16
Oct
11

Caring People and idealized alternatives

In the comments to Aretae’s ethical riff on my post on bioethicists, Jehu writes:

Neurotypicals really make me laugh sometimes. They react with horror in a lot of cases over the sale of a kidney, especially if it is a lower priced one from a 3rd world country, but they think nothing of people’s jobs that contain the probabilistic sale of the LIFE of the worker (e.g., contractors working in dangerous areas like offshore oil drilling, Afghanistan, etc).

Once again we can fall back on Robin Hanson to (begin to) explain this: selling one’s kidney is a low-status act, but many dangerous jobs are relatively high-status.  Trying to climb out of poverty by selling a kidney and starting a business is a low-status option and therefore “exploitative”, but trying to climb out of poverty by taking a seasonal job as an oil-rig worker is high-status relative to organ-selling (at least in Alberta), and therefore a commendable exercise of personal initiative.  In this framework, bioethicists who object to organ markets, or progressives who object to sweatshops, or activists who object to payday lending are expressing disapproval for low-status options.  This affirms their support for higher-status options, like military service or Bachelor’s degrees, and reinforces their own status.

But this is a farcical argument.  When abstracted, it turns into “Desperate people with few options should be forbidden from taking low-status options, because we’d rather they take high-status options.”  It’s hard to imagine that many people considering selling a kidney or taking an extremely high-interest loan have a wealth of high-status options available to them.  “Cash in some stock options?  No thanks, I think I’d rather pay astronomically high interest and lose face with most of my family.”  The low-status options so despised by Caring People are usually the least bad options available.  Sweatshop workers aren’t choosing between fourteen hours a day of sewing Nike shoes for a pittance and shuffling paperwork in an air-conditioned office for a generous salary: they’re choosing between that shoe factory and subsistence farming — or unemployment and starvation.  (Eric Crampton argues the sweatshop point rather persuasively on his own blog.)  Do the bioethicists and activists and other Caring People consider the tradeoff actually faced by the people they purport to defend?  No: they consider the tradeoff between the choice they don’t like (sweatshop labour, organ markets, payday loans, &c.) and the vague and hypothetical high-status options they wish existed.

When presented with this argument, Caring People will tell you that “we” should spend our efforts creating — somehow — these high-status alternatives that don’t yet exist.  (Some of us call that process “capitalism”, but those of us who do aren’t usually Caring People.)  That sounds great, but it’s a non sequitur.  It fails to justify denying a least-bad option to people who almost by definition have very few options available to them.

Perhaps the problem is that very few Caring People know calculus.  They see utility maxima (“One day in the Glorious Future, even the abysmally poor will be able to get Master’s degrees in Underwater Basket Weaving!”) while the rest of us see utility derivatives (“Nike’s new sweatshop in Dirtpoorvania provides its workers with jobs that suck less than what they have now!”) and integrals of utility with respect to time (“Twenty years of sweatshop jobs in Dirtpoorvania have enabled the growth of its middle class, and now enough people have computing science degrees that Google’s opened a development campus in the capital!”).

——

* In other news, I learned a new word today!

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19 Responses to “Caring People and idealized alternatives”


  1. October 16, 2011 at 23:42

    “they consider the tradeoff between the choice they don’t like (sweatshop labour, organ markets, payday loans, &c.) and the vague and hypothetical high-status options they wish existed.”

    The technical term is “nirvana fallacy”.

  2. October 17, 2011 at 05:48

    Did you forget to mention it? Caring People also seem to think that low-status people can’t be responsible for themselves and need to be Cared for by the Caring People. It’s a triple-shot of irony when they whine about potential coercion in these voluntary transactions.

    Are bioethicists horrible people? Well…it’s impossible to tell the difference between their actions and the actions of a horrible person, so the consequences will be identical. The reaction should, therefore, also be nearly identical – the difference being we can’t be sure they’re horrible, and that ignorance may be relevant.

    • October 17, 2011 at 06:17

      Your link made me realize what I’m missing.

      These Caring People are in fact using consequentialism. They think that Nike can just absorb the costs of higher wages out of profits – that’s what they mean by ‘exploitative’ – and therefore raising sweatshop conditions will have negligible effects on Nike’s buying behaviour, as they have no cheaper alternative.

      This may even be true, in the short term, as it can’t be safely assumed that the market spanning Nicaragua and America is anything like efficient. Maybe the anti-sweatshop legislation makes it impossible for Nike to lower prices and yuppies have to keep paying full price for fancy shoes.

      This also applies to minimum wage, again knowable due to the keyword ‘exploitative.’ There’s no cheaper option than the cheapest labour, right? Letting Tim Hortons pay baristas $4 an hour just benefits middle-class coffee drinkers at the expense of bottom-class families, see?

