Why the minimum wage is like free trade

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Much like the debate on the minimum wage, the Darvaza gas crater fire has been raging for decades and shows no sign of abatement

Over the last week or so, Ontario’s scheduled minimum wage hike has sparked a new round of debate on the wisdom of this policy, and in a column at the National Post, Andrew Coyne has reiterated his preference for a guaranteed minimum income rather than a minimum wage. The column is worth reading, but his conclusion should be rejected.

Coyne’s reasoning is that raising the minimum wage can end up hurting some of the people it is meant to help. If it becomes more expensive to employ people, then some people who would otherwise have low-paying employment will end up having no employment at all. Raising the minimum wage may well increase overall labour income, he admits, but gains for those who are lucky enough to keep their jobs do not justify the burdens imposed on those who lose out. If minimum wage hikes were the only means available to increase the incomes of poorly paid workers, then we might face a real dilemma. Fortunately, he points out, this is not the only means available. Supplementing workers’ low pay with a basic income scheme would achieve the same goal without unfairly burdening the worst off. Given our collective refusal to pursue this alternative, minimum wage supporters’ indignant rhetoric about greedy employers seems hypocritical.

I agree with some of the points Coyne raises, especially where he invokes sound Rawlsian principles holding that the well-being of the worst off should be our paramount concern, the aggregate benefits of a policy do not cancel out the burdens imposed on actual individuals, and the task of ensuring a decent standard of living for all is a job for the basic structure of society as a whole rather than employers in particular. However, Coyne’s conclusion should be resisted, because these principles are not incompatible with the minimum wage as such; they can easily be reconciled by implementing a minimum income scheme alongside a minimum wage.

Coyne’s reluctance to address this third option is puzzling, especially because the kind of dilemma he points out is extremely common. He even points out a comparable situation himself: free trade. Increased competition in open markets promotes innovation and leads to lower prices for consumers; while the overall gains can be substantial, however, so too may be the costs to the worst off. Even if we assign absolute priority to the interests of the worst off, however, we are not obligated to erect trade barriers to shield them from these costs. Instead, we can redistribute some of the gains from free trade in the form of cash transfers and active labour market policies, thereby maintaining or improving the situation of the worst off without having to forgo the benefits of a more open domestic market.

The analogy between free trade and the minimum wage is appropriate because Coyne grants the validity of a Bank of Canada finding that minimum wage hikes will increase labour income overall. Coyne does not contest that this is a legitimate policy goal; his objection is just that this goal must not be pursued at the expense of the worst off. But he does not consistently apply the principles his argument invokes.

A Rawlsian focus on the basic structure works both ways; the obligation to ensure a decent standard of living for all doesn’t fall on employers or the government in particular, and specific responsibilities arising from this more general obligation may be assigned to either of them depending on what division of responsibilities would result in the best overall basic structure consistent with the requirements of justice. A basic structure that secures a decent standard of living for all and increases overall labour income by assigning employers the responsibility to pay a minimum wage and assigning government the responsibility to provide a basic income is preferable to one that achieves only one of these objectives. Coyne — and the rest of us — ought to support both of these policies, not try to pick one or the other.

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Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

primeThe ultimate basis of Optimus Prime’s authority is egalitarian rather than meritocratic, and if it’s good enough for giant alien robots it’s good enough for me

In a post at the LSE blog (adapted from one of his books), Danny Dorling criticizes gaping inequality as a threat to the moral sentiments (feelings of sympathy and kindness towards one’s fellows, for example, which reflect the obligations we owe to them) and the welfare state. Although Dorling makes several sharp observations about some of the negative consequences of extreme inequality, his complaint that extreme inequality fails to respect the value of persons misses the mark:

The 1 per cent, by definition, will always be those taking the largest slice, but not always such a great fat slice, leaving slithers [sic] for the rest. Question those who say that it can only be this way. Try to question them kindly rather than with incredulity. A society based on merit would be remarkably equitable compared with what we face today. No one is worth 3,000 times another person. The three-thousand fold inequalities within the 1 per cent are just as indefensible as those between them and the other 99 per cent.

As this passage makes clear, the basis of Dorling’s complaint is meritocratic, not egalitarian. On this view, it seems, each person has a cash value that varies according to individual merit, and people ought to be paid according to their cash value. Some people are more meritorious than others, and so should receive higher pay; a person who is twice as valuable as another should have their salary doubled, for example. But in our society, the richest people can earn thousands of times more money than the poorest. This cannot be justified by Dorling’s meritocratic criterion, because (plausibly) no one is worth thousands of times more than anyone else.

