The optimal size of a moral community

If abortion is universally wrong, then it doesn’t matter what one’s beliefs about it are, its always wrong everywhere ((This post is slightly adapted from a post I made to a discussion group)). Some argue for Federalism and they say people could move to the jurisdiction that has an ethical system parsimonious to their individual beliefs. If abortion is universally evil then its not clear how moving jurisdictions changes that. Do we have the obligation to oppose evil acts (what else are ethics for but to force particular behaviors in others?) ONLY when they occur in our particular jurisdiction? Federalism is incompatible with all ethics being universal.

Now, what if ethics aren’t universal truths but just preferences over moral outcomes? For example, I might prefer abortion to be considered by my community to be morally wrong (over morally right or morally ambivalent) or I might prefer helping the weak to be considered morally right. Abortion isn’t universally evil and helping the weak isn’t universally good; I just prefer my community to believe abortion is wrong and helping the weak, right. This suggests, like other types of preferences and in contrast to universal ethical laws, preferences over morals can differ between people. In fact, Federalism only makes sense when you believe ethical preferences can differ between people. The possibility of different ethical rules for different sets of people can only exist if there’s heterogeneity of preferences over moral outcomes ((abstracting from differences in wealth between communities… some ethical rules, like “just” war, may be inferior goods)). If there were no differences in preferences, there wouldn’t be the need for Federalism. The world government would just busy itself recording universal moral laws into the world constitution.

There are problems with Federalism, though. If different States can have different rules reflecting the variety of ethical preferences between States, then counties within States can have different rules reflecting the variety of ethical preferences between counties. And if counties need different rules, then so do cities. And if cities do then so do neighborhoods, households and finally individual people. People have different preferences over abortion, so if you’re ok with States having different rules about abortion, then you’re ok with individuals having different rules about it. In other words, States are as arbitrary a choice of moral community as the nation is and so an argument for Federalism can be used to argue for even greater granularity in the size of moral communities. In the limit, arguments for Federalism are arguments for individual ethics.

Take something that is clearly a moral preference rather than universal moral law; abortion for instance. As I said above, arguments for letting States, rather than the nation, decide the issue can be used to argue individuals, rather than communities, should decide the issue. So abortion is a decision for the individual woman to make. The problem here is that people that feel strongly against abortion are harmed deeply by its occurrence. This is in the nature of moral preferences. We feel very strongly when our preferences aren’t met, even by strangers; there are negative externalities generated by people that don’t follow our preferred ethics. Now, on the flip side, the woman having the abortion obviously gets some benefit from doing so otherwise she wouldn’t have the operation done and clearly she doesn’t find it unethical.

The point of the ethical community on the abortion issue is to balance the negative externalities of abortions with the benefits to women who get the procedure done. The larger the ethical community the more people who are forced to act according to its ethics and the lower the negative externalities. In other words, the benefits of living in the community increase as the size of the community increases. On the flip side of the coin, the more people in the community the more likely any one member’s ethical preferences will come in conflict with the community’s. Thus, there’s a trade-off between size and respecting individuals’ preferences. The optimal size of the ethical community is the size of the community where the costs are exactly balanced by the benefits. For some issues, e.g. slavery, this optimal size is the nation and for other issues, e.g. age of consent, its the State. There may be other issues for which the optimal community size is the city, the individual or even the whole world.

One problem with this analysis is that people tend to see their ethical preferences as universal ethical truths. I don’t just prefer abortions to be thought of as wrong, I know they’re wrong! Pragmatically though, I know that this *can’t* be a universal ethical truth because I know other people have different beliefs about abortion and I know views on abortion have changed over the ages. That said, I can’t help but feel like abortions are universally wrong ((Thanks to the Catholic Church for this one.)).

It seems, though, that this belief that our preferences reflect universal truth is important for binding ethical communities together. If the function of ethical communities is to force behavior on people (via physical force or just shunning), then its seems like the belief that ethical preferences are universal truths makes it easier for people to enforce those ethics. I imagine it would be hard for one to physically prevent women from getting abortions if they didn’t think those women were violating some universal law but just optimizing their preferences.

3 thoughts on “The optimal size of a moral community”

  1. It’s not just a question of being more conservative than other communities with your ethics, but also of being more liberal.

    Say you’re against abortion, for example, and you’re willing to code that prohibition into law. Would you also be against eating meat, or drinking alcohol? How about working on the sabbath? Tolerating homosexuals? Living under the same roof as a woman having her menses? Some cultures are much more conservative than ours.

    This shared belief in universal truths seems like the recipe for violent conflict when opposing groups meet. What better cause than smiting the unbelievers? It seems that this unprecedented period of peace we live in coincides with unprecedented tolerance.

  2. Federalism can also be seen as a form of stalemate between parties that know that they can’t overrun each other with force. Morality doesn’t require mutual destruction, even if it might require that you fight, to the best of your ability, the crimes of others.

    Your point would have been much more forceful if you’d have structured your post more. As it is, it’s hard to get a grip on what you mean.

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