Absolute Vs Subjective Moral Advocacy; Inconvenient Consequences

Recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology is a paper (abstract here) that provides some inconvenient evidence to bear for moral subjectivists.  The bottom line of the article is that signals of absolute morality deter ‘bad’ behaviors better than do signals of subjective morality.  The implication is that the subjective morality folks, who are often non-theists, are engaging in behavior which is not most effective for promoting ‘good’ behavior when they espouse their morality to others.  I strongly suspect that the effects on total welfare would be better if they advocated absolute policies – which they don’t believe are true – rather than stroke their own ego through advocating policies that they believe are more accurate but deter harmful behaviors less effectively.

For mere semantic simplicity, I’ll refer to the two groups as theists (absolute) and atheists (subjective).  It’s a waste of time to talk about the irrationality of the two groups.  Both are consequentialist.  Theists happen to believe in the judgement of a 3rd, unobservable party that is relevant after life in the empirical world.  Those consequences are very real to theists and are included in the rational calculations of trade-offs that they make.  The atheists claim to value only the circumstances and events in the physical world  which includes peace of mind and other intangibles.

That people avoid unproductive and harmful behaviors is a key element in a flourishing society.  It promotes trust.  Trust among people decreases transaction costs, decreases the cost of security, and increases the welfare of all.  But trust isn’t irrational.  It’s based on the expectation – the probability – that someone will commit harm (lying, cheating, theft, murder, etc).  Increasing trust would be silly and counter productive if it weren’t based on true underlying evaluations of the risk to life and property.  It therefore follows that decreasing those risks allows for greater trust, and then greater standards of living.  So far, this is all positive, empirical, and very much relevant to the physical world.  Therefore, both the theists and atheists have a stake in increasing trust.

Here then is the conundrum.  If the atheist advocates an absolute morality, then he will decrease crime, increase trust, and promote welfare.  The reason that it’s a conundrum is because we typically think of saying untrue things as immoral.  The atheist who says “Don’t steal. It’s wrong. People have rights that ought never be violated.” knows that this is false if there is even one counter example.  There is a trade-off between saying the accurate, subjectivist thing and saying the absolutist thing which has better effects and is believed to be false.

It’s a simple matter of egoism.  Does the atheist get more satisfaction from thinking that he is saying the truth or more from making people better off in the physical world?  This is not to say that egoism is bad – far from it. Survival would be impossible without it.  The question is of proper degree.  For the atheist, saying the thing which is accurate has no further effect after life.  But maybe he values the act of saying what he thinks is true a great deal.

For the atheist trying to decide between moral advocacy stances, the decision looks like this:

U = α*Trueness + β*Welfaregains

                       U = Satisfaction

                       α = Weight that truth plays in making the agent happy

                       β = Weight that the agent places on people’s higher standard of living

       Trueness = a continuous variable between 0 and 1 where 0 is an absolute proposition which is believed to be untrue and 1 is a subjective proposition which is believed to be true.

Welfaregains = gain to society from fewer harmful behaviors.

Where Welfaregains is a decreasing function of Trueness:

Welfaregains = f(Trueness) ; f ‘(Trueness) < 0

The above model could be far more complicated to reflect the increased standard of living of the agent due to the welfare gains.  But there’s no need to over-complicate.

Models are positive.  They don’t advocate one position or another.  They only describe what a person will do given their preferences.  In economics, we typically don’t make a habit of prescribing preferences.  We can’t talk about the propriety of one action or another.  Nor can we say what the proper weights on parameters ought to be.  However we can describe the preferences which lead to greater production and higher standards of living.  And the evidence says that advocating moral absolutes will do just that.

There is not a correct answer here for the atheist.  It’s not a matter of maximizing one’s satisfaction.  That’s a foregone goal.  We all have a preference both for telling the truth and for good effects otherwise.  And people are going to do what makes them most well off.  The question is “What should the weights be among moral preferences?” To what relative extent SHOULD lying and making people better off satisfy someone?

If people are culpable for what they believe and do, then subjective moralists have some tough decisions to make about what they really value.

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