Moral luck: How it matters, and how it doesn’t

Feb 10 JDN 2458525

The concept of moral luck is now relatively familiar to most philosophers, but I imagine most other people haven’t heard it before. It sounds like a contradiction, which is probably why it drew so much attention.

The term “moral luck” seems to have originated in essay by Thomas Nagel, but the intuition is much older, dating at least back to Greek philosophy (and really probably older than that; we just don’t have good records that far back).

The basic argument is this:

Most people would say that if you had no control over something, you can’t be held morally responsible for it. It was just luck.

But if you look closely, everything we do—including things we would conventionally regard as moral actions—depends heavily on things we don’t have control over.

Therefore, either we can be held responsible for things we have no control over, or we can’t be held responsible for anything at all!

Neither approach seems very satisfying; hence the conundrum.

For example, consider four drivers:

Anna is driving normally, and nothing of note happens.

Bob is driving recklessly, but nothing of note happens.

Carla is driving normally, but a child stumbles out into the street and she runs the child over.

Dan is driving recklessly, and a child stumbles out into the street and he runs the child over.

The presence or absence of a child in the street was not in the control of any of the four drivers. Yet I think most people would agree that Dan should be held more morally responsible than Bob, and Carla should be held more morally responsible than Anna. (Whether Bob should be held more morally responsible than Carla is not as clear.) Yet both Bob and Dan were driving recklessly, and both Anna and Carla were driving normally. The moral evaluation seems to depend upon the presence of the child, which was not under the drivers’ control.

Other philosophers have argued that the difference is an epistemic one: We know the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and ran over a child better than the moral character of someone who drove recklessly and didn’t run over a child. But do we, really?

Another response is simply to deny that we should treat Bob and Dan any differently, and say that reckless driving is reckless driving, and safe driving is safe driving. For this particular example, maybe that works. But it’s not hard to come up with better examples where that doesn’t work:

Ted is a psychopathic serial killer. He kidnaps, rapes, and murder people. Maybe he can control whether or not he rapes and murders someone. But the reason he rapes and murders someone is that he is a psychopath. And he can’t control that he is a psychopath. So how can we say that his actions are morally wrong?

Obviously, we want to say that his actions are morally wrong.

I have heard one alternative, which is to consider psychopaths as morally equivalent to viruses: Zero culpability, zero moral value, something morally neutral but dangerous that we should contain or eradicate as swiftly as possible. HIV isn’t evil; it’s just harmful. We should kill it not because it deserves to die, but because it will kill us if we don’t. On this theory, Ted doesn’t deserve to be executed; it’s just that we must execute him in order to protect ourselves from the danger he poses.

But this quickly becomes unsatisfactory as well:

Jonas is a medical researcher whose work has saved millions of lives. Maybe he can control the research he works on, but he only works on medical research because he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. He can’t control that he was born with a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion. So how can we say his actions are morally right?

This is the line of reasoning that quickly leads to saying that all actions are outside our control, and therefore morally neutral; and then the whole concept of morality falls apart.

So we need to draw the line somewhere; there has to be a space of things that aren’t in our control, but nonetheless carry moral weight. That’s moral luck.

Philosophers have actually identified four types of moral luck, which turns out to be tremendously useful in drawing that line.

Resultant luck is luck that determines the consequences of your actions, how things “turn out”. Happening to run over the child because you couldn’t swerve fast enough is resultant luck.

Circumstantial luck is luck that determines the sorts of situations you are in, and what moral decisions you have to make. A child happening to stumble across the street is circumstantial luck.

Constitutive luck is luck that determines who you are, your own capabilities, virtues, intentions and so on. Having a high IQ and strong feelings of compassion is constitutive luck.

Causal luck is the inherent luck written into the fabric of the universe that determines all events according to the fundamental laws of physics. Causal luck is everything and everywhere; it is written into the universal wavefunction.

I have a very strong intuition that this list is ordered; going from top to bottom makes things “less luck” in a vital sense.

Resultant luck is pure luck, what we originally meant when we said the word “luck”. It’s the roll of the dice.

Circumstantial luck is still mostly luck, but maybe not entirely; there are some aspects of it that do seem to be under our control.

Constitutive luck is maybe luck, sort of, but not really. Yes, “You’re lucky to be so smart” makes sense, but “You’re lucky to not be a psychopath” already sounds pretty weird. We’re entering territory here where our ordinary notions of luck and responsibility really don’t seem to apply.

Causal luck is not luck at all. Causal luck is really the opposite of luck: Without a universe with fundamental laws of physics to maintain causal order, none of our actions would have any meaning at all. They wouldn’t even really be actions; they’d just be events. You can’t do something in a world of pure chaos; things only happen. And being made of physical particles doesn’t make you any less what you are; a table made of wood is still a table, and a rocket made of steel is still a rocket. Thou art physics.

And that, my dear reader, is the solution to the problem of moral luck. Forget “causal luck”, which isn’t luck at all. Then, draw a hard line at constitutive luck: regardless of how you became who you are, you are responsible for what you do.

You don’t need to have control over who you are (what would that even mean!?).

You merely need to have control over what you do.

This is how the word “control” is normally used, by the way; when we say that a manufacturing process is “under control” or a pilot “has control” of an airplane, we aren’t asserting some grand metaphysical claim of ultimate causation. We’re merely saying that the system is working as it’s supposed to; the outputs coming out are within the intended parameters. This is all we need for moral responsibility as well.

In some cases, maybe people’s brains really are so messed up that we can’t hold them morally responsible; they aren’t “under control”. Okay, we’re back to the virus argument then: Contain or eradicate. If a brain tumor makes you so dangerous that we can’t trust you around sharp objects, unless we can take out that tumor, we’ll need to lock you up somewhere where you can’t get any sharp objects. Sorry. Maybe you don’t deserve that in some ultimate sense, but it’s still obviously what we have to do. And this is obviously quite exceptional; most people are not suffering from brain tumors that radically alter their personalities—and even most psychopaths are otherwise neurologically normal.

Ironically, it’s probably my fellow social scientists who will scoff the most at this answer. “But so much of what we are is determined by our neurochemistry/cultural norms/social circumstances/political institutions/economic incentives!” Yes, that’s true. And if we want to change those things to make us and others better, I’m all for it. (Well, neurochemistry is a bit problematic, so let’s focus on the others first—but if you can make a pill that cures psychopathy, I would support mandatory administration of that pill to psychopaths in positions of power.)

When you make a moral choice, we have to hold you responsible for that choice.

Maybe Ted is psychopathic and sadistic because there was too much lead in his water as a child. That’s a good reason to stop putting lead in people’s water (like we didn’t already have plenty!); but it’s not a good reason to let Ted off the hook for all those rapes and murders.

Maybe Jonas is intelligent and compassionate because his parents were wealthy and well-educated. That’s a good reason to make sure people are financially secure and well-educated (again, did we need more?); but it’s not a good reason to deny Jonas his Nobel Prize for saving millions of lives.

Yes, “personal responsibility” has been used by conservatives as an excuse to not solve various social and economic problems (indeed, it has specifically been used to stop regulations on lead in water and public funding for education). But that’s not actually anything wrong with personal responsibility. We should hold those conservatives personally responsible for abusing the term in support of their destructive social and economic policies. No moral freedom is lost by preventing lead from turning children into psychopaths. No personal liberty is destroyed by ensuring that everyone has access to a good education.

In fact, there is evidence that telling people who are suffering from poverty or oppression that they should take personal responsibility for their choices benefits them. Self-perceived victimhood is linked to all sorts of destructive behaviors, even controlling for prior life circumstances. Feminist theorists have written about how taking responsibility even when you are oppressed can empower you to make your life better. Yes, obviously, we should be helping people when we can. But telling them that they are hopeless unless we come in to rescue them isn’t helping them.

This way of thinking may require a delicate balance at times, but it’s not inconsistent. You can both fight against lead pollution and support the criminal justice system. You can believe in both public education and the Nobel Prize. We should be working toward a world where people are constituted with more virtue for reasons beyond their control, and where people are held responsible for the actions they take that are under their control.

