Friday, February 29, 2008

Respecting the Rich Victim: Boundary Crossings and Critical Opportunities

I wrote this paper last semester for my Political Philosophy class, and I figured I should probably post it here, since it's relevant to the kinds of things I talk about on this site. Without further ado:



In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick sets out to build a framework for an ideal social order. His approach is somewhat unusual for Utopian literature. As Ludwig von Mises famously pointed out, Utopians typically explain how “…in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place.”[1] So rather than dwelling on prophecies of a specific Utopian paradise, Nozick avoids Mises’ criticism by setting his sights lower, focusing on how people could live together harmoniously, striving for personal goals while respecting each other as dignified individuals.[2] Such a world, Nozick believed, would be a Utopia. And for what it’s worth, I think so to.

As a libertarian myself, I agree with the basic thrust behind his argument. Nozick’s framework is built upon the notion of respect for others. He wholeheartedly accepts the Kantian characterization of people as ends-in-themselves, and bases his entire argument on the inherent correctness of treating people the way that they ought to be treated. To Nozick, this means that people are not to be used or sacrificed in order to achieve other ends, and that limits must be honored on the range of acceptable interactions that one can have with other individuals without their consent.[3] At first glance, these principles seem obviously right.

However, in this paper, I will probe Nozick’s conception of appropriate respect, in order to better understand its application to a particular sort of situation, which I will call the “Rich Victim Problem.” It is my contention that the Rich Victim Problem creates real problems for Nozick’s conception of appropriate respect. But before tackling the problem, I want to outline Nozick’s views concerning compensation and boundary crossing in ordinary circumstances.

Compensation in the Absence of Consent

In many situations, individuals want to perform actions that they know will infringe upon the rights of others. Nozick allows that in some situations, going forward with the action might be justifiable, provided that compensation is paid later. He explains, “The reason one sometimes would wish to allow boundary crossings with compensation…is presumably the great benefits of the act; it is worthwhile, ought to be done, and can pay its way.”[4] In other words, if in full knowledge of the fact that she would have to compensate her victim for the damage she caused to him, an individual still wanted to proceed with her course of action, then it would mean that causing the damage was more valuable to her than the compensating value which she would lose. And because her victim would be compensated for his losses, no one would end up being made worse off by the action.

But Nozick is quick to acknowledge that this idea applies only when it is consistent with having full respect for others. He writes, “…a system permitting boundary crossing, provided compensation is paid, embodies the use of persons as means…”[5] The reasoning behind this is somewhat difficult to understand. The most intuitive argument is illustrated in a claim by Gerald Sauer that “We all choose goals and purse them. And in pursuing our ends, we want our persons and our activities to be physically respected by others. We do not want others to injure us or to disrupt our activities without a compelling justification.”[6] But if people were truly being compensated completely for all of the damage they undergo, then it is puzzling why they should object; they would be made no worse off than they would have been had their boundaries remained uncross.

Nozick’s own explanation is subject to the same objection. He claims that “…knowing they are being so used, and that their plans and expectations are liable to being thwarted arbitrarily, is a cost to people…”[7] But if people knew that they would be completely compensated for any damage caused to them, it might seem irrational for them to fear. Nozick seems to think that whether or not this is the case, people do nevertheless fear harms for which they will be compensated,[8] and it would be disrespectful to create conditions in which such fear would be prevalent. For the sake of discussion, I will grant Nozick this point.

Getting prior consent before crossing any boundaries would seem to be in order, then. But Nozick recognizes that sometimes obtaining this permission is very difficult, or even impossible. Further, the actor might have very good reason to believe that she would be able to come to a prior agreement the victim if only she could properly negotiate with him. In these sorts of situations, Nozick points out that prohibition would be inefficient, as it would prevent the implementation of an entire group of actions which would produce a net benefit. Accordingly, he acknowledges that boundary crossings might be justifiable in some instances where it is difficult or impossible to obtain prior consent, provided that victims are completely compensated.

The Story of the Rich Victim

Having outlined Nozick’s views concerning boundary crossing and compensation, we can move onto the Rich Victim Problem. I will illustrate the Problem through the story of a fellow named Jerry who has just applied for a new job working at an architecture firm. Jerry is extremely poor, though he is not starving, and does not technically need the job to survive. But the job would be intellectually stimulating, and would completely change Jerry’s life, giving him a sense of purpose and value.

Jerry’s friend Sally works at the architecture firm, and has informed Jerry that the head architect wants to hire him over all of the other candidates. But the architect values enthusiasm very highly, and expects Jerry to follow up on his interview by noon. After noon, the architect will give the job to another applicant. So all Jerry needs to do is call by noon, and he will get the job.

But when he picks up the phone at 11:00 to call the head architect, Jerry discovers that the line is dead. He looks out his window, and sees that a branch has fallen from a tree, snapping the telephone wire running to his home. Jerry bolts out the door and across the street to his neighbor Lucy’s house. Lucy is a very wealthy woman who, for some reason, lives in an extravagant home in the middle of nowhere; Lucy’s and Jerry’s are the only houses for miles. Unfortunately, when Jerry arrives at Lucy’s door, he discovers that she is not home. He remembers suddenly that she has gone on a vacation, and will certainly not be returning within the hour.

As Jerry contemplates his horrible fate, he considers whether or not it would be justifiable for him to break into Lucy’s house to use her phone. He knows that the only way to get in would be to smash in one of her ostentatious windows, and even with his new job, he would never be able to come close to completely compensating her for the damage. At best, he could afford to pay a negligibly small fraction of the total.

But Jerry knows that Lucy’s wealth is so vast that she could easily replace whatever he broke; she would barely even notice the small decrease in her net worth. Jerry acknowledges that Lucy has a right to not have her window smashed in, but wonders if the importance of his phone call would justify him in smashing it anyway.

To Smash or Not to Smash?

To help us make sense of Jerry’s situation, it will help to introduce a bit of terminology. In her essay, “Self-Defense and Rights,” Judith Thomson writes:

“Suppose a man has a right that something or other shall be the case; let us say he has a right that p, where p is some statement or other, and now suppose that we make p false. So, for example, if his right is the right that he is not punched in the nose, we make that false, that is, we bring it about that he is punched in the nose. Then, as I shall say, we infringe his right. But I shall say that we violate his right if and only if we do not merely infringe his right, but more, are acting wrongly, unjustly in doing so.”[9]

Accordingly, we will seek to answer the following question: If Jerry smashed Lucy’s window despite being unable to compensate her for the damage, would he be infringing upon her rights, or would he be violating them?

Thomson notes that an individual must be compensated for infringements upon her rights,[10] and Nozick seems to agree. Further, it appears that if compensation were not paid, then both would say that the victim’s rights would have been violated. To this end, Nozick writes, “…some injuries may not be compensable; and for those that are compensable, how can the agent know that the actual compensation won’t be beyond his means?”[11] In the Rich Victim Problem, we have supposed that the agent knows for a fact that the actual compensation will be beyond his means. So on the face of it, it would seem like Nozick would clearly insist that Jerry not smash Lucy’s window.

