You Got Morals in My Economics!

Economics, qua social science, is not a normative field. But much of the drive to understand how social interaction works is to give advice about policy. However, giving advice implies a standard for determining what counts as good advice, some kind of value theory. This is inconvenient for economists, who want badly to make policy recommendations, but who tend not to be very sophisticated moral philosophers (though there are some notable exceptions). Bryan Caplan tries to find a way around the inconvenience:

In many cases, there is no need to state your moral premise, because (economics + almost any moral premise) will do.

Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich.  What moral premise would imply “don’t legalize”?  Sheer malevolence?  Blind adoration of the status quo?  While these are coherent moral premises, they’re so rare that the cost of addressing them is a waste of time.

It seems that Bryan thinks most opposition to markets in organs is a function of either ignorance of the likely consequences or perverse and exotic moral premises. This makes me wonder if he has ever debated this issue with anyone? Lots of people understand the economics well enough but continue to believe that markets in organs ought to be illegal. Here’s rough sketch of the standard argument.

Human beings have a certain dignity that is central to the value of human life. That dignity ought to be respected, preserved, and protected. Allowing the sale of human body parts diminishes the dignity of those involved in the transaction and erodes respect for the dignity of human beings generally. Therefore, markets in body parts ought to be legally prohibited.

Is this a good argument? No. I think it’s lousy argument, even in its most sophisticated form. But the idea that the value and conditions of human dignity imply that some things shouldn’t be bought and sold is not at all rare. Indeed, I think this is likely the dominant moral stance of most people in most places at most times in human history. If one grants the benefits of legalizing markets in organs, which I certainly do, then addressing this argument is not only not a waste of time, but is of fundamental importance in removing one of the main barriers to great improvements in human health and well-being.

Which is just to say, no, you can’t get around defending your moral premises by claiming that once the facts are established, all moral premises worth taking seriously point in the same direction. It’s just not true that there are “many cases” in which all paths converge like this. And when there is such a case, the convergence is often counterintuitive, and thus needs to be demonstrated, not just asserted. Policy analysis is at least as much applied moral philosophy as applied economics. Without some normative standard, economics has no application at all. Moreover, public deliberation about policy requires taking other people’s moral beliefs seriously and you can’t do that by ignoring them.

14 thoughts on “You Got Morals in My Economics!”

  1. Well said, Will. I totally agree with you. This is probably tacky, but I am cross posting my comment from Caplan's blog:[Bryan Caplan's] position is somewhat oversimplified, I'm afraid. [He] writes:”Suppose legalizing the market in human organs would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. What moral premise would imply “don't legalize”? Sheer malevolence? Blind adoration of the status quo? While these are coherent moral premises, they're so rare that the cost of addressing them is a waste of time.”There are a number of moral principles at least worth considering that would endorse not legalizing markets for organs, even in the case that legalizing would make sick people healthy and poor people rich. Natural law theorists might reject the selling (or even giving) of one's organs as contrary to the inviolable value of life. Kantians might try to argue that to use people as sources of organs fails to treat them as ends-in-themselves. Or, a moral philosopher could worry that, in the absence of sufficient alternate choices for making a living, the decision to sell an organ is not free enough to be morally unproblematic (and that receipt of compensation does not mitigate the injustice).Now, certainly there are applies available to all of those objectors. Natural law theory is kind of deficient in general. A Kantian could also argue that NOT to allow someone to sell her organs is what really fails to treat her as an end-in-herself. And, there is good reason to think that in a generally freer world, people would indeed have more choices regarding how to make a living, so that all or nearly all instances of organ selling were morally unproblematic.I hope this has gone to show that there is plenty of work to be done in order to defend and elucidate an economist's prima facie plausible moral premises that is not a “waste of time.”

  2. But the idea that the value and conditions of human dignity imply that some things shouldn’t be bought and sold is not at all rare.Actually, my concern when I debate this specific issue is that the “standard argument” is either made in a completely ad-hoc fashion or is borrowed from someone else without the proponent thinking through its implications. This is a remarkably narrow and targeted moral principle which just so happens to fit around the status quo – prohibiting the sale of “body parts” in particular avoids implying that the sale of blood / sperm / eggs (maybe?) should be banned. Not invoking the other popular concept of “bodily sovereignty” which is often labeled as a basis of rights such as abortion and sex changes (and which seems to pretty easily imply the right to alienate one's own organs) is also pretty conspicuous.So it strikes me that this “standard argument” precedes not from other coherent or established moral principles, but just a desire to find a rule which cleanly forbids what we already find “icky”. This argument doesn't support Bryan's point, but it also implies that you give these people too much credit. I think Bryan's argument, then, can ultimately be challenged by saying that even there are enough competing moral principles out there that pretty much any position on any issue can be supported in some weak sense by invoking some combination of “acceptable” moral sophistries rather than resorting to “exotic” ones.We have to engage people's moral beliefs, but that's largely an issue of smart diplomacy. Organ-selling strikes me as a clear example of an issue where you'd see a huge moral status quo effect… if it were legalized, support for it would become so widespread that within a decade the moral arguments that were previous used in its support would seem completely backwards and paternalistic, along the lines of telling women that banning abortion would help them preserve their dignity.