We can continue to talk about “moral luck” referring to constitutive luck, I suppose, but I think the term obscures more than it illuminates. The “luck” that made you a good or a bad person is very different from the “luck” that decides how things happen to turn out.

What we could, what we should, and what we must

May 27 JDN 2458266

In one of the most famous essays in all of ethical philosophy, Peter Singer famously argued that we are morally obligated to give so much to charity that we would effectively reduce ourselves to poverty only slightly better than what our donations sought to prevent. His argument is a surprisingly convincing one, especially for such a radical proposition. Indeed, one of the core activities of the Effective Altruism movement has basically been finding ways to moderate Singer’s argument without giving up on its core principles, because it’s so obvious both that we ought to do much more to help people around the world and that there’s no way we’re ever going to do what that argument actually asks of us.

The most cost-effective charities in the world can save a human life for an average cost of under $4,000. The maneuver that Singer basically makes is quite simple: If you know that you could save someone’s life for $4,000, you have $4,000 to spend, and instead you spend that $4,000 on something else, aren’t you saying that whatever you did spend it on was more important than saving that person’s life? And is that really something you believe?

But if you think a little more carefully, it becomes clear that things are not quite so simple. You aren’t being paid $4,000 to kill someone, first of all. If you were willing to accept $4,000 as sufficient payment to commit a murder, you would be, quite simply, a monster. Implicitly the “infinite identical psychopath” of neoclassical rational agent models would be willing to do such a thing, but very few actual human beings—even actual psychopaths—are that callous.

Obviously, we must refrain from murdering people, even for amounts far in excess of $4,000. If you were offered the chance to murder someone for $4 billion dollars, I can understand why you would be tempted to do such a thing. Think of what you could do with all that money! Not only would you and everyone in your immediate family be independently wealthy for life, you could donate billions of dollars to charity and save as much as a million lives. What’s one life for a million? Even then, I have a strong intuition that you shouldn’t commit this murder—but I have never been able to find a compelling moral argument for why. The best I’ve been able to come up with a sort of Kantian notion: What if everyone did this?

Since the most plausible scenario is that the $4 billion comes from existing wealth, all those murders would simply be transferring wealth around, from unknown sources. If you stipulate where the wealth comes from, the dilemma can change quite a bit.

Suppose for example the $4 billion is confiscated from Bashar Al-Assad. That would be in itself a good thing, lessening the power of a genocidal tyrant. So we need to add that to the positive side of the ledger. It is probably worth killing one innocent person just to undermine Al-Assad’s power; indeed, the US Air Force certainly seems to think so, as they average more than one civilian fatality every day in airstrikes.

Now suppose the wealth was extracted by clever financial machinations that took just a few dollars out of every bank account in America. This would be in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not a terrible thing, especially since we’re planning on giving most of it to UNICEF. Those people should have given it anyway, right? This sounds like a pretty good movie, actually; a cyberpunk Robin Hood basically.

Next, suppose it was obtained by stealing the life savings of a million poor people in Africa. Now the method of obtaining the money is so terrible that it’s not clear that funneling it through UNICEF would compensate, even if you didn’t have to murder someone to get it.

Finally, suppose that the wealth is actually created anew—not printed money from the Federal Reserve, but some new technology that will increase the world’s wealth by billions of dollars yet requires the death of an innocent person to create. In this scenario, the murder has become something more like the inherent risk in human subjects biomedical research, and actually seems justifiable. And indeed, that fits with the Kantian answer, for if we all had the chance to kill one person in order to create something that would increase the wealth of the world by $4 billion, we could turn this planet into a post-scarcity utopia within a generation for fewer deaths than are currently caused by diabetes.

Anyway, my point here is that the detailed context of a decision actually matters a great deal. We can’t simply abstract away from everything else in the world and ask whether the money is worth the life.

When we consider this broader context with regard to the world’s most cost-effective charities, it becomes apparent that a small proportion of very dedicated people giving huge proportions of their income to charity is not the kind of world we want to see.

If I actually gave so much that I equalized my marginal utility of wealth to that of a child dying of malaria in Ghana, I would have to donate over 95% of my income—and well before that point, I would be homeless and impoverished. This actually seems penny-wise and pound-foolish even from the perspective of total altruism: If I stop paying rent, it gets a lot harder for me to finish my doctorate and become a development economist. And even if I never donated another dollar, the world would be much better off with one more good development economist than with even another $23,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. Once you factor in the higher income I’ll have (and proportionately higher donations I’ll make), it’s obviously the wrong decision for me to give 95% of $25,000 today rather than 10% of $70,000 every year for the next 20 years after I graduate.

But the optimal amount for me to donate from that perspective is whatever the maximum would be that I could give without jeopardizing my education and career prospects. This is almost certainly more than I am presently giving. Exactly how much more is actually not all that apparent: It’s not enough to say that I need to be able to pay rent, eat three meals a day, and own a laptop that’s good enough for programming and statistical analysis. There’s also a certain amount that I need for leisure, to keep myself at optimal cognitive functioning for the next several years. Do I need that specific video game, that specific movie? Surely not—but if I go the next ten years without ever watching another movie or playing another video game, I’m probably going to be in trouble psychologically. But what exactly is the minimum amount to keep me functioning well? And how much should I be willing to spend attending conferences? Those can be important career-building activities, but they can also be expensive wastes of time.

Singer acts as though jeopardizing your career prospects is no big deal, but this is clearly wrong: The harm isn’t just to your own well-being, but also to your productivity and earning power that could have allowed you to donate more later. You are a human capital asset, and you are right to invest in yourself. Exactly how much you should invest in yourself is a much harder question.
Such calculations are extremely difficult to do. There are all sorts of variables I simply don’t know, and don’t have any clear way of finding out. It’s not a good sign for an ethical theory when even someone with years of education and expertise on specifically that topic still can’t figure out the answer. Ethics is supposed to be something we can apply to everyone.

So I think it’s most helpful to think in those terms: What could we apply to everyone? What standard of donation would be high enough if we could get everyone on board?

World poverty is rapidly declining. The direct poverty gap at the UN poverty line of $1.90 per day is now only $80 billion. Realistically, we couldn’t simply close that gap precisely (there would also be all sorts of perverse incentives if we tried to do it that way). But the standard estimate that it would take about $300 billion per year in well-targeted spending to eliminate world hunger is looking very good.

How much would each person, just those in the middle class or above within the US or the EU, have to give in order to raise this much?
89% of US income is received by the top 60% of households (who I would said are unambiguously “middle class or above”). Income inequality is not as extreme within the EU, so the proportion of income received by the top 60% seems to be more like 75%.

89% of US GDP plus 75% of EU GDP is all together about $29 trillion per year. This means that in order to raise $300 billion, each person in the middle class or above would need to donate just over one percent of their income.

Not 95%. Not 25%. Not even 10%. Just 1%. That would be enough.

Of course, more is generally better—at least until you start jeopardizing your career prospects. So by all means, give 2% or 5% or even 10%. But I really don’t think it’s helpful to make people feel guilty about not giving 95% when all we really needed was for everyone to give 1%.

There is an important difference between what we could do, what we should do, and what we must do.

What we must do are moral obligations so strong they are essentially inviolable: We must not murder people. There may be extreme circumstances where exceptions can be made (such as collateral damage in war), and we can always come up with hypothetical scenarios that would justify almost anything, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of time, these ethical rules are absolutely binding.

What we should do are moral obligations that are strong enough to be marks against your character if you break them, but not so absolutely binding that you have to be a monster not to follow them. This is where I put donating at least 1% of your income. (This is also where I put being vegetarian, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.) You really ought to do it, and you are doing something wrongful if you don’t—but most people don’t, and you are not a terrible person if you don’t.