This is not a very satisfying line of reasoning, for three reasons. First, the inequalities that Dorling is prepared to accept seem likely to have the same deleterious effects on the moral sentiments and the welfare state as the inequalities he objects to. If I believe I am, at the fundamental level, worth twice as much as another individual, I am unlikely to regard them as sympathetically as someone just as valuable as or more valuable than me. The fact that they are fundamentally worth less than others means that they are less deserving of my sympathy than others. Likewise, if I believe that the economic system has been arranged on a meritocratic basis so that each person gets at least roughly what they are worth (again, in a fundamental sense), it is difficult to see why I should support the welfare state; it would seem as though each person already receives what they deserve, so social spending would involve taking from the deserving and giving to the undeserving. If concerns about the moral sentiments and the welfare state are part of the reason why Dorling objects to extreme inequality, then, they are also reasons to object to the milder meritocratic inequalities Dorling’s view supports.

The second problem with the meritocratic view is that it requires the state to make intrusive, degrading and presumptuous assessments of each individual’s worth. There is even more at stake here than the ability to sympathize with one’s fellows. Democratic, liberal states are defined by a commitment to essentially egalitarian norms within the political sphere, including the equal weighting of votes and a system of equal basic rights and liberties. But to maintain meritocratic inequalities in the economic sphere, the state would also have to commit to a set of essentially inegalitarian norms operating alongside the egalitarian norms of liberal democracy. This arrangement seems unstable to me; I think it is extremely unlikely that the state can sustain a full commitment to both of these fundamentally incompatible sets of basic norms at the same time. After all, if some people are viewed as being worth less than others in a fundamental sense, it is not clear why there should be a commitment to egalitarian norms in any sphere. I also find it hard to believe that state’s determination of each person’s fundamental value could be effectively insulated from political influence. Even if it were possible for the state to accurately determine each person’s merit, there would be a powerful incentive for political factions to skew these determinations in favour of their own interests.

Finally, it is implausible that the fundamental value of a person is a cash value. Money itself is only instrumentally valuable. For something to be instrumentally valuable, it must be useful for some intrinsically or non-instrumentally valuable purpose. So what is the intrinsically valuable purpose for which money is useful? It is natural to think the answer is that having money is necessary for us to thrive. But if the fundamental value of ourselves is itself a monetary value, then the value of persons cannot provide the necessary grounding for the instrumental value of money. In the absence of any other plausible candidate for the source of money’s instrumental value, we must conclude that persons possess intrinsic value from which the instrumental value of money can be derived.

If the value of persons is intrinsic, does it follow that it must also be equal? Perhaps not. But what could account for inequality in the intrinsic value of persons? Instrumental considerations (such as a person’s usefulness for some purpose) and judgments of character are extrinsic factors — by definition, they cannot enhance or diminish one’s intrinsic value. Because we have already ruled out the dependence of morality on God’s commands, divine decrees cannot explain inequality in intrinsic value either. This leaves the possibility that variation in the value of persons could be a brute fact — a fact with no further basis, reason or explanation.

Allowing that there could be brute moral facts, however, would be inconsistent with much of the account of morality and moral knowledge provided in this series. Moral facts cannot be directly observed, and brute facts cannot be directly inferred. Brute moral facts, then, would be inaccessible to both reason and observation. Without confidence in any of our moral beliefs, we would have no grounds to believe in morality at all, and if there are brute moral facts, we could not have confidence in any of our moral beliefs. And if we have no grounds to believe in morality at all, then we certainly have no reason to believe that there are brute moral facts. It follows that belief in brute moral facts cannot be justified, and therefore inequality in the intrinsic value of persons cannot be a brute fact.

