Recognizing Costly Moral Behavior

All actions have costs and benefits. The magnitude and marginal effect of either are precisely what determine the extent to which any agent elects to engage in any particular activity as the most satisfying course of action. Rarely – almost never – is any action determined to have benefits which are always greater than the costs at all marginal units. I think “moral behavior” is no different.

A simple example clearly demonstrates the logic. It is costly to read a book. Other actions must be foregone in lieu of reading; the joy, the escape, the learning, the benefit of reading is weighed against the cost. So reading certainly is a pleasant experience. Joy, entertainment, and learning are pleasurable. These things are pretty much always good things. We don’t choose to put down a book because joy suddenly fails to be a good thing. Rather, there comes a point when all of the costs from reading outweigh all of the benefits and we switch to some other activity.

Reading a book is relatively benign. Unless the costs of reading become self destructive and imprudent, few people would claim that reading is morally relevant. But the decision to act is completely analogous to more social behaviors that include propriety beyond mere prudence. I see no reason to hold back here. We may as well go controversial here and choose the act of abortion. Murder works too.

Just as reading provides benefits which are always benefits, but are outweighed by the costs at some margin, it is analogous that typically undesirable actions may have benefits that outweigh the costs at some margin. No action is infinitely costly or infinitely beneficial.

Some folks brazenly ignore the reality of increasing marginal costs and decreasing marginal benefits. Moral action is not a special category. It is not costless. People consider some actions as ‘just plain wrong’ no matter what the costs or benefits.

What about the famous trolley problem? Is there no moral action that can be undertaken? Is the ‘right thing to do’ also possibly an immoral thing? Daniel Klein would disagree with such a semantic distinction. He would say that it can not be the case that the most moral action is simultaneously an immoral action. This is the stuff of predetermination and removes responsibility for proper action. Such a circumstance would require that a person was fated to perform an immoral act regardless of the course of action chosen. Often, people fall back on “Well in a perfect world, one would commit no immoral action and be exempt from being faced with such dilemmas.” This is logically spurious. I don’t know what the ‘perfect world’ looks like. I do know that people make decisions and are constrained by circumstances.

Let’s use an example. A husband’s wife is in a coma. She is also pregnant. For whatever reason, the pregnancy will kill the wife if it is carried to term and ending the pregnancy would obviously kill the yet to be born child. The wife dies or the fetus dies. Is there no moral decision for the husband to make? Are his choices limited to immoral ones? Such a proposition is utterly confusing to me. How can it be true that the right thing to do is also a wrong thing to do? “In a perfect world, the decision is not necessary.” I don’t know what this means to communicate. It sounds like it is inapplicable to the real world in which the decisions ARE necessary. We apply moral judgments to real world actions – not to circumstances other than those present.

Now, it may be that positive actions undertaken by an individual are easy to judge. Immediate results are typically straightforward or, at least, can be derived with a little bit of contemplation. But some actions have ambiguous results. In such a case, intent is a popular measure of propriety. You can make the most moral decision possible and as long as you did your best, then you can be said to have acted with propriety. Only moral absolutists will say that consequences and pure intentions are required for all ‘true’ proper behavior. Some things are indeterminate in the quality of consequence and the propriety of an action my lie in the unknown intent. This is not a rigorous standard that lends itself to observation and easy evaluation. But it does seem to matter a great deal in the judgment of proper action despite its lack of rigor and convenience.

So far, the subject has been individual action and propriety. But what about the propriety of others? Can one properly impose on another, even when the other is acting to the best of his or her ability, due merely to a difference in moral perspective? No one but the strict pacifist would take issue with violent self or co-defense in the face of aggression. And what about obligation to defend another? Are we required to defend another when the cost is low? Are we obliged to be heroes? Most people would say that we have a moral obligation to defend another but not at undue risk or cost to ourselves. This seems totally sensible. But we should not pretend that there is a hard and fast definition of how costly is too costly. The rule is one which everyone knows and no one can standardize.

If one thinks that the coercive arm of the state, as an elected effort by the community, should be used in order to defend some individuals, then to what extent should this be the practiced? The answer of course is “to the proper extent”. But there mechanism by which a representative acts to the proper extent, with only limited feedback to/from the client, is not obvious [or even obviously possible].

We may offer that abortions are wrong. Sure. Let’s just take this to be the case for the sake of argument. It would be a cheap rule to achieve if people voluntarily decided to abstain from abortion. Because voluntary action is cheaper than coercion, this would indeed be the cheapest manner to achieve a level of zero abortions. But because some people will not self limit the activity, one may feel compelled to defend the fetus from aggression and take steps necessary to prevent infanticide. To what extent should this be done?

The answer is not to stop 100% of abortions. The cost would be too great. I’ve asked people who say 100% of abortions should be stopped why exactly it is that they are unwilling to expend the resources necessary to actually make it happen. They are very aware that the cost would be too great. And they fall back on “We prevent what we reasonably can.”

