Russ Roberts

Joshua Greene on Moral Tribes, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

EconTalk Episode with Joshua Greene
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Joshua Greene, of Harvard University and author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about morality and the challenges we face when our morality conflicts with that of others. Topics discussed include the difference between what Greene calls automatic thinking and manual thinking, the moral dilemma known as "the trolley problem," and the difficulties of identifying and solving problems in a society that has a plurality of values. Greene defends utilitarianism as a way of adjudicating moral differences.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: December 23, 2014.] Russ: I want to mention that as we have done in the past, we'd like to know your top episodes of the year. To participate, go to econtalk.org, where you will find a link in the upper left-hand corner to a survey that will give you a chance to tell us a little bit about yourself, give us some general feedback if you'd like, as well as voting for your 5 favorite episodes of 2014. That survey will stay up through early February of 2015; and I will announce the results some time in mid- to late February.
1:05Russ: Now, on to today's guest, Joshua Greene, Professor of Psychology at Harvard U. and the Director of the Moral Cognition Lab there. He is the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which is our topic for today's episode. So, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and very ambitious book. It's got an enormous amount of stuff packed into it--ideas, claims for making the world a better place, some fantastic thought experiments. We'll try to do justice to the book. I want to start with what you call our tribal nature. You argue that we have evolved to be fairly effective cooperators within our tribes, but not so good cooperators with other tribes. Explain what you mean by that--what you mean by 'tribes' and the tragedy of common sense[?] morality. Guest: Right. So it begins with a question of will: what is morality, to begin with? And what I think, and a lot of other recent commentators and some people in some sense going all the way back to Charles Darwin think morality is fundamentally about is our social nature. And more specifically about cooperation: that is, what we call morality is really a suite of psychological tendencies and capacities that allow us to live successfully in groups, that allow us to reap the advantages of cooperation. But these tendencies that make up morality come primarily in the form of emotional responses that drive social behavior and that respond to other people's social behavior. I think a natural starting point begins with a familiar story to an economist: this is the tragedy of the commons, which I can talk about a little bit, if you want. Russ: Yeah, go ahead. Guest: So, the tragedy of the commons is a parable told by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. He tells the story of a bunch of herders who share a common pasture, and these are rational, self-interested herders who ask themselves, 'Should I add more animals to my herd?' And they think, 'Well, if I add more animals, that's more animals that I have at market and that's good. That's the upside. What's the downside? Not so much downside: we're all sharing this common pasture.' And so they say the benefits outweigh the costs, and they add more and more animals to their herd. So then when they all do this, there's not enough grass to support any of the animals and they all die and everybody is worse off. And that's the same as the tragedy of the commons. It's basically a parable about the problem of cooperation, which is really the problem of how do you get people to put collective interest over self-interest. Russ: With the key point that by doing so, they'll be better off. Guest: Correct. Russ: Their self-interests will actually be served. So it's not a literal sacrifice. It's a sacrifice in the short run, for a longer-run benefit. Guest: That's right. If it's a repeated game then it's in everybody's long term self-interest. I think that that's right. In the short term it's a conflict between self-interest and collective interest, but in the long term, a cooperative system is one that makes everybody better off. Although at any given moment it may be possible for someone, at least in a short-[?] way to benefit themselves at the expense of the group. Russ: Absolutely. Guest: And so the idea is that our minds are designed to help us solve this problem. And you can think of us as having psychological carrots and sticks that we apply to ourselves and that we apply to other people. So, a psychological carrot that we apply to ourselves to be cooperative would be feelings of love and friendship and goodwill that motivate us to say, 'Hey, it's not just my sheep that matters. Everybody else's sheep, or at least some other people's sheep' motivates you to be cooperative. Or you could have negative feelings that act as a stick for yourself, like shame and guilt. I would feel ashamed of myself if everybody else limited the size of their herds for the greater good and then I cheated. And we have positive feelings that reward other people--so you have my gratitude if you keep your sheep in line. And we have negative feelings that punish other people--you'll have my contempt and my anger and my disgust if you grow your herd as much as you feel like without regard for the rest of us who share the pasture. So the idea is these feelings, these psychological carrots and sticks that we apply to ourselves and other people, that's the core of morality and that's what makes basic cooperation within a group possible. Russ: And just to mention Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he says, "Man desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely." And so there's some self-regulating impulse to do the right thing, because you want people to respect you. And those carrots and sticks are flying around with all of our social interactions. So, it worked pretty well; and we had Pete Boettke on EconTalk talking about the work of Elinor Ostrom--she got the Nobel Prize. She explains that within small groups, they often devise norms and other voluntary, non-coercive ways to limit the tragedy. But the problem you are fascinated by--which I am, too--is when two tribes come along and they don't share the same morality. So, talk about the tragedy of common sense morality, as you describe it. Guest: Right. So, this is my sequel to Hardin's parable. And one version goes like this. So, imagine that there's this large forest. And all around this large forest are many different tribes. And these different tribes are all cooperative, but they are cooperative on different terms. So, on the one side you might have your communist herders who say, Not only are we going to have a common pasture; we're just going to have a common herd, and that's how everything gets aligned. Everything is about us. And on the other side of the forest you might have the individualist herders who say, Not only are we not going to have common herds; we are not going to have a common pasture. We are going to privatize the pasture, divide it up; and everybody's responsible for their own piece of land. And our cooperation will consist in everybody's respecting each other's property rights. As opposed to sharing a common pasture. And you can imagine any number of arrangements in between. And there are other dimensions along which tribes can vary. So, they vary in what I call their proper nouns, so that is: Which leaders or religious texts or traditions have authority to govern daily life in the tribe? And tribes may respond differently to threats and outsiders. Some may be relatively laissez faire about people who break the rules. Other people may be incredibly harsh. Some tribes will be very hostile to outsiders; others may be more welcoming. All different ways the tribes can achieve cooperation on different terms. They are all dotted around this large forest. And then the parable continues: One hot, dry summer, lightning strikes and there's a forest fire and the forest burns to the ground. And then the rains come and suddenly there is this lovely green pasture in the middle. And all the tribes look at that pasture and say, 'Hmmm, nice pasture.' And they all move in. So now we have in this common space all of these different tribes that are cooperative in different ways, cooperative on different terms, with different leaders, with different ideals, with different histories, all trying to exist in the same space. And this is the modern tragedy. This is the modern moral problem. That is, it's not a problem of turning a bunch of 'me-s' into an 'us.' That's the basic problem of the tragedy of the commons. It's about having a bunch of different us-es all existing in the same place, all moral in their own way, but with different conceptions of what it means to be moral. And so, if our basic psychology does a pretty good job of solving the me-versus-us problem of having basic cooperation within a group, the modern problem, both I think philosophically and psychologically is: What kind of a system and what kind of thinking do we need to regulate life on those new pastures of the modern world, where we have many different tribes with many different terms of cooperation, many different moral systems?
9:07Russ: Before we go further, I want to just ask you an aside question that I thought about as I was reading the book, which is: You argue that we evolved morality to help us solve these kind of problems. Why do we have different wants? And in particular--we'll probably come back to this later on--I'm more of a bottom up guy than you are; you are a top down guy, more than I am. You concede in places that bottom up is good; and I of course concede in certain places that top down is good. But overall, we have a philosophical difference. And you identify that difference to some extent with the northern and southern tribes--the northern tribes being more individualistic-- Guest: Right: metaphorically northern and southern. Yeah. Russ: And southern tribes being more collectivist. As you point out, there's obviously lots of gray areas in between. Why do you think there are such different ideologies to start with? Why am I a bottom up guy, and why are you a top down guy? And you talk a lot about the fact that, of course, we both think that we are right. And we both think we have evidence for why we are right. But, given that the world's a complicated place, how do we get that difference to start with? Why don't we both have the same morality toward how we solve problems? Guest: Well, so I'm not sure exactly what you mean by bottom up and top down, but I actually have, I think, the leading scientific explanations are at least what I would call pretty bottom uppish. So, a couple of places here. Joe Henrich and colleagues, for example, have collected evidence from small-scale societies all around the world and found quite a bit of variation in terms of how people cooperate. In the "lab"--that is, having them play standardized economic games, and then also in their everyday life. So, take the Lamalera of Indonesia. These are people who make their living by hunting whales in collective hunting parties. So, their livelihood depends very much on cooperation. And sure enough, when you have them do public goods games, prisoner's dilemma--so the kinds of economic games that model the tragedy of the commons, they are exceptionally cooperative. You have other societies where people hunt individually--I hope I'm getting this right, but the Machiguenga of I believe Peru but certainly in South America, they hunt as individuals and individual families; and they they play these economic games, they are much less cooperative. Which is not to say that they are not cooperative people, but they tend to cooperate within family as opposed to across families, at least economically. Now, if you live in a place where there are whales to be hunted, then there are advantages to having a cooperative way of life. If you live in the Amazon where there aren't whales to be hunted and the way you get food is by just going off in your own directly and finding what you can, then that lends itself to a more individualistic society. There is a paper that came out a couple of years ago, or actually maybe it was just this year, by Kensayama[?] and colleagues arguing that there are big differences between cultures--and this is going back to some ideas by Richard Nisbett and colleagues--cultures that cultivate wheat versus cultivating rice, the more collectivist cultures of Asia, are ultimately driven by the original rice-based economies that lived there: rice cultivation can be incredibly productive but requires a lot of intense cooperation and Nisbett has also for example cited evidence about more individualistic tendencies for people who live in herding cultures where it's a mountainous region and you are not going to be growing crops on the ground but instead are going to be herding sheep, let's say. That ends up leading toward more individual societies. So, I'm not sure if we actually disagree on this. Russ: I don't think we do. At all. I'm trying to get a more nuanced view, which I think is in the book, which is: The tribe we're in is not just a result of evolution. It's also cultural and depends on our situation. Guest: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. No, I think that what we're born with is a set of options. It's a lot like language, right? All humans, all healthy humans are born with the capacity for language. But whether you end up speaking English or Chinese or something else is going to depend on the environment, the linguistic environment into which you are born.
13:45Russ: Let's talk about the two Trolley Problems and what you learn about morality from those, because obviously there's of variations on the Trolley Problems that you talk about in the book. But talk about the two basic ones and talk about what you mean by automatic mode and manual mode, which I found very interesting. Guest: Okay. So, before I get to trolleys specifically, let me say a little bit about how I think this connects to the first set of questions you asked about the tragedy of the commons, the tragedy of common-sense morality. Because one of the main ideas of the book is we have two kinds of problems; we also have two kinds of thinking. And that the our gut reactions, our intuitions, what I call our automatic settings, which I'll explain in a moment, do a good job of solving the original tragedy of the commons, but they create the problem of the problem of common-sense morality. That our gut reactions about how we ought to live make it harder for us to live in many ways in a pluralistic world. So, let me give you my metaphor, which is familiar to people who have read--well, at least the idea is familiar to people who have read Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and a lot of the research on dual-process decision-making. My preferred metaphor for this is the visual SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera--so, a camera like the one I got many years ago now; has the automatic settings on it. So just for everyday use, if you are taking a picture of a mountain from a mile away in broad daylight, you put it in landscape mode and click, point and shoot, you've got your shot. Or if you are taking a picture of somebody up close in indoor light then you put it in portrait mode and click, you've got your shot. And it also has a manual mode where you can by hand adjust the f-stop and everything else. And I say, why does the camera have these two different ways of taking photos, your automatic settings and your manual mode? And the idea is that this allows you to navigate the tradeoff between flexibility and efficiencies. So, the automatic settings are very efficient, point and shoot; and they are good for the kinds of situations that the manufacturer has already anticipated. Like taking a landscape picture or taking a standard portrait picture. But the manufacturer also knows that there are going to be situations that the manufacturer isn't going to specifically anticipate; and so the manufacturer also gives you a manual mode where you can adjust everything yourself. The manual mode is very flexible, but it's not very efficient. So you can do anything with it, but you have to know what you are doing; it takes time; you might make a mistake. And this design of having both, overall makes a lot of sense, because sometimes, most of the time, you can get by just pointing and shooting, and that's what you really want. But occasionally you want to have the flexibility to put the camera in manual mode and get exactly what you want, depending on [?] conditions-- Russ: And if you don't you are going to get a really bad picture sometimes. I think that's the-- Guest: Right. Exactly. So the idea is that the human brain has the same design: that we have automatic settings, and we have our manual modes. Our automatic settings are our gut reactions, our largely-emotional responses to situations, especially social situations, that tell us: That's good, that's bad, this is what you ought to do, this is what you ought not to do. We also have a manual mode; we also have the ability to step back and think in an explicit, deliberate, what you might call, in a somewhat loaded sense, rational way about whatever it is that's facing us. And we might override some gut reaction we might have because we'd say, well, in this case, even though it feels like we should do this, it actually makes more sense to do that. So, with this idea in mind of the tension between our automatic settings and our manual mode, our gut reaction and our slow, deliberate thinking, all introduce, as you said, the Trolley Dilemma. This is the philosophical problem that got me interested, well, really got me started in my research as a scientist. So, one version of the Trolley case goes like this. You've got a trolley headed towards 5 people, and you can save them but they are going to die if you don't do anything. If you hit a switch you can turn the trolley away from the five and onto another track, but unfortunately there's still 1 person there. And if you ask most people, 'Is it okay to turn the trolley away from the 5 and have it run over the 1 person?' depending on who you ask and how you ask it, about 90% of people will say, 'Yes.' Russ: Better that one person dies than five. Guest: That's right. The tradeoff is between 5 lives and 1, and the particular mechanism is hitting the switch that will turn the trolley away from the five and onto the one. Parallel case, which we'll call the Footbridge Case: This time the trolley is again headed towards 5 people, but now you are on a footbridge over the track, in between the oncoming trolley and the 5 people. We stipulate the only way that you can save them now is to end up killing somebody. So, there's this large guy, wearing a large backpack, who is right next to you. And you can push him off of the footbridge and he'll land on the tracks and he'll die--he'll get killed by the trolley--but it will stop the trolley from running over the 5 people. Now, to cut down on the number of angry emails that you get from people, I have to make some stipulations clear. We are stipulating that, a). You cannot jump, yourself. The only way to save the 5 is-- Russ: You're not big enough. Guest: That's right. Not big enough. You cannot jump, yourself. And yes, this will definitely work. And I know you've all been to the movies and sometimes you are able to suspend disbelief, and I ask you to do the same thing here. And we ask our participants, when we do these experiments, to do the same thing; and in general they don't have any problem doing this. Here, one of the questions is: Is it okay to push the guy off the footbridge, use him as a trolley stopper to save the 5 people? Most people say no. There are some populations where people are more likely to say yes. But in general, take an American sample, somewhere between about 10% and 35% of people will say that it's okay to push the guy off the footbridge; most people will say that it's not okay. So, interesting question: What's going on? Why do we say that it's okay to trade 1 life for 5 when you can hit a switch that will divert the trolley away from 5 and onto 1, but it's not okay to push the guy off the footbridge--even if we assume that this is going to work and if we assume that there's no other way to achieve this worthy goal. Most people still say that it's wrong. We're coming up on a decade and a half of research on or stemming from this moral dilemma. And we've learned a lot. It seems that it's primarily an emotional response to that physical action of pushing the guy off the footbridge. And you can see, for example, in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which you might think of as a mammal's early-warning alarm system that something may be bad, needs attention, maybe not a good idea--you see that alarm bell going off in this basic part of the mammalian emotional brain. And the strength of that signal is correlated with the extent to which people say that it's wrong to push the guy off the footbridge or whatever it is. You also see increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that's most closely associated with explicit reasoning, or anything that really requires a kind of mental effort, like remembering a phone number or resisting an impulse of some kind or explicitly applying a behavioral rule. That's sort of the seat of manual mode. And these two signals from different parts of the brain, one a kind of automatic response to the action and the other reflecting the balance of costs and benefits, do get out in the brain; and in some people they go one way and in some people they go the other way. And if you give people a distracting secondary task, then it slows down their utilitarian judgments--that is, the judgments when they say that it's okay to kill 1 to save 5. If you give people more time, they are more likely to give a utilitarian judgment. People who give more reflective answers to tricky math questions are more likely to say that it's okay to push the guy off the footbridge. If you give people a drug that in the short term heightens certain kinds of emotional responses--so the drug used in the experiments is Citalopram, which is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), kind of like Prozac, people are more likely to say that it's wrong to push the guy off the footbridge. If you give people an anti-anxiety drug, Lorazepam is the one used in the study I have in mind, they are more likely to say that it's okay to push the guy off the footbridge. And so there's a lot of evidence, from a lot of different kinds of experiments. Brain imaging, behavioral manipulations, pharmacological manipulations, looking at patients with different kinds of brain damage--they all support this kind of dual process story. That is, that there's a gut reaction that's saying, 'No, don't push the guy off the footbridge'; and then a more conscious, explicit, calculating response that says, 'Well, but you can save 5 lives; don't you think that makes sense?' And--well, I could go on.
