Sunday, February 10, 2013

Morality and Economics

So I realized recently that I keep trying to make moral decisions but my model of morality is insufficiently precise to really do so on a consistent basis. I did realize that I had an intuitive model that I was using, but I wasn't really sure if it actually made any sense at all. So I decided to look into it further and try to tease out what was going on. I ultimately ended up at a concept of morality as a form of economic calculation (Please be aware that "economic calculation" means a lot of different things to different people, so that particular phrase might mean a very different thing to you than it does to me).

Take a minute to consider these two questions. I think they are actually interrelated:

First of all, what does it mean to say that "Bob should not murder"? Is it simply a statement of preference equivalent to "I would like it if Bob does not murder"? Is it something more? If it is something more, what more is there?

Second, why the hell should Bob care? Let's assume that it appears Bob would legitimately be better off if he murdered someone (Imagine he kills a random stranger with a remote button press. He never feels guilty about it and all his wildest dreams come true because he did it). Also assume that we cannot catch him (maybe the kill signal was scrambled through a bazillion nested routers or something). Should Bob ever behave morally against his own self interest? Why on earth would he?

Really give these some thought. Come up with a model of morality, make up some hypothetical situations and see how your answers hold up.  Even better, try testing them on a real world scenario. My goal here is not to force feed you the tentative answer I've come up with, but to get you genuinely curious about these implicit rules that govern nearly all the decisions we make.

Ok, ready? Here's what I came up with.

The meaning of "morality"
I think that we do mean more than a simple statement of preference when we say that Bob shouldn't murder. Otherwise we'd just say "I don't want Bob to murder" and leave it at that. Of course, there is the problem that sometimes when people want something they try to make it into a moral issue.

This reminds me that I'm getting hungry writing this blog post for you.

Give me a cookie or you are clearly evil.

See what I did there? Of course, if I was starving to death in front of you things might be different. Or maybe this is legitimately just my way of telling you that I really, desperately want a cookie right now.

So the problem we face is that normative statements are a lot like "love." In everyday usage, they are wonderfully and terribly ambiguous at the same time. We need something more accurate if we are ever going to be able to talk about this at the level of precision I feel would be useful. At this point I could try to forcefully redefine or even coin a bunch of new words to talk about things, but it turns out I don't feel that is at all necessary or helpful. Why? Because fortunately I decided to study economics and my predecessors have already made up a bunch of words (and even math!) to talk about preferences and their interactions within different systems.

Why Economics is Useful Here
 It seems to me that we generally mean that Bob is somehow making a mistake when he murders someone, and that if he knew better he wouldn't do so. That's why the statement that it is "wrong" for Bob to murder has extra force beyond just expressing a desire on our part. I believe this is because morality is a way of describing an ideal game of life (in the game theoretic sense), and that our moral intuitions are largely ways of approximating this solution.

I assume everyone is familiar with the prisoner's dilemma situation. It generally seems "right" for both people to cooperate, even though we know that using our current decision theory both will defect without enforcement or repetition. Likewise, the situation where all agents are forced to cooperate seems better than the one where all agents are (reasonably!) defecting. If I was in a giant game that was similar to the prisoner's dilemma in this way, I would be willing to pay to force everyone to cooperate all the time. If all agents are identical, they would also be willing to pay to force everyone to cooperate. Thus, a structure where everyone cooperates would be pareto-superior to one where everyone defects. The pareto-optimal structure for society as a whole is thus the moral one.

This is why Bob might want to refrain from murdering even though it seems like it is in his self interest to do so. He might benefit from murdering in this one particular case, but he would probably be worse off in the world where everyone murders someone when it is in their short run self-interest.

This seems to be what Immanuel Kant was getting at with his categorical imperative:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
Or Rawl's veil of ignorance, where we decide social rules behind a veil that ensures
...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.

This also means that if we want to talk about what is moral, we are really talking about pareto-optimal game structures given everyone's existing preferences. Economics is the science and theory of value system interaction, and the optimal game structure under this model is morality. So the best way to tease that out (at least at the meta-level) is going to be using economic reasoning.

But wait! I've made a mistake in the above. I said: 
"the optimal game structure under this model is morality"
when I should have said:
"the pareto optimal game structure under this model is morality"
Do you see why this correction is important?

The problem is that there exists an optimal game structure for everyone to follow using a certain person's preferences as a criterion. This would be the game that benefits that particular person the most. A friend described the sort of maximizing reasoning that would lead to wanting this configuration very well in an email a few years back:
Human culture and morals as they exist today all just randomly happen to stabilize civilization. If they didn't, civilization wouldn't exist. It's the same argument as "Why isn't the universe lifeless? Because if it was, nobody would be thinking that." The ideal situation for any given individual is to encourage the rest of humanity to follow these restrictive morals while personally rejecting their principles. Breaking the rules is only beneficial if everyone else follows them. Therefore, one must maintain the appearance of respecting sociological laws. The result? Psychopathy. Embrace it people. Or rather, follow your social traditions and let me manipulate you. 


This is very different from the moral game structure which is pareto optimal. The pareto optimality ensures that we account for everyone's preferences in a balanced way. It means the best game structure that everyone could agree upon. 

A Useful Distinction this Model Makes

"the rich should give more money to the poor"

Let me say first of all that this statement drives me crazy. Particularly when it comes from someone in the first world who isn't even making an effort to practice effective altruism. However, the main reason it drives me crazy is a great example of a place where this moral model might be useful. Should the rich really give more money to the poor? Or is this person just expressing that they dislike rich people and would be happier if we took rich people's money and gave it to the sympathetic poor people? We can isolate the moral part by asking the question "Would income redistribution be a pareto optimal policy (in the broadest sense) to enact" and thus separate it out from the mere preferences that haven't been processed with consideration of what everyone else cares about.

Problems and Further Considerations

One interesting problem that I think might be solved by recent work on decision theory and newcomb's problem is why anyone would behave morally when there is no enforcement mechanism. In particular I recommend Yudkowsky and Drescher if you are interested in this.

Another interesting problem is where you draw the line on who is a moral agent and who isn't. This is a VERY good candidate for Hardest Philosophical Problem Ever. Take a look at Non-Person Predicates to get an idea of how insanely difficult this can be. A more everyday scenario could be whether eating meat is ethical. 

There are always the widely understood but still fascinating problems of "how do we find the preferences?", "how consistent are human preferences really?", and "if they aren't how do we model things taking that into account?". My account of morality above is a very broad and high level one, but the details really matter a lot more. They are what actually do the work in constraining actions and systems. 

Finally, there is the problem of shared wants. If many of us value others to some degree, there is going to possibly be a lot of recursion involved in the preferences. I haven't seen any economic models where I can take increases of your utility function as an input into my utility function and I don't really know what the consequences of that might be. 

Finally finally, morality is definitely not a solved problem and this all could (and very likely is) totally wrong compared to the correct model that's out there somewhere. However, it does seem to be substantially better than anything else I have right now, but I'll keep looking because scholarship is important! There is a lot of philosophical grey area for me. For example where do we start the initial positions from for our pareto calculation? I do think that Rawl's approach takes this very seriously, but I haven't read far enough into moral philosophy to even know all the major positions, much less the minor ones and nuanced details. 

Also, I really recommend reading Nyan_Sandwich's recent sequence on LessWrong. Morality is Awesome is indeed quite awesome. Pinpointing Utility also talks about ethics quite extensively using economics as the launchpad.