Monday, October 31, 2011

Deontological Ethics vs Pragmatic Ethics

Whether it's political or religious in nature...there's not much you can do with dogma.  Generally I try and steer clear of it but recently I got a bit tricked...twice no less!  The back to back instances involved a revolutionary communist and a natural rights libertarian.  What tricked me was that the communist in several of his blog entries referred to himself as "pragmatic" while the libertarian acknowledged some type of "fairness" principle.

Even though the communist and the libertarian are at nearly opposite ends of the political spectrum...their conclusions on pragmatarianism were strikingly similar.  The communist concluded that I was full of BS and the libertarian concluded that I was incoherent.

When two relatively intelligent people with widely different political views come to the same conclusion...then it's reasonable cause for doubt.  Doubt is nothing new for me though as it's been a fairly constant companion ever since I transitioned to advocating, rather than just considering, pragmatarianism.  That's ok though because, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..."to have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man."

The concept of "doubt" is quite interesting.  As I mentioned in my post on the divine disparity...Adam and Eve were kicked from the Garden of Eden because the serpent introduced Eve to her very first doubt...which she then passed on to Adam.  In my post I also mentioned the story of Abraham...who didn't seem to express any doubt when he was about to sacrifice his son Issac.  Then of course there was doubting Thomas.

Jesus himself had this to say about doubt...
Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.  Mathew 21:21
Buddha, on the other hand, said this...
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Tightly clinging to absolute morals or universal rules is the realm of deontological ethics.  Conversely,  pragmatic ethics takes a larger perspective on morals, rules and laws.  It requires trying to stand outside of your own perspective.

Many of the concepts that we consider "absurd" today were considered "absolute" 500 years ago...isn't it possible that many of the concepts that we consider "absolute" today will be considered "absurd" in 500 years?

In my post on absurdity spotting I shared Herbert Spencer's awesome broad sweeping perspective where he offers numerous examples of the absurd functions that have been fulfilled by various governments at different times.  In a later post on awesomeness spotting I shared a few examples of awesome innovations to public healthcare and education.

Pragmatarianism does not require that you doubt your first principles or see an issue from multiple just requires that you respect and tolerate people's freedom to allocate their individual taxes to the government functions that they deem to be ethical/awesome/necessary.  In other words...pragmatarianism is an expression of political tolerance.

To misquote Voltaire..."I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  The pragmatarian would say..."I disapprove of how you allocate your taxes, but I will defend to the death your right to do so."  Well...whether a pragmatarian would actually become militant would depend on their first principles.

Personally, I was a minimal state libertarian my entire life until I genuinely considered the free-rider problem.  If I acknowledged that the free-rider problem would result in insufficient funding for national defense...then why wouldn't the free-rider problem apply to all the other public goods that I wanted to kick over to the private sector?

When confronted with this same dilemma most libertarians beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of their universal and absolute ethical principles.  My ethical principles were based on J.S. Mill's Harm Principle...which basically conveys the idea that the freedom to swing my first ends where your nose begins.  It's considerably more flexible than stricter libertarian I was left on shaky ground with no sources to refer to in order to help stabilize my ideological foundations.

The shaky ground proved to be quite fertile allowed a hypothetical scenario that I'd considered long ago to germinate and grow into pragmatarianism.  Perhaps doubting takes us a step closer to enlightenment.

Incidentally, a member of the Libertarian Party on Facebook recently shared a link to Jeffrey Miron's blog entry on Poverty and Libertarianism.  Much to my surprise Miron acknowledged that the free-rider problem wouldn't only apply to national defense.  That was the very first instance that I had ever run across of a libertarian making that acknowledgment.

Most of us are familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant.  Right now we are all like blind men arguing over the scope of government.  In order to accurately discern what the scope of government should actually be...each and every taxpayer should be allowed to add their unique perspective to the puzzle.  This would simply involve giving taxpayers the freedom to spend their individual taxes on the government functions that they believe to be truly necessary.