But this seems curious in light of the reasons that Nozick wants to allow boundary crossings in the first place. He seems to justify them on the basis of net benefits; in fact, he specifically asserts that “The most efficient policy forgoes the fewest net beneficial acts…”[12] And in our story, it is clear that Jerry’s smashing Lucy’s window would produce a net benefit. Recall that Jerry’s life would be changed as a result of being hired, while the damage to Lucy’s window would barely produce a scratch in her enormous wealth. It may be true that there is no good way to compare utility between individuals, but it seems clear that in the Rich Victim Problem, we can fairly say that the magnitude of Jerry’s utility gain would far exceed that of Lucy’s loss.

The difficulty in Nozick’s thinking seems to be the result of treating compensation as being capable of accomplishing two different tasks at the same time. Nozick is clearly thinking that compensation makes up for the damage experienced by the victim, ensuring that her interests have not been harmed as a result of the invasion. In this regard his foundation is sturdy. But Nozick is also talking as if the act of compensation represented a direct transfer of gain from the boundary crosser to the victim. Otherwise, it would be unclear how he would expect a system of compensation to forego the fewest net beneficial acts. This is where he runs into trouble.

Suppose for a moment that we could somehow measure utility objectively, and compare it between Jerry and Lucy. If Jerry smashed Lucy’s window, he would gain a tremendous amount of utility, and Lucy would lose some utility. We might imagine that by smashing Lucy’s window, Jerry made Lucy worse off by some quantity of utility, X. We might also imagine that taking some quantity of money from Jerry, say $100, would cause a loss of the same amount of utility, X, for Jerry. But if we were to give the $100 to Lucy, the amount of utility she would gain would be far smaller than X. Perhaps the amount of money necessary to bring Lucy back to her original level of utility would be $50,000 (it was a really expensive window). In light of the disparity between the $100 and the $50,000, it becomes clear that when a victim and boundary crosser value the medium of compensation differently, the act of compensating the victim can not simultaneously accomplish both of the roles that Nozick implies that it can.

As a result, when Nozick characterizes boundary crossing without compensation as a violation of a victim’s rights, and thereby deems it worthy of prohibition, he creates the potential for an entire class of net beneficial actions to be foregone. And by Nozick’s own admission, this could mean that his would fail to be the most efficient policy. So when push comes to shove, what is most important? Should we prohibit the net beneficial actions in order to avoid sacrificing the interests of the victims for the sake of the boundary crossers?

We need a way to decide. In his essay, “Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code at All?,” John Harsanyi poses a question that could help us with our choice: “Taking an impartial point of view, that is, disregarding what your own social position would be in either society, would you prefer to live in a society governed by the first moral code or in a society governed by the second?”[13]

It seems as though in answering this question, Nozick would want to err on the side of respect for individuals, and therefore take the side of the victims. And Nozick’s position appears defensible. Harsanyi points out that “No doubt, most of us would very much prefer to live in a society whose moral code requires people to respect individual rights and personal obligations, except in some very special situations…”[14] And so even if people in Jerry’s position were forced to forego net beneficial actions, we might still prefer to live in a society based on respect for victims’ rights.

This conclusion is strengthened by one of Nozick’s central arguments, which is that social benefits can never be an excuse to violate the rights of an individual. He argues:

“…there is no social entity with a good that undergoes a sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up…To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good for his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him…”[15]

It is clear that with regard to Lucy’s situation, Nozick’s argument describes things perfectly. To allow Jerry to smash Lucy’s window would be to do something to her for the sake of Jerry. Indeed, she would not get any overbalancing good for her sacrifice. And yet, I can not help but feel like Jerry is getting a poor deal. I feel badly for Jerry in a way that I usually don’t with regard to people who want to violate the rights of others. Is there anything that can be said on Jerry’s behalf, to support his smashing Lucy’s window?

Critically Important Opportunities

I believe there is. In her essay, “Some Ruminations on Rights,” Judith Thomson tells the following story:

“There is a child who will die if he is not given some drugs in the future. The only bit of that drug which can be obtained for him in the near future is yours. You are out of town, so we telephone you to ask. You refuse consent. You keep your supply of the drug in a locked box on your back porch.”[16]

Confronted with this scenario, Thomson wonders if it would be permissible to break into the locked box to take the drug, even though you had refused to consent to our doing so. She points out that the morality of this action would seem to have something to do with how much you valued the drug. If you valued the drug very highly, it would be difficult to say how we ought to proceed. But if you valued the drug very little, the proper course of action would be clear: we ought to take the drug. Thomson justifies her conclusion by pointing out that if you value the drug very little, and giving it away would save someone’s life, “…it is indecent for you to refuse to consent…”[17]

Thomson’s account raises an interesting possibility. Could it be that by insisting that your right to your drugs were respected, you were somehow disrespecting the child? It seems to me that this is exactly what Thomson is implying. But how does this view compare to Nozick’s?

It is clear that within Nozick’s framework, your refusal does not cross any boundary. By refusing consent, in effect what you are doing is depriving the child of an opportunity. Specifically, you are depriving the child of the opportunity to do something which can only be done by crossing one of your boundaries. Because in Nozick’s framework, boundaries are indicative of the respect to which one is entitled, he would need to say that it would be disrespectful for the child to cross your boundaries when you had specifically refused consent.

But Thomson is suggesting the opposite: it is disrespectful for you to refuse consent. The basis for this claim seems to be twofold. First, the child requires your drug in order to live. Second, you value the drug very little. An obvious principle can be drawn from these observations: It is disrespectful to refuse to allow a person to cross your boundaries if doing so is absolutely necessary to her, and allowing her to do so would harm you very little.

It seems to me that this principle is very much on the track to being correct. But some difficulties immediately present themselves. First, we have said nothing of compensation. For our purposes, we need not address the question of whether one would be entitled to compensation for a necessary boundary crossing in a case where the boundary crosser could afford to pay the compensation. I suspect that compelling arguments could be made on both sides, and I do not wish to attempt an adequate discussion of this issue here.

The question that concerns this essay is whether it would be disrespectful to refuse to allow a necessary boundary crossing in a case where the boundary crosser could not afford to compensate you for the minor inconvenience of her action. And to answer this question, I propose the following thought experiment. Imagine if you saw someone refusing to give the drug for the child, even though you knew it would be little bother if he gave the drug up. Would you not consider the owner of the drug to be repellent and monstrous? I certainly would. And if the child stole the drug, would you feel disdain for her blatant disregard for the man? I think not. Though I can provide no more substantive argument than that, I will suggest that the boundary crossing would be fully consistent with the child according all due respect to the owner of the drug, and that the refusal of consent displayed a clear lack of respect for the fact that child’s life was the only one she has.

