Friday, March 09, 2007

Context and the desperately poor.

Just so no-one believes that philosophers are all as stunningly brilliant as I am, I point you to this. Richard Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera is (currently) an undergrad philosophy student. So, maybe it's not totally fair to pick on the flaws in his argument. Then again, since they're fairly obvious, and well-discussed in the literature....

Chappell argues that there's something wrong with a scheme to pay women money to donate their eggs for scientific research. He argues this on the basis of three scenarios:
  1. Status quo: poverty without alleviation
  2. Voluntary exchanges, so the poor can do things they don't want to do to avoid something they want even less (ongoing poverty)
  3. Redistribution through minimal income
(I'll ignore, for the sake of this post, that redistribution and minimum income are two different proposals.) Chappell's argument for (2) over (1) is made on entirely utilitarian grounds. He claims that this is respectful of autonomy, in that we should let people decide whether to engage in particular transactions of possible benefit. (There's also some confused talk about democracy and paternalism, but I'll ignore that, for the sake of charity.)

Generally speaking, I am highly sympathetic to Jonathan Dancy's position (argued in Moral Reasons and Practical Reality) that there's a hell of a lot more going on in ethics than utilitarians, even of the most sophisticated sort, are capable of dealing with. This is a good object illustration, for Chappell is presuming that (1) through (3) represent a clear lexical ordering of the options, which can then be decided between on the basis of a simple principle, i.e., which is the most good. But the lexical ordering is not clear; indeed, while I won't follow Dancy and say it is always variant, it is certainly highly variant, to an extent that Chappell does not acknowledge.

For example, someone who is genuinely desperately poor -- let me arbitrarily define that as someone who cannot afford to feed themselves -- could be tempted to give up a tremendous amount of what they do have in order to obtain what they don't. Unless the trade is philanthropic -- that is, unless the trade is of something of greater good than what is given up -- then the poor person is either just as badly off as they started, or even worse. So, the amount that is being offered in exchange for what the poor person has provides a context in which the reasons that justify the poor person's decision shift polarity. That is, the fact that a voluntary exchange of value can be undertaken can serve as either a reason for it (when the exchange is of benefit to the poor person) or against it (when the exchange is of neutral benefit or actual detriment to the poor person). Given that the reasons the poor person has can shift in this way, it follows that, in the former cases, the exchange is morally permissible, but, in the latter cases, it is impermissible.

(Incidentally, this is why the democracy and paternalism stuff is not relevant. It's perfectly consistent to say the exchange is morally impermissible because it exploits the poor person, but permissible because to interfere would be paternalistic. We would then have to weigh these two reasons (and all the other relevant reasons) in order to make a well-grounded decision. Paternalism isn't some sort of trump that can be waved around to defeat all reasons; the, unquestionably paternalistic, laws which prevent children from signing contracts without parental consent are a good example.)

Aside: of course, to make matters worse, the reasons for the person exchanging with the poor person may shift polarity independently of the polarity shift of the poor person's reasons! I'm ignoring that, because that discussion will make things even more complicated than they are.

Back to the main point. To make Chappell's problem even worse, there are other relevant features of the context that he neglects to fill in. For example, poverty is a continuous variable. That is, there are degrees of poverty, ranging from "will die in the next hour" to "just can't make ends meet". Given that, no matter what is offered in exchange for the goods of the poor, there is always a risk of coercion through what we might call contextual irrationality. By this I mean that a person who, in a different context, would recognize that they do not have reason to give up what they have for something of equal or lesser value, may be in a different context such that they fail to recognize the reasons. If we are dealing with the desperately poor, this is in fact very likely: people who are starving are far from ideally rational, and can thus be encouraged to give up very valuable things for very little return. Given that, the situation starts to look coercive in a very distressing sense, namely by taking advantage of systemically-produced misery.

This, then, gives us at least two moral problems with the ordering: first, the amount offered is a bit of context relevant to determining the polarity of the reasons the poor person has, and thus the morality of allowing the exchange; second, the state of the poor person affects whether or not the exchange is coercive, and thus the morality of allowing the exchange. And these sorts of contextual factors multiply rapidly. (Dancy would say without limit; I'm not yet convinced of that.)