23:13Russ: Talk about how you might want to exploit or use those differences--and I just have to say as a footnote: There's a lot of experiments in economics that make all kinds of different claims about behavior, and one of the aspects of these experiments of course--it's really a big one in the footbridge example--is that this is a very alien experience for most people. And I think the challenge in interpreting, part of it, is the fact that, if it happened every day--if people were constantly shoving people over footbridges--maybe people would have different responses. Guest: Absolutely. Russ: There's a grappling uncertainty issue. And even though you say don't be uncertain, I think that's the automatic part maybe that's kicking in, not necessarily the morality. But let's put that to the side. It's definitely true that we have some gut reactions about some things and then some more pensive and thoughtful reactions. But others--what's the implication of that for these tragedies of the common-sense morality, these philosophical, ideological moral differences between tribes and groups? Guest: So, there are a few dots I think that need to be connected. So, if you sort of follow the arc of the book, the first part is about the two tragedies and their different structure. And then the next part is about morality fast and slow in general. Initially it's just illustrating the idea that our moral thinking involves a tension between gut reactions to certain types of actions that are generally bad but maybe not always bad. And then a kind of cost/benefit thinking that can either be selfish, or it can be impartial in the case of the third-party observer saying, 'Well, isn't it better just to save more lives?' What I propose as a solution to the tragedy of common sense morality is a much maligned and poorly named philosophy which many of your listeners will be familiar with, known as utilitarianism. Russ: Oooooh. Guest: Boo. [?] Russ: That was 'oooh.' Just suspense. It wasn't necessarily--I have an anti-utilitarian streak, but I a pro-one, also. So, I'm ambivalent. That was just 'oooh.' Go ahead. Guest: Okay. So, I think utilitarianism is very much misunderstood. And this is part of the reason why we shouldn't even call it utilitarianism at all. We should call it what I call 'deep pragmatism', which I think better captures what I think utilitarianism is really like, if you really apply it in real life, in light of an understanding of human nature. But, we can come back to that. The idea, going back to the tragedy of common-sense morality is you've got all these different tribes with all of these different values based on their different ways of life. What can they do to get along? And I think that the best answer that we have is--well, let's back up. In order to resolve any kind of tradeoff, you have to have some kind of common metric. You have to have some kind of common currency. And I think that what utilitarianism, whether it's the moral truth or not, is provide a kind of common currency. So, what is utilitarianism? It's basically the idea that--it's really two ideas put together. One is the idea of impartiality. That is, at least as social decision makers, we should regard everybody's interests as of equal worth. Everybody counts the same. And then you might say, 'Well, but okay, what does it mean to count everybody the same? What is it that really matters for you and for me and for everybody else?' And there the utilitarian's answer is what is sometimes called, somewhat accurately and somewhat misleadingly, happiness. But it's not really happiness in the sense of cherries on sundaes, things that make you smile. It's really the quality of conscious experience. So, the idea is that if you start with anything that you value, and say, 'Why do you care about that?' and keep asking, 'Why do you care about that?' or 'Why do you care about that?' you ultimately come down to the quality of someone's conscious experience. So if I were to say, 'Why did you go to work today?' you'd say, 'Well, I need to make money; and I also enjoy my work.' 'Well, what do you need your money for?' 'Well, I need to have a place to live; it costs money.' 'Well, why can't you just live outside?' 'Well, I need a place to sleep; it's cold at night.' 'Well, what's wrong with being cold?' 'Well, it's uncomfortable.' 'What's wrong with being uncomfortable?' 'It's just bad.' Right? At some point if you keep asking why, why, why, it's going to come down to the conscious experience--in Bentham's terms, again somewhat misleading, the pleasure and pain of either you or somebody else that you care about. So the utilitarian idea is to say, Okay, we all have our pleasures and pains, and as a moral philosophy we should all count equally. And so a good standard for resolving public disagreements is to say we should go with whatever option is going to produce the best overall experience for the people who are affected. Which you can think of as shorthand as maximizing happiness--although I think that that's somewhat misleading. And the solution has a lot of merit to it. But it also has endured a couple of centuries of legitimate criticism. And one of the biggest criticisms--and now we're getting back to the Trolley cases, is that utilitarianism doesn't adequately account for people's rights. So, take the footbridge case. It seems that it's wrong to push that guy off the footbridge. Even if you stipulate that you can save more people's lives. And so anyone who is going to defend utilitarianism as a meta-morality--that is, a solution to the tragedy of common sense morality, as a moral system to adjudicate among competing tribal moral systems--if you are going to defend it in that way, as I do, you have to face up to these philosophical challenges: is it okay to kill on person to save five people in this kind of situation? So I spend a lot of the book trying to understand the psychology of cases like the footbridge case. And you mention these being kind of unrealistic and weird cases. That's actually part of my defense. Russ: Yeah, there's some plus to it, I agree. Guest: Right. And the idea is that your amygdala is responding to an act of violence. And most acts of violence are bad. And so it is good for us to have a gut reaction, which is really a reaction in your amygdala that's then sending a signal to your ventromedial prefrontal cortex and so on and so forth, and we can talk about that. It's good to have that reaction that says, 'Don't push people off of footbridges.' But if you construct a case in which you stipulate that committing this act of violence is going to lead to the greater good, and it still feels wrong, I think it's a mistake to interpret that gut reaction as a challenge to the theory that says we should do whatever in general is going to promote the greater good. That is, our gut reactions are somewhat limited. They are good for everyday life. It's good that you have a gut reaction that says, 'Don't go shoving people off of high places.' But that shouldn't be a veto against a general idea that otherwise makes a lot of sense. Which is that in the modern world, we have a lot of different competing value systems, and that the way to resolve disagreements among those different competing value systems is to say, 'What's going to actually produce the best consequences?' And best consequences measured in terms of the quality of people's experience. So, that's kind of completing or partially completing the circle between the tragedy of the commons, that discussion, and how do we get to the Trolleys.
31:06Russ: Yeah. So, there's some things about the utilitarian idea that are deeply appealing, and you do a beautiful job making the case for it. And you spend a lot of time conceding there are problems with it and then giving what you think is the best answer; and I found those very interesting. Not totally persuasive, but provocative. I want to raise a couple of issues and let you respond. So, the first is that: I think part of the reason that people have problems with pushing that guy off the bridge is: there's an arrogance involved. Which makes me nervous, as a northern herder in your example. Guest: Right. Russ: So, I like the idea of going around saving lives. And people make lots of claims for--the death penalty saves lives; it doesn't take lives, it saves lives. And there are a lot of different claims that people make. Ultimately most of those claims come down to empirical claims, somewhat supported by evidence but not totally, completely, ironclad, about how x leads to y. And one of the main themes of EconTalk is that, I'm [?] humble about that connection between x and y. And I'm thinking, you go out there pushing people off of footbridges, you're actually a dangerous person. You are not a moral person. You're going to run amok. Guest: I agree. I think what you are essentially doing is making a good, deep-pragmatist, long-term utilitarian argument against being too quick to implement what might narrowly seem to be a utilitarian solution. Russ: And that's really by the way--that's a nice way to put it. That's really what economists do, by the way--often what economists say: 'Not so fast.' Right? Guest: Right. So, I think it depends on the case, right? When it comes to--take something like physician-assisted suicide. Right? You might have a kind of footbridge sort of reaction: I think the American Medical Association are a lot of people, too, which says, it's just wrong for you to intentionally and actively end the life of a patient even if they want to. Right? It pushes--I'm willing to bet it pushes that amygdala button. Russ: Yeah, big time. Guest: Right? But, you might say, 'But the greater good is served by not forcing people who are suffering and who have no quality of life and no hope of a better life to go on and suffer and wait for the disease to kill them instead of them dying their own way.' Now, on the one hand, there's something--I think about that caution that says, 'Well wait a second. This could go terribly wrong.' If we have doctors who are too quick to say, 'Oh, you want to die? Oh, here you go.' Russ: It's a slippery slope argument. Guest: Yeah. So, on the one hand you want to be careful and you want to listen to that amygdala signal that says you are playing with fire here. But at the same time, you don't want to give it an absolute veto. And so I think that the kind of skepticism about overly ambitious social policy is a good skepticism. At the same time, I think it is often possible to do things that feel wrong but that actually end up making things better. Russ: For sure.
34:35Russ: So, let's talk about the basic idea. You actually--in the book you sum it up in three words: maximize happiness impartially. And of course by happiness, you don't mean necessarily, although it could include dancing at a party while drunk or gorging on ice cream. It's a richer concept. Sometimes we call it flourishing here on the program. Or I think the fancy name is eudaimonia. I don't know if I'm pronouncing it correctly. I think that's Aristotelian. And it's about--there's a whole very rich menu of stuff that give us a feeling of pleasure, of utility, of satisfaction, deep tranquility, serenity, etc. And we're going to be open about--we're not going to try to narrow down that definition. So I'm with you there. So, for me, as an individual, me, just me, I face tradeoffs all the time about satisfaction and pleasure and happiness. How long should I stay at work? Should I watch the football game instead of helping my kids with their homework? These are all questions that we face every single day as individuals and we do our best, and sometimes we make mistakes that we regret; and we understand that: life isn't perfect. And morality to some extent, and self-help books, are trying to help us navigate those tradeoffs. The problem I have with your tradeoff is--and I understand the desire for a common currency across these tradeoffs--but they are across different people. And I can't measure happiness. Even if I could I'm not sure that I can imagine an entity that would come up with the right desire to make those tradeoffs. So, we think about this in a political context, which is naturally what you do in the book. So, here we are in the United States. We're in this pasture. We're all here together. We have very different philosophies. Unfortunately, we don't really have--not only do we disagree, even if we agreed, you and I, on what the right, say, way to adjudicate our dispute, we don't really have a mechanism for implementing it. We think we do. We call it democracy. But it's a very imperfect mechanism that often exploits our differences for the benefit and gain of individuals. So it's not obvious to me that it's even a good idea to say, Let's pretend we could decide what is the greatest happiness across these 330 million people, let alone the 7 billion, and then hope that somehow it'll get implemented. Is that really a practical solution to our political problems? Guest: No, I don't think that there is any alternative. I think that we are living someone's attempts to adjudicate these tradeoffs of values, and we can either just accept what the powers that be put in front of us, or we can vote our conscience and try to change them or vote our conscience and say, yes I endorse this. I think that what you're objecting to is the difficulty of the problem, not an inherent problem with the solution, if you want to call it that, that I'm proposing. So I think it's easier to think about these things with a concrete example. So, take the case of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Now, let's suppose that I know that this is controversial. But let's suppose that government spending can provide good stimulus to the economy and can increase employment and make things better off for the people who are employed as a result. Okay, so you have to do a tradeoff. You would have to say, How much do the wealthiest people lose by having their incomes reduced by some amount from someone who is making half a million dollars a year, and they might pay, instead of paying 30% in taxes they'd pay 40% or something like that, versus the benefits that go to people who now have jobs as a result of expansion of the public sector, or children who have a better shot at living the good life because of increased commitment to early childhood education, etc. There are a lot of empirical assumptions here or questions here. But if we can at least agree on the empirics, then there's the question of, Okay, is this tradeoff worth it? I don't think there's any way to avoid asking that question, and I think that in a lot of these cases, it's actually pretty clear--that, for example, taking people who are already very wealthy and reducing their income somewhat doesn't really do much to their happiness. Whereas if you provide opportunities to people at the bottom of the scale, that actually can make an enormous difference in their lives. So, you know, I think that the alternative is to just say, let it just evolve the way it evolves without consciously thinking about this as a social problem. But I don't think that that's a better alternative. Russ: Well, that's because you're a southerner. I'm a northerner, and as a northerner, I say, if we get the government out of this, the private sector, charity and other ways, will be done to help poor people. They'll take money from rich people. They do give it voluntarily--maybe not so much as we'd like; certainly not as much as they'd give if they were forced to give. But the real issue I have, and this is my meta-meta morality, I guess, and I think it's an interesting thought experiment--the real problem I have is the empirical assumptions that you need to make for some reason don't appeal to me. And they do tend to appeal to people who are the collectivists. Right? So, you made a lot of--you just gave a couple; we could think of 10 more: better schools, better pre-schools, more training programs, greener this, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, stimulate the economy, reduce unemployment. And most of those things everybody agrees on would be good if they happened. But strangely enough--and this is, to me, a different kind of tragedy--the people who are from the north, us individualists, we seem to think that the empirical evidence is very unconvincing. Whereas the people who are in the south seem to find it extremely compelling. Guest: Right. Russ: So, what it comes down to is a pretense, what I would fear--it's a pretense we are doing something scientific by just looking at the outcomes rather than arguing about our principles. 'We're just going to see what works the best.' But that's kind of a false--that's kind of an illusion, I worry. What do you think? Guest: But why--I see this problem on both sides. I think that both sides-- Russ: I do, too. Guest: interpret the evidence. The evidence in social science is almost always ambiguous. And both sides interpret the evidence so as to support the kind of social policy that they intuitively favor. I think that's a problem on both sides. Russ: I agree. Guest: But, you know--I think it's not an impossible task to sort out the fact from the bias. And the signal-to-noise ratio may be lower than we'd like, but I still think that there is a signal there. I think one thing that we can do, and this is one of the major practical points in the book, is to not think of these social problems when we are really trying to have an honest discussion about it in terms of rights. Russ: Yeah, I really like that, by the way. Even though I've probably made those rights arguments. I thought this was fantastic. Go ahead. Guest: And I use the language of rights as well. I think it has its place, I also argued in the book. But if something becomes a matter of rights--take capital punishment; it's the public's right to see justice done, which means having the person killed; or capital punishment is a violation of human rights, as Amnesty International says--if you make something about rights then it essentially leaves the realm of the empirical, because we can essentially use the language of rights as a front for whatever our automatic settings say, for whatever our amygdala says. Right? Russ: Yep. Guest: And so, one way to try to make progress from both sides is to say, Okay, we're not going to discuss these problems in terms of absolute rights. Because we have no way of figuring out what rights people really have in some ultimate metaphysical sense. And instead we can ask, which kinds of policies actually work. A lot of these things are difficult because we can't do controlled experiments--we're not rats living in a lab. We're people living in a society where it's almost impossible to do controlled experiments with things like the death penalty. Russ: Or a stimulus. Guest: But we can look at other countries that don't have the death penalty and say, well, do they have rampant murder problems? Or, is there something fundamentally different about those societies that's making them relatively murder-free compared to the United States? I think that the empirical battle is winnable, but it's 10 steps forward and 9 steps back.
43:56Russ: So, let me phrase the challenge in a different way. You concede[?] at one point in the book--you reject it, but you concede[?] at one point in the book that people think we're already doing this. We favor the policies that work out the best, or that create the most happiness, or that are good for most people, or the "best policies." And isn't part of the problem really that we're really pretending what we're arguing about? It's all rhetoric? We all have our stories to tell: as Ed Leamer says, we're pattern-seeking, story-telling animals. So we cherry pick our data. And it's just, all this utilitarian stuff, all it's really doing is just giving me a different rhetorical frame. I'm not really going to make progress. So tell me something cheerful. Guest: Uh, so, let's take the case of prison policies and things like solitary confinement and other exceptionally harsh treatments that exist in American prisons. You're seeing, now you're seeing a lot of this in the news. For a long time people on the Left have been saying these practices of exceptionally harsh punishment in prisons is not doing anything to help anyone; it doesn't deter crime very much because most would-be criminals are not paying attention to these levels of details. Russ: Worse. Could be worse. Guest: It makes things miserable for the prisoners. Russ: Could be worse. Guest: Sorry? Russ: Yeah, it could be worse for society. It reduces their ability to come out and do something productive. Guest: Exactly. Right. And what you're seeing now is people on the Right who are coming around to say, Look, it's not productive; this is not helping. This is a place where we're actually I think just beginning to see a consensus on Left and Right, at least on certain flash-point issues like solitary confinement and things like that. And it's really driven by evidence. Russ: That's a good example. And I'd use the drug war as another example. It's hard for--there are a lot of people who see it as a rights-based issue: people should not have the right to harm themselves. And when they see the effect of the drug war, they start--some, not all--but some people do change their minds based on the fact that they actually don't think it's making the world a better place. It's not reducing necessarily even the amount of drugs being taken; it's corrupting the police; etc. So, I don't mean to argue that empirical evidence or reality doesn't come into it. I'm just a little worried about the bigger, overarching claim.
