Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ruthless Efficiency

I swiped the title from Steve Landsburg. He has an excellent post which, among other thing, outlines a clear alternative to the concept of the "local golden rule" I outlined in a previous post. I sometimes think that I probably really shouldn't have pissed him off so thoroughly - we could have had some good discussions, if we didn't kill each other first. Here he is on his moral conception:

People are dying so that you can read this blog. Your internet access fees could more than double the income of a $400-a-year Ghanaian laborer. People are starving to death, and there you sit, with resources enough to save them (and with reputable charities standing by to effect the transfers), padding your own already luxuriant lifestyle. That’s a choice you made. It’s a choice almost everyone in the First World makes. It might or might not be a horrific choice, but it’s one for which we easily forgive each other. ...

Someday you might find yourself strolling through a desert with a bottle of water and stumble on a man dying of thirst. I bet you’ll offer him some water, and I bet you’d think much less of anyone who didn’t. But there is, as far as I can see, no important moral difference between surfing the web while Africans starve and strolling through the desert while men die in front of you.

Is he being reasonable here?

I said there’s no moral difference, which is not the same as saying there’s no difference at all. We evolved to be callous towards those who are distant (or invisible) and kind toward those who are close.

Even if that's how we think on a personal level, he says, we shouldn't let it affect us on a policy level.

But at the level of policy, where we really ought to care about everyone, it’s just not signficantly more horrible than what we accept all the time.

Supposedly this argument has something to do with efficiency, but he doesn't do a very good job of closing that loop for me. As usual, he has a knack for inflamatory language:

We’ve made the decision to kill people (in Ghana and on winding mountain roads) so you can have faster Internet service.

So how can it be worse to kill one guy so a bunch of others don't have headaches?

Many people, like me, will recoil from this and suspect that this bit of moral nihilism has been slipped in under false pretenses. Indeed it has. If humans were omniscent computers who could see all ends, then perhaps we could make ourselves equally responsible for the dying man, easily rescued, in front of us and the anonymous somebody far away whose lot might or might not be incrementally improved by our individual internet choices. Landsburg thinks that the choice of whether or not to give the dying man a share of our water is a hard choice but it isn't, except maybe for his silly theory of efficiency.

His so-called "Economists Golden Rule," which insists that any moral choice is faulty if it doesn't take into account everybody in the world equally is poisonous for more than one reason, but mainly because it makes moral calculus unsoluble. The only choices consistent with it are a total global collectivism or an abandonment of morality altogether. JC's local rule is better: worry about yourself and your neighbor.

I haven't tried to solve any real world policy questions here, like how society should allocate resources among competing priorities, but then neither has Landsburg.