Accepting this, we are one step closer to assenting to Jerry’s smashing Lucy’s window, but an obvious hurdle remains. In Thomson’s example, the child needs the drug to live; in Jerry’s case, he will survive whether or not he smashes Lucy’s window. Further, while the child would have died as a result of failing to take the drug, Jerry would only be left disappointed. And his disappointment, it seems, would only reflect his inability to sacrifice Lucy’s rights for his own interests. Typically, this is not the sort of disappointment which demands sympathy.

And yet, it seems like Jerry does deserve sympathy. His lost opportunity would not kill him, but it still seems that it would be awful for Jerry to lose out on it. Getting the job, we might say, is critically important to Jerry. Could it be fair to say that even critically important opportunities would justify crossing boundaries, regardless of whether compensation could be paid? Again, without offering a substantive argument in my favor, I will suggest that when the damage caused by the boundary crossing is very small, such an act would be justified. Appealing to intuition alone, then, I will adopt the principle that it is disrespectful to refuse consent to a boundary crossing which would do little harm to you, but would deprive the boundary crosser of a critically important opportunity, even if the boundary crosser would not be able to compensate you for the damage she caused.

If we agree to this principle, then it becomes clear that Jerry would be justified in smashing Lucy’s window. This would be true not because Jerry strongly desires to smash Lucy’s window, or because Jerry’s benefits would outweigh Lucy’s costs. Reasons like these would immediately fall prey to Nozick’s demand that we properly respect Lucy’s individuality. Rather, Jerry would be justified in smashing Lucy’s window because it is critically important to Jerry that he do so, and because it would harm Lucy very little. Or to put it another way, we could say that Jerry would be justified in smashing Lucy’s window because it would be disrespectful to not allow him to smash it.

By saying this, am I implying that Lucy does not have the right to not have her window smashed by Jerry? I do not believe so. It seems to me that it is because of Lucy’s right to not have her window smashed that we must have this conversation in the first place. Lucy does have the right to not have her window smashed, and violating it would be disrespectful of her right. What we are saying here is that by smashing Lucy’s window, Jerry infringes upon Lucy’s right, but does not violate it, because he is not acting wrongly. If the harm to Lucy were greater, or Jerry’s opportunity less critical, we might come to the opposite conclusion.


Thus it should be noticed that I have left two central terms undefined in my account so far. I have said nothing about what constitutes a critically important opportunity, and equally little about what constitutes a small harm to the victim. This has been by design, as I hope to avoid objections based on my definitions of those terms. I can only appeal to intuition in saying that however we define a critically important opportunity, Jerry’s circumstances represent one, and similarly, Lucy’s losses seem small enough to justify Jerry’s smashing the window.

This will not be a sufficient answer for someone seeking to put this principle into action. And it will not do to suggest that in the common law, vague guidelines such as these are rather common. My opponents might argue that “The beauty of the property rights approach…is that it need not become mired in…subjective quicksands. It assigns property to its rightful owners, and places the burden of purchase on those who would alter these allocations.”[18] If I seek to convince them, I would need to be able to avoid appeals to vague, subjective notions of comparative valuation.

There are two ways to proceed from here. The first is to suggest that perhaps there is no way to put my principle into action. Nozick himself points out, “Because great transaction costs may make the fairest alternative impracticable, one may search for other alternatives…These alternatives will involve constant minor unfairness and classes of major ones.”[19] It may be that we would prefer to live in a society which prohibited Jerry’s actions in order to avoid allowing objectionable rights violations in cases where our principle were not applicable, but where it would be impossible to determine that this were the case. It does not then harm my argument to say that Jerry would be justified in smashing Lucy’s window, but that we might never be able to form an adequate policy to allow this, and therefore we might simply end up punishing Jerry unfairly.

The other way to proceed would be to argue that there are ways to put my principle into action that would not be objectionable because of unfair comparisons of utility between individuals. It seems to me that this could obviously work in extreme cases. And because my principle is designed specifically for extreme cases, it may be that we would never feel the need to apply it in a situation where its applicability would be questioned.

But what of the possibility that an adjudicator would declare a harm to be insignificant, even though the victim subjectively felt it was severe, or that an individual would feel that an opportunity was critically important, though others could not understand why? Putting my principle into action likely would result in the potential for major unfairness in these sorts of scenarios. And to this possibility I have no response; if as a society, we would rather err on the side of the victim, then I can provide no objective argument in opposition.


I recognize that I have attempted here is nothing short of audacious. I also believe that what I have said makes a lot of sense. The implications of accepting my principle, however, might be too much for many people to stomach. Specifically, it seems like we could justify certain redistributive policies by applying it, where providing some critically important value to the needy would come at a comparatively insignificant cost to the victims.

I do not want to defend such an incendiary suggestion here. I will only suggest that we consider the possibility that this would be fair. As Nozick writes:

“…the term “redistributive” applies to types of reasons for an arrangement, rather than to an arrangement itself. We might elliptically call an arrangement “redistributive” if its major (only possible) supporting reasons are themselves redistributive…Finding compelling nonredistributive reasons would cause us to drop this label.”[20]

Perhaps what we have accomplished here is to provide such reasons. But I do not wish to get ahead of myself. For now, I will be satisfied if we agree that Jerry would be justified in smashing Lucy’s window, and that to say this does not imply any disrespect for Lucy whatsoever.

[1] Mises, L. von, 1990 (1920), Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, page 2. Available online at

[2] Nozick, R., 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Cambridge: Better Books, Inc., pages 333-334.

[3] Nozick, R., op cit., pages 30-31.

[4] Nozick, R., op cit., page 72.

[5] Nozick, R., op cit., page 71.

[6] Sauer, G. L., 1982, “Imposed Risk Controversies: A Critical Analysis,” Cato Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, page 234.

[7] Nozick, R., op cit., page 71.

[8] Nozick, R., op cit., page 70.

[9] Thomson, J. J., 1986a, “Self-Defense and Rights,” in Rights, Restitution, & Risk, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, page 40.

[10] Thomson, J. J., 1986a, op cit., pages 40-41.

[11] Nozick, R., op cit., page 71.

[12] Nozick, R., op cit., page 73.

[13] Harsanyi, J. C., 1985, “Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code at All?” Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 1, page 45.

[14] Harsanyi, J. C., op cit., page 47.

[15] Nozick, R., op cit., pages 32-33.

[16] Thomson, J. J., 1986b, “Some Ruminations on Rights,” in Rights, Restitution, & Risk, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, page 57.

[17] Thomson, J. J., 1986b, op cit., page 58.

[18] McGee, R. W., and Block, W. E., 1994, “Pollution Trading Permits as a Form of Market Socialism and the Search for a Real Market Solution to Environmental Pollution,” Fordham Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, page 76.

[19] Nozick, op cit., page 77.

[20] Nozick, op cit., 27.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Argumentation Ethics, Socrates Style

So it appears once more that I'm a jerk. I got into a debate about Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics, and it seemed like we were talking past each other. Accordingly, I pulled the most obnoxious stunt I can think of: a Socratic-style dialogue. Because Argumentation Ethics are relevant to some people, I figured I'd repost my argument here. Enjoy!


