Sunday, May 8, 2016


Many principles of "ethics" are designed to protect autonomy. Regulations concerning human subjects in research take a broad view of what counts as "coercion", to the point of including excessive rewards that make it difficult for potential subjects to refuse. Programs to reduce excessive birth rates were criticized as violations of autonomy, even if they consisted of advertising and TV soap operas (as I discussed in my book "Judgment misguided"). Now, some of the opposition to "nudges" is that they, too, violate autonomy, because they influence people, which is, of course, their purpose.

This concern has always struck me as a little strange, because it seemed to me that well-intended attempts at influence were a drop in the bucket of all the things that influence decisions, including much more blatant and less justifiable attempts by others. Nudges from government are minor influences compared to marketing strategies by corporations, or expectations of families. Philosophically, one might even ask what is left if all these influence are removed. We are all influenced by our culture.

But the drop-in-the-bucket argument is weak at best. If autonomy violations are wrong, then the existence of large amounts of wrongness in the world is no justification for adding more.

A more interesting property of ethical concerns about autonomy violations is that all (or almost all) of the alleged violations are actions. The operating moral principle seems to be that we should not take action to influence the decisions of others, but we need take no action to prevent autonomy violations that already exist. If women in poor countries are being pressured by their husbands and in-laws to have more children than they want, those concerned about excessive undesired births are under no obligation to try to prevent such pressure. Similarly, if advertisers induce people to eat lots of unhealthy food, the operating principle does not oblige is to try to stop them, although it prevents us from trying too hard to nudge them in the other direction.

Thus, the problem with all the existing influences is not that they are a large bucket. Rather, it is that the concern with autonomy arises from a moral principle that distinguishes acts and omissions and is thus not primarily concerned with consequences. That is, it is a deontological rule. If people follow this rule, as compared to one that brings about the best consequences, then it makes things worse.

The stereotype of the Jewish mother is someone who does not hesitate to butt into her children's affairs, or those of other people, for their own good. Perhaps we need more Jewish mothers. They won't always be correct about what is good for other people, but trying to act in this way might have a higher success rate than doing nothing in the name of autonomy, and thus ceding control to those who base their efforts to influence others on their own self-interest or narrow ideology.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Preliminary thoughts on a utilitarian decision analysis of parochial voting

Suppose that you can vote in a referendum on a proposal. You believe that the proposal is good for the whole world, but bad for your particular group. For example, it might be a proposal to accept a trade agreement that would be beneficial on the whole but would hurt your particular business. Or it might reduce global warming but hurt the coal industry, and you live in a coal-producing region. How should you vote? The options are to vote for the proposal, vote against it, or not vote.

Assume that voting has a small cost. You must take the time to do it, and get to the polling place. Let us first consider only this cost and the effects of the proposal itself (regardless of whether you vote for it or not). The probability that your vote will affect these consequences is very small, but not zero. The expected benefit of a vote for one side is the probability times the benefit if your vote matters. It is well known that the expected benefit to you personally is usually not enough to justify the cost of voting, even though the cost is small. If this benefit and the cost of voting are all you care about, then, in terms of these values, you should not vote.

Now add the assumption that you care about other people, not as much as you care about yourself, but some. Clearly, if the proposal can affect enough other people whom you care about, it becomes worth the small cost of voting, in terms of these values. If you care equally about all other people, then (by assumption) you should vote for the proposal, because it is best for the world.

If, on the other hand, you care only about other people in your group, it could be worth your time to vote against the proposal. This conclusion is less likely for two reasons. First, the group is smaller. Second, many members of your group may care about outsiders, enough so that they would prefer the proposal to pass. Your caring about them should consider their altruistic values as well as their self-interested values, and this inclusion would reduce further the value to you of your vote against the proposal. Given these considerations, it is less likely that voting against the proposal would be worth your time, compared to the case in which you care about everyone equally. (You may also care some about the world but more about the members of your group. This would be in-between.)

More generally, though, this analysis suggests that people who care about the world are the ones who are most likely to find voting worthwhile, and these people should vote for the proposal. Those who care only about their group are less likely to find voting worthwhile, but, if they find it worthwhile, they should probably vote against the proposal (unless they think that most members of their group prefer the proposal to pass).