46:48Russ: Let me ask you a couple of different challenges. This is a little bit like ask the doctor; these are hard ones. Uber, the car-sharing, taxi-ish service you can use on your iPhone, recently got in trouble in Sydney, Australia during a crisis situation, and it's happened with other natural disasters: there's an increase in demand somewhere, and the Uber algorithm raises the price. Which draws more drivers into the area. And as an economist, whether I'm a southerner or not--or northerner or not, I mean--that kind of--I love that. I see more people getting out of town. A lot of people can't see it. They don't care, even. They see that it's just wrong to take advantage of people and they think Uber is immoral. And to me it's amoral; and in fact, it's good. So, why do you think people have that reaction to so-called price gouging? Guest: So, I actually haven't followed the details of the Uber situation, and I would say, whether or not I think it's a good or bad thing will probably turn on facts that are not much discussed in the case. So, I think the kind of standard [?] response to price gouging is, you know, there's a flood and the people who are selling buckets are suddenly selling them for a thousand dollars each. And the idea is, you are exploiting those people; you are making it harder for people to deal with their emergency and they could be losing an awful lot. Because you're saying, this is a chance where I could make an extra buck. And so from a utilitarian perspective, you are saying, okay, so you get a little extra money selling your stuff and the other person's house gets flooded--or I should have said fire. In a fire there's a person selling buckets. And the other person's house is burning down, and you're concerned about making a few extra dollars taking advantage of someone in need. There I think the utilitarian analysis clearly says, Price gouging is terrible. You are taking a little gain for yourself relatively speaking, because someone is desperate and they are trying to save their house, which is worth much, much more to them. If that's what's going on, then I think price gouging is bad, and it might be good to have regulations. Russ: And that's a world where there's a fixed number of buckets. Guest: Exactly. Russ: And a fixed number of buckets [?]-- Guest: Now, what's going on with [?] Uber, is all of these people saying, 'You know, I'm willing to work overtime', essentially: 'I'm willing to add extra travel capacity; but I'm not willing to do it for my usual price. I'm willing to do it for a little bit more; but fortunately there are people who are willing to pay for it.' I actually think that that is, overall, a better thing. So if it's actually increasing the availability in a time when people need it, that's better. Now, it would be better still if people said, 'You know what? I'm willing to do this as a kind of partial public service where I will get paid for it but I'm not going to increase my rate even though I could.' That would be even better. But we naturally compare it to Uber at the usual price instead of someone staying home and not driving at all. So, when I said that I think it depends critically on facts that aren't normally discussed, I would say it really depends on whether or not the alternative is not providing the service, as opposed to providing the service at the usual price. Russ: So, I'm going to concede my utilitarian side here, agree with you in the following way. Which is, I think one of the things that's often missing from these conversations, and it's missing from some of the moral dilemmas in the psychology literature that you cite, is an awareness of what Hayek called the knowledge problem--the fact that knowledge is dispersed and it's very hard to get it in the real world into people's heads quickly. So in the case of Sydney, a lot of people didn't know that there was a crisis going on. A lot of people didn't realize there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people that wanted to get to the airport. And maybe if they knew they would have volunteered to help them. They would have done a bunch of things. But that app alerted dozens or hundreds of drivers that there are a bunch of people who needed help. Guest: Right. Russ: And that price played an incredibly important role. Guest: Yes. Russ: So, my utilitarian side, where it agrees with you, is that I actually am naive enough to think that if more and more people understood that phenomenon, they would be more understanding of higher prices in crises. That's my idealistic, utilitarian side. Guest: Yeah, nope, I agree. I think it's well said.
51:31Russ: So, I want to take an example you use that I found really interesting; I think all of us have to think about it, whether we are utilitarian or not. It's an example you take from Peter Singer. You say, you are out strolling in the park and you come across a shallow pond, and there's a small child stumbled into it and is going to drown. You can wade in and save the child, but you are going to ruin your $500 suit. And most people say, you are morally obligated to wade in. You have to give up the $500 suit to save the child. The problem is that it's much more difficult to then say: Instead of buying the $500 suit, you should have sent it to a charity in Africa to save a child's life, and maybe two children. So, talk about that issue from the utilitarian perspective and how you respond to it. Guest: Right. So, I think that Peter Singer had one of the most important insights of the 21st century. Which is the nonobvious moral equivalence of those two cases that you describe. Which is of course controversial, but I think he's basically right. And I think that this is reflected in our intuitive morality, both as a result of our biology and our cultural experience. So, you know, we evolve both biologically and culturally to live in relatively small groups in which we cooperate: we solve the tragedy of the commons with the people who are immediately around us. And so when you imagine seeing that child right in front of you, that pushes those emotional buttons that say, You have to do something; this is a person that counts, this is a person who is or is likely to be a member of your community. But, we didn't evolve to cooperate with or even care about people on the other side of the world. And so, from a biological perspective, the mystery is not why are we indifferent to far-away suffering but even why do we care about the people in front of us? But, I argue, as many people argue, that this is what morality is about: it makes you willing to pay that cost, at least in the short term, to benefit somebody else. But overall we all end up better off if we all have these moral impulses. So, I think that this is essentially a limitation of our intuitive morality, that through some combination of biological and cultural shaping, it pushes our emotional moral buttons when we have the child right in front of us, but children or even worse, adults, on the other side of the world don't push our buttons in that way. I think that if we're looking to construct a meta-morality, that is, to have a kind of moral standard that can work for the whole world, as opposed to just the tribe, then it's going to require valuing the lives, valuing the wellbeing of distant people as much as we value the wellbeing of people who are nearby. Maybe not in our hearts, but at least in terms of the kinds of policies that we feel that we can publicly justify. Russ: Yeah. And my first thought when I read your example is that this knowledge problem, which is--when I give the $250, the $500 to the charity, I'm not sure it's really going to make a difference. And of course that could just be my rationalization for why I can be selfish and hold my head high. So, I think your book makes us think about those issues in a very thoughtful way, and I think one of the biggest lessons of the book is: Slow down. You are so sure that you know what the right thing is: step back and be open. And this is a theme of Jonathan Haidt's also, who you cite and who has been a guest on the program. It's hard, but try to put yourself in the shoes of somebody else's morality. It's a very productive thing to do. Guest: Yep. Think slow when it comes to morality is I think one of the major points of my book. Russ: Unless you are on the footbridge. Then you have to think fast or it's too late. Let me raise a different set of issues. As an economist I think sometimes about the minimum wage and how controversial it is, and the arguments on both sides. And deep down I do like to think that it's a utilitarian issue, is that: What is really best for poor people and low-skilled people and does this really help them or does it hurt them? And both sides have evidence, of course. Guest: Right. Russ: And just as an aside you make a great point that a lot of people are northerners because--they are individualists because they are selfish. And it gives them cover. But their selfishness, what I think you failed to point out, is that southerners sometimes like to run people's lives, and like power. Each side has its own sort of evil twin, evil cousin, that if we're not careful-- Guest: I have to say, though--I think things are not quite as symmetrical on that point. I really do think that selfishness is pretty basic and pervasive for humans and for other animals. I think that the idea of the liberal who inherently wants to run other people's lives--I actually think that that's a myth. I think that that's a boogie man. I think that--there are certainly plenty of misguided liberals and liberal policies, people who think something is going to help but it actually ends up making things worse. But I don't think that a desire to sort of run other people's lives is actually a major force behind either well-guided or misguided liberalism. That's my take on it. [?] Russ: Well, I like your asymmetry point. The problem is, is that centralizing power can lead to totalitarianism, and it often is justified because it's benign. And of course it's rarely--in my opinion, it's rarely benign. Guest: That I agree with. I would say the rank-and-file liberal voters, let's say, I don't think are particularly interested in running other people's lives. But I agree that there is a strong tendency towards mission creep and that once individuals have a certain power to do something, then they have an incentive to maintain and expand that power. I think that that's absolutely right.
57:58Russ: So, what I was going to say, though, before I digressed: minimum wage is an important thing, I think. A more important problem is: What do we do about people who are struggling to acquire skills or who have trouble finding a job, and it's of course a very complex problem. We have some empirical evidence, hard to argue about. Let's take a bigger problem, what I would call a bigger problem, which is the problem of what you might call the 'bottom billion.' People are not just struggling to express themselves, or making less than they otherwise would, but are near death. Really tragic, horrible situations around the world. I don't see that very much as a common-sense morality problem; it's more of a power, 0-sum game where people are taking money from other folks and keeping a system going that is good for them and not so good for the rest of the people. Guest: These are in autocratic regimes, like perhaps the best example would be North Korea, right? Russ: Correct. Guest: Where you have a powerful elite who are basically holding a lot of human potential hostage. Russ: Right. Do you agree with that? Guest: Hmm? Yeah. I think that a lot of the world's worst situations are the result of corrupt politics. You know. As opposed to real, sort of moral disagreement among communities. Russ: Yeah. I think, other than global warming, which potentially threatens the planet--although I'm a skeptic, to some extent--of course. [?] You're not. As we would expect. Most of these problems are--many of our worst problems are not meta-morality problems, it seems to me that we just don't know what's going on. Either we don't know what's going on fully, or there's something more basic going on. So, again, I like your attempt to avoid conflict; I'm not sure it's the central problem. Guest: But even then though, we as third parties face a moral question, right? Which is: Do we intervene? And if we do intervene, how do we intervene? Do we use force to overthrow an oppressive regime? Or, do we impose economic sanctions as a result of what we see as human rights abuses? And there are disagreements within our own community about how if at all we should respond to people who are being oppressed by bad political arrangements. So I think that in a sense the powerful economies of the world, those nations could get together, pretty much do what they want to most of the world's nasty autocratic regimes, and it's a question of, why don't we, and is it wise restraint or a lack of moral will or something in between that prevents us from doing that? Russ: I agree with you there that it's not so much to me the utilitarian argument but the consequentialist argument, relative to, say, a rights-based argument. People will argue we need to intervene in this situation because it's just the right thing to do. Those people over there, their rights are being violated; we have to help them and we have the power to do so. And I look at it and say, Well, we've tried this 9 times; it worked 1 of them. That's not good. Maybe we should be more cautious.
1:01:32Russ: Let's close with a philosophical issue which is really beautiful in the book, where you imagine--you have an incredible thought experiment. And you use it to argue for utilitarianism. I wasn't persuaded by it, but I loved it. I thought it was great. So, imagine we could create a world of three different kinds of species. Species 1 is Homo selfishus. Species 2 is Homo justlikeus. And Species 3 is Homo utilitus. Tell us what are those three species and what you come down with--what's your argument? Guest: Right. Yeah. So, let's provide a little bit of a background for this. I think that one of the big problems philosophically with utilitarianism is the Peter Singer problem, and seeing where it goes. That is, what utilitarianism essentially says is that, at least if you are an ideal utilitarian, you'll turn yourself into a happiness pump. That is, you will just use whatever resources you have to make the world as happy as possible. And what that means in practice is using all of your resources to alleviate the misery of people who are in the worst possible shape. Right? And so there's nothing left for you personally, nothing left for your friends and your family--it's all just going to the bottom 1%. And so, how do you make sense of that, because that seems to be above and beyond? And it seems to be a point against utilitarianism, if it's overly demanding. So it's essentially a question of how does a utilitarian or deep pragmatist deal with this over-de mandingness objection? And my answer is to say, Look, instead of putting the blame on utilitarianism, why don't we put the blame on ourselves, but accept that there are limits to how much we are going to do about it. So, when I have a birthday party for my son and my daughter instead of just giving the money to charity, question, can I really justify that in utilitarian terms? And in a sense, I can't. But at the same time, you have to operate within the limitations of your own mind and your own species. We didn't evolve for universal benevolence. And so it's not, I think, really in the cards for us to try to go there, at least not directly. Nevertheless, I think that we can step back and recognize that there is something better about universal benevolence; and that's what this thought experiment is about. So, what we say is: suppose that you are a god, or God, or just in charge of the universe, and you can create a new species; and Homo selfishus is a species of people where they only care about themselves, themselves and a few other people, and they do everything they can to amass as many resources for themselves as individual and don't care about anybody else. And this ends up being a Hobbesian nightmare, and obviously this is not a very good world to live in. So we'll say, okay, we are not going to create that species. The real contenders are what I call Homo justlikeus and Homo utilitus. Home justlikeus is, we care a lot about ourselves and the people with whom we have close relationships, our close friends and our family and to some extent about people with whom we have a certain shared identity. And most of the world, we care about in a distant kind of way but not enough to make much of a sacrifice. So, we can know that there are people who, children who are dying of preventable diseases, and we say, 'Well, I'd like to help but instead I'm going to renovate my kitchen because I'd like it to look nicer.' And in that world, a lot of people are very happy but there's an enormous amount of preventable misery that doesn't get prevented because people aren't willing to make any kind of sacrifice for people with whom they don't have a kind of personal connection. And then Homo utilitus is this species where everybody loves everybody, or at least everybody is willing to make sacrifices for the wellbeing of other people. And in that world, you might imagine, mindless drones who have no personality or no personal relationships. But I think that's the wrong way to think about it. But I think the right way to think about it is in terms of just some of the people who are a bit more heroic than most of us--someone who's willing to donate a kidney to a stranger, or someone, like Wesley Autrey who is willing to dive in front of a subway car to save a guy who is having an epileptic seizure from being crushed by a train. If you had a worldful of people like that who have friends and family and take care of themselves but who are willing to make sacrifices for other people when there are other people in great need, I think the world would be a lot happier. And even if we don't have it in us to make those sort of sacrifices, we sort of fallible humans, we can see that that would be a kind of better species, the kind of species you would choose to make if you were in charge of the universe. And so the idea is if you actually step back from the limitations of our human values, we can see that even as we are unwilling to abandon the selfishness and the parochialism of our commitments, we can see that there would be something admirable, or that it would be more ideal if we could expand our concern, even if we don't see ourselves doing that any time soon. Russ: Yeah. I just want to comment: it's interesting in Jewish law, you are obligated to give 10% of your income to charity. You can give up to 20%, but after 20% you are discouraged because you risk becoming poor yourself. And that's again a kind of-- Guest: I didn't know about that. Russ: A limit. So that's kind of a utilitarian, consequentialist motive in there.
1:07:07Russ: So, we're overtime, but it's so interesting. I'll close with one last question and let you finish it up. You talk about the fact that these tribal differences--it's a little bit depressing. You propose a way to try to improve on them. A lot of people are very discouraged about the state of political life in America, the kind of differences we've been talking about philosophical differences which seem to be difficult to resolve, and you propose one way to get there, to improve things. One view would say, it's getting worse. A lot of people think it's getting worse: we're more partisan, we're more combative, we get less done. And of course as a northern I always think, 'Well, maybe that's a good thing,' or maybe I don't want us to work together so much because I don't always like the outcome. But put that to the side. The general feeling is things are getting worse. And yet at the same time you have people like Steven Pinker, who you cite in the book, who is saying, things are getting a lot better; we're actually making progress as human beings in how we treat each other. Where do you fall on that--half full, half empty? What do you think? Guest: I think that Pinker and the evidence he cites is absolutely right. That is, in almost every way that matters, the world is getting better. Now that's not to say that there couldn't be some grand reversal, as a result of climate change or recently, you've talked about unfriendly artificial intelligence with Nick Bostrom, which is something I've been thinking a lot about myself. And things like that. So, I don't want to say that our continued-- Russ: We're out of the woods-- Guest: peace and prosperity have to, as a matter of social scientific law continue forever. But I think that despite the sense we get from reading the newspaper, the world is absolutely getting better. And if the question is why, I think it's because we are cobbling together a meta-morality; that we are building systems that allow us to put us ahead of me, but allow us to reconcile the competing moral visions of the world's different us-es and forge some kind of global system that can allow as many people as possible to flourish.


