Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ethics at a distance

I recently read a blog post  talking about the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics:
The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.
Jai then goes on to list a bunch of examples which it would probably be worth your while to read through but that's the important part there.  It's a thing I had noticed before in a few places.  Here's a short passage from Debt: The First 5000 Years:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that "natives" operated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis.
That sounds really weird to modern ears but there's some important logic to it.  You or I interact with complete strangers every day.  If there isn't any state that enforces laws on everybody within its boundaries then meeting with strangers is a dangerous business.  So everybody you interact with is going to be a neighbor or relative and generally people share more than people who live in states do, especially if they're hunter gatherers rather than farmers.  And if saving someone's life makes you no longer a stranger and the person is much wealthier than you then it makes sense to want them to give you their knife.

And of course that's no serious issue.  The rescuer was still free to refuse and to eventually go home on their own.  And the rescuee is still alive even if they're being rejected.  In the long history of cultural conflicts brought about by European colonialism this is barely worth mentioning in terms of impact but I think it illustrates the issue rather well.

And of course there are some much bigger issues in the world where our desire to not interact with evil can cause trouble.  The first example that springs to mind for me is the anti-sweatshop movement.  As Krugman pointed out in his famous article the conditions of people who work in sweatshops are almost invariably worse before they get their sweatshop jobs.  It's perfectly natural to feel worse about someone slaving away for something you use then about that same person having an even worse time with no relation to you.  But if we want to make the world a better place our reaction to the knowledge that the people who made our clothes suffered shouldn't be to cut our connection to them.

And of course I can relate this to my hobby horse of immigration too.  People often cite the cost of immigration in terms of government support or letting in people who might vote foolishly.  But as Bryan Caplan argues:

If immigrants hurt German workers, Merkel can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden German taxpayers, Merkel can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt German culture, Merkel can impose tests of German fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt German liberty, Merkel can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.
This is true but of course we all quail in horror at the idea of keeping people as second class citizens in our countries.  It might be objectively less harsh but that's not how it feels to us because the people we would be denying things to would now be close to us and clearly our problem whereas if we just kept them out of the country they'd be far away and the problem of other nations just as much as ours.

And of course those two examples are things aligned with my own politics.  I'm sure there must be ways in which I fail prey to this that my biases prevent me from seeing.  All I can do is watch myself for this and hope to avoid it in the future.

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