  3. Yeah, I wouldn't make that specific argument about organs. I'd just argue the premise: that poor people would be made rich if we gave them money for their organs. Would that mean that they'd be even richer if we gave them money and let them keep their organs? I mean, then they'd have the money AND less health problems.Hey, here's another idea: how about we allow poor people to use their organs for collateral? (Debating trick, I know…)

  4. The argument you laid out there IS a “perverse moral premise.” The idea that “human dignity” (which humans?/whose dignity?) trumps the right of people to undertake peaceful, mutually beneficial trade is disgusting and indefensible. How many people who claim to hold that position will continue to do so when confronted with the fact that they are literally condemning people to death? How many people would press a magic button that prevented the sale of a kidney, thereby executing the prospective recipient?

  5. “peaceful, mutually beneficial trade” is a concept that can hide a ton of evil, depending on prior conditions of distribution.Imagine that a billionaire wants to buy a kidney from each of the poorest 1 million people in the world, to transform into food for him and his friends. He will pay the poor people $1 each for their kidneys. They are so desperately poor and without prospects that they decide it's worth it. It's a “peaceful, mutually beneficial trade.” Is it really so obvious that it is therefore a morally acceptable trade?Imagine that the desperately poor people are so poor in large part because of national and international policies promoted by the billionaire in question and enacted by politicians in sway to him. Still confident in your answer?

  6. The key point in Noah's comment is that once all the costs and benefits are made clear the original moral argument becomes an argument about the size of costs and benefits. Caplan's point is that you don't need a system of morals to have an empirical debate about the size of costs and benefits.

  7. “Indeed, I think this is likely the dominant moral stance of most people in most places at most times in human history.”But that's warped and hypocritical. It's ok to sell your dignity by working 9-5pm each day and thus it's ok to basically sell your time. Time is all we really have so you are selling your life or at least a large chunk of it.Thus if you can sell large chunks of your life, why can't you sell a physical chunk of it?

  8. I think that Kent's argument above (“the poor are too disenfranchised to engage in truly 'voluntary transactions'”) is also a major one, usually in concert with the dignity argument Will discusses. Uknowbetter's counter is the natural response, but I suspect that Kent would counter that “employment is slavery, too” or some analog.One small problem I have with Kent's argument is that he implies a two-way link between political corruption with market success (“if and only if”). From his perspective, Rich Person can only be rich by enslaving the poor in some political way (slavery lite). (Not to mention that he has no difficulty assuming that Rich Person has no motivations moral, social, or economic against cannibalism.) In my view, this is a zero sum perspective of economic health that can only be “solved” by universal poverty.An engagement with Kent's perspective from mine (likely very close to Will's and Bryan's) would quickly revert to the standard socialism/progessivism vs. capitalism/free market argument. In other words, for those of us who don't see any intrinsic immorality in free exchange, organ markets are a no brainer. For folks who see markets as intrinsically corrupt, organ markets are just another form of crypto-slavery, be it loss of dignity and/or loss of franchise, that must be prevented.

  9. But that's not how *most* people see it. Lots of people have no particular problem with exchange in general, but don't like exchange in organs. And they think the distinction is moral. They may not be able to give reasons for the distinction, but they could (rightly!) say we can have moral reasons without being able to defend them rationally. Even moral philosophers know this, because they give the fact that utilitarianism leads to conclusions that offend everyone's intuitions as an argument against utilitarianism.

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  11. I cannot recall the source, but I remember reading a famous, either economist or otherwise social theorist, who basically observed how readily we are discarding with very old and established traditions of human history with little forethought. I would classify monetizing human organs as something that has effects beyond the economic realm, verging on how we view the sanctity of life. I may readily assume that those in favor of liberalizing the organ trade will turn this around on me, and talk of the benefits that mankind may gain from such trade. What can I say? It creates a large incentive on promoting disability, i.e. the removal of organs. Forgive me the, admittedly unpopular in certain intellectual circles, slippery slope argument, but it also seems that once a culture loses its inviolable regard for human life, it tends to, to borrow a phrase, slouch towards Gomorrah. Call it instinct against reason, as I'm sure some will, but a market in organs emerging from otherwise healthy people strikes me as socially dangerous.

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