Mistakes in moral arithmetic

by on July 26, 2006 at 2:46 am in Philosophy | Permalink

1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, foreigners are still "worth less" than citizens.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic.  #2 is false.

1 Steve Sailer July 26, 2006 at 2:59 am

Tyler:

I think you need to give some examples to make clear what you are talking about. But if this another defense of “cosmopolitanism” versus “citizenism,” then how about this?

1. For reasons of practicality and cost, individuals should in many cases devote more resources to their own family members than to strangers.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, strangers are still “worth less” than family members.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic. #2 is false.

2 BillWallace July 26, 2006 at 3:10 am

Following up, if you wanted to make the claim while accepting the hypocracy, i.e. it’s moral to do so, and I’m just not completely moral, then you’re into philosophy, and a rather pointless exercise.

3 Tyler Cowen July 26, 2006 at 3:28 am

There is such a thing as an impersonal moral point of view. It is fine to argue that the world would collapse if we each tried to take care of each other’s families; that is #1. One (not my view) also might argue that at “some levels of morality” our moral obligation is stronger to friends and family. But our behavior would still be wrong from the impersonal point of view and we should admit as such, especially when we are actively imposing harms on distant others. Keep also in mind that our ties to family and friends are quite real. I consider myself a patriot, but for pragmatic reasons. Most of the people in Washington do not please me. Governments are convenient fictions, not ultimate sources of moral delineation.
p.s. also beware when the argument against cosmopolitanism is simply a reductio, rather than a positive argument for national borders as ultimate sources of moral delineation. The latter is very very hard to make in palatable fashion. The difficulties of reconciling common sense morality with utilitarianism, while real, do not help much on the national borders question.

4 MTC July 26, 2006 at 3:41 am

Why the mealy caveat “in many cases”? Should governments for reasons of practicality and cost devote more of their resources to their citizens or not?

What is the special meaning of “worth less” that emerges when it is lodged in between quotation marks?

Worth less to whom?

5 stuart July 26, 2006 at 7:24 am

“they only advocate policies for the good of all the people of the world (which is even more improbable) and that their own tastes and self-interests has zero to do with it.”

Are you claiming that a much looser immigration policy would not be a net
benefit to all those affected?

6 Robert Hume July 26, 2006 at 8:35 am

Talk of the “nation” as if it had an existence independent of the people and their government leads to foggy thought.

Let’s just step back to Locke, Madison, et. al. and remember that the people elect their representatives to act in their behalf.

The people who vote are the ones to whom the representatives are responsible. They are not responsible to foreigners.

Tyler may argue that the average voter wants massive immigration of high-school dropouts. There is no doubt that Tyler does, but I doubt that the average voter does and their view should prevail.

7 bbartlog July 26, 2006 at 9:31 am

If you swallow the whopper that the only reason nations strive for the welfare of their *own* citizens is ‘practicality and cost’, why then yes of course it makes perfect sense.
As for the ‘impersonal moral point of view’, I think you might find that not everyone acknowledges that there is such a thing; but even those who do might point out that, being individual people, they don’t have an obligation to act in accordance with the beliefs of this hypothetical moralist.
As for government being a convenient fiction – I agree that the US government has no special moral status; however, as the federal government does not permit other government or private entities within the US to control the entry of people to areas they own or control, it is the actor we end up focusing on.

8 Ahrimahn July 26, 2006 at 10:00 am

How on earth can there be such a thing as “moral arithmetic”? What next? Moral physics?

9 chris July 26, 2006 at 10:18 am

Several people seem to be saying: since democracy is right, the views of the state towards foreigners should be the view of the citizens towards foreigners, and in fact citizens do prefer their fellow members to others, therefore the state should prefer its own members to others.

Fine. But the question is, are people right? *Should* citizens individually favour members of their own state to those of others? It’s no good to say that we live in democracies and in fact people do prefer X not Y. The issue just is whether Y is in fact superior.

