Beware of the Efficient and Moral

Beware of the Efficient and Moral

When we debate we often fall into the pitfall of thinking our position is both the moral one and the efficient one.

A few examples:

•Not only is torture morally wrong, it also doesn’t work.

•Not only are higher tax rates morally wrong, they also lead to decreased revenue.

•Not only is counter-terrorism in the Middle East morally wrong imperialism, it also creates more terrorist via blowback.

Ad nauseum.

I don’t believe that this is simply an ends-justify-the-means debate tactic. I think in most of these instances, people believe that they are on the moral and utilitarian high ground. I remember during a week long seminar at a Libertarian think tank, a speaker literally claimed that anarcho-capitalist style libertarianism is not only just but also will produce the highest utility. We shouldn’t discount any of these claims immediately, but they should set off a “yellow alert” in the critical thinking section of ones brain. Why? Because it is incredibly convenient thinking, signalling that we are reasoning backwards. By that I mean that we are beginning with a moral intuition about policy, and reasoning back from there to put our moral intuition in an efficiency debate context.

Jonathan Haidt, influential social psychologist, has studied this type of reasoning extensively. He used the following thought experiment, as quoted by Psychology Today:

"Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?"

The article goes on to discuss the responses:

"If you're like most people, your response is "absolutely not," but you'll find it more difficult than you think to come up with a justification. "Genetic defects from inbreeding." Yes, but they were using two forms of birth control. (And in the vanishingly small chance of pregnancy Julie can get an abortion.) "It will mess them up emotionally." On the contrary, they enjoyed the act and it brought them closer together. "It's illegal." Not in France. "It's disgusting." For you, maybe, but not for them (obviously). Do you really want to say that private acts are morally wrong just because a lot of people find those acts disgusting? And so on."

Instead of just asserting that the act was wrong by its very nature, subjects switched the debate to an efficiency style one. This is the same thing we do in policy debates all the time. It is very hard to say, “This policy will help people, but I oppose it on moral grounds.” People seem to find that clash of values to be more uncomfortable, so they shy away from the debate. To make that argument may even amount to in-group betrayal. To quote Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Politics is the mind-killer. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.

This may be an inevitably when it comes to debate, but it does not have to be in ones personal epistemology. When any of us think about issues, we should be be weary when issues seem trade-off free. While we should expect the moral and efficient to align at times (all the time if one is a die hard utilitarian), we should beware of a failure of our own rationality and reasoning if this is always, or even mostly the case.

Congratulations Chicago

Congratulations Chicago

Whose Political Correctness

Whose Political Correctness