A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

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.

Principle #1 may seem to some wildly and dangerously idealistic. Doesn’t it imply that we should all dash off to serve the poor in the streets of Calcutta, like Mother Theresa? Probably not; that’s where principle #2 comes in. There are probably a lot of people near us who need our help. They might not need help as much as destitute people in Calcutta, but then, we may not be able to do a whole lot for the destitute people in Calcutta. Maybe we can send money, but there are huge information and incentive problems involved in long-distance charity. Depending on our skills, maybe we can go there ourselves… but most of us probably don’t have a lot of skills that would be particularly use. Destitute people in Calcutta may need help, but likely not our help.

Principle #2 gives a certain degree of support– but not a blank check– to the saying that “charity begins at home.” Helping people isn’t usually just a matter of willingness and self-sacrifice. More often it is a subtle business, which demands empathy, strategy, alertness, and good judgment. Principle #2 even authorizes a good deal of frankly selfish behavior. After all, one of the people who needs taking care of is you, and very often, you’re in the best position to do it! On the other hand, the relatively affluent and prosperous should definitely stand ready to serve others, when the opportunity arises, and maybe even go looking for such opportunities.

One of the most hallowed and universal principles of human behavior is that parents have the duty as well as the desire to take care of their own children. It would be alarming if a meta-ethics contradicted this law, and implied, say, that a mother ought to prefer serving starving Africans to nourishing her own infant! Fortunately, this meta-ethics implies nothing of the sort. All infants, whether born rich or poor, are completely helpless, and need to be attended and cared for merely to survive. There is no reason for an affluent mother to give preference to poor, helpless foundling infants in Africa over her own equally helpless infant, and since she can probably only care for one, no reason for her not to prefer her own. Nor does it imply that well-off parents should provide for their children only up to the point of mere survival and devote all resources above that level to charity. For the world needs educated people, artists, scientists, leaders, entrepreneurs, doctors. Such people are crucial to the continuing prosperity of mankind, and affluent parents who make substantial investments in raising and educating their children, who are likely to become these, may quite reasonably claim to be serving mankind as well as they can with their resources. On the other hand, parents who “spoil” their children, indulging their affectionate impulses towards their children in ways that make their children useless later on, would be in violation of the proposed ethical system. But this conclusion does not contradict common sense or tradition. To sum up, parents’ preferences for their own children are a case of division of labor consistent with an ultimate norm of universal altruism. For poor parents, no one needs their help more than their own children, while more prosperous parents may serve all mankind by raising their children to be virtuous high achievers, though they do wrong if they spoil their children.

The proposed meta-ethics is also consistent with most people, much of the time, behaving roughly like the “rational agents” of economic theory, maximizing their own utility subject to a budget constraint. One reason for this is that people are usually not just looking after themselves but supporting families. But also, in a competitive market, generalized self-seeking actually yields efficient outcomes, on which improvement is not possible. A businessman who lowers prices, or raises wages, out of charity, will probably not benefit society. Raising wages will cause workers to queue for jobs, wasting resources; may lure workers into jobs for which they are overqualified; and will harm shareholders due to lower profits. Lowering prices may cause consumers to queue for goods, wasting resources, while also lowering profits. So in competitive markets, altruism makes no difference: people serve the common good best by doing the same things they would do from self-interest alone. In cases of public goods, externalities, or natural monopoly, however, altruism will make a difference: altruists might supply public goods and positive externalities, and refrain from producing negative externalities, voluntarily, while altruistic monopolists would either set price equal to marginal cost or perhaps earn monopoly profits and use them to finance public goods or transfers to the poor.

In the past, wars of conquest and slavery were examples of practices that were widespread and to some extent admired that would have been radically inconsistent with principle #1 above, even qualified by principle #2. Today, those practices have been abolished, but another practice persists which is equally inconsistent with them: migration restrictions. Of course, one could argue that nation-states are a kind of division of labor and we should all take care of the people who happen to live in the same nation-state of ourselves. But international differences in income today are far too extreme for it to be plausible that this type of division of labor is consistent with an ultimate standard of universal altruism. When America is over 100 times richer, on a per capita basis, than many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it is not tenable that the best way for Americans to serve the welfare of mankind is to channel tax dollars and charitable contributions mostly to their less fortunate fellow Americans. (In fact, very little of the federal budget even goes to those who are poor by American standards.) Moreover, it is not even necessary for Americans to sacrifice any resources in order to greatly enrich the poor. All they need to do is to stop actively keeping them in poverty by excluding them by force from coming to America voluntarily and working. In short, judging by this meta-ethical standard, which seems admirably consistent with most of our moral intuitions, migration restrictions are the one great clearly odious practice that prevails in the advanced democracies today.

I should add that universal altruism plus division of labor is not quite my own meta-ethics. Universal altruism seems to be an extension or variation of utilitarianism, since altruism means doing things for the benefit of others and that “benefit” must be thought of in quantitative terms if it is to make sense to say that we should value everyone’s welfare “equally.” But human happiness is too mysterious to be reducible to a quantitative basis, so utilitarianism is misleading, and so, by extension, is universal altruism as a meta-ethical standard. That’s why I call this a meta-ethics to keep in one’s back pocket: it’s simple, it’s handy, it provides a sort of first approximation of how ethical questions should be answered. In some cases, the answer seems rather clear. In other cases, it might call into question norms that we might hardly have thought of questioning, but which, once we are awakened into doubting them, we realize we should have questioned all along. Tradition always deserves respect, however; it usually contains a lot of accumulated wisdom which is embodied in practice but hard to comprehend quickly with the intellect, and should often be deferred to even when it seems odd, and never rejected out of hand. In the case of open borders, though, there is no need to worry about that, since the migration restrictions of the Passport Age are not traditional, but are a dramatic departure from tradition, perpetrated by 20th-century civilization in its darkest hour of senseless wars and bloody revolutions and racism and fascism, and lingering as the scars of that wicked time.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

7 thoughts on “A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket”

  1. Hmm. I’ll look into this more. It seems to me that the normative ethics / meta-ethics distinction is difficult to draw if not unworkable. To a utilitarian, right action just IS action that attains the greatest good for the greatest number, while for a natural rights theorist violating rights just IS wrong in itself… But sometimes when I mull a question in my mind for a while, I see the sense of a view that prevails elsewhere. Thanks for the heads-up.

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