So what do you think?  Am I incoherent and full of BS?  Perhaps...but Socrates and Hayek would have certainly agreed that it's wiser to err on the side of underestimating how much any of us truly knows.
The problem is thus in no way solved if we can show that all the facts, if they were known to a single mind (as we hypothetically assume them to be given to the observing economist), would uniquely determine the solution; instead we must show how a solution is produced by the interactions of people each of whom possesses only partial knowledge. To assume all the knowledge to be given to a single mind in the same manner in which we assume it to be given to us as the explaining economists is to assume the problem away and to disregard everything that is important and significant in the real world. - Friedrich August Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society
[Update Dec 2012] Here are a few relevant passages that I've since run across...
The psychologist was not only an authority to whom one owes obedience, but a representative of Science and of one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States.  Considering that science is widely regarded as the highest value in contemporary industrial society, it is very difficult for the average person to believe that what science commands could be wrong or immoral.  If the Lord had not told Abraham not to kill his son, Abraham would have done it, like millions of parents who practiced child sacrifice in history.  For the believer neither God nor his modern equivalent, Science, can command anything that is wrong. - Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
Yet the history of thought should warn us against concluding that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final. We must remember that at bottom the generalisations of science or, in common parlance, the laws of nature are merely hypotheses devised to explain that ever-shifting phantasmagoria of thought which we dignify with the high-sounding names of the world and the universe. In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis, perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena—of registering the shadows on the screen—of which we in this generation can form no idea. The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. - James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
It is easy to believe; doubting is more difficult. Experience and knowledge and thinking are necessary before we can doubt and question intelligently.  Tell a child that Santa Claus comes down the chimney or a savage that thunder is the anger of the gods and the child and the savage will accept your statements until they acquire sufficient knowledge to cause them to demur.  Millions in India passionately believe that the waters of the Ganges are holy, that snakes are deities in disguise, that it is as wrong to kill a cow as it is to kill a person - and, as for eating roast beef…that is no more to be thought of than cannibalism.  They accept these absurdities, not because they have been proved, but because the suggestion has been deeply embedded in their minds, and they have not the intelligence, the knowledge, the experience, necessary to question them.
We smile…the poor benighted creatures!  Yet you and I, if we examine the facts closely, will discover that the majority of our opinions, our most cherished beliefs, our creeds, the principles of conduct on which many of us base our very lives, are the result of suggestion, not reasoning…
Prejudiced, biased, and reiterated assertions, not logic, have formulated our beliefs. - Dale Carnegie, Public Speaking for Success
Our creed is that the science of government is an experimental science, and that, like all other experimental sciences, it is generally in a state of progression. No man is so obstinate an admirer of the old times as to deny that medicine, surgery, botany, chemistry, engineering, navigation, are better understood now than in any former age. We conceive that it is the same with political science. Like those physical sciences which we have mentioned, it has always been working itself clearer and clearer, and depositing impurity after impurity. There was a time when the most powerful of human intellects were deluded by the gibberish of the astrologer and the alchemist; and just so there was a time when the most enlightened and virtuous statesman thought it the first duty of a government to persecute heretics, to found monasteries, to make war on Saracens. But time advances; facts accumulate; doubts arise. Faint glimpses of truth begin to appear, and shine more and more unto the perfect day. The highest intellects, like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and reflect the dawn. They are bright, while the level below is still in darkness. But soon the light, which at first illuminated only the loftiest eminences, descends on the plain and penetrates to the deepest valley. First come hints, then fragments of systems, then defective systems, then complete and harmonious systems. The sound opinion, held for a time by one bold speculator, becomes the opinion of a small minority, of a strong minority, of a majority of mankind. Thus the great progress goes on, till schoolboys laugh at the jargon which imposed on Bacon, till country rectors condemn the illiberality and intolerance of Sir Thomas More. - Thomas Macaulay


  1. You've said before that under pragmaterianism individuals wouldn't have a choice about whether or not to pay taxes, but that they should have a say in what their taxes went to pay for. What is not clear to me is who decides how much taxes each individual pays. Does the individual decide for himself (in which case you have a free market society that I favor), or does the collective decide?

  2. If the individual decided their tax rate then pragmatarianism would be no different than anarcho-capitalism. This distinction was addressed in the comments on my blog entry where I replied to Jeffrey Sachs.

    Whether congress or taxpayers collectively determined the tax rate isn't quite as important as understanding that in a pragmatarian system anarcho-capitalists could influence the tax rate simply by ensuring that the private sector addressed public goods shortages in a more efficient manner than the public sector.

    Taxpayers are your key to success. Meet their public goods needs in the private sector and they will have little incentive or desire to spend their money in the public sector. Fail to adequately meet their needs and you justify the existence of government. But if you are truly confident in your ability to meet their needs then you should be confident that pragmatarianism will result in anarcho-capitalism.

  3. Would this then mean that government agencies would have to compete for our tax dollars? And, wouldn't that mean they would probably spend some of our carefully donated tax contributions on advertising costs that have little to do with the purpose for which we gave them (i.e., they would spend them on advertising for more donations next year)?

    I also wonder about whether we wouldn't see a huge increase in the budget for, say, saving panda bears (or American equivalent, whatever that might be), and a huge decrease in funds given to, I don't know, the IRS probably. Not that I"m a huge fan of the IRS, but that state of affairs would seem to create some practical problems.

  4. Rob, yes to your first two questions. With standard fundraising practices non-profits raise $5 for every $1 they spend. That's when people have a choice whether or not they make a donation. Taxpayers won't have a choice whether they pay taxes...but they will have a choice which government organizations (GOs) receive their taxes. So not sure what kind of return GOs could expect with standard fundraising practices.

    Imagine if everybody, except for you, allocated all their taxes to saving the pandas. Would you question your sanity? Despite everything we know about the efficient allocation of scarce resources...nearly everybody thinks it's perfectly normal to have 538 personal shoppers spend our taxes for us. What can I do? Start a blog and try to convince everybody else to question their sanity.

    How many of the same private goods do you think that both of us purchase? Well...we probably both purchase food...some kind of shelter...probably a computer? What would a Venn diagram of our purchases look like?

    The other day I was watching a Town Hall meeting on C-Span...there was a lady with a crying baby trying to explain some baby food related bill to a congressman who had never heard of the bill before. The baby was crying right into the mic so it was kind of hard to figure out exactly what she was saying...but it was obvious that she knew and cared way more about the subject than the congressman ever could.

    I have NO idea how close the Pandas are to becoming extinct. But I know that there are people who would probably sacrifice their lives to save the Pandas. This is the "opportunity cost" concept and the "partial knowledge" concept that form the basis of the "invisible hand" concept.

    Just like there's a division of labor when it comes to the non-profit sector...there would be a taxpayer division of labor in the public sector.

    If you get a chance you should check out my post on the opportunity costs of public transportation and my post on other people's values.