Socrates: "I've had it with those darn crows eating all my corn! Oh yea, by the way, I grow corn now. Jones, I need you to go out in the field for me to scare away the crows. They won't come near if you're out in the field."

Jones: "No way, Socrates! I don't want to guard your corn."

Socrates: "Fine, then. What if I just tie you up and mount you on a pole in my field? That would scare the crows away too."

Jones: "I suppose you could do that, but it wouldn't be right."

Socrates: "This has nothing to do with right and wrong. You can try to stop me if you'd like. But I don't see any reason why your interest in not being tied up is inherently more important than my interest in scaring away the crows, such that I would be wrong to try to scare off the crows at the expense of you being tied up."

Jones: "But don't you see? You're arguing that you aren't wrong in trying to tie me up! In order to argue, you must presuppose that you have the right of self-ownership, which includes the right not to be tied up. As ethical systems, by their nature, should apply to all people, your act of arguing demonstrates that you would be wrong not to accept my right to self-ownership. Accordingly, you ought not to try to tie me up."

Socrates: "Hold on, Jones. You're getting ahead of yourself. Let's get out in the open that I agree that ethical systems should apply to all people; if I have the right to self-ownership, then you do too. We agree on that, right?"

Jones: "Yes. And by arguing, you demonstrate that you own yourself. Therefore, I own myself, and you shouldn't tie me up."

Socrates: "I don't think so. I don't need to own myself in order to argue. If you wanted to scare crows away, you would be perfectly within your limits to try to tie me up, and I would be just as well within my limits to try to stop you."

Jones: "But that's not what I said. If you didn't own yourself, you would certainly be able to argue, but you would have no right to do so."

Socrates: "When you say that I would have "no right to argue," do you mean that I would not be justified in attempting to argue if I didn't own myself, or that other people would have no duty to let me argue without interfering?"

Jones: "What's the difference, Socrates?"

Socrates: "Well, for starters, the second one is false. I don't need to presuppose that I will succeed in arguing in order to try to argue. In a few minutes, I will try to tie you up. If you didn't act to stop me, I am reasonably certain that I would succeed. But perhaps your interference will cause me to fail. That doesn't mean that it is somehow inconsistent of me to try to tie you up, does it?"

Jones: "I guess not. But that doesn't mean that you would be justified in tying me up!"

Socrates: "Well no, not if "being justified" means that I have the right not to be interfered with. Just as it's okay for me to try to tie you up, it's okay for you to try to stop me. To argue otherwise would be contradictory. But as I said, when I argue, I don't need to presuppose that I have the right not to be interfered with."

Jones: "Okay, so what's your point?"

Socrates: "Earlier you said that if I didn't own myself, I wouldn't have the right to argue. If when you say "have the right to argue," you mean that I have the right to not be interfered with, then it's true that if I didn't own myself, then I wouldn't have the right to argue. But just as I don't need to presuppose such a right in order to try to tie you up, I don't need to presuppose that I have such a right in order to try to argue."

Jones: "Okay, but what if we define "right" a different way? You suggested an alternative way earlier, didn't you?"

Socrates: "That's right, Jones, I did. You said that if I didn't own myself, I would have no right to argue, and I wondered if you meant that I would not be entitled to try to argue if I didn't own myself. Is that what you meant?"

Jones: "Well what if it is?"

Socrates: "Think about it this way: if I am entitled to try to tie you up, then clearly you don't own yourself, right?"

Jones: "That's right."

Socrates: "But even if I am entitled to try to tie you up, surely you are entitled to try to stop me, right?"

Jones: "I think that's clearly true, Socrates."

Socrates: "So in the same way, if you are entitled to try to stop me from arguing, then clearly I don't own myself. But even if you are entitled to try to stop me from arguing, I am surely entitled to try to argue. Therefore, I need not own myself in order to be entitled to try to argue."

Jones: "But..."

Socrates: "But nothing. My arguing is in no way inconsistent with my view that I do not own myself, and that you do not own yourself either. Accordingly, I think I'll tie you up now."

Jones: "Bummer."


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Alternative Ways to Ground Interests for Nonconscious Entities?

So in my Environmental Ethics class, we discussed whether or not trees can be said to have interests, and I advanced my argument that they can't because they weren't subjects. There were two objections raised in class that I hadn't addressed, and I figured I might as well put my responses to them here.

The first objection was that corporations aren't subjects, but corporations have interests. The methodological individualists out there will cringe at this argument, but I think it still needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. Corporations are abstract entities which, in a certain abstract sense, do have interests of their own. Generally those interests seem to be explainable by reference to the interests of the individuals who make up the corporation (including the owners). But it's perfectly fair to say that sometimes, the interests of a corporation, as an abstract entity, can be thought of as separate, and even contradictory, to the interests of the individuals composing it; that is, the abstraction of the corporation can come to have an identity of its own, and individuals may ascribe qualities to that abstraction which are not directly in line with the feelings of the individuals involved.

Even so, it does seem like we want to say that those interests are solely in the minds of these individuals, and that really there is no corporate entity which actually has interests of its own. If I am on a kickball team, I may begin to talk about the interests of the team, as if they exist apart from any of the members of the team. And perhaps my teammates and I might each grow bored with kickball, but "for the sake of the team," no one quits. It's true that we would end up with what Snell Putney called an "autosystem": the institution we created would cease to align with our interests, and could potentially cause us to subordinate our interests to the perceived interests of the institution. Still, I maintain that it would be ridiculous to say that the team actually has an interest in us staying on the team, and that we would harm those interests if we all quit. The commitment to the team, and the interests that we attribute to the team, exist only in our heads.

But even if we allowed that corporations, or teams, could have interests, it does seem that corporations and teams have interests which at least arise from the interests of their constituent members. Those constituent members, it must be acknowledged, are subjects, who can have interests. Trees are not so composed. No part of a tree is a subject, and so the analogy falls flat.

The second objection relied on the concept of functions as potential ways to ground interests. In my original argument, I wrote:

A tree is constructed in such a way that certain things will preserve or advance its “tree-ness,” while other things will detract from or eliminate its tree-ness. For example, sunshine and water are “good” for a tree, and fire is “bad” for a tree. And if we introduce fire to a tree, we might bring it about that the tree’s ability to continue to exist as a tree will be destroyed. But in the same way, there are certain things which are “good” or “bad” for a wine glass. Soft, cool environments are great for wine glasses, while hard, fast moving objects are really bad for them. If I throw a rock at my wine glass, it will no longer be able to fulfill the functions of a wine glass; it will be reduced to its constituent parts, and its essence will be lost. But the wine glass’ wine glass-ness is not valuable for the wine glass’ own sake; a wine glass is not a subject. The same thing seems to apply to a tree.

It will not help to point out that a tree can repair damage to itself, or move around obstacles to reach the light. The tree does not desire these things, nor does it choose to do them. If I fill my computer’s hard drive with viruses, its functioning will be severely compromised. But my computer does not have an interest in continuing to function. It too falls short of being a subject, and the fact that it does not have such an interest seems like it can be explained by reference to its not being a subject.