Note that voting against the proposal can be seen as a vote to harm the outsiders. (And not voting at all is a lesser harm, because it has half the effect on the outcome, compared to voting for the proposal.) From most moral perspectives, this harm is difficulty to justify. Thus, we could argue that the sort of parochial values that lead to this vote are ones to be discouraged. They are, in a sense, "evil desires".

Now consider the possibility that the act of voting has positive benefit to the self, as well as a small cost. This is, again, about the behavior of voting and not about the consequences of the adoption or rejection of the proposal. Suppose you get some pleasure out of cheering for your team, or from cheering for humanity.

Note that the pleasure of cheering could possibly be obtained without actually voting. You could, for example, go to political rallies and participate with the crowd in cheering one side or booing the other side. If you did this on the side against the proposal, you could get this pleasure without hurting any outsiders. However, it is possible that the pleasure is greater when you actually vote. This is part of the ritual. In this case, those who are motivated this way are selfish in a way much like those with parochial values. They take pleasure in behaviors that hurt other people, without (by assumption) compensating benefit for anyone else. This too is the sort of desire we have reason to discourage.

Moreover, it is possible (even likely) that the pleasure of acting on behalf of your group is based on a failure to understand or appreciate the more basic argument given above. People may think that supporting their group is the morally correct thing to do, in terms of the consequences of the proposal being adopted or not. If people were convinced that voting for the proposal is better in terms of its consequences, they would take less pleasure in voting against it.

Likewise, if people understood the low expected utility of voting against the proposal for others, even those in their group, they might not get enough pleasure from voting against the proposal to make it worthwhile for them to vote at all.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What citizens may need to understand about democracy

I have been applying for grants that so far I do not get, but I have summarized the idea that I want to test, so I am putting the gist of it here, extracted from the last proposal submitted (in collaboration with David Rand at Yale).

Democracy is a human invention, a "design" that serves certain functions. But citizens do not understand it very well, and, as a result, they often fail collectively to take full advantage of what it can do. Here is what many people don't understand.

Political participation is cost-ineffective in advancing self-interest or the parochial interest of a small group, but is cost-effective in advancing the common good. The small influence that each citizen has over policy outcomes renders political participation nearly useless as a way of advancing self-interest (Downs, 1957). But this small influence is more than compensated by the large number of people potentially affected by these outcomes, if the citizen has sufficient concern for these others (Edlin, Gelman \& Kaplan, 2007, 2008). In terms of self-interest the expected benefit of a vote is proportional to 1/N, where N is the number of voters. But in a utilitarian calculation, which assumes some altruism (concern for others), the benefit of voting must be multiplied by N, assuming that only voters are affected by the outcome.  This multiplication cancels the dilution caused by being one voter among N. And the total benefit can be orders of magnitude larger if we think in terms of effects on those who do not vote, such as children, foreigners, and future people who do not exist. The larger the circle we consider, the more the effect of a vote is magnified, and, therefore, the more worthwhile it is to use ones vote (or other forms of participation) to advance our concerns for the good of others.

Imagine you are faced with a conflict. You believe that a proposal would be good for the world but bad for you. Should you vote for it or against it? Of course it depends on how good it is for the world and how bad it is for you. But even if it is very bad for you it is unlikely to be worth your time to vote against it, because the probability is very low that your vote would matter. On the other side, if it is reasonably good for the world, it would affect many people, and that could make it worthwhile to vote for it, if you care somewhat about all those people.

The same sort of conflict arises between self and nation, or nation and world, or present and future. "Nation" is an in-between case. But a proposal that harms your nation a little but helps the world a lot would still be worth voting for, again because the numbers matter. In many cases what is good for your nation is also good for the world. Nationalism, in which people promote the good of their nation regardless of the harm done to outsiders, is a form of parochialism.

Moreover, because government can coerce people to cooperate (behave in ways that benefit everyone rather than the self alone), the cost of supporting government in doing this, by voting, is much smaller than the cost of cooperating voluntarily. Because of this principle, people often vote to give government the power to make them and others do what they would not be willing to do if left to their own devices. For example, voters sometimes vote for tax increases but almost never donate money to the government.

If citizens around the world understood these arguments, they would still disagree on what constitutes the common good, but surely some of the current malfunctions of democracy could be mitigated.

The idea that government is a design to provide for the common good by solving social dilemmas (or providing public goods) is not widely understood; some people seem to think that government sanctions are never justified (except perhaps for military defense and property protection), or that government is a tool to be used for competition between parochial groups.

