Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Moral Desert and Economic Desert Part 1

Problems with Various Desert Bases
What would it mean for someone the get the wage they deserve? Our answer will depend on the desert base; i.e., in virtue of what are things deserved? Probably the most intuitive answer is that "I deserve my wage because I worked hard for it," implying that effort is the basis for desert claims. Cursory reflection leads us to this reject this answer for a couple of reasons. 

The type of market you serve, the nature of your product, aggregate demand, supply, and your customers willingness and ability to pay all affect your wage although none of these variables are in your control.  That is, they are not a product of your effort. If you work in social services and serve the poor, there is tremendous demand for and value of your services yet your "customers" have a low ability to pay.  Your wage is low and your effort is largely irrelevant. On the other hand, a Saudi Prince might pay a beautiful model $10 000.00 to hang on his arm for an evening. The model's beauty isn't a product of effort nor deliberate choice and so it's hard to say she "earned" the $10 000.00 if effort is our desert base. There are many other counter-examples to the effort desert-base but I'll leave it at that.

The next plausible candidate desert-base is achievement or outcome.  If I produce more than someone else then I deserve more.  This solution also has it's problems. First of all we have to ask about the nature of goods being compared. Do we think that the largest crack dealer is more deserving of their income than the small-time dealer? The former produced more sales, after all. And so we see that social value also enters the calculus. 

It's not enough that a product generates sales, we must also consider the social value of the product. But here's where things get tricky. Often the market value and the social value of goods come apart. The social value of drug rehabilitation workers (for non-celebrities) trumps that of a Fendi handbag yet the profit margins on the former are minimal.  The social value of an educational computer program trumps that of candy crush, yet candy crush and other games deliberately designed to be addictive are much more profitable. And so again we see there is no clear way to establish the magnitude of desert. We can't just appeal to market value. 

Prudential vs Moral Desert
The very loose fit between various desert bases and desert is one set of reasons to be skeptical of economic desert claims. The chief puzzle in understanding economic desert, however, is reconciling the role of prudential and moral action in generating desert claims. Intentionally self-benefiting action generates most economic desert claims: few people go to work motivated by the desire to serve their others, and if they do, it's incidental.  The desire to achieve a certain standard of living and buy this or that knick knack motivates most people to drag themselves out of bed day in and day out. In short, the target beneficiary of the fruits of most people's labor is themselves.

One the other hand, moral desert is generally conceived of as being produced by other-directed action in terms of benefits.  It's odd to say "I'm morally deserving of X because I was looking out for number 1". And so, it is puzzling that the claim "you can't tax me because it's my money--I earned it" is often an implicitly moral one. Denying that others have a claim to your wages imposes duties on them and by so doing enters the moral realm.  Failure to respect these duties might be considered theft by some. But, again it seems odd that a moral claim can be generated by self-serving action and intent.  So, is it simply a category mistake to say that one has a moral desert claim to their wage? Maybe economic desert isn't moral, it's something else.

I think there's a plausible solution to this apparent tension between our common sense intuitions about economic desert and the conceptual distinction between prudential and moral action: in many cases, prudential action is a component of moral action. Simply put, taking care of yourself and your needs so others aren't burdened by you is a part of moral living.  The notion of a good citizen is tied to the idea of, at best contributing positively, but a least not being a net consumer of societies resources when you don't have to be.  A good citizen, if they are able, minimally fulfills part of their moral duty by providing for themselves.

Of course, the prudential and moral don't necessarily overlap.  I can act prudentially and also act contrary to morality. For example, it might be economically prudent for me to sell heroin to minors but the social harms would wipe out any good that came from prudence. And so we see that, although prudence and morality can align, they can also pull in opposite directions.  The moral value of prudence seems to be constrained by considerations of social good.  That is, prudence only has value so long as it doesn't conflict with at least some of our notions of social good.  The mere existence of a market for the products of one's prudential labor isn't sufficient to infer the social value of your prudence--nor of your product.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Can Ethical Vegetarians and Vegans Own Carnivorous Pets?

One thing you learn pretty quickly in philosophy is that committing to a particular principle often commits you to unexpected positions. Since becoming vegetarian I'm starting to realize this a lot in terms of the principles that ground my vegetarianism.

Here's the issue: It seems that the principles that ground vegetarianism or veganism commit us to the conclusion that it's unethical to own carnivorous pets. Lets look at the principles that support vegetarianism and veganism and see how they apply to carnivorous pet ownership.