In short, then, while I'll accept the ordering of (1) and (2) as less optimal then (3), I don't accept the ordering from (1) to (2). And this is because of the (very obvious) role that context plays in determining the ordering. The question then becomes whether, if we fully specify the context, could we come up with a better ordering? Dancy would say "no"; I'm not nearly so confident. At the very least, though, it is likely that this new ordering would cut across the line drawn between (1) and (2). Hence, we should not always favour schemes of voluntary exchange with the desperately poor.

As I said, there's a big literature on this sort of issue out there. Chappell is a philosophy student, so he should know to at least check before thinking that there's some obvious issue that "ethicists" (his word) are overlooking.

7 comments:

Deikesims said...

http://onphilosophyandliterature.blogspot.com/

I have posted a reply or continuation of the conversation thaty you have carried on from Richard Chappell. I am a MA English student and am for the first time attempting to respond to a blog.

Richard said...

Hi Adam, thanks for your response, though I think you may have misunderstood my post in some places. (That's understandable, since a 300 word blog post can't possibly cover all the background and clarificatory provisos that would be ideal. And of course I haven't learnt the Grad Student Secret Handshake, which everyone knows is an essential prerequisite for philosophical communication -- for readers are incapable of taking one seriously without it. But don't worry, I'm working on that; re-read my post come September and I'm sure you'll find it much clearer.)

Regarding the substance of your response: I of course agree that in some possible situations voluntary exchanges can make people worse off. I meant to make the more modest claim that as it happens (not "always"), #2 is overall preferable to #1.

This rests on the assumption that the poor are still capable of rational decisions, and so will not usually choose to make themselves worse off. That empirical assumption is open to question, as you note. (You then argue - in ironically utilitarian fashion - that the poor may thus benefit from the paternalist option #1.) Anyway, I'm quite happy to grant that the argument hinges on the empirical question of whether most poor people are in fact sufficiently rational.

You go on to suggest that "there is always a risk of coercion" due to contextual irrationality. You fail to note that I explicitly discussed "new risks of coercion" in my post. My suggestion is that the affected persons should be invited to decide the issue in a deliberative-democratic setting (i.e. a context more conducive to their making rational decisions). Though I didn't have time to expand on this point, it can be justified by appeal to the familiar Millian idea that people are generally the best judges of their own good.

So: if, on reflection, the affected persons determine that they will be tempted in desperate contexts to make bad exchanges, they might reasonably opt to ban such exchanges. (Such ideas were further explored in a linked post.) That would be fine by me. As noted in my post, I suspect that, on the contrary, "most would want the option." But again, this is an empirical question.

Regarding the snarks:

"I'll ignore, for the sake of this post, that redistribution and minimum income are two different proposals."

Basic Income proposals are a form of redistribution. My phrasing: "basic income or the like" indicates my recognition that there are also other forms of redistribution that could play a like role, from which it trivially follows that the two proposals are non-identical.

"There's also some confused talk about democracy and paternalism, but I'll ignore that, for the sake of charity."

It's not really all that charitable to assume that just because you're confused by something, so must have been the writer. Rather than dismissing me as an ignorant undergraduate, a more charitable option may have been to read some of my related posts for background, and try to better understand where I'm coming from -- and in particular what role the issues of democracy and paternalism have in my argument. (Hopefully my substantive comments above have clarified that somewhat for you.) If, after that, you still disagree with me, then by all means argue the point. That's "totally fair". But arrogant dismissal? Not so much.

ADHR said...

Hi Adam, thanks for your ... clearer.)

*shrugs* If you want to discuss important ideas, you need to take the time to discuss them fully. Otherwise, why bother?

"Grad Student Secret Handshake"...? Nice cover.

I of course agree that in some possible situations voluntary exchanges can make people worse off. I meant to make the more modest claim that as it happens (not "always"), #2 is overall preferable to #1.

I was disagreeing with the very notion of "overall" preferable. There's only "preferable in a given context".

This rests on the assumption that the poor are still capable of rational decisions, and so will not usually choose to make themselves worse off. That empirical assumption is open to question, as you note. (You then argue - in ironically utilitarian fashion - that the poor may thus benefit from the paternalist option #1.)

It's not actually utilitarian unless I endorse option #1. I took your line to be basically utilitarian, so it's fair to point out that option #1 is, in some cases, preferable on a utilitarian basis.