This latter category is in part socially constructed, based on the norms people actually follow. Today, slavery is obviously a grave crime, and to be a human trafficker who participates in it you must be a psychopath. But two hundred years ago, things were somewhat different: Slavery was still wrong, yes, but it was quite possible to be an ordinary person who was generally an upstanding citizen in most respects and yet still own slaves. I would still condemn people who owned slaves back then, but not nearly as forcefully as I would condemn someone who owned slaves today. Two hundred years from now, perhaps vegetarianism will move up a category: The norm will be that everyone eats only plants, and someone who went out of their way to kill and eat a pig would have to be a psychopath. Eating meat is already wrong today—but it will be more wrong in the future. I’d say the same about donating 1% of your income, but actually I’m hoping that by two hundred years from now there will be no more poverty left to eradicate, and donation will no longer be necessary.

Finally, there is what we could do—supererogatory, even heroic actions of self-sacrifice that would make the world a better place, but cannot be reasonably expected of us. This is where donating 95% or even 25% of your income would fall. Yes, absolutely, that would help more people than donating 1%; but you don’t owe the world that much. It’s not wrong for you to contribute less than this. You don’t need to feel guilty for not giving this much.

But I do want to make you feel guilty if you don’t give at least 1%. Don’t tell me you can’t. You can. If your income is $30,000 per year, that’s $300 per year. If you needed that much for a car repair, or dental work, or fixing your roof, you’d find a way to come up with it. No one in the First World middle class is that liquidity-constrained. It is true that half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency, but I frankly don’t believe it. (I believe it for the bottom 25% or so, who are actually poor; but not half of Americans.) If you have even one credit card that’s not maxed out, you can do this—and frankly even if a card is maxed out, you can probably call them and get them to raise your limit. There is something you could cut out of your spending that would allow you to get back 1% of your annual income. I don’t know what it is, necessarily: Restaurants? Entertainment? Clothes? But I’m not asking you to give a third of your income—I’m asking you to give one penny out of every dollar.

I give considerably more than that; my current donation target is 8% and I’m planning on raising it to 10% or more once I get a high-paying job. I live on a grad student salary which is less than the median personal income in the US. So I know it can be done. But I am very intentionally not asking you to give this much; that would be above and beyond the call of duty. I’m only asking you to give 1%.

The vector geometry of value change

Post 239: May 20 JDN 2458259

This post is one of those where I’m trying to sort out my own thoughts on an ongoing research project, so it’s going to be a bit more theoretical than most, but I’ll try to spare you the mathematical details.

People often change their minds about things; that should be obvious enough. (Maybe it’s not as obvious as it might be, as the brain tends to erase its prior beliefs as wastes of data storage space.)

Most of the ways we change our minds are fairly minor: We get corrected about Napoleon’s birthdate, or learn that George Washington never actually chopped down any cherry trees, or look up the actual weight of an average African elephant and are surprised.

Sometimes we change our minds in larger ways: We realize that global poverty and violence are actually declining, when we thought they were getting worse; or we learn that climate change is actually even more dangerous than we thought.

But occasionally, we change our minds in an even more fundamental way: We actually change what we care about. We convert to a new religion, or change political parties, or go to college, or just read some very compelling philosophy books, and come out of it with a whole new value system.

Often we don’t anticipate that our values are going to change. That is important and interesting in its own right, but I’m going to set it aside for now, and look at a different question: What about the cases where we know our values are going to change?
Can it ever be rational for someone to choose to adopt a new value system?

Yes, it can—and I can put quite tight constraints on precisely when.

Here’s the part where I hand-wave the math, but imagine for a moment there are only two goods in the world that anyone would care about. (This is obviously vastly oversimplified, but it’s easier to think in two dimensions to make the argument, and it generalizes to n dimensions easily from there.) Maybe you choose a job caring only about money and integrity, or design policy caring only about security and prosperity, or choose your diet caring only about health and deliciousness.

I can then represent your current state as a vector, a two dimensional object with a length and a direction. The length describes how happy you are with your current arrangement. The direction describes your values—the direction of the vector characterizes the trade-off in your mind of how much you care about each of the two goods. If your vector is pointed almost entirely parallel with health, you don’t much care about deliciousness. If it’s pointed mostly at integrity, money isn’t that important to you.

This diagram shows your current state as a green vector.

vector1

Now suppose you have the option of taking some action that will change your value system. If that’s all it would do and you know that, you wouldn’t accept it. You will be no better off, and your value system will be different, which is bad from your current perspective. So here, you would not choose to move to the red vector:

vector2

But suppose that the action would change your value system, and make you better off. Now the red vector is longer than the green vector. Should you choose the action?

vector3

It’s not obvious, right? From the perspective of your new self, you’ll definitely be better off, and that seems good. But your values will change, and maybe you’ll start caring about the wrong things.

I realized that the right question to ask is whether you’ll be better off from your current perspective. If you and your future self both agree that this is the best course of action, then you should take it.

The really cool part is that (hand-waving the math again) it’s possible to work this out as a projection of the new vector onto the old vector. A large change in values will be reflected as a large angle between the two vectors; to compensate for that you need a large change in length, reflecting a greater improvement in well-being.

If the projection of the new vector onto the old vector is longer than the old vector itself, you should accept the value change.

vector4
If the projection of the new vector onto the old vector is shorter than the old vector, you should not accept the value change.

vector5

This captures the trade-off between increased well-being and changing values in a single number. It fits the simple intuitions that being better off is good, and changing values more is bad—but more importantly, it gives us a way of directly comparing the two on the same scale.

This is a very simple model with some very profound implications. One is that certain value changes are impossible in a single step: If a value change would require you to take on values that are completely orthogonal or diametrically opposed to your own, no increase in well-being will be sufficient.

It doesn’t matter how long I make this red vector, the projection onto the green vector will always be zero. If all you care about is money, no amount of integrity will entice you to change.

vector6

But a value change that was impossible in a single step can be feasible, even easy, if conducted over a series of smaller steps. Here I’ve taken that same impossible transition, and broken it into five steps that now make it feasible. By offering a bit more money for more integrity, I’ve gradually weaned you into valuing integrity above all else:

vector7

This provides a formal justification for the intuitive sense many people have of a “moral slippery slope” (commonly regarded as a fallacy). If you make small concessions to an argument that end up changing your value system slightly, and continue to do so many times, you could end up with radically different beliefs at the end, even diametrically opposed to your original beliefs. Each step was rational at the time you took it, but because you changed yourself in the process, you ended up somewhere you would not have wanted to go.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. If the reason you made each of those changes was actually a good one—you were provided with compelling evidence and arguments to justify the new beliefs—then the whole transition does turn out to be a good thing, even though you wouldn’t have thought so at the time.

This also allows us to formalize the notion of “inferential distance”: the inferential distance is the number of steps of value change required to make someone understand your point of view. It’s a function of both the difference in values and the difference in well-being between their point of view and yours.

Another key insight is that if you want to persuade someone to change their mind, you need to do it slowly, with small changes repeated many times, and you need to benefit them at each step. You can only persuade someone to change their minds if they will end up better off than they were at each step.

Is this an endorsement of wishful thinking? Not if we define “well-being” in the proper way. It can make me better off in a deep sense to realize that my wishful thinking was incorrect, so that I realize what must be done to actually get the good things I thought I already had.  It’s not necessary to appeal to material benefits; it’s necessary to appeal to current values.

But it does support the notion that you can’t persuade someone by belittling them. You won’t convince people to join your side by telling them that they are defective and bad and should feel guilty for being who they are.

If that seems obvious, well, maybe you should talk to some of the people who are constantly pushing “White privilege”. If you focused on how reducing racism would make people—even White people—better off, you’d probably be more effective. In some cases there would be direct material benefits: Racism creates inefficiency in markets that reduces overall output. But in other cases, sure, maybe there’s no direct benefit for the person you’re talking to; but you can talk about other sorts of benefits, like what sort of world they want to live in, or how proud they would feel to be part of the fight for justice. You can say all you want that they shouldn’t need this kind of persuasion, they should already believe and do the right thing—and you might even be right about that, in some ultimate sense—but do you want to change their minds or not? If you actually want to change their minds, you need to meet them where they are, make small changes, and offer benefits at each step.

If you don’t, you’ll just keep on projecting a vector orthogonally, and you’ll keep ending up with zero.