(Note: For economy I'm going to use vegetarianism to refer also to veganism and "pet" to refer to carnivorous pet).

Argument 1
The most common reason people become vegetarian has to do with Peter Singer's argument which , in abbreviated form, goes something like this:

(P1) Factory farming causes animals to suffer tremendously.
(P2) Suffering is bad and we shouldn't cause it.
(C)   We shouldn't eat factory farmed meat (or any meat where the animal suffered).

Notice this argument isn't against killing, only against suffering. The objection to killing a separate reason to reject eating meat which I'll set aside for now.

Here's the problem for people who accept this argument or something like it: Pets eat factory farmed meat. By owning a pet you are contributing to the suffering of many other animals--the very thing you oppose.

It seems as though having a pet is contrary to a vegetarian's ethical commitments.  A vegetarian can reply (in some cases): I adopted this pet and I wasn't going to just let it die.

Even if this is true, (P2) seems to commit us to a startling conclusion: we ought to euthanize our pets. Here's why. Lets take for granted that more suffering is worse than less suffering.  Your pet has had a pretty good life. Except for the time it spent before you rescued it, live's been pretty good. Almost no suffering. Now, keeping your pet alive over its natural lifetime causes the suffering of many other creatures equal in their capacity to suffer with your pet. Their suffering is of no lesser moral worth than that of your pets. If we are truly committed to (P2), that suffering is bad, and we should cause less rather than more suffering, it seems to follow that we ought to euthanize our happy pets. It will cause less over-all suffering.

Argument 2
If your vegetarianism is founded on the idea that eating meat is wrong because killing is wrong, there's an analogous problem.  Lets apply the famous trolly problem to see why.  A trolly is barreling down a track and will kill 5 workers working in a tunnel ahead. You can pull a lever and divert the trolly to another tunnel with only one worker. Should you allow the 5 to die or pull the lever, saving the 5 but causing only one worker to die? Most people say pull the lever.  It's better to save 5 lives for the "price" of one. So, if we accept this principle and say the lives of animals are of equal value (at least with respect to each other), it seems to follow that we should euthanize our pet (or at least not feed it) to save the 5 animals that will be slaughtered to feed our pet over its lifetime.

Argument 3
You can also run all the same arguments in regards to the environmental cost of raising animals for meat. Owning a pet causes more animals to be raised for meat. More animals=higher environmental cost=more bad. If you euthanize your pet, those future animals don't need to be raised for meat and there is less of an environmental impact. Fewer animals=lower environmental cost=less bad.

Weak Counter Argument: Causal Inefficacy
One way to reply is to say that "well, euthanizing my one pet isn't going to change the meat industry/how much meat is produced." Vegetarians hear (and reject) a version of this same argument when people object to vegetarianism. It's a bad argument. To see why, imagine the pre-emancipation slave owner saying "well, even if I free my slaves, everyone else is still going to have slaves and probably just take my freed slaves anyway." Is this a good argument? Nope. Owning slaves is morally bad regardless of what other people do. You're responsible for the moral consequences of your own actions; what other people do isn't relevant.

As a vegetarian, I don't like any of these conclusions but they seem to follow from the principles I've accepted.  At the very least, the principles suggest that, if we don't euthanize our rescued pets we at least have an obligation to ensure that all pets should neutered/spayed to prevent future pets from coming into the world. Also, that once our existing pet dies (naturally) we shouldn't get another pet--rescue or otherwise. That sucks. I can't imagine my life without doge.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Aristotle and Plato: Hey, Dummy! You Don't Know What You Want!

Aristotle and Plato make the same puzzling claim: You can be mistaken about what you desire. Consider the following example: You're looking at a delicious piece of chocolate cake.  You say to your friend Aristotle, "I really want to eat that cake."  Aristotle be like: "No, you don't." You be like, "Dude, yes I do. Aristotle be like, "No, you only believe you want the cake. You don't really want it. You're mistaken."  You be like, "Dude, I think I know what goes on in my own head better than you. Inside my head right now is a little homunculus screaming 'I want cake! I want cake!'  I know because I'm in my head, and you're not in my head."  Aristotle be like, "Dude, like I said, you believe you want it but you're mistaken. You don't want it."  You be like, "Dude, how can you say I don't know my own internal mental states? That's...uh...mental. If you put me in an fMRI machine right now, you'd see a desire state. That's me desiring that piece of chocolate cake!"

Anyway, eventually you eat the cake and it was delicious.

