Friday, July 19, 2019

Where can we find answers to the most important questions about freedom and flourishing?

People who visit this blog sometimes ask for more signposts to help them find my answers to the most important questions about freedom and flourishing. In the past my response has been to suggest that they read my Kindle ebook, Free to Flourish, which is available for an extremely modest price. However, my thinking has moved on in some respects since that book was published in 2012. So, this post identifies what I see as the most important questions and provides some links to indicate where answers can be found.

  1. What is the purpose of life? The answer that Aristotle gave around 350 BC sets us on the right track. Happiness (human flourishing) is the purpose of human existence. Individuals flourish as they actualize potentials, including the potential for self-direction, that are specific to the kinds of creatures that humans are. The best summary of my views on the nature of happiness and human flourishing is still to be found in Chapter 2 of Free to Flourish.
  2. Is there an ethical proposition that is relevant to all aspects of our lives? I agree with the view of Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn, that “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives” is of fundamental importance. Interpersonal relations are also important, but don’t enter all aspects of our lives. See: Does the I-You relation enter into every aspect of the moral life?
  3. How can you become a better person? To bring some abstract philosophical ideas down to earth, I have considered how a hypothetical person attempting to make something of his life might answer if asked whether he is a good person. A central part of his answer is that becoming a good person is like playing cards well: “He says that rather than bemoaning the fact that you have not been dealt a better hand, it is better to maintain good humour and focus on how best to play the cards you have been dealt. You never think of cheating and you avoid playing with people who cheat. You like to win, but you participate mainly to enjoy the social interaction. Playing the game is also a learning experience. You learn how to perceive opportunities, develop strategies, cooperate with others, and to win and lose graciously. As you learn to play well you become a better person”. See: How can we know what we ought to do?
  4. Should we be motivated by mutual benefit in our interactions with others?  Robert Sugden observes in The Community of Advantage that when individuals participate in market transactions it is possible for them to be motivated by mutual benefit. They may see virtue in voluntary transactions that enable people to get what they want by benefiting others, rather than purely personal benefit, or the potential to use proceeds for altruistic purposes. 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. See: Do you acknowledge a personal responsibility to seek mutual benefit?
  5. Is human flourishing primarily about psychological health, capability or opportunity? In a post addressing that question argue that all three aspects of flourishing are relevant if we are considering the extent to which particular individuals – our relatives, friends and acquaintances - are flourishing. However, from a public policy perspective, attention should focus primarily on the opportunities available for people to live the lives they aspire to, because government policies impinge greatly – often negatively – on growth of opportunity. 
  6. Why do you consider freedom to be integral to human flourishing? There are two reasons: a) Individual humans have potential for self-direction and cannot fully flourish unless they are free to manage their own lives and accept responsibility for their actions. As Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl point out, recognition of individual liberty is necessary to ensure that individuals can flourish in diverse ways without coming into conflict. Chapter 3 of Free to Flourish still provides a reasonable summary of my views. b) Good societies that provide conditions favourable to individual flourishing are characterised by individual freedom. As discussed in Chapter 6 of Free to Flourish, freedom provides the basis for peacefulness and individual opportunity, which in turn enable a greater degree of economic security to be sustained. As discussed in Chapter 7, economic progress – the growth of economic opportunities supporting individual flourishing – is attributable to advances in technology and innovations that were made possible by economic freedom and supporting beliefs, ideologies and social norms.
  7. What is the greatest threat to the ongoing expansion of opportunities for individual flourishing in coming decades? In Free to Flourish I argued that the failure of democratic governments to cope with their expanding responsibilities poses the greatest threat to the ongoing expansion of opportunities for human flourishing in coming decades. I maintain that view.  It seems to me that, over the next 20 years or so, people in Western democracies are likely to suffer to a greater extent from the consequences of an explosion in public debt than from climate change. See: How can we compare climate change and public debt risks? Nevertheless, I acknowledge that climate change could possibly pose a serious threat to civilization and argue that we should not ignore the risk of catastrophe even if we think the most likely outcome is benign. I have argued that climate change policies should focus to a greater extent on choosing the lowest cost methods of reducing the risk of catastrophe. See: What is the appropriate discount rate to use in assessingclimate change mitigation policies?
  8. Will it be possible to avert democratic failure, and if not, is there a basis to hope ongoing human flourishing will be possible? Since writing Free to Flourish I have become more pessimistic about the potential for citizens to unite to restore better norms of political behaviour in the western democracies. However, I now see a basis for hope that the faltering institutions of representative government could one day be replaced by superior institutions. Blockchain technology and smart contracts may have potential to enable people to act together to produce some public goods cooperatively without central government involvement. See: Where did I go wrong in writing about the greatest threat to human flourishing?

Friday, July 12, 2019

Are values opposed to virtues?

In an article recently published in “The Australian”, Peter Kurti, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, noted:
“Unease is growing in Australia that something has changed for the worse in our live-and-let-live culture”.
The context of his comment is the “opprobrium and venom” that dissent from “prevailing new orthodoxies” about gender and sexual orientation seems to attract. The author suggests this has contributed to “the sense that the common bonds of civility that helped to build mutual trust in our society are under strain”.

I concur with those sentiments. They are consistent with views recently expressed on this blog: Does Israel Folau deserve support from advocates of free speech?

However, the headline of Kurti’s article “Israel Folau: Moral compass all askew as virtue is eclipsed by values” seems to me to be codswallop. Unfortunately, the headline accurately reflects Kurti’s explanation for the fracturing of our culture in terms of what he describes as “the eclipse of virtue by values”.

It is difficult to see how values can be opposed to virtues in terms of common usage of those terms in discussions of ethics. The Concise Oxford defines the terms as follows:
Virtue: “moral excellence, uprightness, goodness”; “the seven cardinal virtues”.
Value: “one’s principles or standards, one’s judgement of what is valuable or important in life”.

Kurti makes values appear to be opposed to virtues by claiming that values “are simply emotional statements about personal beliefs, feelings or attitudes”. He claims that values “cannot be normative because it is impossible to erect any shared meaning on the foundation of something that is personal and subjective”.

Those claims are clearly incorrect. For example, when Friedrich Hayek writes about the “values of a free civilization” he is not referring merely to emotional statements about personal beliefs, feelings or attitudes. What Hayek and others have written about shared values is clearly closely related to norms of behaviour.