COMMENTS (53 to date)
Keith Vertrees writes:

Trolley problem? Not buying it. The answer to every trolley problem is James T. Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru. If Mr. Greene prefer's Spock's solution, fine, but he is only entitled to make that choice for himself.

Dale Jung writes:

Could've one have made a Utilitarian argument for the Drug War on its onset?

Josiah writes:

Toward the end of the podcast, Prof. Greene offers up a thought experiment about whether it would be better if human beings were more utilitarian than they actually are. He says yes. This idea, however, needn't remain merely theoretical. Research has found, for example, that people with certain types of brain damage are more prone to making utilitarian moral judgments. If we wanted to make people more utilitarian, we could simply remove the offending portions of people's brains.

Does Prof. Greene think this would be a good idea? Is he ethically obligated to inflict this sort of brain damage on himself? It might make him less likely to throw a birthday party for his kids, but if he makes sure their brains are similarly damaged perhaps they won't mind so much.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I find the "price gouging" issue to be one of reflexive common sense morality versus thinking utilitarianism. "Common sense" is that it is "evil". Only someone who has a good grasp of the market system could understand why high prices during emergencies could be good (more proper rationing based on need, and encouraging additional supply). I think you have to be fairly intellectual to get it.

Your guest's conclusion is 100% wrong. The world is getting better because more people are able to act in their own self-interest (for example, pro-market reforms in India & China bringing hundrdeds of millions out of absolute poverty and hundreds of millions into the global middle class) rather than being forced to act in the cause of "benevolence".

Kevin F writes:

I think the absolute best discussion of this topic comes from Richard Epstein in a talk he gave on consequentialism, which I uploaded to soundcloud here.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Josiah wrote:

"Toward the end of the podcast, Prof. Greene offers up a thought experiment about whether it would be better if human beings were more utilitarian than they actually are. He says yes. This idea, however, needn't remain merely theoretical. Research has found, for example, that people with certain types of brain damage are more prone to making utilitarian moral judgments. If we wanted to make people more utilitarian, we could simply remove the offending portions of people's brains."

This example reminds me of the trolley problem. Much as there will never be a real-life version of the trolley problem (part of the trolley problem is being 100% certain that pushing the guy will save the other people, not pushing the guy means they will all die, nothing will go wrong, etc.), there will never be a real-life surgical procedure that would have no effect (including risks and side effects) beyond causing people "to be more utilitarian". Also, I'm fairly certain that Greene's idea of utilitarianism differs from Scott Sumner's idea of utilitarianism differs from the aspects of utilitarianism that Russ Roberts views favorably, differs from whatever chanes occur as a result of that surgical procedure, etc.

So, are you asking the trolley problem version of your question (where the procedure will be 100% successful, produce a certain result and have no other effects) or a real-life version of the question, where "research has found" something that appears to promote utilitarianism?

John Scott writes:

Professor Green gave Peter Singer high praise for formulating the scenario which contrasts a person's willingness to save a drowning child with that person's reluctance to donate a small sum to save a child's life on the other side of the world.

I expected Russ to helpfully point out that Singer's contrast was nearly identical to Adam Smith's story about the Chinese earthquake in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wherein Smith asserts that a man, "If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own." Given his area of research, I think Green might profit from reading Smith's theory of morality even more than the average economist would profit.