I saw Ann Coulter on tv a few weeks ago. Each time the interviewer asked her an awkward question, she responded along the lines ‘my book is no. 1 on the bestseller list’. Supposing all Coulter-book-buyers agree with her views (there are indeed a lot of them), there is still the question, Is she right?

10 Timothy July 26, 2006 at 10:21 am

Rather than get emotive about it, consider Tyler’s observation. Regardless of why, if governments spend more of their resources on citizens rather than foreigners, ceterus paribus a foreigner is actually going to be more valuable than a native.

Let’s suppose that we have a native and a foreigner, Bob and Rajib, respectively. Further, let’s suppose that they have some gross utility value for the community and that this value is equal for both of them, call it A. In an extreme case the government of Bob’s country will have spent some amount on Bob and nothing on Rajib, so let’s call what was spent on Bob x.

It follows that the net utilty for Bob would be A-x where the net utility for Rajib would be A. Granted, this is an extreme case, so let’s suppose that the government of Bobistan also spent some amount y on Rajib once he immigrated. Now we have Rajib’s net utility as A-y and Bob’s as A-x. So long as yy and even where Rajib presents the same objective abilities as Bob. That is, natives tend to overvalue the skills and abilities of other natives relative to the skills and abilities of foreigners; or to assume that there is some other factor that reduces the utility of a foreigner such that x is irrelevant. This isn’t true, was the point.

11 Will Wilkinson July 26, 2006 at 10:24 am

“like a character out of an Oscar Wilde novel as interpreted by Camille Paglia.”

Knowing Tyler, that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

12 Jake July 26, 2006 at 10:27 am

Steve Sailer: “No libertarian economist could listen with a straight face to an official in a socialist government explaining “Trust me, I’m making policy for the good of the people of my country.” ”

The key word in that sentence is ‘socialist’. It is not their motives that Libertarians necessarily oppose, but their means. Benevolence in itself does not lead to policy failure.

For a moral argument for immigration, see Bryan Caplan’s post here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2006/07/what_we_owe_imm.html

And anything that stops Ahrimahn from making childish comments would indeed be preferable.

13 Taeyoung July 26, 2006 at 11:48 am

The nation represents its citizens.

More properly, isn’t that, “The nation is its citizens?” I mean, I suppose one can reject the importance of larger community identity. And certainly the United States has a much more haphazard and attenuated sense of national identification and identity than, say, Japan or Korea. But the notion that a “nation” is separable from its actual citizens strikes me as potty. Now, the state certainly is (witness, e.g. most modern dictatorships) but the state is not really a moral actor in and of itself.

When you say:

1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

I think you have got it largely wrong. Certainly my nation (the United States) doesn’t allocate resources on the basis solely of practicality and cost. If I get in trouble in a foreign country, my expectation (hopefully not to be betrayed) is that when I ask for the American Consulate or the Embassy, they will expend resources, at a great distance beyond the mere territorial boundaries of the United States, to help me out, on account of my being an American citizen. It’s certainly not practical, and it’s probably not cost effective either. The practical and cost effective solution is simply to throw me to the foreign government. But that’s one of the core benefits of citizenship. It’s the thing stateless persons lack, no?

And similarly when Will Wilkinson says:

Tyler is right with a vengeance about national borders as a source of moral delineation. Perhaps you see the state as something grander than a tax and public goods jurisdiction. If so, explain.

My response is that even the attenuated idea of nationhood that the United States adheres to has that kind of relationship with its citizens. Some states go further — Israel has gone much further on multiple occasions, e.g. actually sending in commandos to assist Israeli citizens who have got into trouble abroad, as at Entebbe. Empirically, nations clearly aren’t just “tax and public good jurisdiction(s)”

Now, I suppose you all may be arguing that morally nation-states should not go to these kinds of efforts on behalf of their citizens, when those citizens are out of country. That is, that when you’re inside these territorial borders, whether you’re a citizen or not doesn’t matter, and when you’re outside those territorial borders, you’re all the same, whether you’re a citzen or not.

