Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Should we expect the rules of a good society to be good for everyone?

In my view, we should expect the rules of a good society to have the assent of nearly everyone but that does not mean that these rules are good for everyone. In particular, the law of liberty – preventing people from interfering with the protected domain of others – cannot be expected to be good for everyone even though it serves the good of all.

A good place for me to begin to explain the point I am trying to make is with Richard Kraut’s suggestion that under certain conditions norms, rules and laws do not serve the good of all (“What is Good and Why”, p31). The example he gives is of a situation in which our confidence that it is wrong to steal could possibly be diminished because “the property system may make it impossible for some to have the material resources they need to maintain their health ...”. Kraut asks: “What objection can be made to taking what is not yours if you need it to sustain the health of your children, and the person from whom you take it has so much that it would do him no good?” The point he is making is that the rule against taking what is not yours “must be evaluated as a component of the social system in which it is embedded”.

I agree that the rule must be evaluated as a component of the social system, but I don’t think we need to be assured that the social system functions in a way that is good for all members before we can endorse laws prohibiting theft. Does Kraut’s example demonstrate that we could expect people to flourish to the same extent in a society with large wealth disparities in which there are no rules against theft as in a similar society where there are rules against theft? I don’t think so. If there were no rules against theft some resources currently devoted to mutually beneficial activities would be allocated to theft and to the protection of property against theft. Those who have a particular aptitude for stealing might benefit, but the costs to other people would clearly outweigh the benefits to thieves.

Some might argue, however, that our disapproval of theft should allow exceptions in circumstances where the thief has great needs and the victim is relatively unaffected. We might approve of such redistributions if we were to choose behind a veil of ignorance about our chances of being in a situation where we might be tempted to steal or of becoming a victim of theft. In the real world, however, how could a potential thief be sure that a potential victim would be relatively unaffected by the theft of any particular item? Even people who wear their wealth lightly can still own items that have great sentimental value.

Such considerations suggest to me that nearly everyone would agree that theft should be prohibited. I think it is likely that support for such a prohibition would be widespread even among population groups whose members have reason to be aggrieved about their treatment under the prevailing social system. In this sense disapproval of theft may be widely considered to be for the good of all, or at least widely considered to be likely to produce better outcomes than would an ambivalent attitude toward theft.

Does it change matters when the redistribution is undertaken by governments rather than by thieves? There are similarities between theft and rent seeking - the competing efforts of various individuals and interest groups to use the coercive powers of the state to have income redistributed to themselves at the expense of other groups in the society (for example through government budget allocations, provision of services, trade protection and other forms of industry assistance). The involvement of governments is an important difference, however, because the decision-making processes of governments may be widely viewed as having greater legitimacy than those of thieves. In addition, the information required to implement modest redistributions that might be given nearly universal assent behind a veil of ignorance – for example, provision of a welfare safety net – is available to governments responsible for implementing such redistributions.

The considerations involved seem to be similar when we come to paternalistic interventions to prevent adults from harming themselves. Norms, rules and laws protect individuals from all kinds of interference by other people, including well-meaning interference to prevent people from harming themselves. It is possible, however, to construct examples where our confidence that it is wrong to interfere is diminished. Richard Kraut gives us the example of a person who has fallen into an acute but curable despondency who proposes to kill himself even though he has many good years ahead of him (p 238). The argument that it is wrong to coerce a person for his own good because this is inconsistent with living in peace with him (see my last post) loses some force if the powers of judgement of the person concerned are obviously impaired.

However, the circumstances in we would condone people coercing others for their own good are extremely limited. We might have somewhat more confidence in intervention by government agencies than by individuals whom we have no reason to trust, but substantial moral hazards are involved whoever is permitted to intervene. Regulation might be more permissible than ad hoc interventions.

Behind a veil of ignorance just about everyone might support regulations that restrict freedom to a minor extent in order to protect vulnerable people whose judgement is obviously impaired. But in the real world it is difficult to frame such regulations to achieve the right balance. For example, in its draft report on gambling the Australian Productivity Commission has recently published draft recommendations that the maximum bet limit on most gaming machines should be set at one dollar and the maximum amount of cash allowed to be inserted into a gaming machine at one time should be $20. While I claim no expertise in this area I think such limits could significantly inconvenience gamblers who want to minimize the time they spend playing mind-numbing machines, without doing much to protect problem gamblers. No matter how low the limits are set, they will not be low enough to prevent some vulnerable people from harming themselves.

This is true of all forms of regulation designed to protect vulnerable people from making bad choices. The rule that is good for all – the rule that nearly everyone would agree to behind a veil of ignorance about their own particular interests and vulnerabilities – will not be good for everyone. We should not expect the rules of a good society to be good for everyone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why is it wrong to coerce people for their own good?

In his recent book, “What is good and why”, Richard Kraut argues that pure antipaternalism is in a weak position because it cannot say why it is wrong to coerce someone to prevent him from doing himself harm. I think there is a very good reason why coercion is wrong under such circumstances, but first I want to quote some passages that I agree with.

I particularly like the following passages that seem to me to capture the developmental approach to well-being presented in the book:
“For human beings, no less that other living things, it is always good to flourish; and if a human being is flourishing in all ways, both physical and psychological, he is doing very well indeed” (p. 133).

“Speaking in the broadest possible terms, there is one kind of life that is best for all human beings – a life of flourishing, one that follows a pattern of psychological and physical growth filled with enjoyment. But it is no less true that the concrete realization of such a pattern differs enormously from one person to another” (p. 140).

Having recognized the importance of individual differences, it is hardly surprising that Kraut is quite positive about the value of autonomy to human flourishing: “Since our well-being consists in the exercise of our powers, and among these powers are those involved in reasoned choice, it is bad for us when matters that we can decide about, on our own, and take pleasure in controlling are taken out of our control” (p. 197). In the end, however, his endorsement of autonomy is qualified: “Important as it is, autonomy is only one good among many, and its value must not be exaggerated” (p. 201). Kraut suggests that since people often make poor choices about matters such as marriage partners we can’t be dogmatic that institutions such as arranged marriages are never good for people.

It seems to me that the problem here is that the author’s discussion of autonomy places too much emphasis on exercising the powers to make choices rather than on self-direction and responsibility. We do not harm our chances of flourishing by seeking advice in order to augment our limited capacity for reasoned choice when making important decisions. But a person can hardly be said to be fully flourishing if important personal decisions are taken out of her control, so that she does not bear responsibility for them.

This brings me to antipaternalism. Kraut writes: “There is no merit in the general idea that we should all be allowed to do whatever we choose. So why suppose that there is some merit in the idea that an adult should not be coerced, when the grounds for doing so appeal solely to his well-being? Why is that, in principle, never a good enough reason for coercion? Pure antipaternalism cannot advert to the bad consequences that would occur were this the only basis for bypassing someone’s will. It must say instead that this is simply wrong, but it cannot say why it is wrong” (p. 237).

In my view it is wrong to coerce a person to prevent him from doing himself harm simply because this is inconsistent with living in peace with him. In a good society coercion would be strictly limited to situations where it is necessary to prevent the actions of different individuals from interfering with each other. As I argued in my last post, if we perceive living in peace to be a necessary condition for a good society then we must accept the primacy of liberty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Are the institutions of a "good society" the same as those of the "great society"?

In my last post I suggested that nearly everyone would agree that a good society has the following characteristics:
· institutions that enable its members to live in peace;
· institutions that provide opportunities for members to flourish; and
· institutions that provide members with security against various threats to flourishing e.g. foreign military threats and economic misfortune.

There is substantial overlap between the institutions of a good society and the institutions of the “great society” or “open society”, as discussed by Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek emphasized that “only the observance of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals in society possible” (LLL, I: 72). He argued that the aim of the rules of just conduct is to define “the protected sphere” of each person in order to prevent, as much as possible, “the actions of different individuals from interfering with each other” (LLL, I: 108). He observed: “The Great Society arose through the discovery that men can live together in peace and mutually benefiting each other without agreeing on the particular aims which they severally pursue” (LLL, II: 109). Hayek went on to make the point that in the great society we all “contribute not only to the satisfaction of needs of which we do not know, but sometimes even to the achievement of ends of which we would disapprove if we knew about them (LLL, II: 109-10). In the great society we have no way of knowing the purposes for which others will use the goods we supply.

If we perceive living in peace to be a necessary condition for a good society then I think we must accept the primacy of liberty - individual freedom and rules that determine the boundaries of the domains of freedom (the protected spheres of each person) are necessary conditions of a good society.

The implications of the primacy of liberty might be more profound than they appear at first sight. For example, a society in which the majority of people flourish could hardly be viewed as a good society if it has laws that cause individuals to be denied liberty if they pursue lifestyles that are offensive to the majority, even though those individuals have done nothing to infringe the protected spheres of other people. The majority might argue, perhaps with good reason, that the individuals concerned would have a better chance of flourishing if they were put in jail, but this does not justify the use of force to make them change their lifestyles.

Other aspects of the relationships between particular sets of institutions and opportunities for human flourishing and security against threats to flourishing seem to be of a more empirical nature. I would argue, for example, that high levels of economic freedom tend to provide greater opportunities for human flourishing, but that is a testable hypothesis. Some relevant discussion is here. Similarly, I would argue that governments have an important role in providing members of society with security, but the extent to which such a role might be warranted involves empirical questions.

The institutions of a good society may differ from those of the great society in relation to personal income security. Hayek argued that the provision of some kind of welfare safety net was not only “a wholly legitimate protection against a common risk to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the small group into which he was born” (LLL, III: 55). He recognized, however, that national safety nets that would be higher in wealthier countries would necessitate restrictions on migration. In my view such considerations may make it necessary for the institutions of a good society – one that its good for its members - to depart to some degree from the liberal principles of the great society.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What are the characteristics of a good society?

In my last post, (Is there such a thing as a good society?) I suggested that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members.

In thinking about the characteristics of a good society different people tend to emphasise different things that they consider to be important e.g. egalitarianism, personal freedom, moral values and spirituality. Rather than just agreeing to differ I think it might be useful to try to identify some characteristics of a good society that nearly everyone would agree to be important. Then it would be possible to consider what evidence might be available about the nature of the institutions that would foster those characteristics. This might enable us to develop a view about the nature of the institutions of a good society that would be widely accepted.

So, what are the characteristics of a good society? First, as I suggested in my last post, the most important characteristic of a good society is a set of institutions that enable its members to live together in peace. This entails an absence of major threats to persons or property such as those associated with civil war, high levels of corruption and absence of rule of law. The institutions should also prevent use of the coercive powers of the state by despots or influential interest groups to enrich themselves at the expense of others or to restrict the freedom of others to choose how they will live their lives. Institutions that promote the peaceful co-existence of individuals and groups with differing interests and values are obviously a necessary condition for human flourishing.

Second, nearly everyone would agree that a good society would provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have. This would include opportunities to live long and healthy lives, economic opportunities, opportunities for educational and cultural pursuits, opportunities to make important decisions affecting themselves and their families and opportunities to participate in political processes.

Why focus on opportunities rather than outcomes? Good institutions can make it possible for humans to flourish but humans can’t be made to flourish – for much the same reasons as you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink. Human flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. The best we can hope for is a set of institutions that will maximize the probability that any individual chosen at random will be a flourishing individual.

Third, I think there would be widespread agreement that a good society would provide its members with a degree of security against potential threats to individual flourishing. For example it would endeavour to maintain good foreign relations and provide national defence capability sufficient to deter foreign aggression; it would maintain safeguards against government corruption and misuse of the coercive powers of the state (e.g. processes that make it difficult for narrow interest groups to acquire or maintain disproportionate influence in policy-making processes and processes for removal of governments that do not have popular support); it would maintain appropriate machinery to prevent or deal with environmental disasters; it would prevent “the tragedy of the commons” by maintaining appropriate institutions for ownership, pricing and use of natural resources; and it would provide members with a degree of personal economic security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health and unemployment.

What evidence do we have about the institutions that tend to foster these characteristics of a good society? An attempt to answer that question will be left to a later post.

Postscript 1:
The best place to look for further discussion by me of the concept of a good society is Chapter 6 of my book Free to Flourish, which is instantly available for a very modest price. 

Postscript 2:
In March 2024, I decided that my view that peacefulness is a characteristic of a good society does not actually depend on the degree of support for that view in any society. Please see: Why should peacefulness be viewed as a characteristic of a good society?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is there such a thing as a good society?

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society. What she was actually reported as saying was that some people "are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."

I think that Mrs Thatcher probably meant that human societies consist of nothing more than individual humans and the relationships between them. Society is not some kind of magic pudding that has an existence that is separate from the individuals that comprise it.

Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships among individuals who share distinctive institutions. It seems reasonable to suppose that a good society would have good institutions.

Good for whom? If our focus is on humans, there are two possible answers: those outside the society and those within it. It might make sense to think of a good society as one that acts in ways that benefit people outside it, for example by fostering peaceful relations and trade. But it seems more relevant to focus on the way the culture and institutions affect the lives of those within the society and the quality of their relationships with one another.

What are the characteristics of a society that is good for the people who live within it? Different views have been expressed. For example, John Cruddas and Andrea Nahles write: “The good society is about solidarity and social justice. Solidarity creates trust, which in turn provides the foundation of individual freedom. Freedom grows out of feelings of safety, a sense of belonging, and the experience of esteem and respect.”

The main problem I have with this approach is that social justice tends to be a divisive concept. Even if there is widespread agreement that a lot of people deserve higher incomes and better health care and education etc than they obtain at present, the people who would have to pay higher taxes to make this possible through government intervention often feel, with some justification, that they deserve to keep the incomes they have earned. Policies to achieve social justice tend to increase distributional conflict.

Some authors suggest that the concept of a good society is inherently subjective. For example, in attempting to provide an answer to the question of what is a good society Lyndsay Connors writes: “Our answers to this question will always draw upon our personal values and describe the kind of society in which we could feel a sense of well-being.”

The personal values of Walter Lippmann, the famous journalist who wrote a book entitled “The Good Society” in 1937, are evident in his perception of the good society. Lippmann saw the good society as being synonymous with “the liberal, democratic way of life at its best” (“Essays in the Public Philosophy”, 1955, p.96). He also wrote: “The ideals of the good life and of the good society fall far short of perfection, and in speaking of them we must not use superlatives. They are worldly ideals, which raise no expectations about the highest good. Quite the contrary. They are concerned with the best that is possible among mortal and finite, diverse and conflicting men. Thus the ideals of freedom, justice, representation, consent, law, are of the earth, earthy. They are for men who are still (as Saint Paul says in Timothy I, 9-10) under the law. (op cit, p. 142-3).

However, it seems to me that there are objective characteristics of a good society, that nearly everyone would agree on. The most important characteristic of a good society – one that is good for the people living in it – is that the institutions of the society should enable those people to live in peace. In an earlier post I have discussed Friedrich Hayek’s view of what living in peace entails. In broad terms, it requires the ideals that Walter Lippmann identified.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is there virtue in serving a purpose we do not know for reasons we do not question?

When I recently re-read John Galt’s speech (in “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand) I was reminded of Rand’s view that the mystics of spirit, who believe that the good is God i.e. beyond man’s power to conceive, and the mystics of muscle, who believe that the good is Society, a super-being embodied in no-one in particular and everyone in general except yourself, have similar moral codes. Galt says: “No matter how loudly they posture in their roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter – the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit –the destruction of his mind”.

In the next paragraph Galt explains: “Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of muscle, is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgement and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know for reasons he is not to question” (p. 1027).

A few pages earlier Galt said: “Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is ... the act of blanking out, the wilful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think ... . It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgement ...” (p 1017).

When I read this stuff 20 years ago it was like being at the sidelines at a football match cheering for my side to win. I thought that people who unquestioningly adhered to customs or the teachings of religious or secular authorities were behaving like zombies. It seemed obvious to me that individuals should be using their minds to decide for themselves how they should live.

So, what has changed? Not much, except that, having read a lot more of the writings of Friedrich Hayek since then, I now also see merit in the view that “submission to rules and conventions we largely do not understand ... is indispensible for the working of a free society”. Hayek argued that in our efforts to improve our institutions “we must take for granted much that we do not understand”: “We must always work inside a framework of both values and institutions which is not of our own making. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

Is it possible to reconcile the view that it is good for people to decide for themselves how they should live their lives with the view that there is merit in observing rules that serve purposes beyond our understanding? I think Hayek was right to emphasise that it is unwise to reject customary rules just because we do not understand their purpose. Many customs deserve respect because they evolved through an evolutionary process in which groups that adhered to superior rules were most successful. Hayek recognized that for this cultural evolution to occur some people had to break with custom in order to introduce new practices advantageous to themselves, which then proved beneficial to the groups in which those practices prevailed. He noted that one of the benefits of freedom was to enable this cultural evolution to occur: “The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the most effective ones” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

However, I think Rand was right to emphasise that the purpose served by rules protecting lives, liberty and property are capable of being understood. As John Galt explains: “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men” ... “I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice” (p 1022).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue?

People who are familiar with Ayn Rand’s writings may consider the answer to this question to be obvious. Rand made no secret of the fact that she regarded selfishness as a virtue. So, why ask the question?

Having recently read “Atlas Shrugged” properly for the first time (rather than skimming through it) the heroes, including John Galt, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, did not seem to me to be selfish. By the end of the book they had chosen not to live their lives for the sake of others and not to ask others to live for their sake. But this did not make them selfish in the sense of being deficient in consideration for others. Hank Rearden left his mother without means of support when he went off to start a new life, but it would be difficult for anyone who was aware of the way she repaid the kindness he showed her to argue that he had acted selfishly towards her.

Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue follows from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests” and of individual happiness as the moral purpose of life. In the words of John Galt: “Happiness is the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values” (p 1014).

Galt explains: “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your minds fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer” (p 1022).

Rand’s narrow definition of selfishness enabled John Galt to say: “This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgement of truth” (p 1030).

Why did Ayn Rand adopt a narrow definition of selfishness? She could have avoided a lot of confusion by using another term, e.g. “ethical egoism”, to describe the virtuous concern for one’s own interests and accepting the popular usage of selfishness to describe unethical behaviour that involves pursuing one’s own interests at the expense of others. I suspect that Rand adopted a narrow definition of selfishness in order to argue that selfishness is a virtue. And she wanted to argue that selfishness is a virtue in order to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self sacrifice is a virtue.

The view that self sacrifice is a virtue was clearly one of Rand’s main targets. In John Galt’s words: “If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a ‘sacrifice’: that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty” (p 1029).

Readers might also be interested in a later post on this topic based on a Cato seminar.