Kurti doesn’t seem to recognise the existence of shared values. His constructivist perspective, evident in use of the term “erect” when discussing the possibility of shared meaning, has apparently made it impossible for him to comprehend that the common values of an open and free society could evolve spontaneously as individuals pursue what is important in their lives.

Perhaps what Kurti was intending to convey is that the common bonds of civility are fracturing because people are increasingly adopting personal beliefs, feelings and attitudes that are inconsistent with common bonds of civility. So, why does he seek to discredit values language?

I was hoping that question might be answered by reading Kurti’s recently published CIS paper, entitled Cracking Up? Culture and the Displacement of Virtue. No such luck! In that paper, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Iain Benson are quoted as asserting that values language rejects the idea of shared moral goods, but they are no less wrong about that than Peter Kurti.

I agree with much of what Kurti writes about the importance of the traditional virtues. However, when Kurti refers to virtues he is referring only to the traditional virtues. I think that poses a problem for him. He claims “prevailing new orthodoxies” exist, so he must surely acknowledge that the people who subscribe to those new orthodoxies see political correctness as a virtue.

In my view it is probably an overstatement to claim that the new orthodoxies are “prevailing”. But it is impossible to deny that there has been a shift in what many people perceive to be virtuous that is inextricably linked to a shift in their values.

There is a more fundamental problem is asserting that cracks appearing in our live-and-let-live culture can be mended by appealing to the traditional virtues. The traditional virtues have been acknowledged for thousands of years, but our live-and-let-live culture has only recently evolved.  Freedom of religion has had a firm legal basis in only a few countries for only a couple of centuries. The idea that members of minority religions should not be discriminated against has been a widely shared value and accepted norm of behaviour for less than a century in most western countries, including Australia. Our live-and-let-live culture, with harmonious collaboration between people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds and gender in work and community organisations, has only been in existence for a few decades, despite the lip service paid to civility in earlier times. Live-and-let-live has been inclusive of LGBT people for an even shorter period.

The shared values underlying our live-and-let-live culture include freedom of expression, tolerance and politeness.  The norms of behaviour associated with these shared values enable people to obtain mutual benefit from working, playing sport and socializing with people whose attitudes and behaviours they disagree with, and in some instances may even consider to be immoral.

The main threat to our live-and-let-live culture comes from those who insist that to enhance social harmony people should exercise much greater restraint in what they say and publish to avoid the possibility of giving offence to members of the religious, ethnic, gender and LGBT groups pandered to by identity politics. This gives rise to the potential for a return to tribal values as members of an increasing number of individual groups abandon shared values and threaten social disharmony in order to redress perceived disadvantages or to obtain advantages over others. 

The most obvious and straight forward way to avoid a return to tribal values is for supporters of our live-and-let-live culture to make their views heard whenever the shared values of that culture come under threat from those who take offence unreasonably. A return to tribal values can be avoided if enough people of goodwill continue to support the rights of others to express views they disagree with.  

Monday, June 24, 2019

Do Australian building regulations promote safety, accessibility and livability of new dwellings?

A few months ago, I would have been astounded if someone told me that a building certifier in Australia could legally issue an occupation certificate with front path pedestrian access as shown in the photo above. In order to use the path, it was necessary for pedestrians to step over a concrete obstacle (14 cm on the driveway side and 23 cm on the house side). There was no way anyone could plausibly claim that the concrete obstacle was necessary for drainage, because water ran away from it toward the centre of the driveway.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that before buying a townhouse off the plan I had been lulled into a false sense of security by claims of building regulators that the Building Code of Australia (BCA) sets minimum standards for safety, health and amenity of buildings. I was not aware of the existence of the National Construction Code (NCC) at that time, but it wouldn’t have surprised me that it purports to provide “the minimum necessary requirements for safety and health; amenity and accessibility, and sustainability in design, construction, performance and livability of new buildings”.

I should have known better! I knew from the experience of many years working for governments that bureaucrats are no less prone to making extravagant claims than are people working in other occupations.

You might be thinking that even though it would be most unfortunate if someone was injured by tripping on the concrete obstacle, the existence of an occupation certificate, certifying that building regulation had been complied with, would protect the Owners Corporation against a compensation claim. That might be too sanguine a view. Legal information available from a reputable online source suggests that owners might not be fully covered by insurance if they could reasonably be expected to be aware of the issue and had not taken steps to address it.

The bigger issue of regulatory capture

In drawing attention to this pedestrian access issue, I am conscious that it is trivial by comparison with the building safety issues currently in the news associated with high-rise apartments in Sydney (Opal Tower and Mascot Towers). Michael Lambert, a former secretary of NSW Treasury, who reviewed building regulation for the New South Wales government and presented his report in 2015, has been quoted as saying that the issues associated with the Opal Tower “are likely just the tip of the iceberg”.

The Lambert report found “the incidence of building defects is significant” and “the incidence appears higher in NSW than elsewhere”. Lambert was not able to be more specific about incidence because “comprehensive information is not regularly collected on building defects”. He recommended that performance data be collected to enable the performance of the system to be assessed against clear objectives. In particular, he proposed a program of proactive investigations and audits of certifiers, linked to an education and training program for them. Lambert also recommended action to reduce the conflict between the accountability of certifiers for acting in the public interest and their commercial drivers for commercial success, including maintaining good relations with builders and owners/developers.

Michael Lambert has expressed disappointment that the recommendations of his report have not been more fully acted upon by the NSW government. It is not clear to what extent timely implementation of Lambert’s recommendations would have improved the quality of high-rise building in NSW, but the government’s failure to act more decisively on his proposals for incremental improvement seems to indicate that regulatory capture has become entrenched in this industry.

The theory of regulatory capture, advanced by the Nobel Prize winning economist, George Stigler, among others, refers to the tendency for regulatory systems created to act in the public interest, to instead advance the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate regulated industries. As it currently operates, the system of private certification seems to provide more protection to developers, builders, architects, engineers, and local government agencies that provide planning approval, than to home buyers.

Does more regulation provide the answer?

The knee jerk reaction of many people to quality control problems in the building industry is to urge that regulation be extended further and enforced more rigorously. However, even if determined political leaders can manage to steer some regulatory reform through the process of industry consultation, we need to face the reality that it would be prohibitively expensive for building regulation to be made much more than a ‘box ticking exercise’. Regulators can certify that certain things have been done, but that doesn’t ensure effective quality control. For example, regulators can certify that concrete has been poured to construct foundations, but it takes the resources of a building firm to control the quality of the concrete that is poured.

