Post by Nathan Smith (see all posts by Nathan Smith)
The relevance of this post to open borders will not be immediately obvious, but bear with me, I’ll get to it. “Meta-ethics” is a real word, as my sister, a professional philosopher, recently confirmed to me. I was afraid I had made it up, because it’s so useful in immigration debates. Meta-ethics is basically theorizing about where ethical rules or values come from. “Don’t steal” is ethics. “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is meta-ethics. Specifically, it’s a statement (a rather clumsy one) of utilitarian meta-ethics. People can have similar ethical views derived from quite different meta-ethical starting places. For example, a virtue ethicist might act bravely because courage is part of the good life for man, while a utilitarian acts bravely because he is convinced that the greatest happiness of the greatest number will be served, in a particular crisis, by his keeping cool while running terrible risks. People can also arrive at quite different views on a whole range of particular ethical questions starting from the same meta-ethical starting point: one utilitarian might believe in largely laissez-faire capitalism, while another is a Communist. If one wants to make a rational argument against a particular ethical rule (e.g., stay in the country you were born in unless some foreign government gives you permission to migrate there), I don’t see much possibility of doing this without appealing to one or more meta-ethical standards. On the other hand, one can argue against a meta-ethical position via a reductio ad absurdum showing that a consistent application of it would lead to monstrous moral positions. For example, one might attack utilitarianism by arguing that, under certain circumstances, consistent utilitarians should be willing to torture children to death. Anyway, in the course of many debates, I’ve found that a surprisingly satisfactory meta-ethics is comprised by the following two rules:
1. Universal altruism. Regard the welfare of every human being as equally important, and act accordingly. The ultimate end or standard of behavior should be to maximize the happiness of all mankind, with no special preference either for oneself or for any subset of humanity– family, tribe, nation, class, religious community, whatever– to which one happens to belong.
2. Division of labor. But as Adam Smith so lucidly explained, people are rendered more productive by specialization and division of labor, and we will do the task of caring for humanity much better if we split it up into many different tasks and assign most people, at least, a much smaller range of activity. Nature and circumstances gives us a kind of rough draft of how to arrange this division of labor, giving us all impulses to serve our families and those neighbors who evoke our pity or who have done us a good turn and earned our gratitude. Reason might urge us to modify this template somewhat, but not to discard it completely.
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