Having established the intrinsic value of persons and ruled out all possible bases of inequality in this value, we must conclude that all persons possess equal intrinsic value. So what does this imply about economic inequality, the issue that kicked off this discussion? If income and wealth have no bearing on the value of a person, does that mean extreme inequality of income and wealth is consistent with each person possessing equal value? Not at all. In fact, compared to meritocracy, this egalitarian perspective provides a much stronger, more rationally coherent foundation for generalized sentiments of sympathy and kindness and their institutionalization in the welfare state. It also gives us reason to close the social distance created by material inequalities, and to ensure that those inequalities are restricted to levels that benefit everyone. Overall, egalitarianism gives a much more satisfying explanation of why extreme economic inequality is objectionable — it brings us closer to reflective equilibrium than the meritocratic view. The next part of this series will explore the egalitarian perspective in more detail, clarifying its connections with both the meta-ethical foundations established so far and the realm of progressive social and economic policy.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

A brief response to Daniel Zamora on basic income

In Jacobin, Daniel Zamora has an essay criticizing basic income, a topic I’ve written about on this blog a number of times. I found Zamora’s argument unsatisfying, for reasons I outline briefly here:

1. Zamora points out that Guy Standing’s small UBI costs 6.5% of GDP without achieving a large reduction in the poverty rate, whereas the cost of eradicating poverty only amounts to around 1% of GDP. This is very odd, because Zamora is using the same trick as the UBI advocates who like to pretend the program would be cheap. A program that only brings people up to the poverty line is functionally equivalent to a UBI with 100% clawback at the poverty line. It’s not a realistic option, so it’s not a reasonable comparison.

2. Zamora complains that a UBI sufficient for a decent standard of living — the only kind worth considering, in his view — would be too expensive; in France, he figures this would cost about 35% of GDP. But this assumes that the full amount would be paid out to everyone (including children) and none of it would be recovered through a clawback rate or taxes. In other words, he only considers the least efficient implementation you could possibly come up with. This weakens the cost-based argument tremendously. A UBI with more realistic parameters would still be very expensive, but not that expensive; as I’ve discussed here before, it could be fully funded in Canada by raising the GST to roughly the same level as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

3. Zamora complains that proposals for an UBI assume that the unemployed don’t want to work or that cash can compensate for unemployment. This is false. While some advocates of a UBI surely believe one or both of these claims, there is no necessary connection between them. A UBI solves the problem of being cash-poor (not having enough money) without solving the problem of being work-poor (not having valued employment), but so what? There’s no a priori reason why the same program has to address every dimension of poverty. Perhaps it’ll turn out that the best solution to being cash-poor will also solve the problem of being work-poor, but we can’t just assume that this is the case.

4. Early on, Zamora complains that a small UBI will not be sufficient to increase workers’ bargaining power, so the promise of transforming the labour market will remain unfulfilled. But then later on, he seems to forget that he thought a large UBI could increase workers’ bargaining power. If the division of labour in our society sucks and people don’t like it, a large UBI gives workers real leverage to change it. So the idea that a UBI necessarily props up an unacceptable division of labour doesn’t hold water.

5. Finally, maybe I’m just not in the target audience. Close to the very end, Zamora asks:

Isn’t the best way to fight against capitalism to limit the sphere in which it operates? Establishing a base income, by contrast, merely allows everyone to participate in the market.

As a social democrat, I don’t have a problem with capitalism in the minimal sense, i.e. an economy where there is some role for private ownership and market exchange. I just want it to be restricted to certain spheres (e.g. it’s good for candy bars and clothing, but not so good for health care and a just distribution of income and wealth) and everyone has opportunities for participation on fair terms. In other words, I don’t care if the best way to fight against capitalism as such is to indiscriminately limit the sphere in which it operates, because I don’t think capitalism as such is bad. If I did, I might be more sympathetic to Zamora’s argument.

Site C and sunk costs

In recent days, a number of commentators and news outlets have discussed the sunk cost fallacy in connection with the government’s decision to proceed with construction of the Site C hydroelectric project. Without exception, I’ve found the handling of this issue completely unsatisfactory and highly misleading with respect to the meaning of the sunk cost fallacy and/or the reasoning cited in support of the government’s decision. Before getting to the problem, let’s get clear about what this fallacy involves.

Suppose I buy a movie ticket, but I find the film boring, amateurish, aesthetically repellent and morally repugnant. I could walk out and find something more worthwhile to do with my evening, but I stay put. After all, I’ve already paid for my ticket. I can’t bring myself to waste it, so I suffer through the rest of the film. I have just committed the sunk cost fallacy, allowing the unrecoverable costs I incurred in the past to take precedence over expected returns in the future. Assuming my goal is to have a fun evening, those costs are irrelevant; the only thing that’s relevant is whether I will have a fun evening if I stay in my seat.