The main commercial incentives for firms to maintain effective quality control are to enhance their reputation in the market and to avoid litigation. Reform-minded political leaders should be seeking to identify how those market and legal incentives are impaired, and what corrective action could be taken.

Some readers might still be thinking that additional box ticking regulation would be an appropriate response to the specific question of safe residential access. I am wary of that approach because it could end up adding excessively to building costs and make homes less affordable.
Consider, for example, the guideline for dwelling access proposed by Livable Housing Australia:
A safe continuous and step free path of travel from the street entrance and / or parking area to a dwelling entrance that is level.”

Complying with that condition would not have added much to the construction cost of our new townhouse, but in many instances a step free path would impose excessive costs. In a paper written over a decade ago, Alan Moran, pointed to evidence from government housing authorities - which commission a considerable part of the housing that is specifically geared towards the needs of people with disabilities - that the costs of the building are increased by at least 4% and up to 20% where houses are built fully compliant with the relevant Australian Standard.

The issue of liability

There are two overlapping aspects relating to the issue of liability for safe pedestrian access to residences. The first aspect is liability for compensation in the event of personal injury. My understanding is that the law sensibly provides liability on all parties involved to exercise reasonable care. I don’t know whether courts have held that developers and builders maintain some liability after residences have been sold. It would be a travesty, in my view, if they are able to hide behind an occupation certificate, when that does not certify that minimal safety standards have been met for pedestrian access.

The second issue of liability relates to the question of who should be liable for ensuring that reasonable expectations of home buyers are met in relation to safe pedestrian access. In thinking about this I have gone back to a paper written many years ago by Ted Sieper, an astute Australian economist who has been under-recognized because he eschewed academic norms to publish or perish. (Ted’s paper was entitled: Consumer protection – boon or bane?  It was presented to a C.I.S. conference held at Macquarie University in April 1978.) Ted argued that in considering the choice between the alternatives, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – and caveat venditor – let the seller beware – law makers should compare the relative transactions costs that would be imposed on buyers and sellers. He noted: 
“while consumers with different safety requirements can discriminate cheaply among different products, producers can only with great difficulty discriminate among consumers”. 
(I am grateful to Greg Cutbush for suggesting that I look for Ted’s paper.)

I think Ted’s transactions cost point is highly relevant to the issue of safe pedestrian access. It seems reasonable to expect that that developers and builders would generally show some care to avoid compensation claims for personal injury. However, it is up to individual home buyers to shop around to obtain the standard of access safety they require.

With the benefit of hindsight, we should have insisted that an appropriate standard for safe residential access was written into the contract of sale before we agreed to buy. If the developer had been reluctant to agree to that provision, that would have set alarm bells ringing in our minds.

Regulators should stop making misleading claims!

There is irony in the fact that regulation to protect consumers aims to discourage misleading claims by vendors, but apparently does nothing to discourage building regulators from making misleading claims about the products they are selling.

Regulatory authorities should be required to renounce misleading claims they have made that the BCA and NCC provide minimum necessary standards for safety.  

If building regulators want to be helpful to home buyers, they should advise them to consult their lawyers to ensure that contracts for sale require developers to meet appropriate standards for safety and amenity.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

Why did my grandmother have a problem with nostalgia about "the good old days"?

“Don’t you talk to me about the good old days!”
I can remember hearing my grandmother say that in the 1950s, when I was a child. She was responding to a visitor who was talking nostalgically about the horse and buggy era.

My grandmother would have none of that talk. She was a mild-mannered, softly spoken person, but she wanted people to acknowledge that the “old days” were not so good.

I remembered what my grandmother had said recently while thinking of how best to illustrate how economic progress had improved the lives of people in Australia during the 1950s. Rather than adopting my usual approach of reciting statistics, it occurred to me that my grandmother’s story might make the point more effectively.

Ethel Vernon was born in 1900. She had happy childhood memories, but her life changed radically when she was 17 years old. That was when she married Archie Bates, who was quite a few years older than her. By the time Ethel was 30, she and Archie had 7 children.

At the time, 7 children would not have been considered a particularly large family. The average for Australian women who were born in 1900 was about 3 children. About one-quarter of women born at that time had no children, presumably because the First World War reduced the number of potential marriage partners. That meant the norm was about 4 children per family.

Archie worked as a station hand and overseer on Woodlands, a sizeable sheep property at that time, located on the Wimmera river, near Crowlands in Victoria. I think the economic circumstances of the family would have been somewhere near the average for Australians in that period.

From the photo shown above, taken in 1925, it looks as though family members were reasonably well fed and had at least one set of respectable clothes. The photo shows Ethel and Archie at the centre, with their four eldest children and some friends and neighbours. 

During the 1920s, the standard of living of the Bates family, like that of most other Australians in rural areas, had more in common with that of most rural people in a middle-income country, like Brazil, than with the way most people live in rural Australia today.

For example:
  •    There was no running water in the house. When you needed water, you went outside and turned on the tap on the small rainwater tank.
  •      When you needed hot water, you had to heat it on the top of the stove, or light the copper.
  •      There was no refrigerator. Food could be preserved for a day or so using a Coolgardie safe that worked on the evaporation principle.
  •      When you wanted to use the toilet, you had to go outside and up the garden path to a dunny built over a hole in the ground.
  •       There was no washing machine. All clothes were washed by hand.
  •       There was no electric light – just kerosene lights and candles.
  •      When you wanted to go somewhere you had to walk, unless you were lucky enough to own a horse.

What my grandmother remembered when people talked to her about the “old days” was the drudgery of long days of housework, looking after a young family without the benefit of modern conveniences. I think she was probably also irked by being wholly dependent on the money her husband gave her.

My grandmother’s standard of living didn’t improve much until the 1950s. The depression and Second World War restricted economic opportunities for people living in rural Australia, as in many other parts of the world.

During the 1950s my grandmother’s circumstances improved markedly. She gained some economic independence by obtaining the franchise for the Crowlands post office and telephone exchange, but the improvement in her standard of living seemed typical for the times.