      You can tell our culture is broken, because how this is wrong has to be widely understood or the culture will end up harming the poor. Having specialists won’t work, as it won’t be enough people, among other issues.

      A freed market doesn’t require anyone to know, though as markets are made of people, it would help.

      I must admit it’s pretty surprising how powerful freedom is, at first. It’s the opposite of sacrifice, for example. But now we have some experience, it should have become obvious. If you let everyone pursue their own values instead of choosing a select group who gets to impose their values on everyone, you end up with a more valuable world. Herp.

      • October 17, 2011 at 11:46

        Did you forget to mention it? Caring People also seem to think that low-status people can’t be responsible for themselves and need to be Cared for by the Caring People. It’s a triple-shot of irony when they whine about potential coercion in these voluntary transactions.

        I sure did forget. :-) One quibble: Caring People don’t actually want to care for low-status people themselves — some of the low-status might rub off. Caring People are (by virtue of how much they Care) extremely high-status, and therefore get to tell others to care for the low-status people. I wonder how much anti-market bias is instrumental on the part of Caring People: it’s not that they actually believe that markets are pessimal (though there’s no reason to suspect that they don’t), but by acting as if they do they can decrease the weight of wealth and increase the weight of Caring in their local status/prestige function.

        This is why income equality is a false god: as per high school, humans will always find ways to sort by status and make the lives of low-status members miserable. Caring People are attacking the rules of the status game to shift the balance of power towards their strengths. See also.

        These Caring People are in fact using consequentialism. They think that Nike can just absorb the costs of higher wages out of profits – that’s what they mean by ‘exploitative’ – and therefore raising sweatshop conditions will have negligible effects on Nike’s buying behaviour, as they have no cheaper alternative.

        […]

        This also applies to minimum wage, again knowable due to the keyword ‘exploitative.’ There’s no cheaper option than the cheapest labour, right? Letting Tim Hortons pay baristas $4 an hour just benefits middle-class coffee drinkers at the expense of bottom-class families, see?

        This reminds me of a Jason Kuznicki dialogue from a while back. In particular:

        “Tempting though your theory is,” said the Academic, “I don’t think mere embarrassment is the source of the problem. If people really were afraid of embarrassment, they wouldn’t commit howlers like these, made by college econ students. On average, they declared that our economy is propped up by little more than welfare, price controls, and minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, many of them pegged average corporate profit margins at 60%. On every count, the numbers are way, way off.”

        (link in original)

        My understanding of formal ethics is a bit iffy, but I see this as an indication that Caring People use virtue ethics, rather than consequentialism. The virtue in play here is “supporting the poor against the rich” (we can be uncharitable and say that this is a self-serving restatement of simple envy), and premises like “corporate profit margins average 60% of sales” and “there’s no cheaper option than the cheapest labour” are fabrications designed to support their premise and paper over the Nirvana Fallacy with a facsimile of pragmatic consequentialism. Call it cargo-cult consequentialism. Given the evidence Eric uncovered in his post, not to mention the economic climate of the last five years, there’s no excuse for outrageous misstatements like the ones in the Examiner article Jason’s Academic linked.

        • October 17, 2011 at 17:44

          Your quibble is duly noted. I in turn, also forgot how it’s all a hypocritical attempt to shift the game such that, come the revolution, the journalist is considered the hotter looking. I may have gotten confused with Sailer’s law of journalism there. It’s hard to keep them straight.

          Well…formally virtue, consequence, and deontology get all tangled up. They’re not real distinctions.

          For example, proggies do feel the need to justify their appropriation of profits by citing 60% profit figures. (For the curious, Goldman Sachs does about 40%, and a really solid non-welfared corporation does about 6%.) The point really is to help the poor, at least among lay proggies.

          They codify (and thus ossify) these things as virtue, though. They say lowering profits is always a virtue.
          You can also say that helping the poor is the virtue.
          You can also say helping the poor is the rule.
          Not just that helping the poor is a good consequence.

          If you take reasonable generalizations, they all reduce to each other. I’m not sure how widespread this understanding is among philosophers. Might be unique to me, but I’ve fully verified it.

          The proof is straightforward once you realize it is a possibility. All these systems say some actions are wrong, and others aren’t, which means they all reduce to a list of forbidden or required actions. The only real difference between systems is how complicated these lists are.
          Virtue is supposed to lead to good consequences.
          Consequences are supposed to be deontologically good.
          Adhering to deontological ethics is supposed to be a virtue.