There is no problem of free will, just a lot of really confused people

Jan 15, JDN 2457769

I was hoping for some sort of news item to use as a segue, but none in particular emerged, so I decided to go on with it anyway. I haven’t done any cognitive science posts in awhile, and this is one I’ve been meaning to write for a long time—actually it’s the sort of thing that even a remarkable number of cognitive scientists frequently get wrong, perhaps because the structure of human personality makes cognitive science inherently difficult.

Do we have free will?

The question has been asked so many times by so many people it is now a whole topic in philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entire article on free will. The Information Philosopher has a gateway page “The Problem of Free Will” linking to a variety of subpages. There are even YouTube videos about “the problem of free will”.

The constant arguing back and forth about this would be problematic enough, but what really grates me are the many, many people who write “bold” articles and books about how “free will does not exist”. Examples include Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, and have been published in everything from Psychology Today to the Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s even a TED talk.

The worst ones are those that follow with “but you should believe in it anyway”. In The Atlantic we have “Free will does not exist. But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” Scientific American offers a similar view, “Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!””

This is a mind-bogglingly stupid approach. First of all, if you want someone to believe in something, you don’t tell them it doesn’t exist. Second, if something doesn’t exist, that is generally considered a pretty compelling reason not to believe in it. You’d need a really compelling counter-argument, and frankly I’m not even sure the whole idea is logically coherent. How can I believe in something if I know it doesn’t exist? Am I supposed to delude myself somehow?

But the really sad part is that it’s totally unnecessary. There is no problem of free will. There are just an awful lot of really, really confused people. (Fortunately not everyone is confused; there are those, such as Daniel Dennett, who actually understand what’s going on.)

The most important confusion is over what you mean by the phrase “free will”. There are really two core meanings here, and the conflation of them is about 90% of the problem.

1. Moral responsibility: We have “free will” if and only if we are morally responsible for our actions.

2. Noncausality: We have “free will” if and only if our actions are not caused by the laws of nature.

Basically, every debate over “free will” boils down to someone pointing out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then arguing that this means that moral responsibility doesn’t exist. Then someone comes back and says that moral responsibility does exist, and then infers that this means noncausality must exist. Or someone points out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then they realize how horrible it would be if moral responsibility didn’t exist, and then tells people they should go on believing in noncausality so that they don’t have to give up moral responsibility.

Let me be absolutely clear here: Noncausality could not possibly exist.

Noncausality isn’t even a coherent concept. Actions, insofar as they are actions, must, necessarily, by definition, be caused by the laws of nature.

I can sort of imagine an event not being caused; perhaps virtual electron-positron pairs can really pop into existence without ever being caused. (Even then I’m not entirely convinced; I think quantum mechanics might actually be deterministic at the most fundamental level.)

But an action isn’t just a particle popping into existence. It requires the coordinated behavior of some 10^26 or more particles, all in a precisely organized, unified way, structured so as to move some other similarly large quantity of particles through space in a precise way so as to change the universe from one state to another state according to some system of objectives. Typically, it involves human muscles intervening on human beings or inanimate objects. (Recently it has come to mean specifically human fingers on computer keyboards a rather large segment of the time!) If what you do is an action—not a muscle spasm, not a seizure, not a slip or a trip, but something you did on purpose—then it must be caused. And if something is caused, it must be caused according to the laws of nature, because the laws of nature are the laws underlying all causality in the universe!

And once you realize that, the “problem of free will” should strike you as one of the stupidest “problems” ever proposed. Of course our actions are caused by the laws of nature! Why in the world would you think otherwise?

If you think that noncausality is necessary—or even useful—for free will, what kind of universe do you think you live in? What kind of universe could someone live in, that would fit your idea of what free will is supposed to be?

It’s like I said in that much earlier post about The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science (we are our brains): If you don’t think a mind can be made of matter, what do you think minds are made of? What sort of magical invisible fairy dust would satisfy you? If you can’t even imagine something that would satisfy the constraints you’ve imposed, did it maybe occur to you that your constraints are too strong?

Noncausality isn’t worth fretting over for the same reason that you shouldn’t fret over the fact that pi is irrational and you can’t make a square circle. There is no possible universe in which that isn’t true. So if it bothers you, it’s not that there’s something wrong with the universe—it’s clearly that there’s something wrong with you. Your thinking on the matter must be too confused, too dependent on unquestioned intuitions, if you think that murder can’t be wrong unless 2+2=5.

In philosophical jargon I am called a “compatibilist” because I maintain that free will and determinism are “compatible”. But this is much too weak a term. I much prefer Eleizer Yudkowsky’s “requiredism”, which he explains in one of the greatest blog posts of all time (seriously, read it immediately if you haven’t before—I’m okay with you cutting off my blog post here and reading his instead, because it truly is that brilliant), entitled simply “Thou Art Physics”. This quote sums it up briefly:

My position might perhaps be called “Requiredism.” When agency, choice, control, and moral responsibility are cashed out in a sensible way, they require determinism—at least some patches of determinism within the universe. If you choose, and plan, and act, and bring some future into being, in accordance with your desire, then all this requires a lawful sort of reality; you cannot do it amid utter chaos. There must be order over at least over those parts of reality that are being controlled by you. You are within physics, and so you/physics have determined the future. If it were not determined by physics, it could not be determined by you.

Free will requires a certain minimum level of determinism in the universe, because the universe must be orderly enough that actions make sense and there isn’t simply an endless succession of random events. Call me a “requiredist” if you need to call me something. I’d prefer you just realize the whole debate is silly because moral responsibility exists and noncausality couldn’t possibly.

We could of course use different terms besides “free will”. “Moral responsibility” is certainly a good one, but it is missing one key piece, which is the issue of why we can assign moral responsibility to human beings and a few other entities (animals, perhaps robots) and not to the vast majority of entities (trees, rocks, planets, tables), and why we are sometimes willing to say that even a human being does not have moral responsibility (infancy, duress, impairment).

This is why my favored term is actually “rational volition”. The characteristic that human beings have (at least most of us, most of the time), which also many animals and possibly some robots share (if not now, then soon enough), which justifies our moral responsibility is precisely our capacity to reason. Things don’t just happen to us the way they do to some 99.999,999,999% of the universe; we do things. We experience the world through our senses, have goals we want to achieve, and act in ways that are planned to make the world move closer to achieving those goals. We have causes, sure enough; but not just any causes. We have a specific class of causes, which are related to our desires and intentions—we call these causes reasons.

So if you want to say that we don’t have “free will” because that implies some mysterious nonsensical noncausality, sure; that’s fine. But then don’t go telling us that this means we don’t have moral responsibility, or that we should somehow try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise in order to preserve moral responsibility. Just recognize that we do have rational volition.

How do I know we have rational volition? That’s the best part, really: Experiments. While you’re off in la-la land imagining fanciful universes where somehow causes aren’t really causes even though they are, I can point to not only centuries of human experience but decades of direct, controlled experiments in operant conditioning. Human beings and most other animals behave quite differently in behavioral experiments than, say, plants or coffee tables. Indeed, it is precisely because of this radical difference that it seems foolish to even speak of a “behavioral experiment” about coffee tables—because coffee tables don’t behave, they just are. Coffee tables don’t learn. They don’t decide. They don’t plan or consider or hope or seek.

Japanese, as it turns out, may be a uniquely good language for cognitive science, because it has two fundamentally different verbs for “to be” depending on whether an entity is sentient. Humans and animals imasu, while inanimate objects merely arimasu. We have free will because and insofar as we imasu.

Once you get past that most basic confusion of moral responsibility with noncausality, there are a few other confusions you might run into as well. Another one is two senses of “reductionism”, which Dennett refers to as “ordinary” and “greedy”:

1. Ordinary reductionism: All systems in the universe are ultimately made up of components that always and everywhere obey the laws of nature.

2. Greedy reductionism: All systems in the universe just are their components, and have no existence, structure, or meaning aside from those components.