In class, an objection was raised that a wine glass' and computer's functions reflect human ends, while trees' functions do not. This is a point worth examining. My computer only has the functions that it does because of human interests. More specifically, my computer's functions reflect its designer's perceptions of what my interests are. Accordingly, it seems somewhat plausible to say that the only interests I can possibly harm when I infect my computer with viruses are my own.

A tree, on the other hand, possesses its functions "naturally." It does not grow because I designed it that way; it grows, in a sense, "on its own accord." Couldn't we then say that I go against the tree's interests by impeding its "natural functions"? I don't think so.

Notice that the idea of a "function" is inherently tied to a way of thinking about processes which takes a means-ends form. When I say, "A function of my hand is to pick things up," I seem to mean something along the lines that if I want to pick something up, my hand possesses certain properties that will allow me to use it for that purpose. That is, I can achieve the ends of picking something up by making use of my hand as a means.

Without the idea of a desired end, it seems somehow incomprehensible to talk about something having a function. Imagine a rock sitting on the surface of a distant asteroid, where no being will ever make use of it, see it, know it exists, etc. What function can the rock have? I would say it can't have any function. It serves no ends whatsoever.

Accepting this, it should become clear that to talk about a plant's function is to presuppose some ends to which those functions are meant to act as means. And if something is an ends, then we unavoidably arrive at the idea of interests. If a plant's properties function as means for the plant's growth, then we say that those properties are means to the ends of the plant's growth. And it seems obvious that what we have in mind is the plant's ends of growth. What I'm working at is that to talk about the plant's natural functions is to presuppose that plants have interests.

So then the question becomes, can plants have ends? I think the answer is clearly no. It is not simply that plants don't use their properties in order to grow. It is not even that plants' growth has nothing to do with their aims. Rather, I'm arguing that plants do not have any ends of their own, and that this fact can be demonstrated by reference to the fact that plants are not subjects. A plant's "functioning" can not be impaired except, and this is a critical distinction, if the function of the plant is to satisfy the ends of some other thing which is a subject. That is, if your pumpkins are functioning as food to you, then I impair their function by filling them with poison. But I do not impair any functions being used to promote the ends of the plant itself, because plants don't have ends.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Can We Have Duties to Nonconscious Entities?

Hi there. I just finished a paper for my Environmental Ethics class, and I figured I'd post it here in case anyone is interested in reading it. I'm really not sure what I think of it, or if it's any good. I'm not as happy with it as I usually am about the work I turn in, but I didn't really love the topic, and I sort of wanted to be done with it. For anyone interested in the idea of intrinsic value or in environmentalism, though, it might be worth taking a look at. Without further ado...


Our moral duties are inherently rooted in the idea of intrinsic value. It would be meaningless to talk about what we “ought” to do if our aims reflected nothing valuable, and we do not generally think ourselves to be morally bound to our mere tastes. Morality comes into play only when we recognize a kind of value inherent in a certain thing, which demands consideration and respect. But while this account should be relatively uncontroversial in itself, its vagueness masks a great deal of disagreement regarding the nature of intrinsic value, and the kinds of things that can “have” it. One rather contentious question is whether or not nonconscious entities (e.g., trees, rivers, mountains) can have intrinsic value. In this essay, I will examine this issue and conclude that while these entities can indeed have intrinsic value, it is of a different kind than the intrinsic value inhering in conscious beings.

Generally, when we talk about intrinsic value, we suppose that this value exists by virtue of some objective property of the intrinsically valuable object. And perhaps the most intuitively obvious property to identify as a source of intrinsic value is the quality of being a living, experiencing thing. In his essay, “The Case for Animal Rights,” Tom Regan writes:

…we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, each of us a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things; believe and feel things; recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived; as experienced by us as individuals.

Clearly, if wanting, preferring, believing, feeling, recalling, and expecting are necessary capacities in an entity with intrinsic value, then nonconscious entities are out of the running; Regan writes, “The idea of nonconscious beings having desires, wants, etc., at least in any literal sense, seems plainly unintelligible.” But Regan wonders if nonconscious entities can have a good of their own which we should respect for its own sake.

In his essay, “The Good of Trees,” Robin Attfield argues:

There is no need to hold that trees have unconscious goals to reach the conclusion that trees have interests…The growth and thriving of trees does not need to be regarded as a kind of wanting, nor trees as possible objects of sympathy, for us to recognize that they too have a good of their own.

He continues, “…I do not see the justification for holding that it is not in the interest of plants to flourish. Truistically, they are unaware of their interests: but even creatures with cognition are often unaware of theirs, whether they are flourishing or not.” If Attfield is right, then perhaps we could indeed say that trees and other nonconscious entities have intrinsic value in a similar way to conscious beings.

Is Attfield’s account satisfying? In Regan’s discussion of the source of intrinsic value, the entire focus was indeed put on distinctly conscious sorts of interests, and Attfield makes a fair point in saying that even beings with cognitive capacities are not always conscious of their interests. But I am still hesitant to accept the idea that a tree can have interests.

It occurs to me that when we talk about preserving or advancing interests, we suppose that we are bringing something about for the sake of the being whose interests we are preserving or advancing. It seems to me that nothing can be done for a tree’s sake. A tree is not what I would consider to be a “subject,” or more abstractly, a “mental substance,” and it is difficult to see how an entity which is not a subject can have its own “sake.”

A tree is constructed in such a way that certain things will preserve or advance its “tree-ness,” while other things will detract from or eliminate its tree-ness. For example, sunshine and water are “good” for a tree, and fire is “bad” for a tree. And if we introduce fire to a tree, we might bring it about that the tree’s ability to continue to exist as a tree will be destroyed. But in the same way, there are certain things which are “good” or “bad” for a wine glass. Soft, cool environments are great for wine glasses, while hard, fast moving objects are really bad for them. If I throw a rock at my wine glass, it will no longer be able to fulfill the functions of a wine glass; it will be reduced to its constituent parts, and its essence will be lost. But the wine glass’ wine glass-ness is not valuable for the wine glass’ own sake; a wine glass is not a subject. The same thing seems to apply to a tree.

It will not help to point out that a tree can repair damage to itself, or move around obstacles to reach the light. The tree does not desire these things, nor does it choose to do them. If I fill my computer’s hard drive with viruses, its functioning will be severely compromised. But my computer does not have an interest in continuing to function. It too falls short of being a subject, and the fact that it does not have such an interest seems like it can be explained by reference to its not being a subject.

Does this mean that nonconscious entities can not have intrinsic value? I do not think it does. I think it just means that their value must be of a different sort than the value inhering in conscious, experiencing subjects. In her essay, “Duties Concerning Islands,” Mary Midgley offers a clue as to how we might work towards such an alternative conception of intrinsic value. She writes that to think of duties concerning nonconscious entities, “…is not necessarily to personify them superstitiously or to indulge in chatter about the “secret life of plants.” It expresses merely that there are suitable and unsuitable ways of behaving in given situations.” Midgley takes the focus off of the nonconscious objects in question and places it on the action of the agent. This opens up a number of possible ways to think of nonconscious entities as having moral standing.

