Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Moral Argument Part I- A Framework

At some point most everyone with an opinion on our current economic situation defers to a moral position. The use of the term moral is applied in many ways. One way is to see certain interventions being considered as leading to moral hazard ,sort of the "two wrongs dont make a right" morality. Another way is to see certain actions on the part of different economic actors as immoral and thusly the cause of all this, a type of "money is the root of all evil" morality. Still a third way is to view our economy as something separate from our human actions that actually has moral intuitions to it. The "market" is described as some sort of perfect vehicle for bringing our wants and needs into fruition, using our capacity and efforts as a way to determine what we deserve. When we use the market purely everything works but when we try to manipulate the market the results are never what we hope for. I dont have a catchy name for this but it assumes that a market is completely amoral and punishes all people equally, playing no favorites and that only people,usually in the form of governments, make immoral/moral decisions. Markets are pure people are not.

I'm interested in what is at the heart of these moral arguments. Finding a framework to look at validity of morality claims. I find moral arguments very persuasive because they get to, I think, the heart of what we as humans are about (social creatures trying to survive and needing people we both like and dislike in order to do so). However the use of the term moral is often times thrown out quite loosely and is frequently used as way to discourage further questioning. I've seen many people simply comment that they object to a certain considered policy or suggestion on moral grounds without any further elucidation. It is used in much the same way a person objects on religious grounds and we are not "allowed" to question their religion.

Moral arguments always mean "I dont like it". So at their core they are about human satisfaction. There may be numerous reasons why they dont like it but when morality is invoked you can be sure we are dealing with dissatisfaction about something.
So morality must be about increasing satisfaction, at some level. It may not be about immediate satisfaction. It may involve longer term satisfaction but somewhere there is satisfaction.

If its NOT about human satisfaction then I'm not sure I care about it.


  1. Like "capital," the word "moral" has many different meanings. It is good you deal with this ambiguity; it helps me understand your concerns. I like that you tie meanings to "two wrongs don't make a right" and "money is the root of all evil." But I get lost in your third type, the one without a "catchy name."

    Second paragraph opens with great clarity, and I really like the "I find moral arguments very persuasive because..." part of it.

    I think maybe you are making a connection between morality and economics via satisfaction. It never occurred to me there might be a connection there. I'm not convinced, but I'm thinkin you're not done.


  2. Yeah I wasnt totally satisfied with my efforts here but Im trying to take your advice and just get snippets of my thoughts down and maybe slowly develop my Magnum Opus. Its better than trying to store them just in my head which is my usual mo. My head is getting quite crowded lately.

    Where I was going with my third type of moral argument is the pervasive idea amongst some (not that I totally dismiss it) that our universe is biased towards morality in a way that if we just leave it alone we can just ride along to this perfect place that is waiting for us. That all we can do is corrupt and not improve our universe. I say I dont totally dismiss this because I actually have some sympathy for part one of that premise, that our universe is biased towards morality. Where I part with that view is that we are only corrupters. Imperfect agents only capable of fucking things up and we are silly and arrogant to think we should try to meddle with the inherent perfection of our universe. I dont see us THAT way at all.

    For many in economic discussions, I think you can substitute markets for universe

    And Im just gettin' warmed up!!!!

  3. Yeah, and substitute "invisible hand" for the catchy phrase you need. I don't know if that's quite right for your Type Three moral argument. But both the post and your comment brought it to mind.

    My head is getting quite crowded lately.

    That's funny... but I know what you mean. Sometimes I avoid reading stuff, and even keep the radio off in the car to minimize the amount of "noise" that competes with my own thoughts. My best time is often early morning, when I've had all night with my thoughts and the house to myself because people and even dogs like to sleep...

  4. Invisible hand! Of course! Our old friend Adam Smith.

    I really think that sometimes I'm suffering early Alzheimers, because sometimes some of the simplest most common words or phrases escape my language. Things which Ive said a thousand times before can suddenly seem like I'm trying to speak a foreign language... its bizarre and a little frustrating. Its not as bad when writing as speaking.


  5. Ouch. As for myself, I prefer to attribute such lapses of memory to the drinking...

    On the invisible hand thing: there is this site (maybe you've seen it) Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, where pretty much every post rejects the modern interpretation of the invisible hand, and tries to get at what Smith was really getting at.

    As it is used today, the invisible hand seems to be a very strong moral argument. Maybe Gavin Kennedy's alternative perspective will be useful to you.