Saturday, January 28, 2012

Something is wrong!

[Guest post by Don Geddis.  Fifth in a series (0, 1, 2, 3, 4).]

Coby  asked a number of excellent questions.  In my last post, I replied with an abstract explanation about morality and fairness.  But it occurred to me that it might help to attempt to answer concretely as well.

Coby said:
Let us know if you think life in a Chinese factory may be hard and sound miserable to us, but it is not a symptom of something wrong with an economic system.  Does the existence of hungry, sick and desperately poor people mean something needs fixing in a society?
I find words like "need" and "ought" to be more confusing than helpful, when trying to discuss public policy.  It often leads to bad reasoning chain along the lines of, "something needs to be done ... this is something ... therefore, let's do this."
No matter how bad last season's crops were, witch burnings are a poor policy response.  [Julian Sanchez]
The question that really needs to be asked is, "does this action result in a better or worse overall society in the long run?"  It's basically the difference between "signalling" that you care, vs. actually accomplishing something.

Yes, of course I feel terrible about the hard life of Chinese factory workers, and it feels unfair that they live that hard life just so that I can play Angry Birds on my iPhone.  Surely I would be willing to give up that stupid game, if somehow I could thereby give the Chinese workers more to eat.  That seems "fair", doesn't it?

But you have to decide whether you're asking a question about how my fallible internal inconsistent moral intuition works, or whether you're asking about what public policy would result in a better future world.  Those are very different questions.

If you're asking about my intuition, about how I "feel", there's a lot we actually know about how people feel.  I (and most other people) care more about current Chinese alive today, than about the suffering of those fifty or a thousand years ago.  Is that just because I can't do anything about the past?  Not really.  I don't much care about a random Chinese citizen a thousand years from today, either.  I would care more if a co-worker, that I saw every day in person, had a relative who worked in one of those factories.  Does it really make moral sense that the rightness or wrongness of the lives suffering in the factories, depends on whether I happen to encounter a related co-worker or not?  What a strange morality it would be, if that were objective truth.  But it makes perfect sense as a fallible (but often correct) quick heuristic.

Why do I care more about income inequality in the US, and the fate of the US poor, than I do about the poor citizens of whole nations like Bangladesh, or the local provinces in India that have more humans in poverty than the entire population of the United States?  Why do we care at all about US income inequality, when the poorest 5% of the US is richer than 68% of the world, and in fact the richest Indians (as a group) have approximately as much wealth as the poorest Americans?

I, like everyone else, wishes I could live in a world that I designed, without pain and suffering and just happiness and joy.  But if wishes were horses... Instead, the actual universe is filled with all sorts of horrible things, not necessarily even involving humans!  How horrible is it when hyenas eat a baby elephant alive, that was stuck in the mud?  Rip off its trunk, munch away as it screams in pain?  Or orcas drowning and eating a whale calf?  Or lions slaughtering a baby giraffe by suffocating it, and eating it alive as it slowly dies?  You want me to worry about some humans being offered a job in a Chinese factory, when horrible suffering is happening every day in the animal world?

It makes me sad to see the live baby giraffe, slowly suffocating as the lion clamps its jaws around the throat and slowly squeezes.  That's how I "feel".  Yet, intellectually, I realize that this has happened to trillions of animals over hundreds of millions of years.  And really, there's nothing I can do about it.  (Although these amusing people disagree!)

But none of this really matters.  All that matters is: what choices do you have in front of you?  And which ones will result in a better future world?

The main caution I would offer, is the danger of being satisfied with mere signalling.  Most people in public policy debates ignore unintended consequences, and are happy with just the surface idea that they saw something "wrong", and then "did something" about it.  But the real intent is not to actually improve the world; instead, it is to feel good about oneself, so that they can chat with friends and say "I didn't buy an iPhone because I heard about their Chinese workers!"  And the joy they get out of feeling smug and superior.

Don't take the easy way out.  Most of what is wrong in the world, nobody can do anything about.  Of the tiny fraction that could be changed, the easiest thing to do is just to publicly announce your sympathies, but not actually improve the world.  If there's something you really care about, then do the hard work of figuring out how to actually make it better.

But words like "right" and "need" and "ought" aren't very useful (to figuring out what to do).  Those are words of persuasion and intuition, and distract you from the hard real analysis.


Anonymous said...

In Time is a sci-fi movie about a future society in which life time is the currency. I think we can see it as a metaphor about our society, based on the equivalence "time is money". Following this isomorphism shows that indeed what we trade is time.

Jorge Fernandes said...

after Ron and Cody posed quite straightforward remarks regarding the nature of work I still could not get from your answers any clear position. You seem to insinuate at the same time that you care (however you want to interpret it) about your neighbours and that this care can be extended to the level of a nation because in the long run it translates into a better live quality (or value) for you and your keen, but at the same time you try to justify not caring (in the sense of not doing anything about it) to what happens with a chinese factory worker because somehow in the long run, if not the worker himself then maybe its keen or china are going to be better off. Where is your argument to justify that in the long run the chinese worker is better off? And what about the workers in your country, how are they better off in the long run if the standard work practices in china are going to eventually get closer to the chinese standard, i.e., lower than the present US level? And why could I not make a case for reintroducing slavery using your argumentation? After all, a slave might have better material and objective conditions than any free person having to fend off for itself...
Thanks for your reply,