I actually had trouble formulating greedy reductionism as a coherent statement, because it’s such a nonsensical notion. Does anyone really think that a pile of two-by-fours is the same thing as a house? But people do speak as though they think this about human brains, when they say that “love is just dopamine” or “happiness is just serotonin”. But dopamine in a petri dish isn’t love, any more than a pile of two-by-fours is a house; and what I really can’t quite grok is why anyone would think otherwise.

Maybe they’re simply too baffled by the fact that love is made of dopamine (among other things)? They can’t quite visualize how that would work (nor can I, nor, I think, can anyone in the world at this level of scientific knowledge). You can see how the two-by-fours get nailed together and assembled into the house, but you can’t see how dopamine and action potentials would somehow combine into love.

But isn’t that a reason to say that love isn’t the same thing as dopamine, rather than that it is? I can understand why some people are still dualists who think that consciousness is somehow separate from the functioning of the brain. That’s wrong—totally, utterly, ridiculously wrong—but I can at least appreciate the intuition that underlies it. What I can’t quite grasp is why someone would go so far the other way and say that the consciousness they are currently experiencing does not exist.

Another thing that might confuse people is the fact that minds, as far as we know, are platform independentthat is, your mind could most likely be created out of a variety of different materials, from the gelatinous brain it currently is to some sort of silicon supercomputer, to perhaps something even more exotic. This independence follows from the widely-believed Church-Turing thesis, which essentially says that all computation is computation, regardless of how it is done. This may not actually be right, but I see many reasons to think that it is, and if so, this means that minds aren’t really what they are made of at all—they could be made of lots of things. What makes a mind a mind is how it is structured and above all what it does.

If this is baffling to you, let me show you how platform-independence works on a much simpler concept: Tables. Tables are also in fact platform-independent. You can make a table out of wood, or steel, or plastic, or ice, or bone. You could take out literally every single atom of a table and replace it will a completely different atom of a completely different element—carbon for iron, for example—and still end up with a table. You could conceivably even do so without changing the table’s weight, strength, size, etc., though that would be considerably more difficult.
Does this mean that tables somehow exist “beyond” their constituent matter? In some very basic sense, I suppose so—they are, again, platform-independent. But not in any deep, mysterious sense. Start with a wooden table, take away all the wood, and you no longer have a table. Take apart the table and you have a bunch of wood, which you could use to build something else. There is no “essence” comprising the table. There is no “table soul” that would persist when the table is deconstructed.

And—now for the hard part—so it is with minds. Your mind is your brain. The constituent atoms of your brain are gradually being replaced, day by day, but your mind is the same, because it exists in the arrangement and behavior, not the atoms themselves. Yet there is nothing “extra” or “beyond” that makes up your mind. You have no “soul” that lies beyond your brain. If your brain is destroyed, your mind will also be destroyed. If your brain could be copied, your mind would also be copied. And one day it may even be possible to construct your mind in some other medium—some complex computer made of silicon and tantalum, most likely—and it would still be a mind, and in all its thoughts, feelings and behaviors your mind, if not numerically identical to you.

Thus, when we engage in rational volition—when we use our “free will” if you like that term—there is no special “extra” process beyond what’s going on in our brains, but there doesn’t have to be. Those particular configurations of action potentials and neurotransmitters are our thoughts, desires, plans, intentions, hopes, fears, goals, beliefs. These mental concepts are not in addition to the physical material; they are made of that physical material. Your soul is made of gelatin.

Again, this is not some deep mystery. There is no “paradox” here. We don’t actually know the details of how it works, but that makes this no different from a Homo erectus who doesn’t know how fire works. Maybe he thinks there needs to be some extra “fire soul” that makes it burn, but we know better; and in far fewer centuries than separate that Homo erectus from us, our descendants will know precisely how the brain creates the mind.

Until then, simply remember that any mystery here lies in us—in our ignorance—and not in the universe. And take heart that the kind of “free will” that matters—moral responsibility—has absolutely no need for the kind of “free will” that doesn’t exist—noncausality. They’re totally different things.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people refuse to do cost-benefit analysis

July 27, JDN 2457597

My title is based on a famous quote often attributed to Edmund Burke, but which we have no record of him actually saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The closest he actually appears to have written is this:

When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Burke’s intended message was about the need for cooperation and avoiding diffusion of responsibility; then his words were distorted into a duty to act against evil in general.

But my point today is going to be a little bit more specific: A great deal of real-world evils would be eliminated if good people were more willing to engage in cost-benefit analysis.

As discussed on Less Wrong awhile back, there is a common “moral” saying which comes from the Talmud (if not earlier; and of course it’s hardly unique to Judaism), which gives people a great warm and fuzzy glow whenever they say it:

Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.

Yet this is in fact the exact opposite of moral. It is a fundamental, insane perversion of morality. It amounts to saying that “saving a life” is just a binary activity, either done or not, and once you’ve done it once, congratulations, you’re off the hook for the other 7 billion. All those other lives mean literally nothing, once you’ve “done your duty”.

Indeed, it would seem to imply that you can be a mass murderer, as long as you save someone else somewhere along the line. If Mao Tse-tung at some point stopped someone from being run over by a car, it’s okay that his policies killed more people than the population of Greater Los Angeles.

Conversely, if anything you have ever done has resulted in someone’s death, you’re just as bad as Mao; in fact if you haven’t also saved someone somewhere along the line and he has, you’re worse.

Maybe this is how you get otherwise-intelligent people saying such insanely ridiculous things as George W. Bush’s crimes are uncontroversially worse than Osama bin Laden’s.” (No, probably not, since Chomsky at least feigns something like cost-benefit analysis. I’m not sure what his failure mode is, but it’s probably not this one in particular. “Uncontroversially”… you keep using that word…)

Cost-benefit analysis is actually a very simple concept (though applying it in practice can be mind-bogglingly difficult): Try to maximize the good things minus the bad things. If an action would increase good things more than bad things, do it; if it would increase bad things more than good things, don’t do it.

What it replaces is simplistic deontological reasoning about “X is always bad” or “Y is always good”; that’s almost never true. Even great evils can be justified by greater goods, and many goods are not worth having because of the evils they would require to achieve. We seem to want all our decisions to have no downside, perhaps because that would resolve our cognitive dissonance most easily; but in the real world, most decisions have an upside and a downside, and it’s a question of which is larger.

Why is it that so many people—especially good people—have such an aversion to cost-benefit analysis?

I gained some insight into this by watching a video discussion from an online Harvard course taught by Michael Sandel (which is free, by the way, if you’d like to try it out). He was leading the discussion Socratically, which is in general a good method of teaching—but like anything else can be used to teach things that are wrong, and is in some ways more effective at doing so because it has a way of making students think they came up with the answers on their own. He says something like, “Do we really want our moral judgments to be based on cost-benefit analysis?” and gives some examples where people made judgments using cost-benefit analysis to support his suggestion that this is something bad.

But of course his examples are very specific: They all involve corporations using cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits. One of them is the Ford Pinto case, where Ford estimated the cost to them of a successful lawsuit, multiplied by the probability of such lawsuits, and then compared that with the cost of a total recall. Finding that the lawsuits were projected to be cheaper, they opted for that result, and thereby allowed several people to be killed by their known defective product.

Now, it later emerged that Ford Pintos were not actually especially dangerous, and in fact Ford didn’t just include lawsuits but also a standard estimate of the “value of a statistical human life”, and as a result of that their refusal to do the recall was probably the completely correct decision—but why let facts get in the way of a good argument?

But let’s suppose that all the facts had been as people thought they were—the product was unsafe and the company was only interested in their own profits. We don’t need to imagine this hypothetically; this is clearly what actually happened with the tobacco industry, and indeed with the oil industry. Is that evil? Of course it is. But not because it’s cost-benefit analysis.

Indeed, the reason this is evil is the same reason most things are evil: They are psychopathically selfish. They advance the interests of those who do them, while causing egregious harms to others.