I saw all this happen because I was living with her:
  •     She was able to afford a new kitchen and bathroom with running water installed. She had a much larger water tank constructed.
  •     She bought a slow combustion wood stove that provided continuous hot water.
  •      She bought a fridge that ran on kerosene.
  •     Running water enabled a flush toilet to be installed using a septic tank system.
  •     A few years later she bought an electricity generator and set of batteries. That enabled her to use a washing machine as well as to have electric lights.
  •     In the early 1950s grandmother bought a Holden ute.  After that, use of the horse and sulky became a recreational activity rather than the primary mode of transport.

My grandmother was extremely grateful for the conveniences of modern life. She saw them as a blessing, even though she was not materialistic. She believed that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” and her heart was in cultivation of the goodness in herself and others.

In later life, my grandmother’s main recreational activity was voluntary work for a charitable organisation. That would not have been possible without the time-saving devices in her own home.

It isn’t difficult to understand why my grandmother objected to people talking nostalgically about the horse and buggy era. Economic progress brought about a remarkable transformation in the quality of her life.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Does Israel Folau deserve support from advocates of free speech?

If your employer sacks you for breaching your employment conditions by publishing material on social media, I don’t think you can claim that your right to free speech has been violated. By accepting an offer of employment, you agree to abide by the conditions of that employment. The employer has not used force to prevent you from publishing the material concerned. You remain free to continue to publish such material after having been sacked.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) acted legally or wisely in sacking Israel Folau. I will leave the legal question to the lawyers. My focus here is on the wisdom of sports clubs and other organisations taking stands on social issues and insisting that employees align with their values.

Israel Folau was sacked for a post on Instagram asserting that hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters, unless they repent. The ARU insists that such comments preclude Folau from remaining an employee of the ARU because they do not align with the ARU’s values.

I think it was most unwise for the ARU to assert values in conflict with the opinions any employee might express on theological matters, such as the existence of hell and who may go there. The values pursued by sporting organisations should be related to furthering the interests of their sport and the collective interests of its supporters. It would be reasonable for the ARU to insist that players refrain from being offensive to other team members, but any team member who claimed to be offended by theological assertions made on social media should be told to grow a thicker skin.

It seems to me that Rugby Australia was also unwise to support the ‘Yes’ case in the national plebiscite on same sex marriage in 2017. Despite the merits of the ‘Yes” case, sporting organisations should have avoided taking public positions on this issue. It is obviously imprudent for organisations that seek the support of the general public to risk causing offence to significant groups of supporters by becoming involved in divisive social issues.

Qantas is another organisation that came out strongly in favour of the ‘Yes’ case, even though its involvement in the issue risked offending significant groups of customers, shareholders and employees. I wonder whether the CEO and Board considered the possibility that supporters of the ‘No’ case might arrange a boycott.

In a post on his blog a few weeks ago, Jim Belshaw speculated whether an employee of Qantas who supported the ‘No’ case might be reluctant to speak out publicly:
“I thought what would I do if I worked for Qantas and wanted to campaign for no? Would they fire me or would I just be marked never to be employed again?”
Jim speculated that a person in that situation might consider that the best way to save their job (or contract) would have been to shut up.

Jim’s comments prompted me to re-read John Stuart Mill’s argument in On Liberty that “the moral coercion of public opinion” should be of as much concern to advocates of liberty as “physical force in the form of legal penalties”. I remain unconvinced that the concept of ‘moral coercion’ is meaningful. Public opinion doesn’t force anyone to do anything, or to refrain from doing anything.

Yet, I feel that Mill was on the right track in urging advocates of free speech to oppose attempts by cultural warriors to use employment conditions as a weapon to keep people silent. Mill seems to have been particularly concerned that under the influence of religious bigots, public opinion favoured use of employment conditions to prevent people from expressing socially progressive views. However, the argument he used also applies to attempts by the advocates of socially progressive causes to influence public opinion in favour of the use employment conditions to silence social conservatives:  
 In respect of all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion is as efficacious as law; men might just as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread”.

In my view, Mill exaggerated the impact of public opinion and the consequences of job loss, but he makes a valid point. Advocates of free speech should be concerned about the use of employment conditions to constrain freedom of expression on matters that have little to do with the missions of employing organisations.

It seems to me that advocates of free speech should be encouraging community organisations and corporations to refrain from taking positions on cultural and religious issues that have little to do with their missions. We should continue to acknowledge that employers have the right to sack people who breach their employment conditions. However, we should support voluntary collective action to discourage organisations from imposing employment conditions that unreasonably restrict freedom of expression of employees.


Jim Belshaw has a follow-up post in which he refers to an article by Peter Singer suggesting that the ARU scored an "own goal" by firing Israel Folau. Singer cites Mill in support of free speech: "as John Stuart Mill argued in his classic On Liberty – once we allow, as a ground for restricting someone’s freedom of speech or action, the claim that someone else has been offended by it, freedom is in grave danger of disappearing entirely".
It is great to have common cause with Peter Singer on the importance of free speech, even though I disagree with his radical utilitarianism.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Can subjectivism and objectivism be reconciled?

Readers who don’t recognise the faces depicted in my amateurish artwork might be thinking that the question is absurd because opposites can never be reconciled. That is a feature of the real world. However, subjectivism and objectivism are labels that have been attached to different schools of thought. We need to look at what lies behind the labels to assess whether the schools of thought can be reconciled.

I have previously struggled with related issues when considering whether human well-being is subjective or objective. I will return to that question later in this post.

Edward Younkins has little difficulty in reconciling subjectivism and objectivism in his excellent book, Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society, 2011. The book is subtitled, Towards a synthesis of Aristotelianism, Austrian Economics and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. The subtitle accurately summarises what the book is about. This is a scholarly work that should be read by anyone who has reasons to be interested in whether such a synthesis is possible. Readers of this blog will have observed that the approach to freedom and flourishing adopted here is eclectic, but strongly influenced by Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal philosophy and Hayekian economics. Ed’s reconciliation of objectivism and subjectivism goes part of the way in helping me to think about the coherence of my own views.

Reconciling Mises and Rand

The Austrian economist to whom Ed devotes most attention is Ludwig von Mises. Mises observed that all human action involves choices that are made subjectively by individuals having regard to their internal purposes, ends or goals. Valuation reflects the acting person’s internal scale of preferences. Mises held that economists should study the implications of individual human actions without regard to their motives or causes, which are the objects of study for psychologists.

