held accountable for crimes whose effects span generations are few in number and small in wealth compared to the demands of those who feel they are its victims.

Basically, any individualist account of slavery or similar atrocities can hold accountable only those people who directly devised or carried out criminal orders. That means the small group of powerful men who devised slave expeditions and those who came to own slaves as well as those who were directly involved in the handling of slaves in between. If it sounds like a substantial part of the population from whom white Americans, consider that this excludes everyone involved in building the ships, guns, nets, clothes, and food for the slave expeditions themselves and everyone involved with every other industry in the western world who wasn’t a slave owner, wrangler, or conspirator.

I suggest that, while many of these other people profited from the slave-trade and other atrocities through exchange with those responsible, burdening them responsibility for any wrong-doing in the entire structure of production leading back to them would be supererogatory and, as a consequence, wildly inefficient (i.e. causing people to surrender huge amounts of utility to transactions costs).

So, even if we can clean up everything else about reparationist arguments, the money just isn’t there, unless you want to convict the blameless for not plunging us into a dark age by tracing every possible moral consequence of their micro-decisions.

The Best Time to Alienate Readers is Before I Have Any

This. So. Much. This.

Is what a demonstrably intelligent, college educated acquaintance of mine had to say about what was actually just this.

There’s so much I can say, but long windedness on my part doesn’t even do me any good, let alone you. I’ll elaborate two points: first, this is a prime example of populist irrationality. By populist irrationality, I simply mean that, given the underlying values, the proposed solution does more harm than good. Second, the irony of those values which claim to abhor selfishness, but are themselves motivated only by the sense that some owe others merely for existing and irrespective of what they have to offer in return.


Let’s assume we have some minimal standard of human dignity that it is our sworn duty to uphold for all people at any cost. According to the article, this entails independent living space with climate control, an automobile, access to Western medical care, cable internet and telephone service with ~$25 a day left over for food and miscellany in addition to at least 120/168 hours of sleep/leisure per week. Assuming no effect on the prices of these goods, no transactions costs, no misallocations of capital, and no negative production change as a result of fewer hours worked, all we would need to do is double world GDP and distribute accordingly.* While all of those assumptions are far off the mark, simply redistributing income after production is a much sounder strategy to uphold a given standard of living than what the populist view suggests: raising the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the emotionally satisfying response is the one that holds sway in the market for intellectual garbage. If people were genuinely interested in rectifying what they see as an inequity, they would understand and admit to disemployment effects and misallocations (high skill workers taking low skill jobs that pay like high skill jobs). Beyond that, they’d advocate that workers be paid what the market will bear in the interest of allocating to maximize gains from trade and leave no resources idle so that a redistribution after the fact could be maximally effective in improving the lives of the least well off. The appeal of the minimum wage vis a vis this suggestion is that it pays workers for their toil, which advocates interpret as desert, forgetting that low skilled workers are providing very little value to the society that is supposed to satisfy their compensatory expectations. 


“Human beings are worth more than that. Anyone who works 40 hours a week (nevermind 74 hours) ought be able to take care of all the basic necessities in life.”

By virtue of birth, humans are entitled to take more from the people who were here before are willing to give them for whatever it is they do. Those people never had any say in whether or not you were born, but now that you’re here, they owe you what you think is fair and anything less is criminal. In all sincerity, I’d like someone to explain to me why they’re the selfish ones.


*Assuming an adult population of 5.5 billion at $24,000 annual income (a bit less than the article suggested) the total comes to ~132 trillion 2012 WGP was ~71 trillion.