Exxon is apparently prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to further their own interests, which makes them literally no better than Mao, as opposed to this bizarre “no better than Mao” that we would all be if the number of lives saved versus killed didn’t matter. Let me be absolutely clear; I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that the board of directors of Exxon is morally no better than Mao. No, I mean they literally are willing to murder 20 million people to serve their own interests—more precisely 10 to 100 million, by WHO estimates. Maybe it matters a little bit that these people will be killed by droughts and hurricanes rather than by knives and guns; but then, most of the people Mao killed died of starvation, and plenty of the people killed by Exxon will too. But this statement wouldn’t have the force it does if I could not speak in terms of quantitative cost-benefit analysis. Killing people is one thing, and most industries would have to own up to it; being literally willing to kill as many people as history’s greatest mass murderers is quite anotherand yet it is true of Exxon.

But I can understand why people would tend to associate cost-benefit analysis with psychopaths maximizing their profits; there are two reasons for this.

First, most neoclassical economists appear to believe in both cost-benefit analysis and psychopathic profit maximization. They don’t even clearly distinguish their concept of “rational” from the concept of total psychopathic selfishness—hence why I originally titled this blog “infinite identical psychopaths”. The people arguing for cost-benefit analysis are usually economists, and economists are usually neoclassical, so most of the time you hear arguments for cost-benefit analysis they are also linked with arguments for horrifically extreme levels of selfishness.

Second, most people are uncomfortable with cost-benefit analysis, and as a result don’t use it. So, most of the cost-benefit analysis you’re likely to hear is done by terrible human beings, typically at the reins of multinational corporations. This becomes self-reinforcing, as all the good people don’t do cost-benefit analysis, so they don’t see good people doing it, so they don’t do it, and so on.

Therefore, let me present you with some clear-cut cases where cost-benefit analysis can save millions of lives, and perhaps even save the world.

Imagine if our terrorism policy used cost-benefit analysis; we wouldn’t kill 100,000 innocent people and sacrifice 4,400 soldiers fighting a war that didn’t have any appreciable benefit as a bizarre form of vengeance for 3,000 innocent people being killed. Moreover, we wouldn’t sacrifice core civil liberties to prevent a cause of death that’s 300 times rarer than car accidents.

Imagine if our healthcare policy used cost-benefit analysis; we would direct research funding to maximize our chances of saving lives, not toward the form of cancer that is quite literally the sexiest. We would go to a universal healthcare system like the rest of the First World, and thereby save thousands of additional lives while spending less on healthcare.

With cost-benefit analysis, we would reform our system of taxes and subsidies to internalize the cost of carbon emissions, most likely resulting in a precipitous decline of the oil and coal industries and the rapid rise of solar and nuclear power, and thereby save millions of lives. Without cost-benefit analysis, we instead get unemployed coal miners appearing on TV to grill politicians about how awful it is to lose your job even though that job is decades obsolete and poisoning our entire planet. Would eliminating coal hurt coal miners? Yes, it would, at least in the short run. It’s also completely, totally worth it, by at least a thousandfold.

We would invest heavily in improving our transit systems, with automated cars or expanded rail networks, thereby preventing thousands of deaths per year—instead of being shocked and outraged when an automated car finally kills one person, while manual vehicles in their place would have killed half a dozen by now.

We would disarm all of our nuclear weapons, because the risk of a total nuclear apocalypse is not worth it to provide some small increment in national security above our already overwhelming conventional military. While we’re at it, we would downsize that military in order to save enough money to end world hunger.

And oh by the way, we would end world hunger. The benefits of doing so are enormous; the costs are remarkably small. We’ve actually been making a great deal of progress lately—largely due to the work of development economists, and lots and lots of cost-benefit analysis. This process involves causing a lot of economic disruption, making people unemployed, taking riches away from some people and giving them to others; if we weren’t prepared to bear those costs, we would never get these benefits.

Could we do all these things without cost-benefit analysis? I suppose so, if we go through the usual process of covering of our ears whenever a downside is presented and amplification whenever an upside is presented, until we can more or less convince ourselves that there is no downside even though there always is. We can continue having arguments where one side presents only downsides, the other side presents only upsides, and then eventually one side prevails by sheer numbers, and it could turn out to be the upside team (or should I say “tribe”?).

But I think we’d progress a lot faster if we were honest about upsides and downsides, and had the courage to stand up and say, “Yes, that downside is real; but it’s worth it.” I realize it’s not easy to tell a coal miner to his face that his job is obsolete and killing people, and I don’t really blame Hillary Clinton for being wishy-washy about it; but the truth is, we need to start doing that. If we accept that costs are real, we may be able to mitigate them (as Hillary plans to do with a $30 billion investment in coal mining communities, by the way); if we pretend they don’t exist, people will still get hurt but we will be blind to their suffering. Or worse, we will do nothing—and evil will triumph.

Selling debt goes against everything the free market stands for

JDN 2457555

I don’t think most people—or even most economists—have any concept of just how fundamentally perverse and destructive our financial system has become, and a large chunk of it ultimately boils down to one thing: Selling debt.

Certainly collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and their meta-form, CDO2s (pronounced “see-dee-oh squareds”), are nothing more than selling debt, and along with credit default swaps (CDS; they are basically insurance, but without those pesky regulations against things like fraud and conflicts of interest) they were directly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession and Second Depression.

But selling debt continues in a more insidious way, underpinning the entire debt collection industry which raises tens of billions of dollars per year by harassment, intimidation and extortion, especially of the poor and helpless. Frankly, I think what’s most shocking is how little money they make, given the huge number of people they harass and intimidate.

John Oliver did a great segment on debt collections (with a very nice surprise at the end):

But perhaps most baffling to me is the number of people who defend the selling of debt on the grounds that it is a “free market” activity which must be protected from government “interference in personal liberty”. To show this is not a strawman, here’s the American Enterprise Institute saying exactly that.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms: Selling debt goes against everything the free market stands for.

One of the most basic principles of free markets, one of the founding precepts of capitalism laid down by no less than Adam Smith (and before him by great political philosophers like John Locke), is the freedom of contract. This is the good part of capitalism, the part that makes sense, the reason we shouldn’t tear it all down but should instead try to reform it around the edges.

Indeed, the freedom of contract is so fundamental to human liberty that laws can only be considered legitimate insofar as they do not infringe upon it without a compelling public interest. Freedom of contract is right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right of due process.

The freedom of contract is the right to make agreements, including financial agreements, with anyone you please, and under conditions that you freely and rationally impose in a state of good faith and transparent discussion. Conversely, it is the right not to make agreements with those you choose not to, and to not be forced into agreements under conditions of fraud, intimidation, or impaired judgment.

Freedom of contract is the basis of my right to take on debt, provided that I am honest about my circumstances and I can find a lender who is willing to lend to me. So taking on debt is a fundamental part of freedom of contract.

But selling debt is something else entirely. Far from exercising the freedom of contract, it violates it. When I take out a loan from bank A, and then they turn around and sell that loan to bank B, I suddenly owe money to bank B, but I never agreed to do that. I had nothing to do with their decision to work with bank B as opposed to keeping the loan or selling it to bank C.

Current regulations prohibit banks from “changing the terms of the loan”, but in practice they change them all the time—they can’t change the principal balance, the loan term, or the interest rate, but they can change the late fees, the payment schedule, and lots of subtler things about the loan that can still make a very big difference. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned they have changed the terms of the loan—one of the terms of the loan was that I was to pay X amount to bank A, not that I was to pay X amount to bank B. I may or may not have good reasons not to want to pay bank B—they might be far less trustworthy than bank A, for instance, or have a far worse social responsibility record—and in any case it doesn’t matter; it is my choice whether or not I want anything to do with bank B, whatever my reasons might be.

I take this matter quite personally, for it is by the selling of debt that, in moral (albeit not legal) terms, a British bank stole my parents’ house. Indeed, not just any British bank; it was none other than HSBC, the money launderers for terrorists.

When they first obtained their mortgage, my parents did not actually know that HSBC was quite so evil as to literally launder money for terrorists, but they did already know that they were involved in a great many shady dealings, and even specifically told their lender that they did not want the loan sold, and if it was to be sold, it was absolutely never to be sold to HSBC in particular. Their mistake (which was rather like the “mistake” of someone who leaves their car unlocked and has it stolen, or forgets to arm the home alarm system and suffers a burglary) was not to get this written into the formal contract, rather than simply made as a verbal agreement with the bankers. Such verbal contracts are enforceable under the law, at least in theory; but that would require proof of the verbal contract (and what proof could we provide?), and also probably have cost as much as the house in litigation fees.