Part 1: Human Nature, Rationality, and Human Good
So, how do Plato and Aristotle argue for this seemingly puzzling view that you can be wrong about your own internal states? We're going to have to lay a little groundwork first before we can make sense of the view.  Bear with me...

First of all, everybody wants "goodness".  That is, nobody really desires bad things.  We all aim our action at the good.  And the good for humans is happiness.  So, whenever we act, we are aiming at happiness (which is "the good" for humans).  This part's important so let me repeat.  No one intentionally acts in a way to make themselves unhappy.  We can be mistaken about what will make us happy but no rational person would intend to make themselves unhappy.  Otherwise stated, all actions intend to aim at happiness.

You might reply by pointing to examples of self-destructive behavior.  Aristotle (and Plato) would answer in two ways. First of all, people who engage in such behavior believe that it will relieve them from whatever is bothering them. They are aiming at happiness, they are just mistaken about how to achieve it. An alcoholic drinks because he thinks it will bring him closer to happiness than staying sober and thinking about his problems.  An emo dresses in black and listens to emo music because they believe this will bring them closer to happiness than not doing this.

The second response would be that if a person truly aimed at unhappiness, that is, they actually deliberately tried to try to make themselves unhappy, then this person would not be rational. And so, the qualifier: No rational person would deliberately aim at unhappiness.  Stated in the affirmative: All rational people aim at happiness.  In short, everything humans do (so long as they're rational) is intended to bring them happiness (or at least get us closer).

Qualification: Aristotle's Happiness vs Psychological/Emotional Happiness
Entire libraries have been written on this topic but I'll give you the super-duper condensed version: Aristotle doesn't mean emotional happiness as we often mean today. His use of the word is usually translated as eudaimonia which means "flourishing".  Eudaimonia can also be thought of as "a meaningful life".  Of course, some degree of emotional happiness will be a component of a eudaimonic life--it's hard to do a lot of the other important things if you're chronically depressed--but it is not the ultimate end of our actions. The ultimate end is a meaningful/flourishing life. For a full post on this topic...

Note: for the rest of this post I'll use 'good', 'happiness', 'meaningful life', and 'flourishing life' interchangeably. 

Ok, where were we? You might already be beginning to see that what we've covered so far can give us some tools to explain why you can be mistaken about your desires.  The answer will be something like: Everyone genuinely desires (eudaimonic) happiness. You believe that being famous, rich, pleasure, power, etc.. will get you there and so you desire and pursue those things.  However, those things won't actually get you a meaningful/flourishing life and so you are mistaken about what you desire.  You don't desire being famous and rich, you actually desire a (eudaimonic) life and are mistaken about what will achieve it.

Part 2: Why Are We Mistaken? Beliefs vs Knowledge
Aristotle and Plato differ in their account of how we come to know the good but they are united in that you can't live a (eudaimonic) happy life without knowing what the good is. To know the good takes years of study and most people don't undergo this rigorous training and so they have mistaken beliefs about what the good is. They believe it's pleasure, fame, wealth, power, honor, etc...

There's an important difference between belief and knowledge.  Beliefs can be both true or false but knowledge is always true.  You cannot attain knowledge without rigorous study and, as I said above, most people don't undertake this training and only have beliefs about what is good.  Since they only have beliefs about the good, they're likely to be mistaken.

Part 3: Putting it All Together
Ok, so how is it possible to be mistaken about what you desire? Of course everyone who reads this blog knows what the good is.  It's all those other people who don't read my blog that merely have beliefs about what's good. Now, imagine you're walking around with one of those pin-heads and they're like "Oh! I want that shiny thing! It'll make me sooooooooooooo happy!"

Now, as a true philosopher you know a few important things: (a) you know what is truly good and thus necessary for a meaningful human life; (b) you know that your pin-head friend's action is intended to bring them happiness, that is, like all rational humans all actions aim at happiness; (c) you know that shiny things don't contribute to a meaningful flourishing life (happiness); (d) it follows that your friend doesn't really desire the shiny thing because what they really desire is happiness and the shiny thing won't achieve that. Thus, they are mistaken about what they desire.

In short, in so far as they're rational, they desire happiness not "shiny thing". The fact that they skipped out on philosophy class prevented them from acquiring knowledge of the good. Thus, they only have beliefs--rather than knowledge--about the good and are consequentially mistaken about the content of the good, which in turn leads them to believe that something that doesn't bring about happiness will bring about happiness.

Moral of the story: Don't be a fool. Stay in philosophy school.

Objections and Replies Coming Next Post