Which Principles Are Ok To Bribe?

According to 538, socially liberal / fiscal conservatives comprised 16% of the 2016 election. And the majority of them chose Trump. I found it surprising but hardly difficult to imagine their mental ledger as they weighed pros and cons. When Trump wins I’ll donate half my tax savings to Planned Parenthood. Like a political carbon offset.

We’ve talked about Nimbyism here before and how liberal renters are suddenly long a housing crisis the moment they close on their first home. Values versus narrow self-interest.

The NBA. Activision Blizzard. Recent controversy has them trying to get a quote for the exchange rate between dollars and honor?

Louis CK. Tiger Woods. These guys were pulling pages from Motley Crue’s playbook. Not illegal but don’t expect sponsors to call you back. I retroactively wish instead of Tiger it was Yao Ming just to know if his scarlet letter would have just blended into his Rocket red jersey?

More than ever, morality is on public trial. Offsets and virtue signaling are used to prosecute and defend. Cancel culture and doxing stand ready to enforce sentences that lack time limits or discussions of proportionality. If that doesn’t faze you, the logical extension should. If you are aware of behavior that is clearly legal but controversial you are now an accomplice to a non-crime or if you want to be Orwellian about it, a thoughtcrime. Paranoia about being complicit in a non-crime would seem a comical way to expend some brain cycles but I’m not sure Daryl Morey’s boss would laugh. I doubt he ever thought he was going to be put on trial by his fellow owners whose interests may shapeshift them into wands of the Chinese public.

So we find ourselves in 2019 running ethical parkour, making stuff up as we bounce from one obstacle to another trying to find our footing. So let’s check out a framework from Slatestarcodex that can guide our understanding.

Terms of Ethics

  • Axiology is the study of what’s good
  • Morality is the study of what the right thing to do is
  • Law is what’s allowed by your government

He goes on:

These three concepts are pretty similar; they’re all about some vague sense of what is or isn’t desirable. But most societies stop short of making them exactly the same. These concepts stay separate because they each make different compromises between goodness, implementation, and coordination. Axiology can’t distinguish between murdering your annoying neighbor vs. not donating money to save a child dying of parasitic worms in Uganda. But morality absolutely draws this distinction: it says not-murdering is obligatory, but donating money to Uganda is supererogatory.
So fundamentally, what is the difference between axiology, morality, and law?

  • Axiology is just our beliefs about what is good. If you defy axiology, you make the world worse.
  • Morality is an attempt to triage the infinite demands of axiology, in order to make them implementable.
  • Law is an attempt to formalize the complicated demands of morality, in order to make them implementable by a state with police officers and law courts.

How the Terms Interact

In healthy situations…each of these systems reinforces and promotes the other. In these healthy situations, the universally-agreed priority is that law trumps morality, and morality trumps axiology. So first you do your legal duty, then your moral duty, and then if you have energy left over, you try to make the world a better place.

In unhealthy situations…you can get all sorts of weird conflicts. Moral dilemmas such as the “fat man version of the trolley problem” pit axiology vs morality. Meanwhile, civil disobedience is a battle between morality and the law. Think of conscientious objectors or Edward Snowden.

Drawing Ethical Equivalences

The promise of such a framework is a balance of consistency, convenience, and sensibility to ethical comparisons. By donating to the ASPCA you can’t atone for embezzling from the zoo fundraiser, but it can offset your axiological charges for eating animals (between this example and the fact that I do eat animals I hope I have offended everyone equally). You can’t offset morality, meanwhile, the legal system has its own prices for transgressions.

By keeping offenses in one domain not fungible with offenses in another we are spared the nonsensical task of setting inter-tier exchange rates. That task may be a fun game in the vein of ‘would you rather?’ but in practice feels like measuring the spot of a blind ref. Close enough to the tackle but far enough to be arbitrary.

For the full text of Slatestar’s post on moral offsets, including my highlights, click here.

Living By Your Principles

You may strive to live according to some coherent worldview but in reality, you whizz through life with wide rounding errors in your moral math. You can rationalize the price for anything if you want something bad enough or you are in enough pain. The only people don’t feel pain are dead or soon to be dead. On the practical limitations of living according to first principles, Byrne Hobart writes:

 A fourteen-year-old who just read Foucault or Peter Singer or Ayn Rand can absolutely trounce mom and dad in a fair debate, because the newly-enlightened teenager is reasoning straight from a narrow set of sensible premises. This tells you something important about philosophy and hypocrisy: it’s easy to be morally consistent if you don’t have bills to pay.

For the realists, Hobart proffers salvation:

One approach is to use a model as a tiebreaker rather than an absolute rule: instead of radical honesty, err on the side of honesty; instead of following every rule in Leviticus, start going to church on Easter and Christmas. This produces nonstop hypocrisy, but that’s okay: if you always live up to your principles, you’ve chosen undemanding principles. It’s not really incremental hypocrisy, just incremental awareness.

Beyond ethics, it is no easier to live according to first principles especially when they sit outside the circle of consensus. Your instinct may be to decide your principles, then try to live by them. The truly enlightened approach does the opposite: figure out what everyone else implicitly believes, and what opportunities that presents.

Most middle-class Americans at least act as if:

  • Exactly four years of higher education is precisely the right level of training for the overwhelming majority of good careers.
  • You should spend most of your waking hours most days of the week for the previous twelve+ years preparing for those four years. In your free time, be sure to do the kinds of things guidance counselors think are impressive; we as a society know that these people are the best arbiters of arete.
  • Forty hours per week is exactly how long it takes to be reasonably successful in most jobs.
  • On the margin, the cost of paying for money management exceeds the cost of adverse selection from not paying for it.
  • You will definitely learn important information about someone’s spousal qualifications in years two through five of dating them.
  • Human beings need about 50% more square feet per capita than they did a generation or two ago, and you should probably buy rather than rent it.
  • Books are very boring, but TV is interesting.

You can be a low-risk contrarian by just picking a handful of these, articulating an alternative — either a way to get 80% of the benefit at 20% of the cost, or a way to pay a higher cost to get massively more benefits — and then living it.

Continue reading the whole post here.

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