Tag Archives: Vipul Naik

Burkean arguments for institutional inertia

Post by Sebastian Nickel (see all posts by Sebastian Nickel)

In my last post, I blegged about the strongest arguments for the moral relevance of countries, i.e. for the idea that a person’s country of origin or citizenship is relevant in answering evaluative questions, such as whether a person has a right to accept a job or rent property somewhere.

As I predicted in my bleg, some commenters have diagnosed me with outrageous naïveté for asking such a question. Another thing I could have predicted is that some people would find my explicit use of the term “morality” jarring. In my experience, a very interesting thing often happens in ethical discussions: People who routinely make strong evaluative statements, say, about the morality of military interventions or of different kinds of healthcare policies, suddenly convert to radical moral scepticism when a moral proposition is raised the merit of which they do not wish to consider. It seems to me that the state of common discourse is astonishingly lenient toward such double standards, which could be termed selective radical moral scepticism. I am well aware that the field of meta-ethics is direly lacking in any kind of consensus, but I am sure that most moral philosophers would at least agree that we should be consistent in whether or not we are radical moral sceptics.

Some of the reactions I got to the post, in the comment thread and elsewhere, motivate me to formulate the following distinction: the moral relevance of countries is distinct from the moral relevance of the fact that most people treat countries as morally relevant. This can appear nit-picky in some contexts. If you present an argument along the lines that the world is currently at equilibrium in a state where certain borders are near-universally recognised, and that disrespecting those borders could lead to large-scale violence, it seems reasonable to then say that “countries are therefore morally relevant”. To then counter this statement with the above distinction may seem like mere semantics. To appreciate that the distinction is worth making even here, simply consider the perfect intelligibility of this claim: “Prudence requires that we respect existing immigration laws because most people wrongly consider countries morally relevant”. Regardless of whether this statement is true, I hope it makes it clear that the prevalence of the belief in the moral relevance of countries can be morally relevant without countries being themselves morally relevant, and that pointing out the prevalence of moral belief X should not end the conversation on whether X is true. The ambition of Open Borders: The Case is to change people’s minds about some very widely held beliefs, including moral beliefs.

Personally, I think that by far the strongest answer  to my bleg was given by Bryan Pick. I do not know to what extent Bryan agrees with the argument he proposed (I understand he is on the side of open borders), as he was answering my bleg about strong arguments for a certain position and not necessarily expressing his own views. That being said:

Bryan explicitly referenced Edmund Burke at the beginning of his comment, and the type of argument he presented is what I’m referring to, in the title, as a Burkean argument for institutional inertia, or even, beyond that, a Burkean argument for the moral authority of institutions. Similarly to Leslie Orgel‘s Second Rule, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”, this Burkean type of argument could be summarised by the slogan “Institutions are cleverer than you are”. The idea is that institutions are time-tested, complex products of intricate evolutionary processes involving widely distributed information very different from what any individual person’s mind is suited to grasp or design. This perspective gives support to the attitude I alluded to above, according to which anyone who demands explicit intellectual arguments for established social norms must be disparagingly naïve – not in that they have missed any obvious arguments, but in that they think human argumentative powers more wise than time-tested institutions. The distinction between intellectual attitudes that rely more on the authority of institutions and those that rely more on explicit argumentation is also at the heart of Thomas Sowell‘s distinction between the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision of human nature, which he has argued is the key defining factor of the political divide between Left and Right. Adherents to the Constrained Vision need only point to the disasters brought about by social engineering to put their emphasis on humility in the face of long-standing traditions on a sound footing. (See also, however, this essay by Bryan Caplan, which is critical of Sowell’s distinction and emphasises, in particular, that many ideologies meant to be imposed from the top down, such as fascism, are not a product of rational deliberation.)

Bryan [Pick] completes his proposed argument:

Now, whether this significance extends to “such questions as where one may rent property and work” depends on an extra step. Perhaps an aspect of strategic dominance is that the local population and government are suited to each other, because of hard-won stabilization in communities via a common language, norms, etc., and outsiders can cause a sort of friction. It’s easy to take for granted how much shared conventions and etiquette (like hand signals or line queuing) make life smoother and less confrontational. [Go read the rest in his comment.]

This is good stuff, and it meshes very nicely with what I have in mind for my future post about countries and equilibrium states that I mentioned in my last post.

