Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Source of Our Values

Eugene Volokh has argued, quite convincingly to my mind, that even a nonreligious person's morality rests on some moral axiom that cannot be proved, but requires belief.

It seems kind of pedestrian, but it occurred to me recently that the issue of abortion illustrates this quite clearly. There really is no definitive argument that can win the abortion debate. A person can draw a moral line at conception, viability, ability to feel pain, birth or sentience. But that just begs the question, why that line? The answer is really just an affirmation of belief in some moral axiom. Some common axioms include: 
  1. A human life deserves to be protected from conception.
  2.  Until viability, the mother's decision about her body trump the rights of any fetus.
  3. Until the fetus can feel pain, you do no harm by aborting it.
  4. Until birth, the fetus is still part of the mother, and she should have the right to do it.
  5. Being human is about higher brain function, and until sentience is manifest, the fetus does not manifest the defining human trait.
Each of these is really just a statement of an axiom or article of faith. And even if I haven't quite captured the axiom in my statement, there is an axiom underlying the statement, which cannot be proved. (In drafting this post, I discovered Eugene Volokh already had this thought and wrote about it more eloquently than me here and here.)

Some tentative conclusions that follow from this insight:
  1. There may be some policy debates that turn on efficiency or effectiveness of policy, but underlying most debates is a difference between axioms or values.
  2. Since there is no logical argument or empirical test that can prove any moral axiom or value, the axiom must be based on feelings of right and wrong.
  3. It's a little disconcerting that reason, logic, and evidence have much less to do with policy preferences than our emotions.
  4. Except that it's not disconcerting if you have a theory of obtaining truth through feelings. Like religious people, who believe they can learn truth through the Holy Ghost.
  5. Nonreligious people are a distinct disadvantage for explaining their moral beliefs.
  6. Discussing or debating these theories is unlikely to change a person's opinion because it is unlikely to change the person's underlying values.
  7. While religious and nonreligious people can believe in the same values, the above makes me think that one of the fundamental divides in politics is belief in religion.
  8. The debate over same sex marriage is nothing more than a disagreement between two groups who have different feeling about the morality of homosexuality.
  9. While I deplore racism, it frankly makes me much more understanding of racism, since racists presumably follow their gut feelings.
  10. Christians have a distinct advantage for explaining why racism is wrong, since Christ's teaching that he is no respecter of persons, which I think precludes racist attitudes--another advantage for religion.
  11. Moral values derived from gut feelings can be changed by surrounding culture and upbringing, just as attitudes about race have changed over time.


David Friedman said...

"There may be some policy debates that turn on efficiency or effectiveness of policy, but underlying most debates is a difference between axioms or values."

That does not follow from your argument. Either a difference in objectives or a different opinion about consequences could be responsible for policy disagreements.

In my experience, it is quite rare for people who disagree on policies to agree on their consequences. The belief that disagreement is based on differing values comes from each side being sure that its opinion on consequences is obviously right, hence the other side must be against the (obviously good) consequences, hence must have different, probably wicked, values.

Consider most economic disputes--free trade, minimum wage, deficit for "stimulus." Opponents of the minimum wage argue that it hurts the poor by pricing unskilled labor out of the market. Proponents claim it helps the poor. That's entirely a disagreement on consequences, not on values. There are similar disagreements on the other two.

Abortion and same sex marriage come closer to fitting your claim, but even there I suspect a substantial part of the basis for disagreement is on consequences.

Consider that one of the main arguments for legal abortion and readily available contraception was to prevent the birth of "unwanted children," meaning children of unmarried mothers, assumed to be the result of unintentional pregnancy. In fact, those changes were followed by a sharp increase in the number of out of wedlock births, whether as a consequence or not isn't clear. Presumably many who supported those changes would not have if they had believed that would be their result.

Along similar lines, readily available contraception and abortion sharply reduces the cost to women of casual sex and has been accompanied by a sexual revolution. It's at least arguable that the long run consequences are bad--fewer stable long term relationships leading to worse child rearing. That again is a question of consequences, not values.

In the case of same sex marriage, I think it's pretty clear that opponents mostly believe that normalizing homosexual relations has bad consequences for the society. They may use religious arguments, but that's only part of their motivation. Christian doctrine, after all, doesn't single out homosexual sex for special condemnation—it is disapproved of along with non-marital heterosexual sex.

Ryan said...

"Opponents of the minimum wage argue that it hurts the poor by pricing unskilled labor out of the market. Proponents claim it helps the poor. That's entirely a disagreement on consequences, not on values. There are similar disagreements on the other two."

I admit that this is a tentative argument. But it seems to me like your minimum wage example bolsters my argument that policy debates are very often cloaked values debates. There’s an economic theory that explains why minimum wage hurts the poor, and another for why it could help the poor. As I understand it, whether raising minimum wage helps or hurts the poor is an empirical question without much definitive evidence. But when you ask people their opinion on the effect of a minimum-wage hike, I would guess the answers tracks the traditional right-left ideological divide. I don't think it breaks down that way because each person has come to a conclusion based on a careful review of the literature. And these days, it seems that even left-leaning economists are embracing the argument that increases in the minimum wage help employees on net, even though it seems to me like they have to stretch economic theory to get there.

So it seems to me that values are really driving the sides' positions on minimum wage, or else people would not have positions on this empirical question which so closely correlate with their ideological positions.

I think the same-sex marriage debate bolsters my argument, too. Yes, there is a lot of debate about whether same-sex marriage would have good or bad policy outcomes. But again, I don’t think that is what is driving opposition or support of same-sex marriage-- even among the academics who are very familiar with academic literature on the topic. I think these arguments don’t so much convince others as they bolster the “faith” of the already committed. If you think that homosexuality is sin, you probably are going to also think that bad consequences follow from its acceptance, provided there is at least some wiggle room in the evidence.

I see this with Keynesians almost always being on the left, too. Is there a reason that this is the case? Maybe it’s just the tribalism of politics, but I think it has much less to do with the empirical evidence supporting Keynes’ theory, and more to do with a Keynesians’ beliefs about the role of government. The reverse goes for non-Keynesians rejecting Lord Keynes’ theory.

I apologize if I’m missing something flaw in my argument. As always, thanks for commenting.

Ryan said...

Ah. I think I see what has happened here. I didn't mean to imply that both sides of a policy debate agree on policy outcomes, but, due to their values, disagree on whether those outcomes are desirable. I only meant to say that the real, underlying reasons people usually disagree on policy issues is because of conflicting values. Those values usually dictate what a person believes the policy outcome will be.

But I'm not entirely sure of that conclusion, either.