Some critics of the decision to proceed with Site C claim that this is exactly what’s wrong with the government’s decision. Ministers have pointed out that if the project is abandoned, the government will have spent $4 billion with nothing to show for it; superficially, that does look like the fallacious reasoning in the movie theatre example. But it is not fallacious to consider sunk costs to the extent that these costs actually have some bearing on the future.

The total bill for Site C is expected to be around $11 billion. About $2 billion has been spent. Completing the project should cost about $9 billion. At this point, cancelling the project would cost an additional $2 billion. Therefore, cancelling Site C can only be justified on cost-benefit grounds if there is an alternative power project with equal value to the province but a total bill of only $7 billion or less. In the government’s assessment, there is no such alternative; thus, cost-benefit calculation favours completing the project. So, costs that have already been incurred in the course of the Site C project are cited in support of the decision only because they relate to the amount of money the province will have to spend in the future. That is why the government has not committed the sunk cost fallacy.

This is not to say that the government is not open to criticism on other grounds. Not committing basic errors of reasoning is a low bar to clear, after all. The government’s critics may wish to argue that the cost of completing the project has been underestimated, or that the costs of alternatives have been overestimated. Or they may argue that cost-benefit considerations should not have been allowed to override property rights, treaty rights, or Indigenous rights. For those who wish to make these arguments, credibility is a precious resource. It would be a mistake to squander this resource on misrepresentations.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the NDP and I opposed continuing the Site C project.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge

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This is what moral philosophy looks like

The moral philosophers who have put in an appearance in this series so far — Elizabeth Anderson, Stephen Darwall, John Rawls, and T. M. Scanlon — are all contractualists. According to contractualism, morality — or at least some particular moral domain (e.g. social justice in Rawls’s case, or interpersonal morality in Scanlon’s) — is based on the idea of an agreement between equals; our obligations derive from principles that no one could reasonably reject, or which all would agree to. Note that this is only an idea of an agreement; contractualists do not suppose that there has ever been (or could be) a real contract specifying the basic principles of morality. Nevertheless, the fact that we would agree to or could not reject these principles should be sufficient for us to recognize them as binding.

Even though the agreement envisioned by contractualists is strictly hypothetical, contractualists tend to agree that we have good reason to pay attention to real agreements and real disagreements in the social world. Neither moral philosophy nor everyday moral reasoning can be a strictly a priori enterprise. This distinguishes morality from other normative domains like logic and mathematics. As Elizabeth Anderson argues:

With respect to mathematics, it is plausible to suppose that the social identities of inquirers are irrelevant to how we think about the subject matter. This idea is harder to credit with respect to moral inquiry. Moral reasoning is supposed to help diverse people live together, come to terms with their differences, and promote peaceful cooperation on fair terms by supplying mutually acceptable principles for adjudicating the conflicting claims they make on each other, and for coordinating our moral sentiments to fit the demands of living together. We should expect that people’s social positions affect the claims they regard as intuitively legitimate, as well as their moral sentiments.

Because of this, Anderson advocates for a more empirical approach to moral philosophizing that goes beyond the armchair, the seminar room, and even the laboratory settings of “experimental philosophy”; moral philosophy must take seriously the real claims that people make on each other in the course of social life. This is especially important in the case of political struggles, where sharply conflicting and often mutually inaccessible moral intuitions are brought to light.

To this end, Anderson has devoted many years to the study of historical egalitarian social movements, especially the abolitionist movement in the United States and Britain. In practice, Anderson finds, strictly a priori methods of moral theorizing were not sufficient to defeat pro-slavery arguments; for every bedrock moral principle the abolitionists invoked to criticize slavery, supporters of slavery seemed to have one of their own at the ready to defend it. Even on the abolitionist side, whites tended to balk at the implications of anti-slavery arguments that presupposed the equality of persons, as it was apparent that a robust principle of equality would call into question hierarchies of class and sex that were widely approved. Today, most people would be inclined to endorse such a principle of equality precisely because it rules out domination based on sex and class as well as race. But at the time, whites were conditioned to regard this as a highly counterintuitive implication of a general egalitarian principle. The reasons that would eventually come to be recognized as the proper grounds for opposing slavery were not articulated until black abolitionists arrived on the scene and produced their own critiques of slavery, rooted in their own experiences.