Oh, by the way, they were given a subprime interest rate of 8% despite being middle-class professionals with good credit, no doubt to maximize the broker’s closing commission. Most banks reserved such behavior for racial minorities, but apparently this one was equal-opportunity in the worst way.Perhaps my parents were naive to trust bankers any further than they could throw them.

As a result, I think you know what happened next: They sold the loan to HSBC.

Now, had it ended there, with my parents unwittingly forced into supporting a bank that launders money for terrorists, that would have been bad enough. But it assuredly did not.

By a series of subtle and manipulative practices that poked through one loophole after another, HSBC proceeded to raise my parents’ payments higher and higher. One particularly insidious tactic they used was to sit on the checks until just after the due date passed, so they could charge late fees on the payments, then they recapitalized the late fees. My parents caught on to this particular trick after a few months, and started mailing the checks certified so they would be date-stamped; and lo and behold, all the payments were suddenly on time! By several other similarly devious tactics, all of which were technically legal or at least not provable, they managed to raise my parents’ monthly mortgage payments by over 50%.

Note that it was a fixed-rate, fixed-term mortgage. The initial payments—what should have been always the payments, that’s the point of a fixed-rate fixed-term mortgage—were under $2000 per month. By the end they were paying over $3000 per month. HSBC forced my parents to overpay on a mortgage an amount equal to the US individual poverty line, or the per-capita GDP of Peru.

They tried to make the payments, but after being wildly over budget and hit by other unexpected expenses (including defects in the house’s foundation that they had to pay to fix, but because of the “small” amount at stake and the overwhelming legal might of the construction company, no lawyer was willing to sue over), they simply couldn’t do it anymore, and gave up. They gave the house to the bank with a deed in lieu of foreclosure.

And that is the story of how a bank that my parents never agreed to work with, never would have agreed to work with, indeed specifically said they would not work with, still ended up claiming their house—our house, the house I grew up in from the age of 12. Legally, I cannot prove they did anything against the law. (I mean, other than laundered money for terrorists.) But morally, how is this any less than theft? Would we not be victimized less had a burglar broken into our home, vandalized the walls and stolen our furniture?

Indeed, that would probably be covered under our insurance! Where can I buy insurance against the corrupt and predatory financial system? Where are my credit default swaps to pay me when everything goes wrong?

And all of this could have been prevented, if banks simply weren’t allowed to violate our freedom of contract by selling their loans to other banks.

Indeed, the Second Depression could probably have been likewise prevented. Without selling debt, there is no securitization. Without securitization, there is far less leverage. Without leverage, there are not bank failures. Without bank failures, there is no depression. A decade of global economic growth was lost because we allowed banks to sell debt whenever they please.

I have heard the counter-arguments many times:

“But what if banks need the liquidity?” Easy. They can take out their own loans with those other banks. If bank A finds they need more cashflow, they should absolutely feel free to take out a loan from bank B. They can even point to their projected revenues from the mortgage payments we owe them, as a means of repaying that loan. But they should not be able to involve us in that transaction. If you want to trust HSBC, that’s your business (you’re an idiot, but it’s a free country). But you have no right to force me to trust HSBC.

“But banks might not be willing to make those loans, if they knew they couldn’t sell or securitize them!” THAT’S THE POINT. Banks wouldn’t take on all these ridiculous risks in their lending practices that they did (“NINJA loans” and mortgages with payments larger than their buyers’ annual incomes), if they knew they couldn’t just foist the debt off on some Greater Fool later on. They would only make loans they actually expect to be repaid. Obviously any loan carries some risk, but banks would only take on risks they thought they could bear, as opposed to risks they thought they could convince someone else to bear—which is the definition of moral hazard.

“Homes would be unaffordable if people couldn’t take out large loans!” First of all, I’m not against mortgages—I’m against securitization of mortgages. Yes, of course, people need to be able to take out loans. But they shouldn’t be forced to pay those loans to whoever their bank sees fit. If indeed the loss of subprime securitized mortgages made it harder for people to get homes, that’s a problem; but the solution to that problem was never to make it easier for people to get loans they can’t afford—it is clearly either to reduce the price of homes or increase the incomes of buyers. Subsidized housing construction, public housing, changes in zoning regulation, a basic income, lower property taxes, an expanded earned-income tax credit—these are the sort of policies that one implements to make housing more affordable, not “go ahead and let banks exploit people however they want”.

Remember, a regulation against selling debt would protect the freedom of contract. It would remove a way for private individuals and corporations to violate that freedom, like regulations against fraud, intimidation, and coercion. It should be uncontroversial that no one has any right to force you to do business with someone you would not voluntarily do business with, certainly not in a private transaction between for-profit corporations. Maybe that sort of mandate makes sense in rare circumstances by the government, but even then it should really be implemented as a tax, not a mandate to do business with a particular entity. The right to buy what you choose is the foundation of a free market—and implicit in it is the right not to buy what you do not choose.

There are many regulations on debt that do impose upon freedom of contract: As horrific as payday loans are, if someone really honestly knowingly wants to take on short-term debt at 400% APR I’m not sure it’s my business to stop them. And some people may really be in such dire circumstances that they need money that urgently and no one else will lend to them. Insofar as I want payday loans regulated, it is to ensure that they are really lending in good faith—as many surely are not—and ultimately I want to outcompete them by providing desperate people with more reasonable loan terms. But a ban on securitization is like a ban on fraud; it is the sort of law that protects our rights.

Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations

JDN 2457548

In last week’s post I made a sharp distinction between believing in human progress and believing that colonialism was justified. To make this argument, I relied upon a moral assumption that seems to me perfectly obvious, and probably would to most ethicists as well: Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations, and people are only responsible for their individual actions.

But is in fact this principle is not uncontroversial in many circles. When I read utterly nonsensical arguments like this one from the aptly-named Race Baitr saying that White people have no role to play in the liberation of Black people apparently because our blood is somehow tainted by the crimes our ancestors, it becomes apparent to me that this principle is not obvious to everyone, and therefore is worth defending. Indeed, many applications of the concept of “White Privilege” seem to ignore this principle, speaking as though racism is not something one does or participates in, but something that one is simply by being born with less melanin. Here’s a Salon interview specifically rejecting the proposition that racism is something one does:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

If racism isn’t something one does, then what in the world is it? It’s all well and good to talk about systems and social institutions, but ultimately systems and social institutions are made of human behaviors. If you think most White people aren’t doing enough to combat racism (which sounds about right to me!), say that—don’t make some bizarre accusation that simply by existing we are inherently racist. (Also: We? I’m only 75% White, so am I only 75% inherently racist?) And please, stop redefining the word “racism” to mean something other than what everyone uses it to mean; “White people are snakes” is in fact a racist sentiment (and yes, one I’ve actually heard–indeed, here is the late Muhammad Ali comparing all White people to rattlesnakes, and Huffington Post fawning over him for it).

Racism is clearly more common and typically worse when performed by White people against Black people—but contrary to the claims of some social justice activists the White perpetrator and Black victim are not part of the definition of racism. Similarly, sexism is more common and more severe committed by men against women, but that doesn’t mean that “men are pigs” is not a sexist statement (and don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one). I don’t have a good word for bigotry by gay people against straight people (“heterophobia”?) but it clearly does happen on occasion, and similarly cannot be defined out of existence.

I wouldn’t care so much that you make this distinction between “racism” and “racial prejudice”, except that it’s not the normal usage of the word “racism” and therefore confuses people, and also this redefinition clearly is meant to serve a political purpose that is quite insidious, namely making excuses for the most extreme and hateful prejudice as long as it’s committed by people of the appropriate color. If “White people are snakes” is not racism, then the word has no meaning.