Ayn Rand argued that the minds of the individual humans are competent to achieve objectively valid knowledge of the real world. The senses, aided by reason in accordance with the rules of logic, enable us to obtain objectively valid knowledge of reality. When a correct cognitive process has been followed, it can be said that the output of that process is objective. It is up to individuals to discover what will further their own lives and what will harm them. Values reflect facts as evaluated by persons with respect to the goal of living. The objectivity of value derives from the fact that some actions tend to promote human life and others detract from it.

Ed Younkins points out that the claim of Miserian economists that values are subjective is compatible with Rand’s claim that values are objective because “they exist at different levels or spheres of analysis”:
“The value-freedom (or value-neutrality) and value subjectivity of the Austrians have a different function or purpose than does Objectivism’s emphasis of objective values. On the one hand, the Austrian emphasis is on the value-neutrality of the economist as a scientific observer of a person acting to attain his ‘subjective’ (i.e. personally-estimated) values. On the other hand, the philosophy of Objectivism is concerned with values for an acting individual moral agent himself”.

Ed provides a more complete explanation in his book, but the quoted passage is a good summary.

Did Hayek claim that morals are not rationally justifiable?

Ed’s reconciliation of Objectivism and the subjectivism of Austrian economists doesn’t get me off the hook entirely regarding the compatibility of Hayekian and neo-Aristotelian philosophies. A decade ago, after re-reading Rand’s warnings (via John Galt in Atlas Shrugged) about becoming “an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know for reasons he is not to question”, I re-considered my support for Hayek’s view that there is merit in observing long-standing norms of behaviour that serve purposes beyond our understanding.  My conclusion was that both views deserve consideration. Hayek was correct to emphasise that societal norms may deserve respect even if we don’t fully understand their purpose, because they evolved through an evolutionary process in which groups that adhered to superior rules were most successful. Rand was correct to emphasise that the purpose served by rules protecting lives, liberty and property are usually capable of being understood.

There are some passages in Hayek’s final book, The Fatal Conceit, that are incompatible with neo-Aristotelian philosophy (and my own views) but it seems likely that those passages were written by W.W Bartley, the book’s editor, rather than by Hayek, whose health was deteriorating at the time. For example: “Moreover, while it is true that traditional morals, etc. are not rationally justifiable, this is also true of any possible moral code …”. Bruce Caldwell suggests that the assertion that our morals are not rationally justifiable is “a position that clearly derives from Bartley” (Hayek’s Challenge, p 317). Here are another sentence for which I hope Hayek was not responsible:
There is no reason to suppose that the selection by evolution of such habitual practices as enabled men to nourish larger numbers had much if anything to do with the production of happiness, let alone that it was guided by the striving after it” (The Fatal Conceit, p 69).

I think that statement is false. Without downplaying the importance of survival as a motive, a realist would acknowledge that until recently human reproduction has been largely an outcome of the actions of humans striving for happiness via the habitual practice of sexual gratification. Moralists have long argued that people can’t find happiness by seeking pleasure, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped many from striving to do just that. Furthermore, the literature of the distant past, as well as more recent times, suggests that those who were most successful in passing on their genes would generally have been living in societies providing relatively good opportunities for individual human flourishing, and they would generally have been flourishing individuals enjoying good health and relative prosperity. It also seems likely that persons with happy dispositions have generally been more likely to form lasting bonds and to care for their offspring.

The objective nature of human flourishing and happiness

Ed Younkins clearly views human flourishing as an objective state of life:
“Flourishing is a successful state of life, and happiness is a positive state of consciousness that flows from, or accompanies, a flourishing life. The legitimate function of every human person is to live capably, excellently and happily. This involves an ethic of aspiration toward one’s objective well-being that is actively attained and maintained”.

Ed introduces the concept of metalevel happiness to distinguish “enduring and justified contentment with one’s life as a whole” from transitory feelings. His description of metalevel happiness seems to have firm roots in antiquity:
“Metalevel happiness requires a proper perspective that comes from the serenity or peace of mind that one gets from knowing that: (1) one is free to rationally choose among alternatives; (2) a person’s potential for happiness is oriented in some particular way and with some particular nature which is not a matter of choice; and (3) nothing external can harm the core of one’s self. Serenity requires wisdom, a sense of proportion, and the ability to deal with pain and emotions in a balanced and rational manner. Happiness means being serene in the face of the unchangeable, courageous before the changeable, and wise enough to determine which is which”.

It seems appropriate to end this post here, leaving you to ponder how best to follow Edward Younkins’ good advice about cultivating the serenity required to be objective about subjective feelings.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Why do many individuals voluntarily moderate their contributions to global environmental problems?

I think serious consideration should be given to the question of why many individuals voluntarily moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems. Prospects for human flourishing may well depend on the increased willingness of many more people to moderate their individual contributions to climate change. Voluntary contributions may not be enough, but what people are willing to volunteer to do themselves can be expected to have an important influence on the extent to which they are willing to impose regulation on others.

A decade ago I suggested that people who voluntarily reduce their contributions to climate change deserve our respect, but I referred to them as environmental puritans. I remember being told that terminology wasn’t respectful. Religious zealotry certainly doesn’t provide a complete explanation of  such behaviour.

Voluntary action by individuals to moderate their contributions to global problems is difficult to explain in conventional economic terms because people must know that their personal actions will have a negligible impact on global problems.

So, why does it happen?

The most cynical explanation I can think of is virtue signalling. Some firms and individuals engage in the behaviour because they obtain additional profit, or just personal satisfaction, from admiration they receive by appearing to be virtuous. Even though virtue signalling isn’t particularly commendable, good outcomes can flow from it. If companies can make higher profits by presenting an environmentally friendly image, good luck to them. If community organisations can further their objectives by bestowing honours on people whose motive is to be admired by other members, good luck to them too (provided, of course, we are not talking about organisations that infringe the rights of non-members e.g. terrorist organisations).

Leaving cynicism aside, the most obvious explanation is that people are willing to moderate their behaviour because of genuine ethical intuitions or considerations. It feels like the right thing to do and/or they consider such behaviour integral to their values and their flourishing as individual humans. It is reasonable to speculate that such ethical feelings and considerations are strongly linked to perceptions of personal identity.  Those who perceive themselves as giving a high priority to environmental protection tend to see themselves as citizens of the world. For example, of those U.S. respondents to the World Values Survey conducted a few years ago who identified with the proposition “looking after the environment is important to this person”, 83% saw themselves as “a citizen of the world”. The corresponding percentages were much lower for people who didn’t perceive looking after the environment to be important.