I understand Russ' reluctance to get further into the weeds regarding how Green could have enriched his ideas by understanding more of economics. But when Green asserted that the "south" (modern liberalism) does not want to run people's lives, I so wanted to hear how Green would answer the following objection. "But the south wants government to determine what people build on their land, what kind of toilet they use, the fuel efficiency of their car, what kind of health care policy they can/must buy, and a thousand other details of life." I, perhaps lacking imagination, cannot understand what the "south" thinks they are doing, if not running people's lives.

Josiah Neeley writes:

there will never be a real-life surgical procedure that would have no effect (including risks and side effects) beyond causing people "to be more utilitarian".

In the sense that no medical procedure is risk-free, sure. But there are plenty of medical procedures where the benefits are far greater than the risks. If one of your kids got appendicitis, I'm sure you would want the doctors to operate, even though there are risks involved in doing so.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

The fly-in-the-ointment for allowing "Utilitarian" morality free play in the political arena is the unstated premise that Professor Greene is advancing: namely, that people, when making political decisions, are typically rational, knowledgeable of all (or any) empirical evidence, and logical. Not only does that not describe the vast majority of voters, but the converse does. Your typical voter is woefully ignorant of almost all empirical data, highly irrational, cravenly self-promoting, and prone to making "snap" emotional decisions based usually on whatever ideological biases drive them. Politicians and lobbyists are even worse-- they make an art-form out of distorting, misinterpreting, and fabricating data to further whatever political end is most politically desirable to them at the moment. Voters, politicians and the people running the political show do not care "what is best" even if they had a clue as to "what was best". To pretend otherwise is ludicrous.

As John Scott above has correctly alluded to, the idea that liberals don't want to run others lives is quite risible, absolutely preposterous. The whole point of their political philosophy is to force and coerce others--using the State-- to act in ways that the liberal favors (and usually financially benefits from).

To illustrate the point I've made above, take this chestnut:

So, take the case of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Now, let's suppose that I know that this is controversial. But let's suppose that government spending can provide good stimulus to the economy and can increase employment and make things better off for the people who are employed as a result. Okay, so you have to do a tradeoff.

Do we really expect the average voter, politician or lobbyist to actually understand the "empirical" evidence here? To accurately calculate the seen (make-work government jobs gained) and the unseen(private sector jobs that weren't created in another sector of the economy due to higher taxes)? Even if your typical voter, politician, or lobbyist wanted to do so fully, accurately and dispassionately follow all the tradeoffs involved in a highly complex economic system involving millions of interdependent variables, and they've resoundingly indicated they most certainly do not, there is no evidence whatsoever that would indicate they could.

It all seems like a backdoor to liberal government intervention. Nice try, but no thanks...

Mikekikon writes:

The discussion of "what is morality" in the beginning of this podcast was one the most succinct and excellent explanations I've heard. It is the same view espoused by Sam Harris in his recent book "The Moral Landscape" and Henry Hazlitt in his brilliant but sadly unknown book "The Foundations of Morality". Ludwig von Mises also held this view.

The whole discussion was EconTalk at its best. I think that Greene doesn't put quite enough emphasis on the importance of general rules of conduct (moral rules and rights), which may have long term utilitarian basis that may not always be clear in specific situations or the short term. Maybe there is a good long run reason to not allow people to get in the habit of taking other peoples fates into their own hands and pushing unsuspecting bystanders off bridges.

Utilitarian answers are not always obvious, which is what you would expect from the correct understanding of morality. That is why we all have such a hard time agreeing, after all.

mtipton writes:

Richard Epstein's - "How consequentialism helps define morality" should be a must listen to anyone dealing with these topics. He has ideas that are worth contending with for anyone looking into morality.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmjICjDq0l4

His "Kantian" consequentialism squared the circle for me in terms of reconciling individual rights with the greater good.

mtipton writes:

John Scott writes -

"I, perhaps lacking imagination, cannot understand what the "south" thinks they are doing, if not running people's lives."

You should know by now that for the average liberal economic liberties are unimportant in their evaluation of a persons conscious well being. In the extreme control of a person's reproductive decisions for the greater good could be perfectly acceptable. Thankfully most of them don't have such a narrow view of human well being, it's still kind of narrow since they don't tend to place a lot of weight in human agency in general.

mtipton writes:

We should do that which is for the greater good -The general idea is that: A society that generally condemns throwing people off of bridges is generally a society that results in the greatest good. The bias against pushing people off bridges in order to save more lives is more than just a gut reaction against ONE act of violence, it’s a discomfort with a moral framework that is unfamiliar to us, we are raised in an individual rights kind of framework and we intuitively know that in the long run we don’t want a society that SYSTEMATICALLY does that, makes decisions about people’s individual rights in a utilitarian fashion, why? Because we know such a society will not lead to the greatest good in the long run. So it is a utilitarian argument for a strong protection of individual rights.

mtipton writes:

What can the different tribes do to get along? I am originally from Mexico, “Benito Pablo Juárez García, was a Mexican lawyer and politician of Zapotec origin from Oaxaca who served as the president of Mexico for five terms: 1858–1861 as interim, then 1861–1865, 1865–1867, 1867–1871 and 1871–1872 as constitutional president”(Wikipedia). He was a CLASSICAL LIBERAL. I had to memorize a famous phrase of his when I was in elementary school which had NO MEANING to me at the time which has come to mean so much: “"Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." So I don’t think Utilitarianism of the democratic/collectivist nature espoused by the author applied globally is the solution to conflict, CLASSICAL LIBERALISM is. What philosophy has the capacity of embracing the most diverse ways of life, religious, moral and otherwise? If we can get to a place of respect among nations and the different ways of life that come with geopolitical, social, and economic differences, we might know peace. And as more nations adopt more of a classical liberal political system within, hopefully the wonder of the system will be enjoyed by more and more people around the world OR not, if individual rights for some reason don’t prove to be beneficial to the people of some nations due to particular realities of time and place. My bias is to believe that protection of individual rights generally results in good outcomes for people, however I won’t deny it could be possible that authoritarianism could be the best system for some people at a point in time. If I have to fight on one side I will consistently be on the “rights” side, bottom up approach.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

What are 5 people doing on trolley tracks? Why aren't they on the footbridge, where they'd be safe? Shouldn't they take some marginal responsibility for their own safety, like the man on the footbridge presumably has? If you save them, are they just going to get themselves killed in some other way right after?

There's the awkward fact that, in the standard phrasing, the only person who seems to have acted in a way that would promote everybody surviving is the large man on the footbridge who's exhibiting a modicum of self-preservation that everyone would do well to emulate, and it's hard to avoid the impression of a group of 5 people blundering around repeatedly getting individual careful bystanders killed to save them.

I find that my gut reaction is much more similar to the lever case if, for example, everyone's a construction worker, the tracks were supposed to be closed, and the trolley is coming down them due to some sort of unforeseeable accident. In this situation, the people have all taken reasonable care and the one person is initially safe purely by chance, and I don't feel so bad about altering that outcome.

Of course, it is more utilitarian (or pragmatic) to save people whose long-term prospects are better and whose habits impose less of a cost on the rest of society, so the 5 people who are in a precarious position it seems they should have been able to avoid count less than one person who can go from place to place without anyone needing to die each time.

mtipton writes:

We should go with general rules that are applied equally among all peoples’ that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. The harder thing is the sub-rules that pertain more directly to action that support that general rule. I won't reiterate here what Richard Epstein does a great job discussing in his "How consequentialism helps define moral Theory" YOUtube video. Giving a rationalist framework for evaluating whether a transaction increases or decreases good in a society within an evolved framework that we've inherited from the ages of human interaction in the form of cultural, political and legal evolution.

mtipton writes:

The author seems to imply that the human race is broken because we don’t concern ourselves with pain being suffered across the world nearly as much as we should. What if the more rational design not just for human survival but for the flourishing of human societies is one that focuses our attention and energies on problems that are more local and hence we have better information and are better able to actually have an impact in their improvement? What if resources are better used if we expend our energies in problems we’re better able or suited to solve? If all peoples concerned themselves with their kind then everyone would be taken care-off. Should rich Chinese people concern themselves with poor inner city kids in the US? Should rich Mexicans concern themselves with poor kids in India? I am not saying no help should ever be given in an emergency situation like a hurricane or even on a general basis like A LOT of American charitable organizations do around the world. Just that there is no intrinsic superiority to doing this like the author seems to suggest. Focusing your energies on people closest to you can make as much sense and even MORE sense since typically you’ll understand the problem better and have a better shot at ACTUALLY improving things. This is where I wish the importance of Hayek's Knowledge problem was more appreciated.

mtipton writes:

Another way of saying this is that we should expend our energies where we think we'll be most effective, and where knowledge and information leads us to act, a lot of times is going to be local problems. If my skills are important to solving an issue in China, and I come across information I am well suited to solving then I should go for it. I guess social entrepreneurship is what we should be after. I forget her name, it's an American lawyer Kimberley Motley that went to Afghanistan to work for a company and ended up helping Afghani women fight for basic rights and won. So do good where you can, but I ultimately think there is no one way. Bottom-up, top-downish (when not violating individual rights), and more organic is the way things will improve.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Josiah Neely writes:

"In the sense that no medical procedure is risk-free, sure. But there are plenty of medical procedures where the benefits are far greater than the risks. If one of your kids got appendicitis, I'm sure you would want the doctors to operate, even though there are risks involved in doing so."

Sure. But I would never dream of bringing my kid in for a prophylactic appendectomy. And I think we have a far greater understanding of the risks and benefits of appendectomy than we do about iatrogenic brain lesions...

Michael Byrnes writes:

John Scott wrote:

"But when Green asserted that the "south" (modern liberalism) does not want to run people's lives, I so wanted to hear how Green would answer the following objection. "But the south wants government to determine what people build on their land, what kind of toilet they use, the fuel efficiency of their car, what kind of health care policy they can/must buy, and a thousand other details of life." I, perhaps lacking imagination, cannot understand what the "south" thinks they are doing, if not running people's lives."

Greene answered this. He specifically defended the motivations of the "south"; he did not try to argue that the results of all "southern" policies were uniformly good. Heck, most "southerners" are the governed, not the governors.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Michael Byrnes

Greene answered this. He specifically defended the motivations of the "south";

Greene did answer this--extremely unconvincingly. Modern liberals are clearly motivated by financial self-interest and clearly dissatisfied with the market mechanism allocating goods and services based on direct consumer preferences. Liberals disproportionately are employed in the public sector (and therefore equate higher taxes with higher pay). They are disproportionately public schools teachers, employed directly or indirectly by the government, sinecured college profs and naturally equate higher taxes with increased employment and advancement opportunities. Or they are those groups with lower-than-average income (single women, African Americans, Hispanics) that, consequently, pay lower-than-average taxes (and quite frequently, no taxes at all).

All those groups believe, and I think quite correctly, that consumers acting in the market, left to their own devices, would not financially support all the goodies that enrich liberals. The welfare state is simply a mechanism that overrides consumer preference, misdirecting substantial amounts of capital and resources to government programs that disproportionately enrich low-income, middle class and especially upper class liberals.

The primary "beneficiaries" of means-tested "welfare programs" are not the poor, but rather the bureaucrats at HHS and State-level agencies that administer those programs. Direct payments to program recipients are typically no more than 15% of the budget for such programs. The primary "beneficiaries" of education spending are not "the children" (poor or otherwise), but the army of teachers, administrators, and related employees. The overwhelming bulk of education spending is spent to finance the salaries, benefits, and retirement packages directed at said teachers, administrators, and related employees. The only major government programs the typical liberal might object to is military spending: liberals usually see that money funneled into the pockets of others and they don't have much use for that.

Overriding the preferences of consumers is what primarily motivates the modern liberal. That is, by definition, a coercive activity. This is what anti-capitalism is all about. Capitalism can logically be defined as merely allowing consumers and investors to act as they wish without political interference. Political manipulation of the market to further political interest groups can logically define its opposite. However, liberals make a living off that political interference and favor extensive political manipulation in the economic sphere. What makes the liberal so objectionable to me, is the political support they lend to the ruling class to do the coercing, manipulating, and exploiting--the creating of favored "classes" (those who consistently get more than they give) and the necessary result, exploited classes (those who consistently give more than they get). This assertion that this political coercion, manipulation, and exploitation has a "moral" veneer is absurd. It's only a "might-makes-right" bare-knuckled fight in the pursuit naked self-interest.

The results of those policies are, of course, can be and are often quite bad. Greece (or Detroit) is a poster child for what happens when liberal policies are pursued without check: powerful unions + bloated government + massive spending = economic ruination. But even if these policies weren't disastrous, the cavalier disregard liberals have for the consumer preferences and economic self-interest of others makes them reprehensible enough.

Peter B writes:

At about 37 minutes in, Russ talked about our imperfect democracy which can be exploited by individuals for their own advantage. But one of the perennial problems of the Republic, which was the, ah, moral sentiment underlying the Civil War, was that it was wrong for individuals, a class of individuals, or society as a whole to seize the labor of others as a class, and that there was no due process that would permit that.

But in the pursuit of equality of outcome, we have put in place class "rights" and class liabilities. That has resulted in individuals, for their own gain, giving advantage or disadvantage not to others as individuals, but to others as a class – which advances the mob and destroys the Republic.

