More reasons why we should treat morals as ethical preferences

Economists don’t know where preferences come from. They might come from god or culture or genes. Whatever. We don’t care. ((Or we do but we’re just not paid to care.))

If preferences are more or less constant within individuals over relatively short periods of time, it doesn’t matter where they come from. If people optimize over preferences today, resulting in some behavior, they will behave the same way tomorrow when optimizing over the same preferences ((Yes, framing matters. But there’s a fix for this: just extend the product space to include frames… I like apples on Tuesday, but oranges on Wednesday; I prefer apple-Tuesdays and orange-Wednesdays.)). The pragmatic case for taking preferences as the primitive objects of analysis is just that they’re so powerful at predicting behavior and doing policy analysis.

Treating morals as preferences over how one wants other people to act sidesteps moral reasoning (i.e. consideration of what are the correct morals) and allows for analysis to focus on predicting behavior or on policy issues.

Moral reasoning is important and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done. As Haidt points out, though, it is often done by white upper-middle class liberals and as such reflects the moral intuitions of that particular sub-culture. The universe of moral intuitions is much broader and, more importantly, some of those non-white, non-upper middle class, non-liberal moral intuitions are held by people that don’t feel the need to rationalize or vocalize moral intuitions. Why should extra weight be given to those moral intuitions that happen to have been articulated best?

In any case, the point is that moral reasoning is tangential to many of the policy issues we’re interested in such as the optimal size of moral communities. Why not abstract away from the issues moral reasoning raises if given the opportunity?

PS – I know that I’ve been a bit cryptic on some of these topics. I’m a little busy ramping up to teach a course this summer and finishing my first chapter in my dissertation (fingers crossed). I hope to circle back to these issues, fleshing out them when I do.

7 thoughts on “More reasons why we should treat morals as ethical preferences”

  1. I tried to post a comment but it got lost (I think). Your OpenID thingy is broken.

    A few points:

    * For consumers you have revealed preference and for firms you have profit maximization (at least to a first order approximation) … what do you have for preferences over world states?

    * Assuming that you would know these preferences, you can then look for Pareto improvements (mostly unproblematic) but the major issues in moral-political philosophy are not compatible with Pareto improvements but regard, specifically, conflicts of interests/preferences.

    * How do the negative results in social choice impact this approach?

    Disclaimer: I haven’t watched the bloggingheads.

    Anyway, for scientific/predictive purposed you can look for WARP (and its violations) but that settles NOTHING in terms of prescription/normativity/moral dilemmas.

  2. Doesn’t some form of moral reasoning take place within religious institutions? Every mature religious institution I can think of is well known for constant internal debate. They’re just working from a different primary source.

    Even an archetypal Moral Institution (capital M capital I) like the Catholic Church bears little resemblance to its incarnation in the 16th century. This would not be possible without ongoing internal debate and restructuring. This could not take place if they were working from Inviolate Holy Scriptures (capital I, H, S). For that matter, isn’t religion, by definition, the art of vocalizing moral intuition?

  3. Gabriel, I agree that fighting over who’s preferences are right is the primary mode of thinking about morals. My point is that it seems there’s a lot of policy questions that can be hammered out (e.g. the extent of federalism or the existence of universal or meta-morals that enable a diversity of moral systems) without specific reference to particular moral preferences. Many of those policies involve issues of aggregation so, yeah, its an opportunity to revisit those results.

    swong, That’s true but its always the priests and never the parishioners doing the moralizing. In any case, I think the evolution of the church itself is an interesting subject of study. Why does a “catholic” church evolve?

  4. Catholic, Zen Buddhist, Orthodox Jewish, Shiite Islam, whatever.

    I think when a large enough group of parishioners start moralizing on their own, they tend to split off and form their own church. Sometimes this split is even precipitated by clergy: Lutheranism and Sunni Islam come to mind.

    It definitely seems that the major moral frameworks have a lot of overlap. This makes sense. If the behaviors prescribed by their core morals didn’t do more net good than harm, they never would have survived past fringe status. Us humans being the same species and all, the survival behaviors of different groups of humans won’t generally be too different.

    Short answer on church evolution? Lately, technology. Before that, human migration and trade. New situations = new norms. That’s just an educated guess. Why don’t all religions end up with the same moral framework? I dunno, why aren’t all fish the same shape?

  5. That’s an answer like someone outside the religion would give. The believer actually believes in the catholic nature of their religion (or at least some parts of its dogma).

    We can do this sort of analysis for all morals and norms. Treating ideas (aka norms aka morals or whatever) themselves as primitives helps to explain the evolutionary stuff you’re talking about. Why does one norm survive over another norm or why it grow in concert with another norm requires looking at the particular attributes of the norm just as looking at the attributes of genes helps explain their evolutionary history (ideas are more complex than genes, though, as they can change within their host during his lifetime and they’re not always competing with other norms in the same way genes do with other genes).

    But abstracting away from the particular norms themselves and just talking about norms as preferences (as given and constant) allow us to do a different type of analysis. The most obvious area to me to study are aggregation issues — how do people trade off the fact that they derive utility from controlling other’s behavior with the fact that others’ morals bind their own actions.

  6. Hence our rich vocabulary for heretics, blasphemers, unbelievers, etc.

    Can aggression toward other norms, itself, be a norm? Some cultural frameworks are inherently more tolerant than others.

    I agree with your speculation about abstraction. I wonder if a good area of investigation could be examining deviant behavior within highly conservative or orthodox communities. There’s incentive to “cheat” if your preferences don’t match the community norms. I bet things get really interesting when widespread cheating becomes an open secret.

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