For one thing, we can consider an action involving a nonconscious entity to be inappropriate if others are harmed by it. For example, I might do wrong if I needlessly chop down a beautiful tree, even if I could not be said to be harming the tree’s interests, because perhaps you enjoyed looking at tree. My action would have served no great purpose to me, and it would have made you significantly worse off. In cutting down the tree, I would have made the world a worse place for humanity.

But it might be objected that here I do not invoke the idea of intrinsic value; plain old personal taste would seem to explain this situation perfectly well. In his book, Theory and History, economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish.” And if this were true of our valuation of the tree, then we would be going against the idea mentioned earlier that intrinsic value must reflect a property inhering in the valued object. Intrinsic value, in other words, must be founded on something more than mere taste.

Mises disputes whether such a foundation is possible. He writes:

“The unfortunate propensity to hypostasize various aspects of human thinking and acting has led to attempts to provide a definition of beauty and then to apply this arbitrary concept as a measure. However there is no acceptable definition of beauty but “that which pleases.” There are no norms of beauty, and there is no such thing as a normative discipline of aesthetics.

If there is no property in nonconscious objects which demands our consideration and respect, and our feelings towards them reflect only our subjective tastes, then we would be committed to rejecting the possibility that these entities have intrinsic value. But is it really true that our evaluations of certain things do not reflect any describable “norm” of beauty? Surely many of our preferences reflect our individual tastes, and cannot reasonably be said to reflect any intrinsically valuable properties in the objects of our preferences. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his essay, On Liberty:

No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one.

But on some level, it seems absurd to suggest that the Grand Canyon is not inherently the sort of thing which is valuable to people. I would find it difficult to accept an argument that Niagara Falls does not objectively have the capacity to inspire awe and wonder in human beings. These sorts of things seem beautiful in fact; if someone did not agree, I would feel rather comfortable saying that they were, in some sense, “wrong” or “mistaken.”

If there are things which have the objective capacity to inspire powerful positive evaluations by people, then their destruction would seemingly make the world a “worse” place in a substantive sense. And committing such “wasteful” destruction without good reason would seem like an unsuitable way to behave, thereby capturing Mary Midgley’s above-mentioned intuitions. Can we say, then, that we have a duty not to damage or destroy nonconscious entities if they possess an inherent capacity to rouse certain kinds of reactions in people? I think we can.

It might be objected that this phrasing of the duty seems anthropocentric; our duties are not to the nonconscious entities at all, but rather to other individuals. But this is not necessarily so. I do not respect the nonconscious entity because it will please other people; I respect it because it possesses the capacity to please people, and is therefore valuable in itself.

I am satisfied with this conclusion. I have established that nonconscious entities can be intrinsically valuable, and that this value indeed reflects objective qualities inhering in them. Further, I have shown that the intrinsic value residing with nonconscious entities has a fundamentally different source than the intrinsic value we attribute to conscious beings, and that this value does not correspond to any notion of interests held by the nonconscious entities. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that this conception of our duties towards nonconscious entities reflects our intuitions about this matter. Much more still needs to be said about the significance of the intrinsic value discussed here, especially in terms of its “weight” in moral considerations, but such a discussion would go far beyond the scope of this paper. For now I will be satisfied with the conclusion that nonconscious entities can have intrinsic value which does not insist on their having interests or being morally equivalent to conscious entities.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Costs to Future People: A Thought Experiment

50th post! Hooray!

So I've been talking a lot about the implications of the Non-Identity Problem for dealing with issues like climate change, and I've come up with a thought experiment to help think about it.

Vlad is a mad scientist, and knows that his neighbors, the Crosbys, have been planning to have a child. He constructs a sophisticated robot in his laboratory (pronounced luh-bor-uh-tory), which he mounts atop a rocket. Vlad then waits at his window with his binoculars until he sees Mr. and Mrs. Crosby walk outside their house to have dinner on the porch. As the Crosbys sit down to eat, Vlad launches his rocket right out of his roof, filling his neighbors with awe and wonder. Inevitably, the fact that the Crosbys watched the rocket fly into space introduces tiny differences in the rest of their lives. Instead of eating at 6:03, they eat at 6:05; instead of talking to her friend Janet for 4 minutes and 35 seconds the next day, Mrs. Crosby talks for 4 minutes and 57 seconds. The differences are so tiny that they aren't really noticeable, but two days later, when the Crosbys get into bed to conceive their child, a different spermatozoon fertilizes Mrs. Crosby's egg than would have done so otherwise. The child developing inside of Mrs. Crosby would not have existed but for Vlad's rocket launch. Programmed to watch for this development, Vlad's robot detects the growing fetus and watches from space as the child is born and grows older.

Sidney Crosby, the Crosbys' son, is now thirteen, and has developed a crush on a girl in his class. One day at recess, he finally musters the courage to go talk to her. This is exactly what Vlad's robot has been waiting for. It turns on a cloaking device (which renders it invisible) and silently descends from space, coming up right behind Sidney as he approaches the girl. Right as the two begin to talk, Vlad's robot grabs hold of Sidney's pants and jerks them to the ground. As the playground erupts with laughter, Vlad's robot silently slips away, leaving Sidney to wallow in his humiliation.

Now, because the robot is only mechanically doing as it was programmed, it should be clear that the sole responsibility for Sidney's de-pantsing lies with Vlad. And assuming that neither Vlad nor anyone else can stop the robot once it's been launched, Sidney's de-pantsing is a necessary condition for Sidney's existence. If Vlad hadn't launched the robot, the Crosbys would have simply had a different child. So Sidney is no worse off than he could possibly have been.

But I don't think it's difficult to see why we might nevertheless want to say that a cost is imposed on Sidney when Vlad's robot pulls his pants down. But what does it mean to say this? And what ethical significance could such a cost have?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Short Story

Imagine, for a moment, that I am in front of Sally's house, preparing to break in and steal all of her possessions. A local policeman sees what I am about to do, and pauses to calculate how much Sally would be harmed if I carried out my plan. He approaches me and says, "If you pay Sally the amount that you would harm her, then you may rob her house. She will be made no worse off, and you will get to do something you want to do." I think about this for a moment. It doesn't seem like it would be completely fair to Sally, but I can see a kind of logic behind it. Besides, I really want Sally's stuff; I don't really care how she feels.

Overhearing our conversation, though, the policeman's partner interjects, "I can see that you want to rob Sally enough that you would be willing to pay her for the damage. Since the benefit to you from robbing Sally's house is greater than the harm that would be caused to Sally, you should just go ahead and rob her." Hearing this, I can't help but feel that this is even more unfair to Sally. But again, I'm a robber; I don't mind.