As shown in the chart at the beginning of this post, the percentage of people who perceive of themselves as citizens of the world is quite high in many countries. I don’t claim to know much about what is going on in the minds of those people. My guess is that when people say that they see themselves as citizens of the world, they are recognizing that they have a common interest with other humans in seeking solutions to global problems. It seems reasonable to expect people who see themselves as citizens of the world would be more likely to moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems without requiring inducement than those who identify solely as members of local communities, ethnic or religious groups, or nations.

As implied earlier, some people who moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems seem to be puritanical in their beliefs about appropriate behaviour towards the environment. That could be because of they are deeply religious, whether as followers of contemporary religions or as Gaia worshippers. It is hardly surprising to see religions urging their followers to have regard to the global environment and the well-being of future generations of humans, and to see some of adherents become environmental zealots.

It also seems reasonable to speculate that more people will voluntarily moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems when they observe others doing likewise. They know their own personal contributions will have a negligible impact on global problems, but they don’t consider them to be futile because they feel that their contributions are part of a collective effort. Those who seek to provide an example for others, by making an unusually large contribution, may see their contribution as having a potential snowball effect.

The motivations of many of those who voluntarily modify their contributions to global environmental problems are only weakly contingent on the behaviour of others. Their behaviour seems to be motivated primarily by benevolence towards future generations of humans and other species. There is no social contract regarding voluntary moderation of contributions and there is no possibility that every human would agree to moderate their behaviour in this respect in the absence of regulation. An individual cannot induce others to moderate their greenhouse gas emissions merely by threatening to cease moderation of their own behaviour if their example is not followed. By contrast, Elinor Ostrom observed that in a successfully managed commons where access to shared resources is limited, individual participants make contingent self-commitments. The willingness of participants to follow a set of rules that has been devised collectively is contingent on other participants making a similar commitment and acting accordingly.

An important factor involved in voluntary moderation of relevant behaviour is belief that human action is causing detrimental climate change. People, like me, who believe that there is a low probability of catastrophic climate change within the next 30 years, or so, might also be willing to moderate their behaviour voluntarily as an insurance policy for following generations, provided the cost of insurance – for example, use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels - is relatively low. More people can be expected to join the movement to moderate their behaviour if they perceive that environmental catastrophe is becoming imminent and/or if it becomes less costly to reduce the exposure of their children and grandchildren to global environmental risks.

Is coercion ever justified?

The benevolent private behaviour of environmentalists with respect to global environmental problems is often combined with advocacy of government action to compel others to modify their contributions. Any lover of liberty would find such coercion difficult to endorse, but there are strong precedents for it. One readily defensible movement that has acted similarly in the past is the movement for abolition of slavery in the 19th Century. As well as endeavouring to ensure that they did not profit from slavery, members of anti-slavery organisations advocated government action to abolish it.

If concerted government intervention is needed to avoid a global climate catastrophe, and if there is enough support by governments and citizens of enough countries to ensure that effective action can be taken, it would be difficult to argue that no action should be taken that would infringe the liberty of those individuals opposed to the intervention. Please note that there is more than one big “if” in the preceding sentence. I just want to make the point that it does not make sense for anyone to insist on the primacy of liberty if human survival is really at stake. In order to flourish, our descendants need to survive.

Do conservatives understand the motivations of world citizens?

The observation that environmentalists often combine benevolent private behaviour with advocacy of government action, seems somewhat at odds with a claim made by prominent conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, in Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet, published in 2012. Scruton suggests:
"Nothing in politics stands still, and increasingly left-wing environmentalists are dissociating themselves from the campaigning NGOs, and preferring the small-scale work that both supports and expresses the low-impact way of life. The movements for low carbon communities, slow food and permaculture have recruited many who identify themselves as ‘on the left’. Indeed, this shift away from radical, government-shaped solutions should be welcomed by conservatives, since it promises the thing that environmentalists of both persuasions need, which is a way of sharing our problems and co-operating in solving them."

I think that may be wishful thinking. From where I sit in Australia, I don’t see left-wing environmentalists increasingly dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. There are some environmentalists who would identify as having leftish views who are disgusted with the antics of environmental NGOs and Green politicians and want nothing to do with them. But I don’t see a general trend in that direction. I do see a trend toward more alliances between radical environmentalists and people who could be considered to hold conservative views. I see alliances between farmers and radical environmentalists to prevent fracking to extract of coal seam gas, because that may contaminate ground water. I see alliances between residents of leafy suburbs and radical environmentalists to prevent higher density housing projects. I also see more people with conservative views supporting independent political candidates who want a greater national contribution to international efforts to combat climate change.

It is easy to understand why Roger Scruton would like to see left-wing environmentalists dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. He suggests that oikophilia, the love of the oikos, or household, is the motive that captures what conservatism and environmentalism have to offer each other. He explains:
“It is a motive in ordinary people. It can provide a foundation both for a conservative approach to institutions and a conservationist approach to the land. It is a motive that might permit us to reconcile the demand for democratic participation with the respect for future generations and the duty of trusteeship. It is, in my view, the only serious resource that we have, in our fight to maintain local order in the face of globally stimulated decay”.

However, Scruton’s response to the slogan, ‘think globally, act locally’, seems odd. He suggests that while many environmentalists acknowledge that local concerns must be given a proper place in our decision-making, they tend to balk at the suggestion that “local loyalty should be seen in national terms, rather than as the small-scale expression of a humane universalism”. He suggests that were conservatism to adopt a slogan, it should be ‘feel locally, think nationally’. He argues that doesn’t mean that conservatives are all belligerent nationalists: They think in terms of the nation state because “they recognize that, in the current environmental crisis, there is no agent to take the needed measures, and no focus of loyalty to secure consent to them, other than this one".

I am uncomfortable with the idea that local loyalty should be seen in national terms. National loyalties overlap with local loyalties in some respects, but most environmental problems seem to be either local or global. Humane universalism seems to me to be a mark of civilised behaviour.
Nevertheless, I accept that the national state is the only governance system available which has potential to deal with global problems that cannot be resolved by the voluntary actions of individuals. That doesn’t mean that I have a great deal of faith in the capacity of nation states to resolve such problems.  Perhaps voluntary action enhanced by blockchain technology offers more hope over the longer term.