As Anderson’s study of the abolitionist movement makes clear, moral bias and the limits of our individual experience can lead us into moral error. While cultivating a “philosophical” detachment from moral issues can help us avoid rash judgments, it can also deprive us of indispensable sources of insight. Political struggles in which victimized individuals raise their own voices against oppression can break down the walls that deprive us of the insights necessary for moral progress. If moral philosophy is, in part, concerned with moral truth, and moral progress involves advancing moral knowledge, then the advancement of moral philosophy must depend in part on political struggle.

Note: Anderson presents her view in part as a critique of the method of reflective equilibrium, the subject of the previous post in this series. I do not think this critique is successful (one reason being that it seems to be based on a caricature of the method), but nor does her account of moral progress seem to depend on it. In my view, the two approaches are complementary rather than opposed; I hope to return to this subject in the future.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

Anderson and Rawls on the limits of reflective equilibrium

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At least there is likely to be a reflective equilibrium for these possible worlds

In her 2015 Presidential Address, “Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective”, Elizabeth Anderson criticizes two dominant approaches to moral and political philosophizing: “the ascent to the a priori” (i.e. searching for fundamental, self-evident truths from which the rest of morality can be derived) and the method of reflective equilibrium. In the latter method, she says,

we move between intuitively appealing general moral principles and intuitions about particular cases. We use each to modify the others until we arrive at a set of principles that accounts for our moral judgments of all particular cases. Carried to its logical conclusion, this method can also lead to moral principles for all possible worlds, as long as we entertain thought experiments about sufficiently bizarre cases to elicit intuitions against which to modify our general principles. (p. 22)

Part of the problem, she argues, is that we have no grounds for confidence in our intuitions about truly bizarre cases. Our moral intuitions about this world are unreliable enough, but at least they can be tested and corrected by experience, whereas intuitions about people seeds, teletransporters, and runaway trolleys don’t even have that going for them.

But here’s Rawls in A Theory of Justice:

Some philosophers have thought that ethical first principles should be independent of all contingent assumptions, that they should take for granted no truths except those of logic and others that follow from these by an analysis of concepts. Moral conceptions should hold for all possible worlds. Now this view makes moral philosophy the study of the ethics of creation: an examination of the reflections an omnipotent deity might entertain in determining which is the best of all possible worlds. Even the general facts of nature are to be chosen. Certainly we have a natural religious interest in the ethics of creation. But it would appear to outrun human comprehension. From the point of view of contract theory it amounts to supposing that the persons in the original position know nothing at all about themselves or their world. How, then, can they possibly make a decision? A problem of choice is well defined only if the alternatives are suitably restricted by natural laws and other constraints, and those deciding already have certain inclinations to choose among them. (p. 159 in the original edition)

This seems like an explicit rejection of the excessive ambition and insensitivity to empirical considerations that Anderson objects to. Those vices are not essential to the method of reflective equilibrium after all; from very beginning, Rawls denied that this method — or indeed any method — could be used to find principles for all possible worlds.

Why electoral reform does not require a supermajority

BC Parliament Buildings Victoria BC

At the Province, Mike Smyth complains that it is unfair for the Greens and NDP to set the threshold for victory in the upcoming electoral reform referendum at 50 percent plus one. The problem, he argues, is that this makes it far too easy to bring about a fundamental change in a democratic mechanism that needs broad support in order to function properly. Supposing that half of all eligible voters participate in the referendum, and the reform side barely reaches the threshold, a new system would be adopted with the support of just a quarter of all voters. In Smyth’s view, this would clearly not meet the standard of “broad support”.

I think this argument is misguided. The expectation of low turnout actually works against Smyth; supporters of the status quo can effectively raise the threshold for victory simply by mobilizing more non-voters to vote No. Requiring supermajorities makes much more sense when turnout is expected to be very high — in a legislature, for example, or a referendum on independence.

Furthermore, the argument that a supermajority ought to be required for electoral reform because it affects such a fundamental part of the democratic system seems to beg the question in favour of the status quo. A 60/40 supermajority requirement allows the status quo to win with the support of only 40 percent plus one. This makes sense only if there is a shared presumption in favour of the status quo. According to many supporters of electoral reform, the current system is democratically defective. Thus, there is no shared presumption in favour of the status quo, and no justification for setting the threshold for approval of the status quo as low as 40 percent plus one.