On the contrary, I think the territorial borders, as they delineate a territory, are of secondary importance — the sovereign nation-state is a matter of its citizens first and foremost. It has the possession of certain territory, for the moment, and controls that territory to the benefit of its citizens (hopefully with a decent provision for non-citizens who happen to be in that territory). But it may not be — we have historical examples like the Knights of Malta — and certainly nations change their location and their borders from time to time, so that no particular point on the surface of the earth is innately associable with one particular nation or another (the present Levantine business notwithstanding).

Essentially, I suppose the question I’m seeing here is: “Do the nation’s primary obligations flow to the territory it controls or the people who constitute it?” If you view a nation as a “tax and public goods jurisdiction,” then it’s obviously the territory. But why is that the (morally) correct view of the nation-state? That much I do not see.

14 michael vassar July 26, 2006 at 12:05 pm

Bill Wallace:
a) Utilitarianism IS the politico-philosophical ethical assumption underlying economics.
b) Tyler doesn’t reserve the use of force as proper in his acquisition of the resources used to fund those trips. States do reserve the use of force to serve various ends.
c) Philosophy is NOT useless. If you cannot discuss how things would ideally be, you get into the issue (which Tyler has written a paper on) of how Utopian one is allowed to be.

I think that a common and reasonable default position is that a policy that is disfavored by Libertarian AND Utilitarian considerations is unacceptable. If someone departs from this position through the path of complex philosophy that builds upon and refines Utilitarianism (possibly with the inclusion of alternative ultimate values, virtues, and deontological considerations), discussion with such a person is possible, but discussion isn’t really possible with someone who rejects Utilitarianism AND Libertarianism. They are reserving the right to use force, directly or through a proxy, to benefit themselves at a greater cost to others. Basically this just makes them, by any very high standard, ethically bad people.
In principle this shouldn’t matter much so long as they are also rational, but the standard of rationality required of an ethically bad person for communication or exchange with that person to remain mutually beneficial is much much greater than if they were more ethical.

15 Ben Tillman July 26, 2006 at 12:37 pm

Bill Wallace wrote:

“The only way you could make that moral claim without hypocracy would be if you use all the personal wealth you have beyond what you need for survival in ways that you believe do the most good for the most people.”

Good point, but don’t pull your punches!

For Mr. Cowen to be consistent, he would have to devote ALL his personal wealth to altruism, without reserving even enough for subsistence. Remember, our governments have not placed — and have done nothing to suggest that they ever will place — a limit on immigration that will allow Western nations to survive.

16 Ben Tillman July 26, 2006 at 12:47 pm

“1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.”

These are not the reasons. The reason is that nations are alive, and if they wish to stay alive they need to direct resources to their own survival and expansion.

What would the proponents of “homo economicus” think of a modified statement:

“For reasons of practicality and cost, firms should in many cases devote more resources to their own operations than to those of competitors.”

Again, the reason is to stay in business and produce profits — to stay alive (figuratively).

17 Bernard Guerrero July 26, 2006 at 12:56 pm

Tillman,

These are not the reasons. The reason is that nations are alive, and if they wish to stay alive they need to direct resources to their own survival and expansion.

Sounds about right. There are no privileged frames of moral reference, only the frames we happen to abide by due to historical accident, evolutionary biology, the requirements of working social systems that benefit us, etc.

18 Bernard Guerrero July 26, 2006 at 1:12 pm

Tillman,

For Mr. Cowen to be consistent, he would have to devote ALL his personal wealth to altruism, without reserving even enough for subsistence.

This bit doesn’t sound quite right, though. He could argue that his death reduces the addition he makes to aggregate product, and so reduces the resources that can be given to others less fortunate than himself. He would be obligated to give down to the point of subsistence, or, if he’s taking into account how his marginal product changes based on the resources he consumes, down to the point where one additional unit of consumption still lets him produce more than one unit of stuff he can give away. This assumes decreasing returns to his consumption. i.e. his first unit of food lets him do more than one unit’s worth of giving, his 100th makes him no more effective and (if he’s like me) a little sleepier.

Either way, though, most folks would be required to give far and above even the draconian levels that Pete Singer advocates. Which is why I don’t take Singer all that seriously.