Roger Scruton is correct in his assertion that conservatives think in terms of nation states. They are statists. But that is also true of Green politicians and their ardent supporters, who argue vociferously for greater action at a national level to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In attempting to push individual nation states to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a national level, Green politicians have caused a backlash from voters concerned about rising energy prices and the unfairness of being asked to make greater sacrifices than those being made by people in other parts of the world. If Green politicians want effective action to avert the global climate change disaster that they greatly fear, they will need to adopt more effective political strategies that are capable of winning support from voters who are sceptical of claims of claims of imminent environmental disaster, but are prepared to make modest contributions to global efforts as a form of insurance for the benefit of future generations.

How does Roger Scruton make a useful contribution?

Roger Scruton’s comments about the difficulty of negotiating and enforcing international agreements to combat climate change are insightful. He notes that the Montreal Protocol concerning action to combat depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere was successful because CFCs could be eliminated “without seriously disturbing the economy or the way of life of any signatory nation”. He notes:
“Greenhouse gases are not like CFC gases. As things stand they can be eliminated only at great economic and even greater social cost, and few nations are prepared to pay that cost. By devoting their sparse supply of global goodwill to negotiating futile treaties against emissions, the nations are wasting assets that could be spent on co-operative research into renewable energy."

I think Scruton is both too optimistic and too pessimistic in suggesting that “unilateral action on the part of a competent and law-abiding state”, such as the U.S., may end up being the only way the global environment can be defended. I take his point that the British Navy played a crucial role in ending the transnational market in slaves, but it is too optimistic to think that the U.S. could achieve much to combat climate change by acting alone. It seems too pessimistic to imply that there are no circumstances where international cooperation could result in effective action against climate change.
Roger Scruton actually points to a potentially productive avenue for international cooperation:
 “If treaties are to be effective at all they must surely be of this kind – treaties that offer only benefits, which minimize the incentives to defect, and which compensate for the principal failure of markets in the matter of global environmental problems, namely that they do not invest sufficiently in the needed research.”

Where does this lead?

The important point is that if we want individuals to moderate their contribution to global environmental problems – either through voluntary action or by supporting regulation – before environmental catastrophe is universally accepted to be imminent, then we need to make it less costly for people to take that action. A greater research effort is required to ensure that more efficient technologies become available as soon as possible.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How can we compare climate change and public debt risks?

It seems to me that, over the next 20 years or so, people in Western democracies are likely to suffer to a greater extent from the consequences of an explosion in public debt than from climate change. At the same time, I acknowledge that climate change could possibly pose a serious threat to civilization and perhaps human survival. The chart shown above is my attempt to illustrate how those risks might be compared.

I make no claim to expertise in assessment of climate change risks. My reading on the topic suggests that the theory that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change is widely accepted by scientists. However, people with relevant expertise obviously have different views about the rate at which climate change is likely to occur, the contribution of human activity, the political feasibility of various forms of remedial action, and the adaptability of humans and other living creatures.

In my view, too little attention has been given to “tail risk” associated with climate change – the low probability that climate change will result in a great deal of human misery, as shown in the chart above. As I have written here previously, if you are concerned about climate change, you (like me) are likely to be more concerned about the remote possibility that your great grandchildren might suffer from having to live with potentially catastrophic climate change outcomes than about the more probable outcome that climate change might cause their incomes to be somewhat lower than economic modelling suggests they would be otherwise. I have also previously expressed agreement with Nassim Taleb that there are some risks we should avoid if possible, even though there is a low probability that they will occur at any point in time. In order to flourish, future generations need to be able to survive.

The reasoning behind the rest of the chart requires more explanation. Why do I think there is a 95% probability that the citizens of western democracies will suffer as much or more over the next 20 years from an explosion in public debt than from climate change? Since I don’t have either the inclination or expertise to weigh up the technical evidence on climate change for myself, I tend to rely on the IPCC’s assessments. I suspect the authors of IPCC reports are still somewhat biased toward attempting to present a view favouring urgent international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, after they have been modified in the light of expert public scrutiny, the IPCC reports are probably the most authoritative source of independent assessments of the relevant evidence.

The IPCC’s assessment of likely climate change outcomes in Chapter 3 of its recent special report, Global Warming of 1.5 ÂșC, implies that we can expect some fairly serious adverse consequences over the next few decades:
The impacts of climate change are being felt in every inhabited continent and in the oceans. However, they are not spread uniformly across the globe, and different parts of the world experience impacts differently. An average warming of 1.5°C across the whole globe raises the risk of heatwaves and heavy rainfall events, amongst many other potential impacts. Limiting warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C can help reduce these risks, but the impacts the world experiences will depend on the specific greenhouse gas emissions ‘pathway’ taken. The consequences of temporarily overshooting 1.5°C of warming and returning to this level later in the century, for example, could be larger than if temperature stabilizes below 1.5°C. The size and duration of an overshoot will also affect future impacts.

However, a recent OECD report on Greece, which is fairly optimistic about the future of that economy, seems to me to illustrate that public debt crises are likely to result in much more human misery than climate change over the next few decades:
Despite these positive developments, challenges abound. GDP per capita is still 25% below its pre-crisis level. The public debt is still high and a source of significant vulnerability. Poverty rose sharply during the crisis, especially among the young and families with children. Though poverty has stabilised, it remains near a record high. Skill mismatch is also high and investment remains depressed. This contributes to low productivity – which has fallen further behind other OECD countries – and low wages – resulting in high in-work poverty. Though improving, female labour participation is among the lowest across OECD countries. The recovery in investment is held back by a dearth of finance – due in part to high levels of non-performing loans and to capital controls – high cost of capital relative to wages, cumbersome regulations and low demand. These problems weigh on people’s well-being”. 

As I explained in a recent post, there are strong reasons to expect that the failure of governments in most OECD countries to restrain the growth of government spending is likely to cause debt servicing to become a more widespread problem in the decades ahead.  I think the most likely outcomes in most western democracies will probably be much worse that the outcomes of climate change, although not be as bad as the experience of Greece over the last decade. The chart above is drawn to acknowledge that there is some possibility that democratic governments will lift their performance, or world interest rates will remain low, so debt servicing may not be a problem.