In fact, one of Smyth’s own arguments seems to imply that there ought not to be any presumption in favour of first past the post. One of his concerns is that the Greens and NDP stand to benefit if proportional representation is adopted, which gives them an interest in slanting the process towards the Yes side. But a corollary of this — which he freely admits — is that the Liberals stand to benefit from retaining the current electoral system. If we should avoid adopting thresholds that increase the likelihood of victory for one side or another, and we should not adopt a 50 percent plus one threshold because it increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome for the Greens and NDP, we cannot then adopt a 60 percent plus one threshold that increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome for the Liberals.

As you may have noticed, we’ve come to a dead end. Every possible threshold favours one side or another compared to some other threshold. Every electoral system favours one party over another compared to some other electoral system. A principle that forbids favouring this or that faction (in the relevant sense) provides no practical guidance for the design of referendums or electoral systems. Therefore a principle for ensuring the legitimacy of the referendum result will have to be found elsewhere.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium

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Try to achieve reflective equilibrium in advance next time, Doctor

Last time, we saw that moral facts are normative — they tell us what to do — and primitive — they are not reducible to some further, non-moral facts. Moral facts share these characteristics with facts about logic and mathematics. It is commonly held to be unproblematic that we know certain facts about logic and mathematics; thus, it is not clear why facts about morality should raise any special problems. However, while it may be unproblematic to say that we know normative facts, it is more difficult to say how we know normative facts, given that normative facts cannot be inferred from non-normative facts alone.

Knowledge of normative facts depends on knowledge of other normative facts. According to a standard definition, knowledge is justified, true belief. Normative facts are true in virtue of other normative facts. But how can we get from truth to knowledge? How, in other words, do we justify normative beliefs?

Nelson Goodman proposed that we can (and routinely do) justify certain normative beliefs — those concerned with principles of logical inference — by attempting to derive general principles from our judgments about the strength or validity of particular inferences. We then apply these principles to new cases to see if they generate conclusions that accord with our judgments about those cases. When a conflict arises, it may seem best to revise our judgments in light of these general principles, or it may seem best to revise the general principles and test them against another set of new cases. This process continues until our judgments about particular inferences and our general principles are fully aligned and mutually supporting. This endpoint is only hypothetical — there are always new cases to consider. But we can make progress towards it, and our beliefs about what counts as a good inference and why are justified in proportion to the progress we have achieved.

Goodman’s method for justifying beliefs about the principles of logic was taken up by John Rawls, who thought that it could also be applied to beliefs about morality, or at least a particular domain of morality — the domain of social justice. He called this the method of reflective equilibrium. We start with moral judgments in which we have a high degree of confidence under good conditions for making judgments of that kind (e.g. when we are refreshed and cool-headed rather than tired and upset), and a set of supporting principles that explain those judgments. We then test those principles against different cases, checking whether they yield judgments that we are, on reflection, prepared to endorse, and then revising principles or judgments as appropriate. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rawls says that when we apply this method, we are describing our sense of justice. But this does not mean that our conception of what justice requires remains fixed. Describing our sense of justice is an exploratory and deliberative process through which we discover principles that we can justify as constraints on our behaviour. At any point in this process, any judgment or principle is open to revision; we may end up with a fully developed conception of justice that would seem very surprising from where we began.

Recall that we are using the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. If we are justified in believing that the principles and judgments we hold in reflective equilibrium are true, and those principles are true, then the method of reflective equilibrium is a method for acquiring moral knowledge.

Religious belief plays no role in this method, which makes it particularly appealing to atheists. It should also be appealing to many progressives who do hold religious beliefs. After all, many religious ethicists would agree with St. Paul that morality was “written in our hearts” by a supreme being, and with Aquinas that it can be apprehended by reason without the aid of holy books. Reflective equilibrium can support these views by providing a fuller account of how morality was written in our hearts (i.e. by creating a universe from which rational creatures can emerge and flourish), and how reason can be used to read that which was written.

Others, however, may find this account troubling because it threatens to make the moral content of sacred texts superfluous. But I think this threat is illusory. A religious text may still provide moral guidance by suggesting new judgments about particular cases (e.g. “God was right to kill every firstborn child in Egypt to secure the Hebrews’ release from slavery”) and candidate principles (“Love your neighbour as yourself”). Some of these judgments and principles should be accepted, and others should be rejected. The method of reflective equilibrium provides a non-arbitrary standard for deciding which parts of a text to reject or reinterpret, while preserving the overall text as a potential source of moral insight. Far from making religious texts superfluous, the method actually gives even non-believers good reason to pay attention to the conclusions of religious ethicists. Elizabeth Anderson puts the point nicely:

That God as people imagine it does not literally exist no more undercuts the value of their moral reasoning than Mackie’s critique of metaphysical moral realism undercuts critical moral reasoning today. (And even Mackie, after trashing moral realism, finds himself unable to avoid moralizing himself.) The critical moral point of view is essential and productive even if it is projected onto a fictional entity. What matters is the alternative perspective it affords, not its ontological status.