You go on to suggest that "there ... best judges of their own good.

Familiar, perhaps; but almost certainly false. Coercion has to include the possibility of being deceived, either by others, by situational factors, or by one's own failures, as to the nature of one's own good.

So: if, on reflection, the affected persons determine that they will be tempted in desperate contexts to make bad exchanges, they might reasonably opt to ban such exchanges. (Such ideas were further explored in a linked post.)

I did glance at that originally. It doesn't really seem relevant to the point I'm making, though. The point I'm making doesn't really have a lot to do with temptation; it has to do with features of the situation being such that the poor are incapable of making rational decisions. So, the idea of placing limits on voluntary decisions is really beside the point: what matters is that the capacity for rational decision-making -- even on whether or not one should choose to accept voluntary limits on one's actions -- depends crucially on what one is confronted with in the world.

"I'll ignore, for the sake of this post, that redistribution and minimum income are two different proposals."

Basic Income proposals are a form of redistribution. My phrasing: "basic income or the like" indicates my recognition that there are also other forms of redistribution that could play a like role, from which it trivially follows that the two proposals are non-identical.


It's hardly trivial, unless one presumes that basic income is drawn from funds taken from others. Then it's a sort of redistribution-esque proposal. But why assume that? It seems to me that the heart of the basic income proposal is that everyone is entitled to a basic income. If so, where it comes from is not terribly relevant, except on some sort of basic policy level. It's not redistribution if it's what I should have already had in the first place. If you like, it's a rectification of an unjust distribution. Redistribution, to me, always reads like it means something like reshuffling the deck to see if everyone gets a better hand this time around. Maybe that's just me, though.

"There's also some confused talk about democracy and paternalism, but I'll ignore that, for the sake of charity."

It's not really all that charitable to assume that just because you're confused by something, so must have been the writer.


Touchy. ;) By the way, is it charitable for you to presume that I made that comment out of confusion, rather than because I really do think you're wrong?

Rather than dismissing me as an ignorant undergraduate, a more charitable option may have been to read some of my related posts for background, and try to better understand where I'm coming from -- and in particular what role the issues of democracy and paternalism have in my argument. (Hopefully my substantive comments above have clarified that somewhat for you.)

Not so much with the clarification. I still think you're missing the basic idea, that this 19th-century (well, really, 17th-century) liberal ideal of rational deliberation by autonomous agents is ultimately incoherent. Reasons don't work the way they need to for that proposal to make sense; neither does reasoning. Given the essential role context plays in rationality, it is not right to cast this as some sort of issue of voluntary exchanges and maximal benefits. The question, really, is whether the conditions are such that voluntary exchange is (a) possible and (b) appropriate; the same applies for calculation of maximum benefit.

Incidentally, did you follow your own advice and read some of the other posts on this blog about reasons and reasoning?

If, after that, you still disagree with me, then by all means argue the point. That's "totally fair". But arrogant dismissal? Not so much.

There's a difference between dismissal and strong disagreement. Although I may have snarked a little, I didn't really say you were stupid. I did, however, say you were wrong; and I still maintain that you are.

Anonymous said...

Adam,
Nice to see a man with confidence in his own ability.

> I was disagreeing with the very notion of "overall" preferable.

is not the act of making a rule "a given context"? Sure it is one whee it is very complex to calculate utility but that is never easy anyway.

> so it's fair to point out that option #1 is, in some cases, preferable on a utilitarian basis.

In a sense fair, but irrelevant to an indirect utilitarian. Richard presumably seeks a reasonable rule of thumb regarding the effect in general - particularly since the issue in discussion appears to be the presence or absence of a rule.

> You go on to suggest that "there ... best judges of their own good.
>> Familiar, perhaps; but almost certainly false.

I think Richard over claims here. They don’t individually need to be the best judges of their own good, just that the presence or absence of the rule is a good thing. For example they might be worse than you at making those decisions but since you don’t have the capacity to make all the decisions for them (and would probably just establish a rule) they may easily be able to beat that.

The question then becomes one of more or less empirical fact comparing hte practical options.

> features of the situation being such that the poor are incapable of making rational decisions.

it is a very strong claim to say a person is incapable of making rational decisions. It seem extremely unlikely. You might get away with claims regarding utility calculations such as: "they will on average make an inferior decision to overlord Adam" or “the loss of organs will more than out-weight the gain in non-starving people”.