The modest adverse outcomes depicted on the right side of the chart might well be offset by positive factors. There is a good chance that over the longer term the positive impacts of technological advances will be sufficient to offset the negative impacts of both public debt accumulation and climate change, but it would be excessively optimistic to expect rapid technological progress and productivity growth in western democracies over the next 20 years.

Some readers may object to my attempt to compare the risks associated with climate change and public debt explosion on the ground that these are very different risks when viewed at a national public policy perspective. There obviously isn’t much the government of any country can do to reduce climate change risk by acting alone.

However, I have drawn the chart with individual well-being in mind. From an individual’s perspective, the risks surrounding climate change and public debt are quite similar. Nothing that individuals do by themselves will make much difference to national or global outcomes. Voting might appear to provide an avenue for individuals to influence national outcomes but, as others have observed, voting in a national election is like ordering a meal from the menu in a restaurant and being served the same meal irrespective of what you order.  

There are options that individuals can consider to reduce their exposure to both climate change and public debt risks. For example, consideration of climate change risk might influence decisions about housing location and construction, and consideration of public debt risks might cause individuals to reduce the extent that their families rely on government for health services, education and retirement incomes.

It strikes me that climate change and the risks of public debt explosion also pose similar ethical issues for individuals. Does the fact that an individual’s actions, considered in isolation, has a negligible impact on global and national problems absolve him or her of an obligation to moderate his or her contributions to those problems? I think not, but I will leave consideration of the issue for another time.  

Monday, February 25, 2019

Is subjective-predictive morality consistent with the template of individual responsibility?

This question arose while I was reading Josh Bachynski's book The Zombies, subtitled On Morality.
Josh explains subjective-predictive morality as follows:
You all know and have seen it (and used it too!). It is the simple morality we commonly use when giving a gift, throwing a party, or trying to predict and ensure how well things will end up for others. When we are practically good. When we seek to help and not hurt others, for no other reason than this is good. What we currently call being courteous or nice, for the sake of just being courteous or nice. When we are not trying to do what’s “Right” per se. When we are trying to do what’s right by them”.

Doing right by others is encompassed in the ethics of doing right by yourself. What is good feels good.  Josh explains the process of subjective evaluative judgment as involving (1) pleasant or unpleasant feelings (2) cognitive reactions concerning the value of those feelings (3) predictions as to whether we will have reason to regret the action contemplated. Josh suggests:
This is the way we naturally insert quality control into our valuations.

He goes on to observe:
“As it turns out, in searching for the moral, we have actually made a powerful discovery. And this is in what is also rational or prudent”.

I suggest that readers who are interested in learning more about Josh’s philosophy should read Leah Goldrick’s review at Common Sense Ethics, which contains a link to her interview of Josh, and then begin to read the book itself. This is a long book. I found the authors chatty writing style entertaining at first, but tedious after the first few chapters.

Josh Bachynski’s ethics of doing what is right by oneself and others seems quite similar to the template of responsibility, advocated by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn. The ethics of responsibility is based on “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives”. This is explained in a passage I have quoted previously:
For the template of responsibility, the basis for determining worthiness is human flourishing or wellbeing of some sort. Its ultimate value is integrity. Integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour but when applied to the agent herself, the term ‘integrity’ signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action”.

There are some differences between the two approaches. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings are not given a great deal of prominence in Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s view of human flourishing. They define human flourishing as consisting of “activities that both produce and express in a human being 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”. At one point, Den Uyl and Rasmussen suggest that “an objective account of human flourishing can be characterized as a life of right desire”. They argue that the value of something to a person “is not necessarily a mere matter of “its being desired, wanted, or chosen” because a person “is more than a bundle of passions and desires”. That is still consistent with the view that emotions such as joy and disgust provide important information to help us to decide what we value.

Another possible source of difference is in respect of naturalism. From my reading of The Zombies, it seems likely that Bachynski would be suspicious that Den Uyl and Rasmussen’s teleological naturalism could be seeking to perpetuate ancient errors about human nature that scientific advances have given us reasons to question. I don’t think such suspicions would be well-founded because Den Uyl and Rasmussen present a view of human flourishing that is explicitly individualistic, agent-relative and self-directed.

As I see it, the differences between the philosophical approaches discussed above have parallels in the differences between some psychological therapies. Subjective predictive morality seems to have much in common with rational emotive approaches (REBT) in which people use reasoning to moderate their emotional responses. The template of responsibility seems to a lot in common with an acceptance and commitment approach (ACT) in which people ask themselves how they can actualize their potential in the given situation to act in accordance with their values, whatever their current emotional states might be. Perhaps there may also be parallels in the differences between philosophic approaches of the Stoics and Aristotle.

Subjective predictive morality and the template of responsibility both involve the use of practical reason. The question of which approach is better should probably be viewed as an empirical matter. In your experience, which approach has been of greatest help you in doing the right thing by yourself and others? The correct answer could well be different for different individuals.

In the light of similarities between subjective-predictive morality and the template of individual responsibility, it may come as a surprise to some readers that the authors have vastly different political perspectives. Josh Bachynski describes himself as “a left-leaning liberal democrat” and his book begins with a rant to the effect that he sees “ecological/economic disaster” as “disturbingly likely” because of “wasteful and self-destructive profit structures”. Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen are classical liberals who have proudly given one of the chapters in their book the title: “The entrepreneur as a moral hero”.

I find it impossible to believe that those vast differences in world view stem from differences in their philosophical views about ethics. There may be some differences in the value they place on individual liberty, but they don’t seem to be huge. Their different world views must stem from different perceptions about the way the economic system works and the likelihood of ecological/economic disaster. It is a matter of who is right and who is wrong about relevant aspects of the real world.

For what it is worth, I think there is a very high probability that Josh is wrong, but I acknowledge that we shouldn’t be ignoring low probability outcomes that would be disastrous for humanity. Unfortunately, as I observed in my comments on Nassim Taleb’s book, Skin in the Game, when it comes to consideration of potential Black Swan events that threaten the survival of humanity, the political systems we have inherited do not ensure that political leaders have enough skin in the game for their minds to focus appropriately. Political leaders tend to focus on their survival at the next election rather than on the survival of humanity. It is up to citizens who are concerned about potential Black Swan disasters to initiate appropriate action themselves.