Monday, July 1, 2013

When It Comes To The Moral Problem, You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

Fricka and Wotan during a crucial negotiation, Die Valkyrie, Paris 2013

Warning:  This post discusses moral theory, economics, and Wagner. If your brain has been softened by Mad Men binge watching, wake up! Sharpen your pencils!

I start this train of thought with the seemingly simple question, why ought people to play by the rules they've agreed to? Like, why should you keep your agreements and contracts if you could get away with fraud? Why should you put a stamp on a letter if you knew it would slip through the cracks?

I was prompted to think about this first by the question in The Ethicist about the guy who wanted to hand in one paper for credit in two different college classes. Chuck Klosterman, who seems like a nice guy but who definitely does not deserve to be called even "An Ethicist," never mind "The Ethicist," said there was no problem handing in one paper for more than one course.

This led to the predictable controversy and hand-wringing. OMG won't somebody think of the children?! At one point someone brought up the possibility that doing this was against university policy. And Klosterman said that was irrelevant: if there was a policy against gay sex, that would obviously not make gay sex immoral.

This did not, and does not, strike me as a suitable analogy. What kind of sex you're having is irrelevant to your education. But if the exam policy says "no talking to your fellow students about the questions," then of course talking to your fellow students about the questions is cheating, and wrong. It doesn't matter that talking to your fellow students about the questions is not wrong in itself.

So this got me thinking, what about all the ways you can get away with not playing by the rules? What about in commerce, trade, business? 

It seems to me there are two possible answers to the question of why people ought to play by the rules, and I'm going to say that both of them require reflection on the deep and puzzling question of what is right and wrong.

If that's true, I think it's a pretty dramatic conclusion. Because it seems to entail, among other things, that you can't set up any economic system that doesn't ultimately rest on values  - values which, of course, might be contentious. You can't just legislate order out of chaos.

Before we get to the two answers, we have to set aside an attempt to avoid the question by saying that not playing by the rules is in your own simple self-interest, because if you don't, you'll get caught and you won't be able to reap the benefits of cooperation and exchange. So the answer would be: don't play by the rules, you'll suffer for it, because the rest of us won't let you play.

But this rests on beliefs that seem empirically false. People get away with stuff all the time. I bet that kid got away with handing in one paper for two courses. I remember reading somewhere -- I thought it was the Freakonomics blog, but I can't find it -- about an economist who discovers that he can get away without stamping a letter, who then thinks, well, indeed, if I can do this, why am I buying stamps at all? Often it will be in your self-interest to break the rules.

So this, I set aside.

The first real answer answer is that you could say that since an agreement to play by the rules is like a promise, it's immoral to cheat, just as it's immoral to break a promise.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far in the absence of moral theory. Economic reasoning uses rational choice theory, and rational choice theory says that people, insofar as they are rational, make choices based on fulfilling their own preferences at the least cost to themselves. So how could something's "being moral" be a good reason to do it?

One thing you hear about this is that because of our feeling and psychology, we get a "ping" of pleasure from doing the right thing. More formally, you might say that our moral feelings are there to shape our preferences toward doing the right thing.

But in the absence of a moral theory, this is question-begging, since the issue isn't whether we have those feelings, it's whether we ought to have to those feelings.

Feelings and preference are things you can act to foster or act to eliminate. For example, suppose you were born in a strict religious home, and you were taught that dancing was a sin, and you grew up to think that was stupid, and that dancing was great. You might have a leftover "feeling" against dancing. But clearly the right thing to do would be to "de-bias" yourself: try to get the feeling to go away.

Now, how would you know whether your inclination or preference for keeping your agreements and playing by the rules is one to foster and keep or one to get rid of? It's not obvious. The idea that morality is just for chumps is thousands of years old. If it is, you'd be better off seeking psychological treatment, drugs, or hypnotism to rid yourself of these irrational feelings of integrity.

Doc! I can't cheat! You gotta help me, doc!

The second answer -- well, it's not an answer so much as a way of thinking about the problem -- is that it's in the nature of rules that there have to be consequences for breaking them, and although such a system might not be perfect, it'll dissuade enough of the people enough of the time.

True enough. But notice how deeply morality is implicated in this answer. Is the punishment only for motivation? Can the punishment be unfair? What makes it unfair?

Worse, how do you make a system with an effective punishment system that isn't also a surveillance state with an all powerful person or institution at the top -- something to impose the order the system relies on?

I was pondering these questions as I went to see the four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle recently. Amazing, incredible; if you think Wagner is about metal breast plates please look again at the picture at the top of this post, depicting a crucial negotiation scene among the gods at Valhalla.

Anyway, in reading around about the operas, I came upon this excellent book review by philosopher Jerry Fodor, who brings up related thoughts about law and contracts. In particular, he argues that the Ring is largely about "a paradox" of law and order: "laws and contracts are obeyed when the cost of breaking them isn’t reckoned to be worth the benefits." It's in moments of passion that laws and contracts are needed, to preserve order. But when passions are intense -- when desire is in ascendance, when passion would "give anything to have its way," law and order must break down, precisely because the costs of compliance are now reckoned as astronomical.

So just when you need law and contracts to keep order, they cannot help but fail. It's related to the morality problem: the full version of the "why" can never be simply the rationality of agreements. 

Fodor puts the conclusion beautifully:  "So if it’s not law and it’s not love, what then, according to the Ring, is the solution of the problem of order? The Ring doesn’t offer one."

There just isn't any answer.

And by the way -- of course it would be unethical to hand in one paper for more than one class without permission. Duh!

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