> It seems to me that the heart of the basic income proposal is that everyone is entitled to a basic income.

most comparative language is given in relation to a status quo (so If I say "it is up" the implication is "above here"). But being a supporter of non-socialist UBI I also suggest it is redistributive - although not always from rich to poor.

GNZ

ADHR said...

is not the act of making a rule "a given context"? Sure it is one whee it is very complex to calculate utility but that is never easy anyway.

A "context" is a fully-specified set of relevant (salient) states of affairs. So, making a rule can be part of it, but it's not a full specification. This is an easy game; it's never hard to build examples which hold one feature fixed (saying, making a particular rule), but vary another and thus vary the reasons.

In a sense fair, but irrelevant to an indirect utilitarian. Richard presumably seeks a reasonable rule of thumb regarding the effect in general - particularly since the issue in discussion appears to be the presence or absence of a rule.

I think this just points to an instability within indirect/rule utilitarianism, namely that it has to fight off, without being ad hoc, claims that particular actions which violate the rule nonetheless maximize utility.

I think Richard over claims here. They don’t individually need to be the best judges of their own good, just that the presence or absence of the rule is a good thing. For example they might be worse than you at making those decisions but since you don’t have the capacity to make all the decisions for them (and would probably just establish a rule) they may easily be able to beat that.

That's probably true.

The question then becomes one of more or less empirical fact comparing hte practical options.

Now how does that follow?

it is a very strong claim to say a person is incapable of making rational decisions. It seem extremely unlikely. You might get away with claims regarding utility calculations such as: "they will on average make an inferior decision to overlord Adam" or “the loss of organs will more than out-weight the gain in non-starving people”.

Strong, but it seems nonetheless true to me; moreover, it seems the kind of claim we make all the time. We judge very young children and the severely mentally ill as incapable of rational decisions. We also, frequently, point out that someone's interests are systematically warping their judgement, to the point where their judgement can no longer be considered reliable. The point that I was making was along that line, namely that the situation of the desperately poor is so bad that the claim they can rationally engage in bargaining is dubious at best. This is because rationally less valuable options can appear to be rationally more valuable, due to relevant contextual factors, e.g., the desperation of their status.

most comparative language is given in relation to a status quo (so If I say "it is up" the implication is "above here"). But being a supporter of non-socialist UBI I also suggest it is redistributive - although not always from rich to poor.

This doesn't even make sense. Who was using comparative language? Richard was talking about redistribution and I was talking about entitlement.

I still fail to see how basic income and redistribution wind up as the same sort of proposal, which was what I took to be Richard's point.

GNZ

Anonymous said...

> We judge very young children and the severely mentally ill as incapable of rational decisions.

yes but these people are neither young nor severely mentally ill or we would not even be contemplating their making these decisions. But I’ll accept dubious. I would look for evidence as to how to apply my ‘dubiousness’ – i.e. how bad a decision are they actually making in places where they are allowed to do this? How much effort should we go to in order to deny them freedom of choice? What are the net cost / benefits of each solution?

> Richard was talking about redistribution and I was talking about entitlement.

It’s just semantics anyway. the prize for the winner is a word.

GNZ

ADHR said...

yes but these people are neither young nor severely mentally ill or we would not even be contemplating their making these decisions. But I’ll accept dubious. I would look for evidence as to how to apply my ‘dubiousness’ – i.e. how bad a decision are they actually making in places where they are allowed to do this? How much effort should we go to in order to deny them freedom of choice? What are the net cost / benefits of each solution?

I'll accept that the question becomes a matter of explaining empirical data, and thus data has to be collected. My point was what you've now granted: namely, that there could be systemic irrationalities due to the context in which the desperately poor find themselves.

It’s just semantics anyway. the prize for the winner is a word.

If that's what you think, then I don't think you've understood the words in question. "Redistribution" implies that something was owned by one person and then is taken and given to another. "Entitlement" implies that something was really owned by one particular person in the first place. So, in this context, basic income as redistribution would mean that income which really belonged to one person was given to someone who was, in some sense, more deserving; basic income as entitlement, though, would mean that the person it is taken from never really owned it in the first place.