Bevis Schock writes:

A movie currently in theatres, "Unbroken" has in it an interesting scene somewhat related to the trolley problems. A Japanese prison camp boss lines up all the US prisoners and tells them that each one must punch the hero of the story, "Louie" in the face. Meanwhile, the boss has a weakened prisoner on the ground and the penalty, if the first prisoner in line will not punch Louie in the face, is that the prisoner on the ground will be beaten by a guard with a big stick.

This appears to me to be a somewhat similar moral quandary to shoving the fat guy off the bridge. Except it really happened.

I think the first guy in line effectively decides for all the guys behind him. He first says he won't do it. The guard then whacks the prisoner on the ground with the stick. Louie sees this and tells the first guy in line to go ahead and slug him in the face. So the first guy in line rears back and slugs Louie in the face.

I thought the first guy in line should have said no - bc to go ahead and slug Louie was essentially to play God as to whom would be harmed. From the prisoner on the ground's perspective he probably felt guilty about having Louie take the hit for him, but was already severely weakened and might have died from the beating, so he was maybe ok with Louie taking the those punches. From Louie's perspective I guess he thought he could take it better than the prisoner on the ground, and so I think he made a good choice.

But, returning to the first guy in line, I think he made a wrong but utilitarian choice, i.e., to do the least harm.

By going ahead and hitting Louie he took the "bad karma" off the prison camp boss and put it on himself which I consider to have been wrong.

Events like this are likely occurring in prison camps all over the world today. While I have certainly never been in such a spot, and we should be very careful criticizing how a person in such a spot makes a pressured decision, I say it would have been better not to have hit the fellow prisoner, no matter what.

I would be interested in Professor Greene's thoughts on this non-academic example.

Bevis Schock, St. Louis

Kevin writes:

Prof Greene is one in a long list of very bright commentators that I have a very hard time taking anything beyond their most fundamental research seriously because they seem to believe that democracy functions like a yearly academic budget meeting where is just a pile of cash and they merely need to rationally decide how to distribute it. As others have said this goes beyond nativity to some sort of willful ignorance. Now, given how bright all these people are I am sure this is not their view and they understand that politics is a mess of ignorant people voting on their own self interest, but they sort of put it aside and assume for the sake of argument that democracy becames a different system. So, sure if we magically put aside that we don't have a hammer we can talk about which nails we need push down but it does seem like a waste of time.

Ahh the trolley experiment. After listening to all the variations and MRI studies about the trolly experiment which the only useful knowledge we have gained is that we have both a gut impulse to problems and a rational impulse - something humans have known forever- I think we need to seriously cut government funding.

As per Greene comment that the "southern" tribe does not want to control others, I am sure that no one views themselves as wishing to control others, as northern tribe members do not view themselves as selfish. But voters are not presented with an essay question for them to express their morality. They are presented with simpler choices often directed by people who clearly want to run others lives.

Utilitarian questions may resolve around empirical questions but as Prof Greene demonstrates about gouging it is often which question you ask that determines the answer. For instance, with regards to capital punishment the empirical question many ask is if it is a deterrent. Lets ask another question - empirically how many executed murderes murder again? And secondly, how many $500 suits/poor children can society help with the saving of a quick execution of a young murderer. As Prof Greene suggests if we are willing to ignore rights because they conflate the issues, obviously a quick execution will increase the generalized happiness of the population, save tons of money that will increase the happiness of the population. Seems like a slam dunk.

mtipton writes:

Greene says:

"What I propose as a solution to the tragedy of common sense morality is a much maligned and poorly named philosophy which many of your listeners will be familiar with, known as utilitarianism.

And so a good standard for resolving public disagreements is to say we should go with whatever option is going to produce the best overall experience for the people who are affected."

Really? I think we should solve cancer by coming up with a cure. Not very helpful is it? The problem is not that you don't have a great deal of people having utilitarianish values, is that even when you do, there's little agreement on what policies result in the greater good. So ultimately there is no escaping ideology, sub-values, world view and gut instinct, these all drive how we interpret and cherry pick "evidence", facts, studies, data, historical events etc. Utilitarian philosophy by itself doesn't have enough to provide answers to the bigger questions. See I am a classical liberal and I FEEL that a lot of liberal's BAD IDEAS stem form ignorance of economics, political science and history. Share the feeling with regards to right wingers? Solve that puzzle. Who's right? I care a great deal about reality, science and evidence and I am a Consequentialist yet ME and YOU are probably far apart Prof. Greene. Why? What information am I missing that you have? What information are YOU missing that I have?

Russ Roberts writes:

Mark Crankshaw,

I am not a fan of public welfare--I prefer shutting it down and letting private charity flourish in its place. The total amount given would be smaller than the amount the government spends now on the poor but I think it would do a better job helping people on both sides of the transaction.

But the government is pretty good at the literal job of giving away money. I'd like to see you document your claim that only 15% of welfare money goes to the recipients with the rest going to the bureaucrats. It appears for example, that only 6% of the SNAP budget goes to administrative costs. There are many things wrong with the welfare state. Overhead is not the biggest problem.

Russell (not Russ Roberts) writes:
I am not a fan of public welfare--I prefer shutting it down and letting private charity flourish in its place. The total amount given would be smaller than the amount the government spends now on the poor but I think it would do a better job helping people on both sides of the transaction.

In addition, if gov't got out of the welfare/charity game, none of us have any idea how that would change the game. It's quite possible that the smaller total amount that's given would be more than sufficient because with gov't not subsidizing, encouraging and expanding poverty, WE MIGHT HAVE FEWER POOR PEOPLE! Personally, I believe that would absolutely be the case.

Russell (not Russ Roberts) writes:
So, I think the kind of standard [?] response to price gouging is, you know, there's a flood and the people who are selling buckets are suddenly selling them for a thousand dollars each. And the idea is, you are exploiting those people; you are making it harder for people to deal with their emergency and they could be losing an awful lot. Because you're saying, this is a chance where I could make an extra buck. And so from a utilitarian perspective, you are saying, okay, so you get a little extra money selling your stuff and the other person's house gets flooded--or I should have said fire. In a fire there's a person selling buckets. And the other person's house is burning down, and you're concerned about making a few extra dollars taking advantage of someone in need. There I think the utilitarian analysis clearly says, Price gouging is terrible. You are taking a little gain for yourself relatively speaking, because someone is desperate and they are trying to save their house, which is worth much, much more to them. If that's what's going on, then I think price gouging is bad, and it might be good to have regulations. Russ: And that's a world where there's a fixed number of buckets. Guest: Exactly.

I know Russ Roberts knows this, but I don't know much about the guest so I'm not sure: even in a world with a fixed number of buckets, "gouging" will cause the buckets to move to where they are needed.

Russ Roberts writes:

Russell (not Russ Roberts),

In a world where the number of buckets is fixed, "gouging" allocates the buckets to those people willing to pay the most. Not the same as where they are needed. I would argue that that latter phrase is not well-defined. I would also argue that those willing to pay the most need not be the richest people. Anti-gougers often assume that the rich will get all the buckets. That isn't necessarily true.

Dan writes:

"Trolley problem" - You are not saving anyone but merely delaying their death, if that. Let God do the saving. Your obligation is to not kill, not to trade off lives.

"$500 suit" - Isn't the suit supporting the tailor and a bunch of suppliers? Maybe in the end, the global economy contributes enough to those children by hiring their parents instead of giving them free money which is many times counterproductive.

As an aside, how do socialists end up with labels such as "liberal" and "progressive"? Aren't we all for progress and liberty? And who's the "conservative"? Who wants to conserve a dynastic America, a broken family society, or slavery through dependence on the state?

Dan writes:

BTW, good discussion. Thanks Russ, and thank you Mr Greene.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@Russ Roberts

I'd like to see you document your claim that only 15% of welfare money goes to the recipients with the rest going to the bureaucrats.

First, I very much agree that overhead costs are not the biggest problem with welfare. In my view, our welfare system is meant to stifle internal migration and to segregate and manage "the poor" in the interest of an "urban elite". Residency requirements attached to welfare eligibility ensure that "the poor" remain isolated in disadvantaged communities--the rural hinterland or urban ghetto-- those communities with bad schools, dysfunctional families, and few employment opportunities. Escape is exceedingly difficult. This is done so that the wealthy urban elite need not be inconvenienced by actually seeing or thinking about "the poor". Out of sight, out of mind (and not in competition).

As I recall, what I actually said was that

"Direct payments to program recipients are typically no more than 15% of the budget for such programs".
Thus, I was contending that the bulk of the HHS budget goes either to the bureaucrats and other the providers of services to the poor. You are absolutely correct that the bureaucrats do not completely consume the remaining indirect payments.

I had in mind a chart I had seen recently regarding the 2014 FY budget outlays for the Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.hhs.gov/budget/fy2014/fy-2014-budget-in-brief.pdf). On Page 1, there is a chart detailing the Budget outlays by percentage: TANF 2%, Children's Entitlements 3%, Discretionary 8%, and other Mandatory Programs 2% (a total of 15%)--the remainder Medicaid (31%) and Medicare (54%).

If one assumes that those outlay categories approximate direct payments to "the poor" (which is not certain that they all are), and that the remainder of the HHS budget (Medicaid) is either indirect or not targeted to the poor, this was the basis of my 15% estimate.

However, your point is well taken. The bureaucracy does not consume 85% of the budget as my post suggested. The bureaucracy is an substantial expense but not the greatest. I forgot to add "the providers" of services to the poor. Every business would love to have government subsidize the goods and services that they sell--putting cash in the hands of one's clientele is great for the old bottom line. The point I was trying to make, in this case ineptly and incorrectly, was that the bulk of welfare payments are not made directly to "the poor" but are made to administration of government programs and to the providers of services (medical, housing, food) to relatively affluent administrators and providers.

Each group is thus politically incentivized to ratchet up welfare payments (even when poverty rates fall) because that's how they make a living or fatten up their bottom line. If we provided a means-tested "used car" allowance to "the poor", this would be a real financial boon to used car retailers as well and they would, no doubt, lobby for ever greater allowances on behalf of the poor. SNAP (Food stamps) is aggressively pushed by the Farm lobby and food retailers since it can pad its income at taxpayers (and consumer) expense.

The poor are not politically powerful. It is clear to me that they did not bring about these programs. Someone politically powerful did. There are then two possible explanations for the existence of programs "for the poor": either the politically powerful implemented these programs altruistically on behalf of a third party (the poor) that they quite openly disdain or they implemented them to benefit themselves (while disingenuously feigning altruism). I find the former hard to believe--even absurd, it goes completely against human nature, it doesn't fit any of the facts. The latter fits human nature like a glove, absolutely perfectly in every way.

Greg G writes:

Hats off to Daniel Barkalow for one of my favorite EconTalk comments ever.

You did a great job of responding thoughtfully to the parts of the Trolley Problem that deserve a serious response while also showing why a confusing problem really should leave us confused sometimes - all while being hilarious throughout.

Well played sir. If I ever encounter any of these troublesome trolleys I fully intend to steal your ideas on how to deal with them.

Greg G writes:

Mark Crankshaw,

Your screeds against "the" modern liberal and "the ruling class" are rich in unintended irony. Why is it that the self appointed champions of the individual are always those with such stereotyped views of their intellectual opponents? Did it ever occur to you to consider those who disagree with you as individuals rather than interchangeable representatives of a group?

>---"There are then two possible explanations for the existence of programs "for the poor": either the politically powerful implemented these programs altruistically on behalf of a third party (the poor) that they quite openly disdain or they implemented them to benefit themselves (while disingenuously feigning altruism)."

Actually there are a lot more than two possible explanations. Your views on the limitations of possible explanations reveal a lot more about how you think than about how other people think.

People with political influence span a quite spectacular variety of views. But they do have one thing in common. They get off their asses and do the work of trying to gain political influence. They don't get it with some armchair psychoanalysis of how superior they are in ethics and intelligence to other people.

Simon writes:

I think it's important when talking about moral standards to differentiate between the standards to which a person should hold himself with respect to his own body and property (should I try to save someone? should I give charity?), which I’ll call “internal morals”, and the standards to which a person should be held with respect to other people's bodies and property, which I’ll call “external morals”. The podcast seemed to go back and forth between the two, which was confusing. I don’t think there can be a universal standard for the former; that is where family, religion, Aristotle, culture, etc. can all play a role. As to the latter, there is only one moral standard that can be universally applied to and enjoyed by every person at the same time (because it is a negative principle), namely, the libertarian “non-aggression principle” (NAP). This states that no one should initiate aggression against any other person’s body or legitimately-acquired property. It seems to me that if a moral standard cannot be universally applicable then it is not much of a standard.

How would the NAP apply to the trolley and footbridge scenarios? On the assumption that the person faced with the decision didn’t put the potential victims in the situations in which they found themselves, the answer is the same in both cases. He can neither switch the trolley to kill the one person on the tracks, nor throw the big guy off the footbridge, since in both cases he would be initiating aggression against those two people. I am not claiming that this decision helps the group of five people on the track, but as a question of external morals the person involved should not directly cause the death of either of these other two people. The question of internal morals is quite different: the person may decide to put his own life at risk to jump on the tracks to try to warn those in danger.

