Thursday, September 30, 2010

Four on Ethics

What ethical theories do people most closely follow? Economists have a thing for consequentialism (it's the outcomes that matter) and we're often hammered for it by deontologists (do the right thing because it's right), human rights advocates (no trade offs allowed), and so forth. In a new paper, many people were presented with a variation of the well-known Trolley Problem in which a trolley is hurtling out of control and will run over and kill several children unless you are willing to push another person in front of the trolley to stop it. How you answer that question and the reasons for doing it tell professional ethicists a bit about your ethics.

The paper finds some support that "people selectively use general moral principles to rationalize preferred moral conclusions" rather than reasoning from their most preferred ethic to choices. For instance, comparing participants who were told a) no name for the pushee; b) a stereotypically White American name; or c) a stereotypically Black American name showed that the name changed how politically liberal respondents answered. Liberals were less likely to push the supposed African-American and subsequently less likely to push anyone else. Priming tests also showed that people valued American and Iraqi lives differently depending on if you talk to them about patriotism or multiculturalism first, with the greater effect on conservatives. (HT: MR)

Oh, and add to any of these the effects of anti-depressants, which make you less likely to intervene.

2 - What should we learn from this graph?

Yglesias' conclusion is that we really don't understand inequality. The poor are a lot poorer than we think and that affects voting patterns.

Sumner argues that this conclusion is spurious because the data itself is, well, in his own words "income inequality data is nonsense, and wealth inequality data is nonsense on stilts." Why?

A - People earn more as they gain experience and better jobs. Even if everyone was exactly the same and lived the exact same amount during the course of their life and saved the exact same amount, you would still end up with a lot of income and wealth inequality.

B - He would rather focus only on consumption rather than wealth because wealth represents savings. Even if everyone had the same income at every point in time (a different claim than the one I just summarized) their different savings choices would result in wealth inequality.

Put these and his other points together (e.g. a lot of savings and intangible capital is missing so the data isn't even a good measure of wealth), you would have to have a redistributive tax policy "to the left of Mao" and Pol Pot to generate the wealth distribution people imagine they would like to see. His advice is to ignore the statistics and trust your eyes, but only if you actually go out to find out how the different quintiles live. Oh, and stick to consumption data.

3 - Social contracts, Pakistani style:
watta satta, which often involves a brother-sister pair marrying another such pair from a second household, comes with mutual threats: A husband who treats his wife badly can count on his brother-in-law doing the same to his sister. That mechanism allows two sets of parents to have leverage over how their daughters are treated.
World Bank Working Paper 4126, soon to be in the American Economic Review. (HT: Roving Bandit.) Speaking of Pakistan, Wronging Rights tells us how to right about the country (it mostly involves mangoes) and concludes with this gem "I thank my lucky stars every day that my parents sent me to good schools so that I could be a lawyer when I grew up, instead of a clich├ęd fictional character destined to sigh herself passively into her own doom."

4 - Hinkle (or is it Nozick?) debates the reasons given why a person owes a duty to his or her community (local, state, national, or other). He finds none particularly satisfactory when applied to nations. Mostly lacking for him appears to be a voluntary explicit social contract between governed and governing that isn't inherited: "Yet when it comes to larger communities such as nations, there is no contract. Almost no one (except perhaps naturalized citizens) ever signs on a dotted line."

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