On Bryan Caplan’s ethical intuitionism

by on November 23, 2009 at 6:06 am in Philosophy | Permalink

Bryan offers the most extensive version of his view I've seen him blog.  On overall method and meta-ethics, I'm not so far from Bryan (and someday he will get a post in praise of him).  But I usually disagree with his applications of the method.  For instance he seems to argue that because employees are allowed to discriminate against employers, we should allow for a reciprocal right of employer discrimination.

My first objection is that we cannot judge an argument like this outside of a particular historical context.  In some cases employer discrimination rights may be fine, in others not.  I don't think ethical intuitionism, as could be represented by abstract reasoning from analogy. can do the hard work here.  Rather we must look to the history to understand the meaning and long-term effects of the discriminatory act under question.  In some cases the discrimination is effectively perpetuating a regime of evil and thus it is morally wrong.

Here is another part of Bryan's argument:

Suppose A and B be are dating.  A has an equally good outside option. 
B can't bear to live without A.  A therefore has some bargaining power
– vastly more than most employers, in fact.  Yet almost everyone thinks
it would be wrong to force A to stay with B.

If there is one intuition that many reasonable people have, it is that family and personal relationships are not, in moral terms, exactly like commercial or work place relationships.  I get nervous when I see ethical intuitionists serve up simple analogies across these various realms.  (In general I think Bryan creates too much license for analogical reasoning of this kind.)  This is also why I am not convinced by all of the arguments in Steve Landsburg's Fair Play.

My overall view is that ethical intuitionism settles many fewer issues than most of its proponents like to think.  That said, there is often nowhere else to go.  We somehow need to come to terms with two propositions at the same time:

1. We need to think more rather than less ethically.

2. The content of ethical philosophy tells us less, in reliable terms, than most people would like to believe.

1 David Wright November 23, 2009 at 6:27 am

Usually libertarians make this argument about rights, and progressives make this argument about power, and the conversation typically ends there. So it’s nice to see Bryan continue to engage with the dating analogy.

Interesting as the ethical ideas are, I’m very leary of Tyler’s statement that “we need to think more rather than less ethically.” Most of the debates over these issues are about government, not individual, action. To say that something is ethical is not to say that the government should enforce it.

2 Ralph November 23, 2009 at 7:24 am

Wonder if Tyler read Adam Smith’s other book?


3 Bryan November 23, 2009 at 9:12 am

You could (with a bit of tweaking) replace “ethical” with “economics” and the two propositions would work equally well, the most significant difference being, perhaps, what we mean by “reliable.”

4 Ryan November 23, 2009 at 9:26 am

Tyler, your 2nd paragraph appears to make the claim that the outcome is more important than the governing principle. While I don’t completely agree with Caplan (or many other behavioral economists for that matter), I think it’s wrong to put such a high emphasis on outcomes. What’s important is not equality, but rather justice.

In my opinion, anyway.

5 michael vassar November 23, 2009 at 10:50 am

I’m personally more skeptical of the claim that ethical philosophy doesn’t take us far. It ultimately doesn’t take us far enough, and it may often require more intelligence than most people have available, but it usually takes us a lot farther than our intuitions do in my experience, as our intuitions are usually mostly an expression of VERY bad ethical philosophy that we are taught as small children.

(see, they said Keynes was becoming more popular again)

6 Ryan November 23, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Libert said: “Ryan: Why is justice more important than outcomes? The only thing that really affects human beings is outcomes. As long as I get what I want, I don’t give a flip about justice. I believe that the only reason humans devised the idea of a justice system was as a means to an end: to solve the Hobbesian problem and produce better outcomes for all.”

My reply is that without justice, an undesireable outcome can never be realistically overturned without re-writing the legal code. The world has chosen to go in your direction on this, so you “win.” But a consistent dedication to principles of justice would yield outcomes that everyone could understand and empathize with, even if we don’t always “get what we want.”

But in replying to this, I already understand that you don’t care about that. You have clearly stated that getting what you want is the only important thing to you. We are talking about Rule of Law here, and the political philosophers I agree with (Locke, Jefferson, Smith, et al.) take my view of things. It’s not the popular viewpoint these days, so I understand your objection.

7 andy November 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

“If there is one intuition that many reasonable people have, it is that family and personal relationships are not, in moral terms, exactly like commercial or work place relationships.”

So, you say that there is some fundamental difference between “personal” relationship and “business” relationship. Sure, there is. However, you forgot to mention the RELEAVANT difference in case of discrimination. It’s like saying “You are not allowed to discriminate in this situation, because it is 12 am”. Sure, it is. Sure, in another situation it is not. However – why should that be relevant?

If you want to criticize somebody for making a bad analogy, you have to show not only that the situations are different – but that the difference is actually relevant to the question being asked. You did not.

8 capitalistimperialistpig November 23, 2009 at 9:28 pm

What David Wright said. And Steve.

Interpersonal ethics is not a sufficient guide to how to organize a society – at least not of one larger than an extended family. Symmetry between buyer and seller might be ideal except that systematic discrimination is a great injustice that undermines a society and hence deserves to be fought even at some cost to perfect justice in another sphere.

9 roversaurus November 24, 2009 at 10:12 am

I think your problem is that you don’t think of employers as human beings.

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