          My derivation of ethics says that certain things are always wrong, but those things are functions of the values of the person you’re doing it to. And I only consider them ethics because overall and long term it’s always consequentially better to be ethical, though of course it can be selfishly beneficial in the short term. For example, deception is always wrong if the target doesn’t want to be deceived. (And isn’t violent.) Virtues are things which you can develop that cause you to do this more often.

  3. 6 TMI
    October 17, 2011 at 10:24

    How is “neurodiversity” different than the area described under the Bell curve?

    Does this imply that God given rights are dependent upon what part of that curve one finds oneself? (And what of the idea, that we are all brilliant?)
    .

  4. 8 Tam
    October 17, 2011 at 12:49

    You mean you don’t automatically tune someone out after they toss out a trendy and scientifically dubious term like “neurotypicals”?

    F$ckin’ aspies. I’ve spent my whole life happily being a surly, antisocial loner with slightly obsessive fixations on my hobbies, and now they want me to join some goddam club

    (And while I’m being contrarian, I’ll argue that the number of bioethicists and progressives who view “oil field roustabout” or “non-commissioned officer” as “high-status occupations” could be counted by Klaus von Stauffenberg without him needing to pull off his socks…)

    • October 17, 2011 at 13:06

      Fuckin’ aspies. I’ve spent my whole life happily being a surly, antisocial loner with slightly obsessive fixations on my hobbies, and now they want me to join some goddam club…

      (FTFY. Thomas Bowdler has no place in my fuckin’ comments.)

      I agree in principle, but if the neurodiversity movement results in fewer people trying to medicate me because my misanthropic introversion is obviously a form of mental illness, I’ll count it as a net win.

      And while I’m being contrarian, I’ll argue that the number of bioethicists and progressives who view “oil field roustabout” or “non-commissioned officer” as “high-status occupations” could be counted by Klaus von Stauffenberg without him needing to pull off his socks…

      Not what was being argued. Bioethicists aren’t claiming that a rig-pig job is high-status, only that it’s a higher-status option than selling a kidney. (Well, that’s what they’d claim if they were literate enough to read Robin Hanson’s blog and actually grok it.) I slipped up in the way I phrased it, though; thanks for the pointer.

  5. October 17, 2011 at 17:22

    How is “neurodiversity” different than the area described under the Bell curve?

    and now they want me to join some goddam club

    Neurotypicals don’t understand me, and I can only understand them through painstaking fieldwork.

    Does that mean I have a disorder? I don’t know. Don’t much care, either. My ability to, for example, realistically self-evaluate has some downsides; it would appear the human brain is designed on the assumption you can’t. On the plus side I get the ability to realistically self-evaluate.

    I am curious as to how genetic these things are. Did nerds exist in the middle ages, or is it a new thing from living in cities and our broken philosophy of individualism?

    In any case, ‘neurotypical’ is a handy term for those who think typically, regardless of whether the atypical carry around atypical neurons or not. Unfortunately it seems to be turning into an insult, used to explain that the neurotypical can’t understand a thing. Statistically, they have to be better at something. As a stupid example, they’re better at getting along with other neurotypicals.

  6. 13 Not Sure
    October 17, 2011 at 19:18

    “Caring People will tell you that “we” should spend our efforts creating — somehow — these high-status alternatives that don’t yet exist.”

    I understand that, but until such time as everybody gets their free pony, there’s nothing stopping Caring People from using their own resources to create those alternatives, is there?

    I mean- just to show everybody How It’s Done?

    • October 17, 2011 at 19:27

      Well, by observation there must be something stopping them, because they clearly aren’t doing it.

      Or perhaps they are, at least in their own minds, by yelling about how awful it is that those high-status alternatives haven’t yet been created. Identifying the problem is important, right? In a sense this reminds me of how people would offer to sell me their great app ideas back when I was doing iPhone development. They figured that the spark of an idea was the critical component of a runaway success, and the actual design, programming, and maintenance of the app was just work-a-day grinding that any mildly-talented developer could accomplish.

      Somehow I neglected to take advantage of any of those opportunities.

      • 15 Not Sure
        October 17, 2011 at 19:52

        In my best Ted Knight/Judge Smails voice… “The world needs Big Picture people, too,”

        I guess. But what do I know?

  7. October 17, 2011 at 23:00

    Great post. The thing that struck me most from Mike Munger’s Econtalk on euvoluntary exchange was just how much progressives loathe making difficult decisions. Deep down they hate the fact of scarcity and they hate the fact that sometimes the best outcome is still a tragic one. So when faced with an unpleasant tradeoff, they bury their heads in the sand rather than grapple with reality.

  8. October 24, 2011 at 20:21

    Munger set up a blog devoted to his concept of “euvoluntary exchange” here.


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