19 Bernard Guerrero July 26, 2006 at 1:29 pm

Orgon,

As per my answer to the “Nerdy Questions” post: 2) My utility is not defined as purely personal, but rather a summation of many beings’ utilities, the weighting of said functions basically varying inversely with the square of said other beings’ psychological distance from myself. Something funny goes on at very close psychological ranges, of course, with conditional weightings greater than that which I apply to my personal well-being and happiness. Other beings’ psychological distances from myself appear to be normally distributed around some large number, with close family at one end, the handful of beings I could be truly said to “hate” at the other, and the mass of humanity at +-3 SDs from the mean. On an individual level, the utility attached to those farthest away is so low that the increase to my own utility to be obtained by their ceasing to exist outweighs it, and I’d be happy to see them disappear (i.e. somebody let me know when we incinerate OBL.)

However, I think you’re being a touch unfair. As per my reply to Tillman, above, it appears to me that consistency requires a great deal of giving, but perhaps somewhat less than 95%.

20 bbartlog July 26, 2006 at 1:33 pm

Utilitarianism IS the politico-philosophical ethical assumption underlying economics.

Hardly. Primitive economics (Aquinas) existed before utilitarian philosophy came into being, and Austrian economics at its most austere has little use for ‘utility’ in any quantifiable sense. And even someone who accepts ‘utility’ as an extremely useful model construct in economics can still take the position that maximizing it is not a meaningful goal.

21 bbartlog July 26, 2006 at 2:56 pm

As other commenters have already pointed out, you need to accept particular ideas about utilitarian ethics, the proper role of government, and what is meant by ‘worth less’ in order for the argument to work. Far from ‘obviously correct’. And even then, since it’s quite clear that actual governments don’t behave in the desired manner (treating all people far and wide as its legitimate beneficiaries, that is), we’re left with an impractical prescription.
Maybe I should qualify that and note that the Vatican, which is a government, probably does embrace something like this universalism. But it’s a special case.

22 BillWallace July 26, 2006 at 3:47 pm

re: Michael Vassar
>> a) Utilitarianism IS the politico-philosophical ethical assumption underlying economics.

I completely disagree. There are several ways to counter this statement, but the easiest way is that economics should be the study of how ACTUAL people interact. MOST actual people don’t even profess true utilitarianism, and even fewer practice it. If economics is assuming every actor is practicing utilitarianism then it is quite useless. Utilitarian philosophy isn’t just maximizing a utility function in general, it’s maximing a SPECIFIC utility function, which is the combined welfare of everybody. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism

>> c) Philosophy is NOT useless. If you cannot discuss how things would ideally be, you get into the issue (which Tyler has written a paper on) of how Utopian one is allowed to be.

I did not mean to infer that I thought all Philosophy is useless. I think simply stating a philosophy as the correct moral one, with no discussion or argument, which is essentially what this post boils down so, is pretty pointless.

>> they don’t need to be in order for the heuristic that all individuals ought to have the same legal rights to remain sound.

All individuals having equal legal rights is a far cry from Utilitarianism.

>> At any rate, Tyler’s conclusions don’t just follow from Utilitarianism, but in fact from essentially any modern formal ethical philosophy.

Do I need to detail how his conclusions do not follow from Ethical Egoism? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_egoism. Your arguments (and Tyler’s) amount to “I believe Utilitarianism is the correct moral philosophy, and anyone who doesn’t believe so is clearly wrong”. Well that’s nice for you, and I won’t argue against you, but a smart guy should be able to figure out that given that some quantity of people don’t believe in Utilitarianism, that argument isn’t going to accomplish a whole lot.

re: Ben Tillman
>> For Mr. Cowen to be consistent, he would have to devote ALL his personal wealth to altruism, without reserving even enough for subsistence.

There’s a reason I didn’t take it that far, I was allowing for the line of thinking that one could justify spending on oneself in many different ways and still claim to that it helps others the most. For example he’d want to be able to keep his job, so that he would have continued income with which to help others. And he could invest in kids and their education, so that they can grow up, get good jobs, and use that wealth to help others. But the justification only goes so far.

