Which principles of conscience should the law make exceptions for?

2012-02-15 (Wednesday) § 8 Comments

At first glance I was sympathetic to the position of the Catholic Church in this recent issue about requiring Catholic employers to include contraception among the benefits covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. But on further thought it seems wrong to me that principles of religious conscience should be respected in this matter in a way that irreligious conscience wouldn’t be.

Furthermore, if there’s to be any force in the idea of government requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees, then how can exceptions be made for the employers’ conscientious principles?

It seems to me that there are only the following possible positions to take on this:

  1. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  No exceptions.  Catholic employers have to cover contraception if they cover anything.  This forces Catholic employers to choose between offering no medical benefits or subsidizing services that they consider immoral.
  2. Government should not be able to place any requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Catholic employers don’t have to cover contraception.  This could have a lot of dangerous consequences by allowing employers to select what benefits they cover based on interests other than the medical needs of those covered.
  3. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  Exceptions for benefits that violate the conscientious principles of the employers.  Any employer can refuse to cover anything on this basis.  So the requirements have force only insofar as a) the government can show that a given employer really doesn’t have the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the government), or b) the employer fails to show that they really have to the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the employer).  It might be pretty hard to come up with any reasonable way of showing either thing.
  4. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Exceptions for benefits that violate the religious principles of the employers, but not for principles outside of religion.  This strikes me as a government endorsement of religion.  It implies that religious moral principles are more important than irreligious ones.  I’m definitely not okay with this on the basis of my own conception of how government should work, and I think it also violates the 1st Amendment as the Supreme Court has so far interpreted it.

Comparing the downsides of each of these, I’m inclined to go with #1.  Maybe #3 if a workable test could be devised.

WINCS: A retreat

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

Okay, I was wrong.  Suffering isn’t the only thing that matters to me morally.  Happiness does too.  But not as much as suffering.  The thing that made this clear to me was the thought experiment about a button that would instantly and painlessly wipe out every suffering-capable entity (including me).  I couldn’t get myself to say I would push that button.  If worst individual non-consensual suffering is my only moral metric, then I should push that button even if only one entity somewhere is suffering just a tiny bit.  It would guarantee a WINCS of zero henceforth and forevermore.  That’s as low as it goes.  Since I don’t feel like a universe with no conscious entities at all is morally better even compared to one with a really low but nonzero WINCS, it can’t be that WINCS is the only relevant moral metric for me.

Below is a representation of how much each thing matters to me, using my favorite intellectual tool, the indifference curve.  The curved line here represents all the outcomes that are equally morally acceptable to me.  The idea is that as the WINCS increases, it requires a higher and higher greatest individual happiness to compensate for it morally.  Any point under the curve is morally acceptable to me, and any point above it is morally unacceptable.

Suffering vs happiness indifference curve

I made this graph with an awesome open-source vector image editor.

Now one thing left to specify is how much suffering and happiness (in vague terms) is represented by a given length on each axis.

Another is whether the curve approaches a horizontal asymptote as GIH increases and continues to rise indefinitely even if at a continually decreasing rate, or it actually reaches a 0 slope (flattens out).  If it does reach 0 slope, that means there’s some amount of individual suffering such that no amount of individual happiness makes it okay to me.  I’m inclined to say there is.

Now about that universal euthanasia button.  With the graph the way I’ve set it up, the origin point (zero WINCS, zero GIH) is morally equivalent to any point on or below the curve, but morally better than any point above it.  That means if I have the button in front of me and I’m in a situation represented by any point above the curve, I should push the button, since doing so will result in a morally better situation.  I think I’m okay with that.  I can imagine a situation where some entity is suffering so badly that I’d rather instantly extinguish all conscious life than allow that suffering to continue.

Poll: What are your undemocratic principles?

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 3 Comments

What laws or public policies do you want in your society even if a democratic majority opposes them?  I don’t have an answer yet.  Still thinking about it.

Keynes says you don’t know what’s about to hit you

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or be could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

from the introduction of The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, describing the privileged lives of middle- and upper-class Londoners in the early 20th century.

Bold added.  Most of this excerpt at a glance strikes me as true of my own people today, Americans of the early 21st century.  I think, or I hope, that the bold part is untrue of at least a significant minority of us.  We have a considerable awareness of the influence of politics, military conflict and trade policy on our daily lives.  I’m not sure how much comfort that should be if it’s true, though.  It depends on what the dangers are.

This book is Keynes’ warning that the Treaty of Versailles would bring disaster on Europe, and WWII proved him right.  Maybe as I continue through the book I’ll find out that his reasons for thinking so don’t have parallels in my own country and time.  I’m pretty sure that even if the unwise actions of those Europeans do have parallels today, the dangers today will be different.  A global or even a continental war between great powers is hard to imagine today.  There are too many interests threatened by such a prospect and too few served.  Whatever dangers we face, they’re likely to be international in origin and not driven by a few specific governments.

John Rawls: Everyday morality isn’t simple to explain

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 8 Comments

A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language.  In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which make the same discriminations as the native speaker.  This undertaking is known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge.  A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory.  There is no reason to assume that our sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles.  A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well.

from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (revised edition), pp 41-42.

I like this comparison, although I think familiar common-sense precepts are more useful for moral theory than the ad-hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge are for syntactic theory.  Telling people not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition does nothing to explain why  “the go store I need” is a sentence of English you’ll never hear from a native speaker.  Telling people to do to others what they want done to them will go some distance to explain why we judge physical assault as immoral in most cases.  Of course that’s just some raw material for a theory.  There’s lots and lots of work to be done after that.

Poll: Wealth in US governance and politics

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

Without making any commitments about the means, would you endorse the goal of bringing the correlation between personal wealth of a US citizen and that citizen’s influence on election outcomes and public policy down to a level ascribable to chance?  Or to put it less mathematically, would you endorse the goal of making it so that a US citizen’s personal wealth doesn’t give her any more influence on election outcomes and public policy?

I would.  I think if having a lot of material wealth gives you more influence on legislation and more say about who gets elected to public office, that’s a bad thing.

What are some non-self-serving reasons to think otherwise?

Here it is as an actual poll:

Will globalization make us meet in the middle?

2012-01-31 (Tuesday) § 2 Comments

When goods and information can move quickly, cheaply and easily from any part of the world to any other, is it possible for the labor classes of different countries to indefinitely enjoy very different standards of living?

Right now we do.  Nominal currency amounts aside, working people of average means in the US, Canada or western Europe can afford goods and services of both higher quantity and quality than working people of average means in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, or South America.

Famously, this contributes to a lower cost of labor in the latter places, and when that labor is sufficiently qualified compared to its more expensive alternatives in the developed world, employers fire the Americans or Canadians and move shop to China or the Philippines.  This is an old phenomenon by now.

Is there a way this kind of movement can go on indefinitely without standard of living rising for the cheap workers and falling for the expensive workers?  It seems anecdotally like this is already happening.  I read that Chinese factory labor is getting more expensive (or to talk about people as if they were people, Chinese people who work in factories are getting better wages and ancillary benefits).  I also hear constant talk in the United States about how job security and limited work hours are luxuries that will slowly bankrupt us nationally if we try to maintain them.

If the gradual convergence of standards of living between the working classes of different countries is an inevitable consequence of easy global trade flows, is there a way we can see that as a good thing for the richer working classes?  If it’s not, should we get mad and vote for protectionist trade policies?  Or should we just sigh and take it?

If economists are already arguing over these specific questions, I’d love to be directed to where I can follow the arguments.