Not all discussions of “White Privilege” are like this, of course; this article from Occupy Wall Street actually does a fairly good job of making “White Privilege” into a sensible concept, albeit still not a terribly useful one in my opinion. I think the useful concept is oppression—the problem here is not how we are treating White people, but how we are treating everyone else. What privilege gives you is the freedom to be who you are.”? Shouldn’t everyone have that?

Almost all the so-called “benefits” or “perks” associated with privilege” are actually forgone harms—they are not good things done to you, but bad things not done to you. But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.” No, that is not what the word “benefit” means. The word “benefit” means you would be worse off without it—and in most cases that simply isn’t true. Many White people obviously think that it is true—which is probably a big reason why so many White people fight so hard to defend racism, you know; you’ve convinced them it is in their self-interest. But, with rare exceptions, it is not; most racial discrimination has literally zero long-run benefit. It’s just bad. Maybe if we helped people appreciate that more, they would be less resistant to fighting racism!

The only features of “privilege” that really make sense as benefits are those that occur in a state of competition—like being more likely to be hired for a job or get a loan—but one of the most important insights of economics is that competition is nonzero-sum, and fairer competition ultimately means a more efficient economy and thus more prosperity for everyone.

But okay, let’s set that aside and talk about this core question of what sort of responsibility we bear for the acts of our ancestors. Many White people clearly do feel deep shame about what their ancestors (or people the same color as their ancestors!) did hundreds of years ago. The psychological reactance to that shame may actually be what makes so many White people deny that racism even exists (or exists anymore)—though a majority of Americans of all races do believe that racism is still widespread.

We also apply some sense of moral responsibility applied to whole races quite frequently. We speak of a policy “benefiting White people” or “harming Black people” and quickly elide the distinction between harming specific people who are Black, and somehow harming “Black people” as a group. The former happens all the time—the latter is utterly nonsensical. Similarly, we speak of a “debt owed by White people to Black people” (which might actually make sense in the very narrow sense of economic reparations, because people do inherit money! They probably shouldn’t, that is literally feudalist, but in the existing system they in fact do), which makes about as much sense as a debt owed by tall people to short people. As Walter Michaels pointed out in The Trouble with Diversity (which I highly recommend), because of this bizarre sense of responsibility we are often in the habit of “apologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (indeed to whom it wasn’t done)”. It is my responsibility to condemn colonialism (which I indeed do), to fight to ensure that it never happens again; it is not my responsibility to apologize for colonialism.

This makes some sense in evolutionary terms; it’s part of the all-encompassing tribal paradigm, wherein human beings come to identify themselves with groups and treat those groups as the meaningful moral agents. It’s much easier to maintain the cohesion of a tribe against the slings and arrows (sometimes quite literal) of outrageous fortune if everyone believes that the tribe is one moral agent worthy of ultimate concern.

This concept of racial responsibility is clearly deeply ingrained in human minds, for it appears in some of our oldest texts, including the Bible: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5)

Why is inheritance of moral responsibility across generations nonsensical? Any number of reasons, take your pick. The economist in me leaps to “Ancestry cannot be incentivized.” There’s no point in holding people responsible for things they can’t control, because in doing so you will not in any way alter behavior. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on moral responsibility takes it as so obvious that people are only responsible for actions they themselves did that they don’t even bother to mention it as an assumption. (Their big question is how to reconcile moral responsibility with determinism, which turns out to be not all that difficult.)

An interesting counter-argument might be that descent can be incentivized: You could use rewards and punishments applied to future generations to motivate current actions. But this is actually one of the ways that incentives clearly depart from moral responsibilities; you could incentivize me to do something by threatening to murder 1,000 children in China if I don’t, but even if it was in fact something I ought to do, it wouldn’t be those children’s fault if I didn’t do it. They wouldn’t deserve punishment for my inaction—I might, and you certainly would for using such a cruel incentive.

Moreover, there’s a problem with dynamic consistency here: Once the action is already done, what’s the sense in carrying out the punishment? This is why a moral theory of punishment can’t merely be based on deterrence—the fact that you could deter a bad action by some other less-bad action doesn’t make the less-bad action necessarily a deserved punishment, particularly if it is applied to someone who wasn’t responsible for the action you sought to deter. In any case, people aren’t thinking that we should threaten to punish future generations if people are racist today; they are feeling guilty that their ancestors were racist generations ago. That doesn’t make any sense even on this deterrence theory.

There’s another problem with trying to inherit moral responsibility: People have lots of ancestors. Some of my ancestors were most likely rapists and murderers; most were ordinary folk; a few may have been great heroes—and this is true of just about anyone anywhere. We all have bad ancestors, great ancestors, and, mostly, pretty good ancestors. 75% of my ancestors are European, but 25% are Native American; so if I am to apologize for colonialism, should I be apologizing to myself? (Only 75%, perhaps?) If you go back enough generations, literally everyone is related—and you may only have to go back about 4,000 years. That’s historical time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be different colors in the first place if there weren’t some differences in ancestry, but there is a huge amount of gene flow between different human populations. The US is a particularly mixed place; because most Black Americans are quite genetically mixed, it is about as likely that any randomly-selected Black person in the US is descended from a slaveowner as it is that any randomly-selected White person is. (Especially since there were a large number of Black slaveowners in Africa and even some in the United States.) What moral significance does this have? Basically none! That’s the whole point; your ancestors don’t define who you are.

If these facts do have any moral significance, it is to undermine the sense most people seem to have that there are well-defined groups called “races” that exist in reality, to which culture responds. No; races were created by culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The “races” we hold most dear in the US, White and Black, are in fact the most nonsensical. “Asian” and “Native American” at least almost make sense as categories, though Chippewa are more closely related to Ainu than Ainu are to Papuans. “Latino” isn’t utterly incoherent, though it includes as much Aztec as it does Iberian. But “White” is a club one can join or be kicked out of, while “Black” is the majority of genetic diversity.

Sex is a real thing—while there are intermediate cases of course, broadly speaking humans, like most metazoa, are sexually dimorphic and come in “male” and “female” varieties. So sexism took a real phenomenon and applied cultural dynamics to it; but that’s not what happened with racism. Insofar as there was a real phenomenon, it was extremely superficial—quite literally skin deep. In that respect, race is more like class—a categorization that is itself the result of social institutions.

To be clear: Does the fact that we don’t inherit moral responsibility from our ancestors absolve us from doing anything to rectify the inequities of racism? Absolutely not. Not only is there plenty of present discrimination going on we should be fighting, there are also inherited inequities due to the way that assets and skills are passed on from one generation to the next. If my grandfather stole a painting from your grandfather and both our grandfathers are dead but I am now hanging that painting in my den, I don’t owe you an apology—but I damn well owe you a painting.

The further we become from the past discrimination the harder it gets to make reparations, but all hope is not lost; we still have the option of trying to reset everyone’s status to the same at birth and maintaining equality of opportunity from there. Of course we’ll never achieve total equality of opportunity—but we can get much closer than we presently are.

We could start by establishing an extremely high estate tax—on the order of 99%—because no one has a right to be born rich. Free public education is another good way of equalizing the distribution of “human capital” that would otherwise be concentrated in particular families, and expanding it to higher education would make it that much better. It even makes sense, at least in the short run, to establish some affirmative action policies that are race-conscious and sex-conscious, because there are so many biases in the opposite direction that sometimes you must fight bias with bias.

Actually what I think we should do in hiring, for example, is assemble a pool of applicants based on demographic quotas to ensure a representative sample, and then anonymize the applications and assess them on merit. This way we do ensure representation and reduce bias, but don’t ever end up hiring anyone other than the most qualified candidate. But nowhere should we think that this is something that White men “owe” to women or Black people; it’s something that people should do in order to correct the biases that otherwise exist in our society. Similarly with regard to sexism: Women exhibit just as much unconscious bias against other women as men do. This is not “men” hurting “women”—this is a set of unconscious biases found in almost everywhere and social structures almost everywhere that systematically discriminate against people because they are women.

Perhaps by understanding that this is not about which “team” you’re on (which tribe you’re in), but what policy we should have, we can finally make these biases disappear, or at least fade so small that they are negligible.