23 Robert Ayers July 26, 2006 at 4:12 pm

I believe that Mr Tillman got it exactly right:
“What would the proponents of ‘homo economicus’ think of a modified statement: ‘For reasons of practicality and cost, firms should in many cases devote more resources to their own operations than to those of competitors.'”

24 Bernard Guerrero July 26, 2006 at 5:38 pm

Utilitarian philosophy isn’t just maximizing a utility function in general, it’s maximing a SPECIFIC utility function, which is the combined welfare of everybody.

You’re correct, of course. What we need in order to more accurately model reality is a theory of bounded-utilitarianism.

25 bjk July 26, 2006 at 5:54 pm

The problem is that the argument is stacked for cosmopolitanism in such a way that the alternative is ruled out of bounds from the beginning:

“a positive argument for national borders as ultimate sources of moral delineation . . . is very very hard to make in palatable fashion.”

This is a typical libertarian argument. Invent an impossible hypothesis (no national borders), rule that the alternative is “unpalatable,” and then declare that the libertarian/cosmopolitan/utilitarian position is victorious, and so much the worse for and “common sense morality.” Any questions?

26 albatross July 26, 2006 at 6:50 pm

I think many people read Tyler’s argument as saying “citizenism is wrong,” when I think what he was really saying was “you can’t derive citizenism from the fact that governments are usually more efficient at helping their own citizens than other countries’ citizens.”

Citizenism is Steve Sailer’s term–I take it to mean roughly that we *should* weight citizens’ well being more heavily than noncitizens’. Though he posts here, so maybe he’ll correct me….

27 BillWallace July 26, 2006 at 7:37 pm

>>> “their actions imply a preference for Americans to foreigners, when it’s painfully obvious the two are objectively equivalent in terms of their humanity”

Getting more in detail about this point, I actually don’t have a preference for Americans that I don’t know over foreigners. To me they are all just some of the 6 billion people that I don’t know, and hardly care about.

But I expect my government to care more about me than about foreigners because the government represents me, or as someone else put it, is me. Therefore by default, I expect my government to care more about all Americans than it cares about Foreigners because all those other Americans are part of this country and this government, even though I personally couldn’t care less about them.

28 ManhattanTransfer July 26, 2006 at 8:11 pm

I’ve got a reply to all this over on my blog.

If you haven’t read it you might be put off by the form. I don’t write ordinary political arguments. But stick around and you’ll get the point.

Anyway, here’s why Tyler is wrong.

29 Steve Sailer July 26, 2006 at 9:12 pm

Here’s my article on the advantages of citizenism over the alternatives:

http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_02_13/article.html

And here’s an excerpt:

It’s important to note that citizenism applies to present citizens, “to ourselves and our Posterity† as the Preamble to the Constitution says. In this, the demands of citizenism are analogous to the fiduciary duty of corporate managers.

When I was getting an MBA many years ago, I was the favorite of an acerbic old finance professor because he could count on me to blurt out all the stupid misconceptions to which overconfident students are prone. One day he asked the class: “If you were running a publicly traded company, would it be acceptable for you to create new stock and sell it for less than it was worth?†

“Sure,† I smugly announced. “Our legal duty is to maximize our stockholders’ wealth. While selling the stock for less than it’s worth would harm our present shareholders, it would benefit our new shareholders who buy the underpriced stock, so it all comes out in the wash. Right?†

“Wrong!† He thundered. “Your obligation is to your current shareholders, not to somebody who might buy the stock in the future.†

That same logic applies to the valuable right to live in America. Just as the managers of a public company have a responsibility to the existing stockholders not to diminish the value of their shares by selling new ones too cheaply to outsiders, our politicians have a moral obligation to the current citizens and their descendents to preserve the scarcity value of their right to live in America.