I think this Burkean line of argument is important. I completely agree with the proposition that it would be naïve and reckless to dismiss existing institutions simply because we cannot formulate any rationale for them that might nonetheless exist. But it is also important to note that, just as easily as the exclusive reliance on intellectual arguments in designing ways of structuring society from the top down can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to the disastrous outcomes of socialist experiments (be they Marxist or fascist or otherwise), the exclusive reliance on the authority of institutions can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to any of the institutions that existed over long periods of time in the past that are now widely recognised as having been viciously immoral: think slavery, witch hunts, torture, border wars…

Similarly to the point I made above about flip-flopping between moral realism and radical moral scepticism, I would also caution the reader to take to heart a criticism Vipul has made of Thomas Sowell in an insightful answer on Quora: It is tempting to alternate between reliance on the authority of institutions and reliance on intellectual arguments, depending on which happens to better serve your position, and Sowell himself may have proven not to be immune from this. I do not expect much disagreement from proponents of either of the two Visions when I say that the authority of institutions and intellectual argumentation are both important. Steven Pinker‘s writings on the psychology of politics, beginning in The Blank Slate, have also drawn on Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the two Visions, and he has made a strong case in The Better Angels of Our Nature for the importance of what he refers to as the Civilizing Process (which relies on institutional constraints) and Enlightenment Humanism (which relies on reason), two historical processes that are seemingly at odds with each other but that he argues need not be alternatives.

Delving a bit deeper now, I want to pick up the distinction I briefly mentioned above, between “Burkean arguments for institutional intertia” and “Burkean arguments for the moral authority of institutions”. This is, again, related to another distinction I have made above, between the argument that it is dangerous to offset existing equilibria, and the argument that the existing equilibrium is morally just. It is perfectly consistent to argue that it would be imprudent (and therefore morally irresponsible) to disrespect or abandon existing institutions while also maintaining that the institutions in question are immoral (see this post by Vipul for a discussion of the difference between philosophical and political anarchism, for instance). After all, changing institutions in a directed way involves serious coordination problems. Such change is more likely to be safe and successful if it happens through a more organic process, which involves changing many individual people’s minds (again, precisely what we are trying to do here at Open Borders).

In their weaker form, Burkean arguments do not say anything more than that. However, as Bryan also mentioned in his comment, the argument can be taken further: The evolutionary processes that shape our institutions may not just provide us with stable social organisations within which to live and prosper, but  might also be a source of moral knowledge.

To what extent this is the case is, it seems to me, a big question that our evolved psychology renders difficult to consider rationally. Status quo bias is generally considered a cognitive fallacy, even though the evolutionary rationale of this bias seems fairly clear. People with conservative sensibilities may be inclined to think of institutions as defining what is morally right, however this would seem to lead to a species of moral relativism, which I think quickly runs into insurmountable problems (this shan’t be the place for me to discuss this further).

All this raises the question of what is the right “mix” of intellectual argumentation and deference to the wisdom of institutions. It seems to me that those two things have qualitatively different roles to play: the former provides arguments directly, whereas the latter provides evidence that there is some kind of rationale for certain ways of organising society. Note that the structure of Bryan’s comment is to first make the general Burkean argument for assuming that institutions are the way they are for important reasons, even if those reasons elude us; he then proceeds to the intellectual exercise of  unpacking this initially elusive rationale, through a mixture of speculation and of historical argumentation to test his speculations against empirical evidence. In so doing, he ends up sketching out a candidate for a consequentialist moral argument for certain kinds of migration restrictions. I think the argument he proposes requires more empirical work to be made compelling, but it is a very serious start.

Moreover, this general structure of “Burkean reasoning” provides us with something of a research agenda, aimed at uncovering the rationale behind long-standing institutions.  It seems to me that it is only in so doing that we can discover whether this rationale has anything to teach us about morality (remember the distinction between the prudential presumption against offsetting an equilibrium and the moral justness of the equilibrium). Regarding the question of migration, it seems highly relevant to note that the institution of countries goes back a much longer way than migration restrictions as they exist today. Chris’ planned series “How Did We Get Here?” on the historical origins of immigration restrictions thus fits rather beautifully with this proposed research agenda, and it could lead to the uncovering of profound moral truths as well as to the demystification of evolutionary gridlocks or by-products.