“Reasonably can”? That sounds very different from stopping 100%. They are exhibiting the consideration of opportunity cost. This is not an accusation meant to assert that one is pusillanimous. We certainly could stop all of the abortions. But it would include foregoing TV, computer games, studying, and a compendium of activities in order to monitor and police to ensure that the rule was followed. Are these fetuses not worth the cost? A strident anti-abortion advocate would say of course it is worth the cost. But their actions would tell a different story. Every moment which is not spent preventing abortions is an expression of other things which a person values more. This is not to say that one should or shouldn’t value something more. It is the case one way or the other.

The optimal number of abortions is not zero. We are utility maximizers. And even if the profit function decreases with the each additional abortion, the benefit is diminishing or the cost is increasing with the number of prevented abortions. Other things begin to take precedence which is similarly morally relevant. Would one bear false witness to stop an abortion? Would one perform idolatry? Would one steal from others? Would one take action such that the Sabbath day was not kept holy? Which of these is worth the prevention of the marginal abortion? Can it be right to violate any one moral prerogative that is similarly meant to expect compliance 100% of the time?

The way I see things, there is a difference between what is a private action and what is an action imposed upon another. We are individually more responsible for ourselves than we are for the actions of others (Not the least reason being due to the low cost of self regulation). One may truly garner a great deal of value by abstention from abortion. In which case, it may be proper to NEVER have one. But the cost of imposing behaviors upon others, as if they were ourselves, is an economic mistake. Even the most moral people hold a place for prudence. And enforcing our own brand of perfect moral action upon others would be costly to the point of blameworthy imprudence that would lead to self impoverishment. Much as distributive justice never reaches a self reinforcing equilibrium, and is always in the process of deviation from the desirable, so too shall universal imposition of morality require constant tinkering and redistribution to correct for deviant behaviors.

Just as Hayek stressed the contrast between the private and public social spheres, the micro and macro cosmos, of interaction, I see reason to stress the contrast between what is right to morally impose upon ourselves and what is right to morally impose upon others. The expectation and enforcement which we are obliged to have for others is not identical to that which we have for ourselves. The costs between the two are not identical and the rules are not well defined. It is one thing to advocate for self regulation of a particular class of activities.  It is another thing to enforce compliance.  Even though we often espouse and opine that which is most proper for others as if we were the subject at concern [and as if we do not live in a constrained world], we do have a tendency to act in such a way.  That is, we are more than willing to prevent ourselves from committing an action but less willing to impose the same on another – especially when we bear the costs for such an attempt.

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4 thoughts on “Recognizing Costly Moral Behavior

  1. Austin says:

    One problem with using maximization language with regard to morals is the implication of a precise moral utility function. The idea that moral action faces decreasing marginal returns is well taken, but bear in mind that morality and propriety are, as Smith says, “loose, vague and indeterminate”.

    “The optimal number of abortions is not zero.”

    The optimal policy limiting abortions is not one that prevents 100% of abortions.

    Caution: these two are very, very different, and I think you mean the second.

    • pacvae says:

      I don’t mean to say that there is a precise utility function for morality. But there is one all the same (loose though it may be).

      I mean to stress that there is a difference between that which we are obliged to do, and that which we are obliged to do for/to others. The costs are different. On abortions, I mean both of what you cited. I see no reason to say that the act of aborting is always improper for another person to perform. It is right, in fact, for me to permit the quantity which doesn’t neglect my own prudence. Morality exists in a constrained world and we shouldn’t pretend that categorical statements apply as if it weren’t.

  2. Harry says:

    Question Zachary, your whole point leads me to wonder what role you think there is for punishment in society. Should we even bother punishing crimes? Should we punish them only to the extent that punishing does not bring society a greater cost than benefit?

    Also, is the optimal number of murders zero? What about the optimal number of American wars? American wars are not an individual action but we can look at them that way, considering the Commander in Chief’s power to bring the troops home.

  3. pacvae says:

    Thanks Harry,

    First, as a matter of methodology, individuals make decisions. People in groups may act in coordination and the individuals may choose to comport their actions with particular results of coordination, but *WE* don’t act. So should each of us individually pay a single authority to prevent actions which we deem immoral?
    This just sounds like the work of a middle man specializing to provide a service. Such a service provider decreases the cost of imposing my morality upon others. Decreasing the cost of a moral action would increase the prudent level of marginal actions. So yes, more prudent behavior should be performed if it is cheaper. I don’t know what you mean by “cost to society”. There are effects which one desires and effects which one does not desire.

    We have to recognize that murders, even when used as a noun, refer to verbs which are performed by people. Additionally, the question for the person who would potentially prevent murders doesn’t look at murder as “good” or “bad”. It is the act of prevention that is weighed. But benefit of prevention is weighed against the costs of enforcement. To the person who would prevent the murder, he prevention is the choice variable. The question for him is not the optimal number of murders, per se, but the optimal number of murders to prevent.
    I don’t quite follow your reference to American wars.

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