Perhaps this all makes moral knowledge sound too easy to come by. If the method of reflective equilibrium does imply that moral knowledge is very easy to come by, that counts against the method. To vindicate the method, we need to show that it is consistent with the slow rate and inconsistent direction of moral progress throughout history, and the phenomenon of apparently intractable moral disagreement both within and between cultures today. The answers to these puzzles will take us from the very abstract level at which reflective equilibrium has been described towards the concrete circumstances in which we pursue it. This will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Note: In addition to the blog by Elizabeth Anderson cited above, this post draws on discussion of reflective equilibrium by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, T. M. Scanlon in Being Realistic About Reasons, and Norman Daniels in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Reflective Equilibrium”.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime

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Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, maaan

As I discussed in my last post, making the case for progressive policy requires making a moral case, and making a moral case requires confronting moral nihilism. The first step is establishing a presumption in favour of moral truth. We can establish such a presumption by noting that we tend to think, talk and act as though there are moral truths; skepticism about the very existence of moral facts tends to run up against the apparent indispensability of moral claims in political debate. Skepticism is further undermined when we see that one of the most common arguments cited as justification for doubting that there are moral facts — i.e. that there could only be moral facts if there exists a kind of deity who does not in fact exist — is unsound. The existence of such a deity could not make a difference to whether there are any moral facts at all. Given the independence of moral truth and the divine will, we can also conclude that the content of morality should be knowable independently of religious truths about the existence and nature of a supreme being. If moral truth is accessible to any of us, it is accessible to all of us.

But if moral facts are not divine commands, what are they? Where do they come from? How do we know about them? Why do we seem to get them so wrong so much of the time? These are difficult and important questions. Confidence in the possibility of moral progress and social justice is impossible without confidence that there are knowable moral truths, and confidence that there are knowable moral truths is difficult to sustain unless we can offer some kind of response — however tentative — to questions like these.

My aim in this series is not to provide a definitive meta-ethical framework that I think all political progressives should accept, but rather to show that we do have a number of replies available to us in the face of attempts to defeat the presumption of moral truth. Even if these replies are not without their own difficulties, they do show that the progressive realist is not defenceless against nihilist challengers and need not quit the field at the first sign of resistance.

One of the distinctive features of moral facts is that they are ostensibly normative, or action-guiding. Unlike facts about geology or history, moral facts give us reasons to act in certain ways. This is why bringing moral facts into consideration resolves the underdetermination problem in public policy that I noted last time.

However, moral facts are not the only kind of normative facts. Facts about logical inference and mathematics also give us reasons to act in certain ways — to reach a particular conclusion from a set of premises, for example, and to do it in a particular way. Skeptics about moral truth tend to be realists about logical and mathematical truths; after all, they purport to base their denial of the existence of moral truth on sound logical reasoning.

The evident kinship between different kinds of normative facts (moral, logical and mathematical) provides clues to a number of the questions posed above. First, normative facts seem to be primitive in the sense that they are not reducible to or true in virtue of some more basic, non-normative facts. There is no sense in asking what kind of thing normative facts are or where such kinds of things come from. Mathematical facts are founded upon other mathematical facts, and moral facts are founded upon other moral facts. This characterization of normative facts as primitive or basic fits with the concept of morality Stephen Darwall deploys in his argument against divine command theory; if one could provide a non-normative foundation for morality (such as a supreme being’s coercive power), one would thereby disprove rather than explain the existence of moral facts.

The relation between moral and other normative facts also suggests an answer to how we can come to know moral facts, while deepening the mystery of why history (not to mention the daily news) is so full of moral mistakes. These issues will be the subject of my next post on this topic, where I will discuss the method of reflective equilibrium.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

Meta-ethics and progressive politics

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In a post last week, I briefly touched on the importance of making a distinctively moral case for the eradication of poverty, as Trish Garner did in her recent piece for the Tyee. As I noted at the time, this is important in part because the strongest reasons that count for or against any given policy are always moral reasons. It’s also partly because value-independent facts tend to underdetermine policy, meaning that without appeal to the moral reasons that count for or against some policy, the facts are not sufficient to determine which policy is best. Good policy is necessarily both evidence-based and value-based.