However, before I have a chance to accept the proposal, the police chief walks over with a glimmer in his eye. He says, "Why don't you pay me the amount that Sally will be harmed, and then you may go ahead and rob her house." I can't help but marvel at the evil genius of his plan. I would get to rob Sally's house, he would get a whole bunch of money, and only Sally would lose.

But I turn to the police chief and say, "Surely you can't get away with this sort of thing. If the general public finds out you're doing this, you'll be run out of town!"

He thinks a moment and replies, "They support pollution taxes; what's the difference?"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Light of the Non-Identity Problem

So earlier I wrote about the role played by discounting in doing cost-benefit analyses on the impacts of climate change. I concluded that discounting of future damage is unethical because it treats future people as if their interests matter less than present people's. But recently, I've also been discussing the implications of the Non-Identity Problem, and it should be clear that cost-benefit analysis needs to explain its relevance in light of this problem.

For those who haven't been paying attention (or have only recently begun seeing my blog at its spiffy new alternative location), I explained the relevance of the Non-Identity Problem like this:
If we were to act to prevent or mitigate climate change, we would bring it about that people would spend their money on different things, travel to different places, meet different people, get different jobs, and most importantly, have different children (just think how tiny are the chances of a particular spermatozoon fertilizing a particular egg!). In 100 years, it's likely (if not certain) that the world would be populated by an entirely different set of people.

As a consequence of this "fact" (I will accept it as one), we are pretty much forced to say that the people who inherit a world affected by climate change are no worse off than they could have been, because if we had caused less climate change, they wouldn't have existed. Accordingly, it seems difficult to see how we could say that climate change "harms" anyone; if we did anything differently "to" them, they'd simply not exist.

So if the people who would face climate change will be different people than the ones who would have existed if we didn't cause climate change, how can we reasonably talk about costs being incurred as a result of climate change? It seems like when we talk about costs, we do rely on some sort of counterfactual, based on what would have happened if the event in question hadn't happened. For example, let's say I'm talking about a cost imposed on me by a car accident. What I have in mind is that there is a difference between what actually happened to me and what would have happened to me if the accident hadn't happened.

And when we talk about costs imposed by climate change, it seems like we're using the same sort of thinking: the costs imposed by climate change represent the difference between what happens to people in a climate change scenario, and what would have happened to them in the absence of climate change. But as I've said, what would happen to them in the absence of climate change is that they wouldn't exist. So how can we say that a cost has been imposed?

It's my view that this is actually not a problem for cost-benefit analyses at all. When we talk about what would have happened if a particular event had not occurred, I don't think it's necessary that it would actually have been possible for the event not to have occurred. I might say, "What costs and benefits did I incur as a result of being born male instead of female?" I couldn't have been born female; if my parents had a female child, it wouldn't have been me. But I still think we can ask such a question without speaking utter gibberish.

Some might be quick to point out that doing so would involve a lot of serious difficulties, because we'd have to hypothesize exactly what kind of life "I" would have lived, and we'd need to somehow compare that life to the one I already have. In the same way, it's extremely difficult to establish what someone's life would have been like if climate change hadn't affected them, and probably harder still to compare that hypothetical life to the one that actually happens. But it's important to see that this problem isn't confined to situations characterized by the Non-Identity Problem. The same kind of difficulties seem to be present when we ask, "What costs and benefits did I incur as a result of majoring in philosophy?" And it seems to me that any cost-benefit analysis is going to have to face these problems.

So back to the real question: does the Non-Identity Problem create any new problems for cost-benefit analysis? It does if we think of costs as representing harmful deviations from alternative possibilities. As I pointed out earlier, the concept of harm seems to include the idea of being moved away from a baseline, and the sort of baseline we'd need to refer to here is one where the individual couldn't possibly be on the baseline. If you couldn't exist if certain things didn't happen, then it's hard to see why we would say that you're harmed by their happening. But costs don't need to be thought of as harmful to people. As I alluded to earlier, I wouldn't want to say that I was harmed by being born a male instead of a female. My being male seems to be a necessary condition for my existence. But I can still try to determine what costs being a male has imposed on me.

So the fact that we can't consider the costs involved in future cost-benefit calculations to be harmful doesn't prevent us from being able to conduct the cost-benefit analysis. But one thing we have to keep in mind is whether the costs that we'd be measuring have any ethical significance. I want to think more about that, so I'll stop here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Does the Fact that Individuals Discount Entail the Existence of a Social Discount Rate?

In my last post, I discussed the idea of discounting as it relates to cost-benefit analysis. I reached the conclusion that discounting treats future people's interests as if they were less significant than our own, and that if cost-benefit analysis aims to make people the best off, then this seems like a bad practice. I received a reply from a fellow with the handle of TokyoTom, which said the following:
Donny, I don't think that you've at all demonstrated that we don't discount - viz., that we try to make decisions on the basis that the preferences of people who do not exist today should weigh as much as our own.

I would disagree with that conclusion myself. Clearly individuals act on the basis of their own preferences, which preferences may take into consideration the supposed preferences of others, including future generations. These others simply don't have a vote on what my preferences are - and is the collective actions of billions of individuals alive today that similarly make decisions that bring about tomorrow.

Tom (at least I assume his name is Tom) is absolutely right to say that individuals clearly act as though value in the future is worth less than the equivalent value today. If I were trying to argue that people actually do make decisions as if future people matter just as much as they do, I would be easily refuted. In fact, I would be hard pressed to believe even that people behave as though future people matter very much at all, never mind as though their interests were equal to their own.

But I never argued that individuals don't discount (in fact, I specifically acknowledged that they do), or that individuals consider future individuals to be just as important as themselves. Rather, I argued that discounting future damage in cost-benefit analysis is unjust. What's the difference? I'll try to illustrate with a series of examples.

Let's say that we're trying to decide whether to put a garbage dump in a neighborhood populated exclusively by an ethnic minority (say, Hmong folks). We perform a cost-benefit analysis to see what we should do. In the first scenario, let's say the Hmong folks in the neighborhood would prefer not to have the garbage dump in their neighborhood, and the folks who live outside of the neighborhood would prefer to have it there (not because of any malice, but rather because they would gain use from it). If (once we equalize for different valuation of money and all that) the cost-benefit analysis shows that the outsiders would be willing to pay more to have the dump than the Hmong folks would to not have it, then we'd say that there's a net benefit to putting the dump in; it's worth doing. And as far as we ignore all the problems with cost-benefit analysis (that is, we don't care what we do to the Hmong people as long as it represents a net gain, and we're okay with treating a single metric as properly representing the wellbeing of these people), then that's all there is to it. The cost-benefit analysis has worked exactly as advertised.

But now let's say that the outsiders didn't want the garbage dump because they would benefit from it, but rather because they're evil hillbillies and they despise the Hmong people. The benefit to them is not a self-interested benefit, but rather a benefit derived from the cost to others. Perhaps if we give this kind of benefit equal standing, the garbage dump goes in. But that seems like the wrong conclusion. We might say the same if the garbage dump doesn't go in because the Hmong people don't want the outsiders to get any benefit, even though they wouldn't really mind the dump being there. That's why most people who advocate cost-benefit analysis try really hard to ensure that the costs and benefits they're measuring reflect only the costs and benefits to the individuals they're surveying.

