Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for May, 2011

Self-Ownership for Nations

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2011

Individual liberty makes sense as a means to collective gain: allowing individual persons as much freedom as possible can benefit the greater good. How does the concept of individual liberty apply to countries?

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Posted in Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

The Mistake of Immorality

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 15, 2011

There is a line that divides ethical schools into two different groups: negative ethics and positive ethics. Negative ethics is the more common type: it holds that certain actions are immoral, and will not be tolerated; some actions may be moral, but there is no imperative to do what is right, only an imperative not to do what is wrong. This is how the justice system works: you are not rewarded for good deeds (usually—there are a few counter-examples, but they are minor), only punished for bad ones. There is no punishment for failing to do a good deed: if you see a child drowning you have no legal obligation to save her.

Positive ethics frowns upon immoral actions, but also acknowledges moral actions. A positive ethical framework would consider it morally wrong not to save a drowning child. The problem that many people have with this is that it applies universally. You have an obligation to that starving child on the other side of the world just as much as you do to the drowning child right in front of you.

People don’t like this. Nobody wants to be obligated to help total strangers with whom they have no contact. A person can feel his obligation to someone nearby who is in imminent danger. But to someone halfway across the world? There is plenty of suffering around the world, and relatively affluent people have the capacity to do something about it just as much as they have the capacity to help a drowning child. There is no difference other than proximity. Still, when people are obligated to alleviate worldwide suffering, they feel overburdened. They do not want to have to face that much responsibility.

Since they don’t want to feel guilty about all the suffering that they’re not trying to prevent, they reject positive ethics entirely. They decide that they really don’t have an obligation after all. (I postulate that this is the primary reason why people reject positive ethics.)

This rejection of positive ethics stems from a misunderstanding of the implications of immorality. The unavoidable consequence of positive ethics is that people behave immorally by failing to relieve suffering. People are doing something wrong, but this does not make them bad people and it does not mean they should be punished.

It is an unfortunate consequence of modern society that punishment is so ubiquitous a response to breaches of good moral conduct. (Punishments were a lot worse five hundred years ago so we’re getting better about this, but there’s still a long way to go.) There are a few reasons why punitive justice is sometimes a good idea (deterrence probably being the most prominent one), but there are plenty of circumstances in which the response to immorality should not be punishment. Failing to prevent suffering is one of these circumstances. A society in which people are required by law to spend most of their time helping others would not be a good society to live in—there would be benefits, but it would be far too oppressive and the damage done would outweigh the benefits.

Many people are unwilling to admit that it is immoral not to help those who are suffering because they are afraid that to make such an admission would be to concede that they should be punished for not helping those who are suffering. But punishment should not be the response to immorality in this case.

Another problem that gets in people’s way of accepting positive ethics is guilt. Even if people know they won’t be punished for failing to do good deeds, they still will feel guilty about it.

Here, people need not feel guilty. Guilt is only beneficial if it motivates action, but guilt is not often a very good motivator—even when it is effective, it often motivates the wrong kind of action. A truly rational person who accepts positive ethics will try to do the most good possible with her available resources, while a guilty person will just try to get rid of his guilt by whatever means he can—which is why so many ineffectual charities continue to thrive.

In the real world, people are not perfectly moral entities. As such, it is unreasonable to expect that they will be perfectly moral all the time, or even anywhere close. People should not be punished for failing to do what is right, nor should they feel guilty.

What reason, then, do people have to act in the interest of the greater good when it is inconvenient to do so?

Those of us who determine rationally that the best course of action is to work towards the greater good can start to learn to make small sacrifices that have powerful effects in terms of increasing the welfare of the world. A commitment to a completely ethical life would have a profound impact on the world, but it would be profoundly difficult. A more practical solution is to follow something like weekday vegetarianism in all aspects of life. You may acknowledge that eating meat is harmful; perhaps you don’t want to give up eating meat entirely, but you can give it up five days a week and still happily indulge yourself on the weekends, and that’s 70% as good as full-time vegetarianism. Perhaps you would rather spend money on personal luxuries than on food for starving children, so you can set aside a portion of your budget for luxuries and another portion for charitable donations. There are many areas of life to which this principle may be applied.

Positive ethics do not demand that people behave ethically every moment of every day. They only ask that you take steps in that direction; any such step is commendable.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Doing the Most Good

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 14, 2011

The field of charity assessment is growing in popularity. Sites like Charity Navigator evaluate the efficiency of charities by examining what percentage of their funds go directly to where they’re needed. These sorts of resources can tell you which charities are the most efficient in a monetary sense, but can’t tell you which do the most good.

Other sources such as the Copenhagen Consensus determine the most important global challenges. The Copenhagen Consensus tells which global problems are the most impactful and which are the cheapest to solve; what it does not say is how an individual like you or I can go about solving these problems. From the website, “Imagine you had $75bn to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do, and where should we start?” I certainly do not have $75 billion, and no direct access to many parts of the world where these problems are most prominent. Usually, the best thing an individual can do is donate to a charity that does have direct access.

The Copenhagen Consensus says nothing about which charities are the most effective at solving the world’s most significant challenges. An individual therefore has to do some independent research. One can combine the findings of a source like the Copenhagen Consensus with a site like Charity Navigator in order to find the best charities for the best causes.

This process, however, is still imperfect. Charity Navigator only evaluates how efficiently charities use their funds, not how well they use them. Two charities could both be working for the same cause—say, providing immunization for children—but one could be working in a more disease-prone area, or one could be using cheaper methods of vaccination.

That’s where GiveWell comes in. GiveWell is a website that evaluates charities more deeply by finding ones that fit four primary criteria: demonstrated impact, cost-effectiveness, scalability (“able to use more funds productively”), and transparency. These criteria quickly eliminate charities that are difficult to judge (i.e. not demonstrably impactful) or not transparent. The two more important criteria (in my opinion) are cost-effectiveness and scalability, which are discussed in depth on the GiveWell website.

The single most important criterion appears to be cost-effectiveness: “changing lives as much as possible for as little money as possible.” (They do point out that this criterion has its limitations, and it is not the only thing they consider.) They have sturdy estimates of what this means, and use it to determine which charities are actually doing the greatest good. Their charity assessments, while imperfect, appear to be about as good as a charity assessment can get.

GiveWell provides a list of its top recommended charities and gives a detailed description of why each is recommended. For the “Gold Medal” charity, VillageReach, GiveWell explains what it does, why it works, and how cost-effective it is (they estimate that it costs about $200 per life saved through VillageReach).

Unlike Charity Navigator, GiveWell says more about a charity than its efficiency. Unlike the Copenhagen Consensus, GiveWell recommends specific charities rather than general causes. Their conclusions are well-researched, although perhaps not as well-researched as the Copenhagen Consensus; therefore, I recommend looking at the Copenhagen Consensus to determine which causes are the most important and then using GiveWell to find the best organization that contributes to that cause.

More and better resources are being developed to help donors decide how to use their money. GiveWell is not perfect, but it is the best resource out there right now and everyone who is thinking about using their money to do some good should take a look at it.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics | 1 Comment »

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