Utilitarianism, if applied to internal morals, might make sense. It simply says that when evaluating how to use your body or property, you will choose that which you perceive to create the most value. Duh. However, as applied to external morals, if the NAP is our moral standard then utilitarianism can be fundamentally incompatible, that is to say, immoral. It depends on how utilitarianism is used. If it means simply trying to assess what will bring the most value to “society”, and then acting that way with your own body or property and trying to persuade others to voluntarily do the same, then that would not be immoral. There is nothing wrong in using empirical studies to try to persuade. Where it becomes immoral is when it is used in the political sphere by politicians to coerce others to do with their bodies and property what the politicians perceive to be in the best interests of “society”, in other words, to tax and regulate, since such coercion breaches the NAP. This is why democracy is immoral as it relates to those who don’t want to do what the legislation passed by politicians tells them they must do with their bodies and property. There are also two practical problems with utilitarianism to which Russ alluded: (i) value is subjective to each person, so politician A cannot know what citizen B values most highly; and (ii) there is no such thing as the “common good” or “society’s interests” since, in the U.S., there are over 300 million people, each with their own different set of values. However, the moral issue with using coercive utilitarianism is more fundamental.

I was disappointed when the guest claimed that there is no alternative to democracy and utilitarianism. Perhaps he has not studied the rich body of intellectual thought related to how society might fare if the NAP were the guiding principle (known as anarcho-capitalism). In the NAP society, all the different tribes could live however they wanted, provided they didn’t initiate aggression against others.

The problem with any system of government is that it creates a zero sum game, as different interests aggressively lobby to rent the state’s coercive powers to use against their fellow citizens. It guarantees conflict. If people are feeling worse about the country and their government, it is because the coercive powers available to rent are expanding rapidly, and the lobbying to rent those powers is getting more critical to “win” in life. The only way to reduce this conflict is to eliminate these coercive powers (i.e., the state) and live by the NAP. It won’t eliminate all conflict, but it would allocate liability based on who coerced whom, and thus it would likely reduce conflict.

Luke J writes:

Keith Vertrees writes:


Trolley problem? Not buying it. The answer to every trolley problem is James T. Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru. If Mr. Greene prefer's Spock's solution, fine, but he is only entitled to make that choice for himself.

This is exactly what I was thinking.

Maybe there is value in these mental experiments (drug affects which part of brain?), but it sure seems that the limitations designed into the experiments seem to be purposeful to reach an intended outcome.

SaveyourSelf writes:

In the beginning of the podcast, Joshua Greene says, “What kind of a system and what kind of thinking do we need to regulate life on those new pastures of the modern world, where we have many different tribes with many different terms of cooperation, many different moral systems?”

  • Adam Smith answered this question hundreds of years ago. Justice. Justice is the minimum moral criteria for society to thrive and function. Without Justice, Smith says society falls apart. The absence of Justice in Dr. Greene’s analysis cripples his ability to understand the simple solutions to these human rationing dilemmas.

Around 1:05, Greene says, “the tragedy of the commons. It's basically a parable about the problem of cooperation, which is really the problem of how do you get people to put collective interest over self-interest.”
  • That’s not quite accurate. Tragedy of the Commons is an admission that normal market mechanisms fail to ration resources efficiently when a resource cannot be withheld from trade. That is to say, resources that are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable are public-goods and public-goods get overused--often to the point of extinction. Importantly, in almost all circumstances that are not public-goods, self-interest and community-interest run together so long as Justice is not violated.

Around 13:45 Joshua Greene says, “our gut reactions, our intuitions, what I call our automatic settings…do a good job of solving the original tragedy of the commons, but they create the problem of the problem of common-sense morality.”
  • I think this statement is also false. Air and water sometimes behave like public-goods but not much else does. The pasture in Dr. Green’s parable, for example, is not a public-good. It behaves like one only because he defines it as a commons. Make it private property, and the “tragedy of the commons” vanishes. Gone like smoke. No problem at all. But that solution has nothing to do with gut reactions. Private property is the end result of the contest for survival of the fittest or else a contractual arrangement between fit parties.

Near 13:45 Joshua Greene says, “Why do we say that it's okay to trade 1 life for 5 when you can hit a switch that will divert the trolley away from 5 and onto 1, but it's not okay to push the guy off the footbridge...”
  • The reason these cases turn out differently in psychological experiments is that they are not equivalent. They differ in terms of Justice.
  • In the case of the trolley switch, Justice is not violated by either option. Switching the trolley to a new track is not the action that kills people. They are killed by decisions made before the start of the scenario. Thus, all their deaths are sunk-costs. When evaluating problems that involve sunk-costs, the decision maker will logically ignore them and consider only the future gains resulting from the decision. The trolley switch question is a simple question of gain without any loss. The loss already happened before the switching decision was made. Which is better, a gain of 5 or a gain of 1? Justice does not care which answer is chosen.
  • The footbridge problem, on the other hand, has only one sunk-cost--that of the 5 people on the tracks. The fat man’s death is not defined in advance of the decision. Thus pushing him off the bridge violates Justice. Harm is caused by the decision. The fact that 5 people are saved is irrelevant to Justice. Thus a decision maker who pushed the fat fellow overboard could expect a medal for saving 5 people and a death-sentence for murdering the 1 that saved them.

Schepp writes:

Kudos to Daniel Barkalow. I was going to write a very similar comment until I saw Daniel's great point.

I would add the following:

Dr. Greene, stated that rights should not be considered. I point out that the common sense that Mr. Barkalow refers to regarding being on the foot bridge confers the "Right-of-Way" to the person on the footbridge. The 5 potential knuckleheads on the trolley track most likely are violating the Right-of-Way of the trolley.

Rights are the privileges that come with agreements both private and social contracts. I am not opposed to discussing rights due to past agreements but Dr. Greene is way to fast to intervene.

As a civil engineer working on public projects, I encounter the following statement frequently. "If you touch it you own it." This implies if an engineer undertakes a project, she must make sure that all the existing parts of the project will stand the scrutiny of current design practice. Somewhat disconcerting to me is this leaves many moderately unsafe conditions in place, because unless the facility can be fully re-mediated the owner and the designer are better off not changing the facility at all.

While this may not appear to be optimal, it does establish who is responsible for projects. It is indeed a trade off between clearly being able to know who is responsible in case thing go badly versus some delays based on the current standard of care.

I would ask Dr. Greene regarding his trolley interventions is he willing agree to "If you touch it you own it"? Our social contracts are just like markets they are not perfect but they make it better than any other system so far.

Joey writes:

A fascinating conversation.

I've been looking for "objective" reasoning against religion being allowed to implicate itself on public (and private) policy - whether abortion, gay marriage, and even intermarriage.

There is a question of rights vs utilitarianism, but it's an interesting starting point. I didn't hear the podcast on Religion yet, will do that - but this was a fascinating conversation, and is really helping form some ideas on the subject.

Eric Johnson writes:

Maybe I'm way off base here, but I thought this podcast bookended marvelously with James Otteson's podcast regarding the "End of Socialism".

Don Crawford writes:

The guest says, "Okay, we're not going to discuss these problems in terms of absolute rights. Because we have no way of figuring out what rights people really have in some ultimate metaphysical sense. And instead we can ask, which kinds of policies actually work."

  • We don't know what rights people have?
    Answer: Life, liberty and property come to mind. The right to live our own lives, without infringing on this same right of other people. Any other rights (like the right to medical care or shelter) result in conferring claims on others, which doesn't work--because it results in conflict! This is so fundamental I don't understand why Russ let this slide.

The guest also said, "We can ask, which kinds of policies actually work?"
Answer: We can ask but we can't know. Hayek explained this as The pretense of knowledge. The only policy that works is letting individuals, who after all know best what is good for them, decide for themselves = liberty. Any other prescription incites conflict because one set of ideas hopes to trump opposing ideas. There is no "one" policy that will result in maximum happiness other than respecting each others rights.

The guest said, "In order to resolve any kind of tradeoff, you have to have some kind of common metric. You have to have some kind of common currency." I was stunned that the author of "The Price of Everything" did not jump on that line. Money! That's how we negotiate our trade-offs in life with others. How important is this bucket to me vs all the other things in life I might want and I can compare that to someone else's value of the bucket in the common currency of--currency. Russ, isn't that why prices are so important? They provide a common metric for values, and the free market provides a mechanism for trading between people to maximize everyone's happiness.

Finally, What if the fat man with the back pack was the sole support of ten children? What if he ran a business that employed a hundred people? What if he was about to publish a cure for cancer? Or what if he were dying of cancer? I don't know anything about his situation and therefore I don't have the knowledge to balance his life against the others and because I would wish the same respect from him-I don't have the right to take his life.

These are simple, powerful and fundamental ideas. Why doesn't Russ make his guests at least understand and confront these ideas? These are the basis of the way of life that brought the human race out of poverty, not biases of one side of the political spectrum.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ Don Crawford

Don, you expectations of Russ are somewhat unrealistic. He is interviewing Dr. Greene, after all. Not the other way around. I am under the impression that the less he speaks during an interview the better he is doing. And besides, if he corrected every little error, what would be left for us to write about?

Also, I liked your point, "I don't have the knowledge to balance his life against the others..."

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

Did it ever occur to you to consider those who disagree with you as individuals rather than interchangeable representatives of a group?

As an individualist, of course I see those that disagree with me (and they can be very disagreeable indeed) as individuals rather than members of a "group". I have had the misfortune of spending a large portion of my life rubbing shoulders with those I intensely disagree with politically (Ithaca, NY and Washington DC), including quite a number very close to real "political power". This has given me many opportunities to intellectually spar and often to observe others intellectually spar. It's not just me, but anyone who opposes them--no matter how graciously-- gets the same treatment. The way that many, many, many have liberals reacted to those that question their "motives" tells me all I need to know about them. The all-too-common vicious and vindictive tone of their argument has led me to be absolutely sure they are not motivated by the milk of human kindness. This nastiness is precisely what I would expect from someone motivated by narrow self-interest. While I no doubt would have political disagreements with others, they are few in numbers where I live and the political stakes seem much lower (i.e., I only fear being murdered for political reasons by Leftist extremists or Islamic militants).

From extensive experience, it is a rare liberal indeed that doesn't straight away accuse their political opponents of being either stupid, a dupe or just plain evil. There have been a few exceptions (very few), and any liberal who doesn't proceed with such an attack will get my respect and will be treated in kind.

That said, as an individualist, I also understand that life is full of zero-sum competition, that individuals are often in conflict, and that people, in fact almost instinctually, very often confuse what is "good for them" with what is "good for everyone". There are indeed "tribes" and I don't "belong" to most of them. If I thought that "my political adversaries" cared enough about me to listen to my objections, to understand my concerns, to share my interests then things would be very, very different. The problem is they appear to me that they absolutely do not. They neither care, understand, share or show any desire to do so. Many (such as communists, whom I violently disagree with), in fact, were willing to kill, torture, and annihilate those they disagreed with. I can easily imagine many of those I've argued with working for the Stasi or the NKVD.

Living in DC has also convinced me that those in power are invariably disingenuous, manipulative con artists. If living in DC doesn't jade one about the political process, then nothing will. Familiarity has not only bred contempt, but obliterated any of the naïve notions of the political process that were inculcated into me as a child. Just as, being an atheist, I have come to realize that religion is a complete fraud, I have come to realize that the political process is also a complete fraud. I find the works of Lysander Spooner, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, Franz Oppenheimer, Murray Rothbard to name just a few as well as Public Choice theory much, much more coherent, plausible, and insightful about the true nature of the political process than some vague talk about those who "do the work of trying to gain political influence". The obvious defects in the system, today and throughout history, only make sense to me through the lens those ideas avail. The lens which you present, the pablum I was spoon fed as a child, make as much sense to me, and seems to fit the facts, as well as god, heaven and angels. Or fairies, leprechauns and unicorns.

My point has always been that those individuals aren't getting off their backside to work on my behalf and there is no reason for me to trust them (and plenty of reasons not to). It would be naïve (and extremely dangerous) not to always and everywhere question the motivation of all those who so eagerly seek political power. There have been so much tyranny, abuse, and corruption throughout history and the world that it is fully merited. If those who seek political power are really driven by the milk of human kindness, they shouldn't mind such a minor imposition.


Greg G writes:

Mark,

You fear "fear being murdered for political reasons by Leftist extremists"? Really? How many Americans were murdered by Leftist extremists last year? Or in the last 100 years? You are far more likely to be struck by lightning. Get a grip on the paranoia. Why do you choose to live in DC if you hate it so much?

Your obsession with the motives of your political opponents (who include the 99+% of people who are not anarcho-capitalists) is counterproductive.

First of all, it causes most people to stop listening to you when they realize you are wrong about their motives. Secondly, it makes more sense to focus on the effects of policies than the motives for them. It is entirely possible that an admirable motive results in a disastrous policy. Or, as Adam Smith showed, it is possible that self-centered motives can have good outcomes.

I am a non-believer but I don't assume that people who are religious are frauds. I think they are sincere in most cases even when they wind up using religion to justify what they would have chosen to do anyway. Being wrong is not the same as being a fraud.