Accordingly, we wouldn't want to say that the importance of future individuals' wellbeing can be accounted for in cost-benefit analysis by seeing how present people value their wellbeing. What matters is how much they value their wellbeing. Once we recognize this, then it becomes clear what we do when we discount their costs and benefits compared to current people's costs and benefits. What we do is to say that their costs and benefits are less significant than those of present people. And it is this practice which I claim to be unjust.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cost-Benefit Analysis, Discounting, and Climate Change

I wrote a paper last semester on the notion of discounting future damage (I'll explain what this means below), and I wanted to revisit the issue now that I've done a little more research, to see if I still agree with what I wrote then. Basically, my paper examined how our views of the proper role of discounting are dependent on our views about what social policy is trying to achieve, and what kind of problem climate change poses. Rather than putting my whole paper online and critiquing it, I'm going to split it up into pieces and post each separately. In my paper I examined four paradigms: (1) The goal of social policy should be to allocate resources to their most efficient uses, and climate change represents a challenge to accomplish this task in a changing world; (2) The goal of social policy should be to maximize the overall good, and climate change represents an obstacle in the way of achieving this goal; (3) Climate change represents an externality, and the goal of a climate policy should be to internalize the externalized costs; (4) Climate change represents an overenclosure of the commons, and the goal of a climate policy should be to remedy this injustice. In this post, I will first go over what I mean by "discounting future damage," and then I will address the first paradigm listed above.

So how does discounting play into discussions about climate change? The most significant impacts of climate change will not occur for a significant amount of time: we're talking decades or even centuries. The issue is how important that damage is compared to the equivalent amount of damage today. In his essay, "Global Climate Change: A Challenge to Policy," Kenneth Arrow wrote that the dispute "...surrounds the appropriate value for the social rate of time preference. This...allows for discounting the future simply because it is the future, even if future generations were no better off than we are. The Stern Review [a report released by economist Nicholas Stern discussing the effects of global climate change on the world economy] follows a considerable tradition among British economists and many philosophers against discounting for pure futurity. Most economists take pure time preference as obvious." So when we talk about discounting future damage, what we're concerned with is whether or not it's acceptable to treat future damage as being less important, just because it's going to occur in the future.

So with that in mind, let's look at the paradigm of cost-benefit analysis: policy should allocate social resources in the most efficient manner, and climate change just represents a challenge for doing that. In its most rudimentary form, cost-benefit analysis is a tool which allows decision makers to allocate resources in the way that best matches some relevant set of preferences. For social decision makers, the relevant set of preferences would clearly be those of society as a whole. Since groups are composed of individuals, advocates of the cost-benefit approach feel that it is reasonable to extrapolate society's preferences from the preferences of individuals. This view is implicit in the position taken by economist Jerry Taylor, who favors discounting future damage at a rate of 5% per year, because it "...matches the return on Treasury bills - or, put another way, [it is] the figure people apply themselves when considering the value of money today versus the value of money tomorrow."

Because the simple cost-benefit perspective considers society as if it were a single decision maker, needing only to allocate its own resources according to its preferences, it is immediately clear why discounting would seem obvious. The existence of a preference for value sooner rather than later is a basic economic assumption which is rooted in cold empirical fact. From this mindset, the question is not whether to use a discount rate, rather what discount rate to use. Some, like Jerry Taylor, use the discounting practices of the current marketplace. Others, like economists Richard Newell and William Pizer, try to predict how market discounting practices will vary over the discounting period, suggesting a plausible range of 2-7%. But to debate the validity of using discounting practices at all would be like asking a banker whether she thought she should charge interest on a loan, or asking an investor whether he cared about getting a return on his money.

So if we accept the view sketched above, it's clear that discounting is not only acceptable, but almost obvious. But what should we think of this view? I want to offer a few objections. First, cost-benefit analysis doesn't properly account for the individuality of its subjects, and does not take into consideration the idea that individuals should not be sacrificed for the sake of others. Second, cost-benefit analysis supposes that all harms can be quantified according to a single metric, which doesn't seem right. Third, even if we ignore the first two problems, it seems like discounting is problematic when you consider the goals of cost-benefit analysis. Let me flesh these out a little.

The first objection is basically taken from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where Nozick writes, "...there is no social entity with a good that undergoes a sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one for the the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up...To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good for his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him..." I think Nozick is absolutely right here; we can't weigh future people's interests and current people's interests as if they were all held by the same person. Some notion of proper respect for each group as ends in themselves seems necessary, and the paradigm discussed here clearly lacks that.

The second objection, that a single metric is a suspicious way to evaluate wellbeing, is taken from an essay, "Values in the Economics of Climate Change," where Michael Toman wrote, "One other critique of climate change economics as a guide to policy involves the use of a single-dimension new benefit measure for evaluating different outcomes. This reflects the standard assumption in economics that all costs and benefits are commensurable and interchangeable once expressed in a common metric (a monetary metric as a representation of unobservable utility). There may be serious measurement problems in implementing such a reductionist metric, but as a concept the notion of full tradeoffs and thus full potential compensability of losses from climate change is ubiquitous in the economic model. This view differs from alternatives that see different kinds of values as less commensurable, e.g., some losses of natural beauty or function simply cannot be compensated by other welfare gains." Personally, I tend to think that these latter kinds of views are probably closer to being right. For example, if the Hindus of India are forced to abandon the Ganges as a result of climate change, what kind of compensation could we reasonably expect them to be satisfied with?

But even if we ignored the fact that the cost-benefit model is ethically suspect, and that comparing every harm according to the same metric is methodologically suspect (never mind the fact that we could probably never conduct the kind of calculation necessary), there would still be another problem. The third objection arises from the fact that calculations of "costs and benefits" are supposed to reflect utility, and therefore social preferences. The problem is that, as we discussed earlier, the cost-benefit model is perfectly comfortable with the idea of discounting. In his essay, "Environmental Risk, Uncertainty and Intergenerational Ethics," Kristian Skagen Ekeli pointed out that "To discount the future implies that current interests and preferences count for more than those of future generations." When we say that future damage should be discounted, what we're basically saying is that "society," which is supposedly neutral between its individual members, prefers current people to be happy over future people, simply because they live earlier. How this makes sense is beyond me. It seems that if we were trying to allocate resources to impartially reflect their most efficient uses, we would need to weigh people's interests as being equally significant.

So hopefully those objections demonstrate two things. The first is that cost-benefit analysis is a really crappy way to deal with the issue of climate change. But if we use it anyway (which I suspect people will do, because that's how economics is done nowadays), then we shouldn't discount future damage. To do so would treat future people as if they mattered less than present people, and that seems obviously unacceptable. I am, of course, conspicuously ignoring the Non-Identity Problem completely, and I want to deal with that issue, but I guess I'll leave that for later.
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