30 michael vassar July 27, 2006 at 11:12 am

The government is not “you” nor is it the moral equivalent of a public company with “you” as a stock-holder. The government is an entity claiming a peculiar right, the right to use force. The fact that some limited (e.g. Randina) form of “ethical egotism” or libertarianism are adequate ethical standards for individuals is irrelevant, as these are standards that Explicitly renounce the right to use force except possibly in very narrowly defined self-defense. (unlimited ethical egotism is simply not an “ethical” theory at all, but I suppose that it says that legislators should do whatever their campaign donors pay them to do)
Once you assert your right to use force, you have gone outside of libertarianism and need a substitute. Standard substitutes include the philosophical families of Utilitarianism, Deontology, and Virtue ethics. While members of any of these families can in principle justify treating foreigners as posessing lesser worth, only Virtue ethics can do so within its plausible range of parameter values.

For extra credit, what ethical systems, if any, can justify spending time posting on a blog?

In response to

“But I expect my government to care more about me than about foreigners because the government represents me, or as someone else put it, is me. ”

“Just as the managers of a public company have a responsibility to the existing stockholders not to diminish the value of their shares by selling new ones too cheaply to outsiders, our politicians have a moral obligation to the current citizens and their descendents to preserve the scarcity value of their right to live in America.”

31 tc July 27, 2006 at 1:21 pm

But other countries, to which all potential immigrants belong (in theory), do have the ability to confront Americans with the same playing ground, they can value their own citizens more than Americans. Or are you saying that it is simply unethical for any nation in the world to prevent immigration? I don’t know much about moral theory, but that seems simply crazy to me.

32 michael vassar July 27, 2006 at 1:59 pm

No, I am saying that *all else being equal* it is unethical for any person, and countries are simply groups of people with no special moral status, to forcibly limit immigration, or, of course, any other activity. Furthermore, *all else being equal* implies a Utilitarian calculus for any sort of ethical symmetry or respectibility.
One way of thinking about the problem is this.
If a country denies you rights and declares you to be an illegal person, what moral status does that country have to you? Why should people who a country declares illegal due to the circumstances of their birth consider that country to be in any sense legitimate or its laws binding?

33 kuffar July 28, 2006 at 3:11 am

A thought experiment:

Some neighbors of Prof. Tyler desire to have sex with his wife (we don’t assume sex of his wife).
Prof. Tyler should encorage his wife to have sex with his neighbors, by doing so he improves lives of his neighbors without any negative material impact on himself.

Prof Tyler probably is not pimping his wife. Why not?

34 ben tillman July 28, 2006 at 9:57 am

“The argument is not that you should HAVE to help others, its that you shouldn’t forcably stop others from helping themselves (e.g., seeking a job in the US or the opposite, stopping people from migrating).”

In other words, you’re arguing that there’s no such thing as property. Your principle dictates that one shouldn’t forcibly stop another from helping himself by taking one’s car or one’s cash or one’s castle. Would you care to try another argument?

35 kuffar July 28, 2006 at 12:52 pm

Katie’s Dad:

“The proposal seems to be either the antithesis of sociopathy or some equally-sick first cousin.”

Mr. Tyler is a member in good standing of American overclass. Total job security, well paid, respected, had never been unemployed, never lived in low income neigborhood with lots of “hard working immigrants”.

American Overclass lost all shreds of Noblesse Oblige toward their countrymen, with threadbare theories of libertarionism, free markets in goods and humans and globalism to cover their naked greed and arrogance.

36 TGGP July 28, 2006 at 2:01 pm

The “tying someone to a tree” analogy seems inapt to me. The potential immigrant begins in his own country. Within it he has freedom of movement. Doing something like building a wall wouldn’t necessarily be agressing against anyone, as you could wall off uninhabited territory.

37 Peter Schaeffer July 31, 2006 at 7:40 pm

Kuffar,

“American Overclass lost all shreds of Noblesse Oblige toward their countrymen, with threadbare theories of libertarionism, free markets in goods and humans and globalism to cover their naked greed and arrogance.”

Thank you

I wish I could write/think so well.

Robert Hume,

“Diversity is strength”

Please add

“War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, and “Ignorance is strength”

Has 1984 become the new libertarian bible?

Peter Schaeffer

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