I agree that belief in "fairies, leprechauns and unicorns" is silly...but not any sillier than a belief in the possibility of the establishment of anarcho-capitalism. At least religious people get comfort from their beliefs. You don't even have that going for you.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

The correct question should be "how many people in the world were murdered by Leftist extremists in past 100 years?". The answer: several hundred million. The Weathermen and the Black Panthers were responsible for a number of bombings, police shootings and arson fires, so leftwing political violence in the US is not unknown.

I don't think it at all likely that I will be murdered (whether by Leftist extremists, by Islamic terrorists, or anyone else). My point isn't that I think the possibility likely (which would be paranoia), my point is, if such an unlikely thing to occur that I am only a political target only of leftwing extremists or Islamic militants. The leftwing murder spree that was undertaken from 1917 to 1989 was not due to the murderers being Russian, German, Chinese, or Cambodian but rather to the ideas of revolutionary socialism held by those murderers. This willingness to murder political opponents wasn't genetic or cultural but ideological. How many extreme leftwing Americans living today would have eagerly participated in this murder spree had they been born in a different time and place? The answer isn't zero. I've run into a few who have advocated "revolutionary socialism", they are rare, admittedly, but they would be willing to kill if they could get away with it.

With all due respect, Greg, I care neither about you nor your motivations. You are presenting a straw-man argument by suggesting that I am claiming that everyone has base political motives. Not everyone need have base political motivation for base political motivation to be a extreme problem. There are, however, plenty of examples of political hucksters (of all political flavors) plying their trade: in the US and in every country on Earth.

What you are seemingly arguing is this: not everyone has base political motives. Great, we agree. That does not at all imply that no one has base political motives. It doesn't at all imply that it is not extremely common for people to have base political motives. This is, after all, how the liberal media, liberal pundits, and liberal academics routinely caricature their political opponents on just about every political topic. I actually think they are on to something there. I just think they are just as guilty. That charge actually sticks, not for everyone, but for a good number. There are bad apples out there, Greg. A lot of them end up in Congress (or the White House).

That you stop listening to me because you believe I am wrong about your motives (incorrectly, since I don't even know you and don't know what your motives are) is of no consequence to me. Pointing out that many (and I'll repeat for you again, not all) of my political opponents have base political motives, exploitative political motives, well, because they actually do, is still productive in my book. The false mask of fraudulent altruism, common though not universal on the left, is in need of being jostled as often as possible by as many hands as possible.

Again, I think you are putting words in my mouth here. I am not contending that "religious people" are frauds. However, if I am correct (as an atheist), then it follows that religious institutions, and the people running them, are engaged in fraud. These institutions are not guilty of just being "wrong" in my book. They stand guilty in my mind of knowingly perpetrating a fraud, corrupting the minds of the young, and all to financially exploit the young, weak and poor.

Again I'll say it is not the belief in the possibility of the establishment of "anarcho-capitalism" that motivates me in the slightest. I just hope for a "better world" no matter what form that might take. Not in need of "comfort", thanks anyway. I just so happen to believe that there are a lot of people out there who like things "just as they are"-- nice and rotten. Conditions in the Third World and other parts of the world are not as bad as they are because the inhabitants are a bunch morons who don't have a clue to improve things. It isn't even because there isn't "enough money" or "resources" to effect change. It is primarily because there are groups within those societies who benefit from the status quo and are using political mechanisms to block positive change. This has always been the case. You may disagree that such a tendency exists in all societies (including the US). We can agree to disagree, if you like. But I certainly do disagree...

Greg G writes:

Mark,

I want to be clear that I do not feel you have been disrespecting me personally (or my motives). Your comments are consistently polite and thoughtful. I do find them to be filled with hyperbole, false dichotomies and other logical fallacies though.

For example, you say that if atheism is correct, then it follows that people running religious institutions must be frauds. That does not follow. They might also be quite sincerely mistaken.

Your bogeyman is so rare as to never be the guy you are talking to but he is always so ubiquitous as to dominate everything. The bogeyman is always the institutions, not the people supporting those institutions. Well, the institutions would not exist without the people supporting them.

You claim that Leftist extremists and radical Islamists would be the only political extremists in the world who might harm you for your political ideas. Right wing extremists would also do so. There are plenty of right wing extremists who like capitalism but also want the government to run a large and aggressive military while conducting a War on Drugs and closely regulating your sex life. These people are not friendly to those who refuse to recognize the legitimate authority of the state.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@GregG

Religious institutions might be honestly mistaken, but with the same probability as all of their fantastic myths being literally true. While I can believe that certain individuals can be duped through cultural programming, there is just too much evidence that within the leadership of major religious institutions there are many who understand that their religious doctrine is fraudulent. In recent times, large numbers of Catholic and Anglican priests have come out as atheists. Many leave, but some enjoy the culture of their church and remain. This has been going on for as long as organized religion has existed. An institution understands the depth to which their "faith" is doubted from within and violently opposed from outside in a way that individual adherents may not. It is undeniable that religion has been one of the most profitable institutions in the history of mankind. From my view, religions have been in the business of taking money in the here and now in exchange for goodies that don't exist in the "hereafter"; of creating false cures (redemption) for false maladies (sin). A strong motivation and a confession is certainly useful for a conviction. I think their is plenty of evidence for a charge of guilty. Again, you might be right that some within a large bureaucratic institution might "just be wrong"; it is fantastically improbable that everyone within a large organization fits the same profile. Many were and are quite insincere.

There are some really nasty characters in the world, they aren't bogeymen. Even you might agree that the clowns in Pyongyang, Robert Mugabe, the Taliban or ISIS are a nasty bunch. How about the late Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Christine Kirchner, Giorgos Papandreous or Silvio Berlusconi? Elected one and all. Nasty one and all. Not American, you say. Then how about Rod Blagoevich, every mayor of Detroit for the past 25 years, or the late Marion Barry? You like Dick Cheney or G.W Bush, do you? I didn't think so. Neither do I. The list could go on and on. Some you might agree, some you might not. There are plenty of supporters of institutions (both religious and political) I feel lend support to policies that make the world worse off. The institutions, however, and the people within them, simply wield disproportionate power. They are not bogeymen.

As for the "religious right", they are sad, I don't agree with them on most social issues, but they are as harmless as a day old blind poodle. They have lost their ability to politically domineer at all, let alone as they did 60 years ago. I am a happily married, straight WASP (well, ex-P) who does not take drugs or hang out with those that do. The War on Drugs should be ended, I very much agree. But I have no fear whatsoever that "the right" could use political power to alter my personal choices in any way. If anything, they might very much approve of my lifestyle choices.

Fred M writes:

Russ, thank you for yet another great podcast.

I think Joshua Greene's point about thinking the big moral questions though is well-taken, but I question whether rights should be seen as obstacles ("a veto" as he says) to his (in his view) superior utilitarian meta-morality. I am not sure he was able to answer the various well-known objections to U, such as Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion or Nozick's Utility Monster - these might seem too abstract, but he is happy to work with neurological research using the equally abstract Trolley problems so I don't see why he shouldn't try to answer these objectoins head on.

I think Russ had a couple of good quips about the Trolley: one was needing to think fast on the footbridge.

The other was about it being an "alien experience". I would say more (now I have not got the data in front of me from all of these neuro-trolley fMRI studies, so I am willing to be corrected): it's an alienating kind of problem. And alienating away the intrinsic value of this or that person's life may not lead to a morally sound place. The citations of Joshua made of experiments where various drugs made subjects more likely to push the big guy off the bridge were a bit chilling. I was reminded of the Sanley Milgram experiment. Maybe a bit of functioning amygalia in Milgram's subjects would have been a good thing. Or maybe this is just my amygdalia going? I am not suggesting that this is where Joshua wants to take things. It's just a concern about the bigger implications of the argument.

I found Russ' defence of utilitarianism (about price-gouging and Uber) the most convincing of the talk by the way.

Thanks again!


Zach B writes:

Little late listening to the podcast this week.

Hearing the Trolley Problem again reminded me of a real world variation that occurred in 2000 to the guy who is climbing Yosemite, Tommy Caldwell.

He and a climbing partner were captured by some rebels while climbing in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. After several days of captivity, they were confronted with a Trolley Problem variant... should they push their captor over the edge in order to save two lives (their own)? They did and were able to escape. Tommy struggled with the mental aftermath for the following year. Fortunately, he later found out that the rebel survived.

Ron Crossland writes:

Delighted to hear this interview. I read Greene's book a year ago and it spurred several lines of further investigation for me.

Greene and all his contemporaries who are working with empirical information across disciplines are challenging all of us to think better and beyond our "automatic (evolutionary)" heritages. I applaud their efforts - the incompleteness of their info and models remind me of the current state of economics.

Reading the posts to this interview mostly confirms the idea that we all have strongly held positions - all of which are inadequate to the task Greene tackles. Challenging our ideas of intergroup moral decision-making challenges our basic economic, social, end religious feelings. I was disheartened by the number of posts that seemed to me based more on "automatic" rather than "analytic (my term for manual mode)."

Kahneman and Tversky showed us many of the features between these modes. And others have added to this store of knowledge. Unfortunately we are not as good as we need to be at a sustained application of analytic deep thinking when we are already committed to ideals born of automatic thinking. I believe that is the status quo Greene is testing, especially when it comes to our ideas and ideals concerning rights.

Bravo, Russ, for providing a provocative interview.

JD writes:

Yet another great podcast!

My personal take is that there are several different senses of "the right thing" bound up in this question. Generally speaking, I'd say that killing people is bad, killing more people is worse than killing fewer people, and killing by direct action is worse than killing by indirect action.

So in the trolley question, there are no good options, only two bad options, but one is worse than the other. That doesn't make killing the one person a "good" option, or even the "right" option. It's certainly not praiseworthy - praise should go to anyone who devieses a Captain Kirk solution. But as a last resort, when no other options are on the table, if nothing else has worked, I think it's the least bad option to kill the one person. I would hope to be punished for it, though. Especially if I hadn't tried all other options.

Additionally, I think there's a very particular sense in which killing more directly (personally, viscerally, with bare hands, etc.) is, in a sense, worse than killing more indirectly (pulling a trigger, pushing a button on a drone, laying a trap, etc.). And it's simply because we humans do have more inhibitions against it. All other things being equal, I'd rather be around people with stronger inhibitions against violence, and I will be suspicious of anyone who can overcome their inhibitions for anything but the most extreme situations. I'm not saying that it makes the person doing it better or worse, but I do think it's useful that we reserve more horror for cases where the connection between action and death is closer.

(Otherwise, how much of a difference is there between killing a child on the other side of the world by buying a $500 suit and not donating that money to feed starving children, and killing a child in your own neighborhood with your bare hands? *I* certainly think there's a difference.)

---

Also, on the question of liberals and power, I'm left-wingish and most of my associates are, and I know few if any who are motivated by a desire for power. (I also do not live in NY, DC, LA, or SF.) Mostly, they just want the world to be a better place, and they want to use the abilities they have to help make it so. I think the problem is that teaching and persuading is really hard work, with little chance of making a difference on any large scale in our lifetimes, and so if you think you know better than other people, it can be easier just to say "everyone should live X way". Or in other words, they want to make the world better, but for that to happen, other people need to change their behavior, and centralizing power seems like the simplest way of doing so.

But centralizing power attracts bad people, who get that power by saying what everyone else is saying. Which I think explains part of the problem with DC. So please don't judge all liberals by their DC contingent, as I do not judge all conservatives by their DC contingent. Not to say that there aren't fine folk around DC, of course. But since we are speaking in sweeping generalities...

jw writes:

A few comments:

The trolley problems are NOT equivalent, and it is very interesting that Greene presents them as equivalent.

Logically:

Switch:
5 WILL die OR 1 WILL die

Bridge:
5 WILL die OR (1 WILL die OR 1 WILL NOT die)

Simpler:
(5 WILL die OR 1 WILL die) OR (5 WILL die OR 1 MAY die)

Saveyourself above arrives at the same conclusion differently (and more eloquently).

As for the suit problem, again, 1 WILL be saved from your tribe vs 1 MAY be saved from another tribe (after costs, after corruption - see Geldolf and Save the World, and finally one doesn't know if the other tribe life saved will be a future 9/11 pilot, there are stark differences between some tribes).

One could also use an analogy to Russ' recent discussions about individual voting - there are so many poor what difference would one suit make to the outcome - but I don't subscribe to that theory anyway...

The death penalty reasoning is again different (and related to the abortion version). The executed criminal is a GUILTY life, the collective lives saved by the death penalty are INNOCENT lives. (This is also why the captured climbers analogy above is much different).

And finally, I was surprised and saddened that Russ did not give a more forceful defense of the Northerners when characterized as "selfish". There are strong moral arguments, many based on Smith, that the Northern way is the most moral and just way.

Prof. Greene could have many of his questions answered by reading Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions".

Brian Schreiner writes:

Another reason the trolley problems are not equivalent is that the people - both the group of 5 and the one person - are already standing on the track and therefore are already at risk of getting hit by the trolley. The guy on the foot bridge is not in any danger of getting hit by the trolley.

It's much easier to justify flipping the switch on people already at risk of death than to push a person (who was not at risk) into death.

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