Nevertheless, public policy debates are often lopsided; people are generally more comfortable dealing with disagreement about evidence than disagreement about values. This imbalance begins at an early age. Basic education properly aims to give young people a strong grasp of scientific methods for gathering, evaluating and using evidence to reach well-supported conclusions. But students are usually not expected to achieve a similar degree of competence with the methods of systematic moral reasoning. In some education systems, in fact, students are expected to embrace moral nihilism; as the philosopher Justin McBrayer has pointed out, the American Common Core curriculum portrays moral facts as a conceptual impossibility, like five-sided triangles and married bachelors. If there are no moral facts, then moral reasoning and dialogue serve no purpose, and there is no point helping students achieve any degree of competence with moral thought.

Nevertheless, many people find it hard to shake the idea that there are some moral facts — that genocide is wrong, for example, or that you shouldn’t torture babies for fun. Even those who purport to believe that morality is purely a matter of individual taste may find themselves unable to avoid appealing to certain bedrock moral intuitions.

For example, in a column published on CNN’s website last month, Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid dismissed criticism of Donald Trump on the grounds that such criticisms are based on judgments that are “political, and therefore subjective”; in the end, however, Hamid’s conclusions turn out to depend on assigning absolute moral priority to the outcome of a democratic process, understood in the narrowest procedural terms. His pretensions of hard-nosed moral skepticism are mere rhetorical cover, concealing a wildly controversial moral claim that sits at the foundation of his entire argument.

Moral claims are indispensable in political argument. That being the case, it is better if the moral claims that a political argument depends on are articulated clearly and openly, and it is better if people who must evaluate or engage in political argument (if you live in a democracy, that means you) have some competence with systematic moral thought. But people may not bother to develop this competence unless they believe there are moral facts, and that these facts can be known. It is not enough to show that moral claims are indispensable; it must also be shown that some moral claims could be true.

If we find moral claims indispensable — if we find ourselves unable to avoid acting as if they are sometimes true — we already have at least one good reason to think that some moral claims are true. But do we have better reason to think that this is not the case — that there are no moral facts?

One reason commonly cited in popular discourse is the idea (sometimes called divine command theory) that there could only be moral facts if divine decree made it so. If, as many people now believe, there are no such decrees, then there can be no moral facts. In other words, “if God is dead, then everything is permitted.” In religious apologetics, this conditional claim is often used to demonstrate the existence of God by modus tollens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; not everything is permitted, therefore God is not dead.” But outside the realm of apologetics, it is more common to see the argument for moral nihilism by modus ponens: “if God is dead, then everything is permitted; God is dead, therefore everything is permitted.”

Should we accept the conditional claim? Unless we have independent reason to believe that everything is permitted (in which case the conditional is superfluous anyway), I think we should only accept this claim if we have an account of how God could make it the case that something is not permitted. If it is not clear how God could make it the case that a given action is wrong, then we have no reason to think that the wrongness of a given action could depend on the existence of God.

As popular as it may be — among atheists and believers alike! — to identify morality with God’s decrees, philosophers have been highly skeptical of this alleged connection at least since the time of Plato. In these two short videos, Stephen Darwall — a philosopher specializing in secular ethics — expertly demonstrates the self-contradictory nature of divine command theory.

As Darwall argues, divine command theory either conflates morality with something else entirely (coercive power, or fear of punishment) or it must presuppose certain moral facts that are prior to God’s commands (such as “you ought to obey God’s commands”) in order to give those commands the necessary moral force. If divine command theory opts for the first of these choices, then it is only a species of nihilism, not a genuine alternative. And if it opts for the second, then it is renders itself redundant by presupposing the very phenomenon it purports to explain. The existence of moral truths was never dependent on the existence of God; if we believe God does not exist, then, we have no special reasons to doubt that moral truths exist.

This conclusion is relevant to both believers and non-believers. If God’s commands do not form the basis of morality, then people of all religious faiths — or none — can recognize each other as peers in the enterprise of moral inquiry. Among peers, moral truths are equally accessible and equally binding, and dialogue and methods of inquiry are equally fruitful. The refutation of divine command theory should make religious and non-religious progressives alike more confident that moral truths exist and that all people can be open to moral persuasion.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality