Thursday, December 27, 2018

Do you acknowledge a personal responsiblity to seek mutual benefit?

In The Community of Advantage, which I reviewed in my last post, Robert Sugden observes that when individuals participate in market transactions it is possible for them to be motivated by mutual benefit, rather than personal benefit or even by the potential to use proceeds for altruistic purposes. They may see virtue in voluntary transactions that enable people to get what they want by benefiting others.

Sugden points out that being motivated by mutual benefit is consistent with Adam Smith’s famous observation that we do not rely on the benevolence of shopkeepers to provide us with the goods we need. The shop keepers don’t sacrifice their own interests to provide us with goods, but they may act with the intention of playing their part in mutually beneficial practices.

Sugden suggests that adoption of the principle of mutual benefit has implications for personal responsibility:

“According to that principle, each person should behave in such a way that other people’s opportunities to realize mutual benefit are sustained. But beyond that, no one is accountable to anyone else for his preferences, intentions, or decisions. Individuals relate to one another, not as one another’s benefactors, guardians, or moral judges, but as potential partners in the achievement of their common interests".

Individuals decide how to use the opportunities that are available to them, and accept sole responsibility for the consequences.

Sugden’s discussion of ethics includes responses to the virtue-ethical critique of the market of philosophers, such as Elizabeth Anderson and Michael Sandel, who argue for collective action by citizens to impose limits on the scope of markets - on the grounds that motivations of market participants are inherently non-virtuous and therefore liable to corrupt social interactions.

However, some virtue ethicists have adopted a much more market-friendly approach. I have in mind, particularly, the template of responsibility proposed by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen suggest that “the fact that one must make a life for oneself is an existential condition”. To be a person is to have self-responsibility. Each person is primarily responsible for her or his own flourishing. Human flourishing involves “an actualization of potentialities that are specific to the kind of living thing a human being is and that are unique to each human being as an individual”.  Actualization “is dependent on the self-directed exercise of our rational capacities”. Flourishing amounts to the same thing as “the exercise of one’s own practical wisdom”.

As noted in an earlier article on this blog, an entrepreneurial analogy is used by Den Uyl and Rasmussen to describe what a flourishing life involves. Flourishing is activity rather than a passive state. It involves discovery of opportunities, and alertness to new opportunities amidst changing circumstances, rather than merely efficient use of the means at our disposal.

The authors suggest that if we accept that human flourishing is the goal of ethics, then we should learn from exemplars. People who have flourished in difficult circumstances may provide us with useful models of action. Of course, the idea that it can be helpful to personal development to identify and emulate the values that drive heroes has been around for a long time. It seems to work best for people who are sufficiently self-authoring to be able to recognise that famous people are not always good exemplars of human flourishing.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen argue that the ultimate value of the template of responsibility is integrity, which “signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action”. They suggest that integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour. Although acknowledging that honour may be “too old-fashioned a term for today’s usage”, they maintain that it does “capture the sense of what it means to greet the world with integrity”.

An alternative term, that captures some of that meaning, is trustworthiness. Den Uyl and Rasmussen briefly discuss the question of why they consider opportunistic participation in untrustworthy behaviour to be inconsistent with individual flourishing. They argue that such opportunism puts “the relationship we have with ourselves as a whole in disequilibrium by eroding what we ought to be in our relations with others generally”.

I have a vague idea of what that means. We can’t flourish if our behaviour is inconsistent with our values. Peoples’ consciences are often troubled when they engage in untrustworthy behaviour. When confronted with an opportunity to benefit unfairly at the expense of another person we sometimes hear people say, “I couldn’t live with myself if I behaved in that way”. I am not sure whether those sentiments are best explained in terms of evolved moral intuitions, internalisation of norms of reciprocity during the maturation process, a combination of both, or something else. Perhaps it doesn’t matter much how such sentiments are explained; the important point is to recognize that humans generally view untrustworthy behaviour to be inconsistent with their values.

Results of the trust game suggests that in a world we live in there seems to be a widespread expectation that even people we don’t know may be somewhat trustworthy. The trust game is a once-off game played between anonymous strangers (A and B). A is given $10. She can choose to keep it all or send some to B. B receives 3 times the amount sent by A. B can choose to keep all the money she has received, or send some back to A. In the results of games reported by Robert Sugden, A players sent on average $5.16 and received back $4.66, with B players keeping $10.82.

Sugden suggests that the willingness of A players to send any money to B players can explained in terms of their expectation that B players can be trusted to play their part in producing mutual benefits.  

In real world interactions, people have greater knowledge of the trustworthiness of others. Sugden points out that the principle of mutual benefit requires trustworthiness:  

"In an economy in which there is a general tendency for people to act on the Principle of Mutual Benefit, it is in each person’s interest that other people expect him to act on that principle”.

He explains:

In choosing whether or not to enter a trust relationship, each individual is free to judge for herself whether or not that will be to her benefit, taking account of the possibility that other participants may be untrustworthy. To the extent that some person, say Joe, can be expected to act on the Principle of Mutual Benefit, he can be seen by others, and sought out by them, as a potential partner in mutually beneficial interactions that those others are free to enter or not enter, as they choose. Thus, Joe’s being seen in this way allows him to access opportunities for benefit that would be closed off if his potential partners expected him always to act on self-interest."

That reasoning might suggest to some readers that it is more important to establish a reputation for trustworthiness than to have an intention to be trustworthy. A lot of commercial advertising seems to make that presumption. Fortunately, there is some evidence that individuals’ dispositions toward trustworthiness are translucent. When people have face-to face interactions with others they are quite successful in predicting who will cooperate and who will defect. On that basis, Sugden suggests that having a disposition to act on the principle of mutual benefit makes it more likely that other people will expect you to act in this way.

Summing up, accepting responsibility for making something of one’s own life is an integral part of what it means to be a human, and seeking mutual benefit in interactions with others follows naturally from that. Integrity in our behaviour toward others is of central importance to flourishing because we cannot flourish if we don’t live according to our values, and because we cannot flourish unless other people trust us sufficiently to seek mutually beneficial interactions with us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Isn't it good to be able to get what you want by helping others to get what they want?

When I was at university studying neoclassical welfare economics - about half a century ago - the standard discussion of the benefits and limitations of free markets began with a demonstration that, under certain assumptions, individuals with stable and internally consistent preferences could maximize their utility through voluntary transactions. As I write, I have a picture in my mind of neat sets of indifference curves in an Edgeworth Box, rather than the gains from trade diagram shown above.

Of course, in the 1960s and 70s a great deal of attention was given to market failure stemming from violation of competitive market assumptions and the existence of externalities. Since then, research by behavioural economists has provided evidence that individuals’ preferences tend to be context-dependent, rather than stable and internally consistent. For example, as we all know, what we choose to buy may be influenced by the placement of items on supermarket shelves.

Just as evidence of market failure led many economists to advocate remedial government interventions, evidence that individuals’ preferences tend to be context-dependent has been used by some behavioural economists to argue for paternalistic interventions to nudge people to make better choices. Wise economists urge that consideration should also be given to government failure - the tendency for government intervention to make matters worse even when politicians intend to produce better outcomes.

Robert Sugden has shone light through the smog caused by the standard neoclassical assumptions about individual preferences in his recently published book, The Community of Advantage. Sugden dispenses with assumptions about individual preferences by substituting the principle of individual opportunity – the idea that individuals will choose to have more opportunities rather than less.
Sugden’s book has been praised by some eminent scholars working at the interface between economics, psychology and ethics. It is pleasing that Cass Sunstein, whose advocacy of paternalistic nudges is challenged in the book, describes it as “one of the very few most important explorations of liberty in the last half-century.

Sugden makes the powerful point that there is no basis for behavioural economists to interpret contraventions of the standard neoclassical assumptions as necessarily attributable to cognitive error or self-control problems. There is no known psychological foundation for human decision-making to be modelled as “a neoclassically rational inner agent, trapped inside and constrained by an outer psychological shell”.

Nevertheless, humans obviously make cognitive errors and experience self-control problems. Should economists wash their hands of those problems and leave them for psychologists to deal with? Sugden suggests that economists may be able to help by adopting a contractarian approach – addressing their recommendations to individuals - usually by showing them how they can coordinate their behaviour to achieve mutual benefit - rather than addressing recommendations to paternalistic governments. It is consistent with a contractarian approach for economists to point out the mistakes that individuals are liable to make and to suggest types of choice architecture (e.g. nudges) that they could use, if they wanted, to avoid making those mistakes.

One of the highlights of the book is the perception it offers of the workings of “the invisible hand” of the market. The invisible hand is sometimes portrayed as something that has to be mysterious since it is able to convert self-interest into community benefits. Sugden suggests that the invisible hand is far from mysterious when perceived in terms of the activities of profit-seeking traders looking for arbitrage opportunities. If some individuals are willing to sell something at a lower price than other individuals are willing to pay to buy it, traders can take advantage of the profit opportunities of that situation. From the perspective of the buyers and sellers the transaction helps realize an opportunity for mutual benefit, whether traders are involved or not.

As I see it, from an individual’s perspective the market provides expanded opportunities along the lines suggested in the gains from trade diagram shown above. A person who subsists without trading with others has little leisure time left after eking out a living. By participating in trade - earning a market income in this example - her consumption possibilities are expanded. She is able to get more of what she wants – more leisure and/or more other goods - by helping others to get what they want.

Opportunities for mutual benefit are not limited to market exchange. Mutual benefit is possible in many different types of cooperative interaction. Sugden provides an insightful analysis of team reasoning, contrasting a contractarian approach in which individual team members seek to achieve mutual benefit with the alternative of perceiving the team as a single entity and seeking to maximize the overall good of the team, as judged from some neutral viewpoint.

The author’s analysis of adherence to voluntary practices is also insightful. He notes that individuals realize mutual benefits directly by conforming to voluntary practices, e.g. tipping conventions, because regularities of behaviour provide salient benchmarks for expectations about one another in specific interactions. By conforming to the practice, they also sustain the expectations upon which it depends and help to maintain it as an institution.

In my view, the most important contribution of the book is its discussion of the ethics of intending mutual benefit. A long-standing and recurring theme of criticism of market exchange is that it involves extrinsic motivations that are not virtuous. That line of thinking implies, implausibly, that the intrinsic satisfaction that I obtain from blogging might evaporate if I were to obtain monetary rewards for my efforts. Sugden observes that when people participate in markets they can act with the intention of achieving mutual benefit, rather than personal benefit. He urges readers to adopt the following principle of mutual benefit:

“When participating with others in a voluntary interaction, and for as long as others’ behaviour in that interaction is consistent with this very principle, behave in such a way that the other participants are able to satisfy normal expectations about the consequences of the interaction for them."

The author explains that one of the merits of the principle of mutual benefit is that what it requires of us individually is independent of the motivations of the people with whom we interact. It is in our interests to seek mutual benefit in interactions with as many other people as possible. The principle never requires us to make judgements about another person’s intentions.

The Community of Advantage is the best book I have read about the economics of human flourishing. This brief review has provided only a glimpse of what it is about. Hopefully, it has whetted your appetite to read the book.

The book has raised several issues that I hope to be able to explore further on this blog:
  • Is the principle of mutual benefit consistent with the primacy of personal responsibility as discussed by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn?
  • When is it possible for economists who are engaged in provision of public policy advice to adopt a contractarian approach?
  • Does the principle of mutual benefit mesh well with the views of Elinor Ostrom on management of common property resources, the views of Vincent Ostrom on politics, and the views of Max Borders about the prospects of a Social Singularity?