The idea that democratic government is a design to serve the common good should not be difficult to understand. Thus, failures of understanding can be attributed to failures of education.

It is apparent to anyone who follows the news that the idea of democracy is not on a smooth path to universal approval and success in bringing about the benefits of good government. The economic successes of some authoritarian countries (such as China) have given many people the idea that democracy is unnecessary, when, in fact, these are probably isolated lucky cases, contradicting the general result. A better understanding of how democracy works could lead at least to a little healthy skepticism about whether such authoritarian governments can continue to produce good results, or, alternatively, whether they will increasingly attempt simply to maintain power, whatever the costs.

Many countries seem unable to switch from authoritarian to democratic system, and this problem is often attributed in part to the necessity of cultural support for the idea of democracy itself. Part of this support may consist of the kind of understanding described here, in particular the idea that the obligation of a citizen is to help advance national interest rather than tribal interest or self-interest. (The potential conflict between national interest and world interest is not at issue here, since the formation of stable democracy in a nation is almost always in the world interest as well.)

Even long-standing and stable democracies seem unable to make democracy work as well as it should, as a result of such problems as polarization and "populism". Part of the substance of polarized conflicts involve understanding of what government can accomplish and why it is needed, and understanding of the limits of parochialism. And populism often involves a different sort of narrowness, namely, excessive attention to immediate effects at the expense of long-term effects.

Increased understanding of democracy could be the low-hanging fruit in attempts to improve the human condition by improving the functioning of government. If it results in changes in civics education, these are relatively inexpensive. Possibly the failures of democracy are the result of misunderstandings of how democracy should work, and correcting these misunderstandings even in a minority of citizens can have substantial effects on outcomes. Note that civics education does not happen only in schools but also in efforts at ``nation building'' through instruction and outreach, and through political communication more generally.


Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2007). Voting as a rational choice: Why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others. Rationality and Society, 19, 293–314.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2008). Vote for charity's sake. The Economists’ Voice, 5, (6), article 6.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The report on torture used by the CIA

An NPR interview  this morning made two interesting points about the recent report on torture by the CIA, the first of which I had thought of myself.  This was that it is possible that some authors of the report, or perhaps just those who summarize it, are engaging in belief overkill. They are saying that the extreme methods of interrogation never did any good. They don't need to say this. They could just say, more cautiously, that the amount of good done was so small as not to justify the use of these methods. Belief overkill is the distortion of beliefs so that all conflict disappears and no arguments oppose the favored conclusion, even if the conflict would be easy to resolve.

The second point, made in passing, was that it may in fact be impossible to find a case in which the extreme methods led the CIA from ignorance to certainty all at once. But intelligence does not work like this. It is all about probabilities. (The interview did not use this term, but it was implied.) If a confession extracted under extreme pressure changed the probability of some conclusion, such as an immanent attack or the presence of a terrorist at some location, the probability may change enough to warrant a change in plans. Such changes could happen if a confession agreed, or disagreed, with other evidence already available.

Given the possibility that probabilities were affected, the difficulty of claiming that these methods "never mattered at all" seems to increase. Again, this claim is not needed. The methods are bad in themselves and in the precedents they set for others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks

The following (slightly revised) was a letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times, written on 9/15/2014.

I was upset at the Times's coverage of foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks such as Brookings. I was reminded of this by the recent edition of The Economist, which points out how attacking these institutions for accepting contributions could make it seem more acceptable when authoritarian regimes elsewhere try to block contributions to NGOs that might threaten them (p. 20, Sept 13-19 edition).

As one letter pointed out, most of these think tanks do not hide the sources of their funds. It would be bad if they did that, but they don't. Beyond this, I do not see what is the least bit wrong with accepting foreign contributions.

1. U.S. policy has major effects on foreigners. Why should they not be    able to try to make sure that we at least know about such effects?    We ought to consider them more than we do. If the foreign    contributions do succeed in bringing different points of view to    attention of U.S. citizens and government, just what is so bad    about that? Are we supposed to set policy without considering such    effects? As a citizen and voter, I certainly do not think this    way, and I am not in a tiny minority on this point.

2. It would be at least a little hypocritical for the U.S. to get up    on a high horse about government funding of private institutions in    other countries, including NGOs. The U.S. government has done this    for decades, and, I believe, still does it. (And I don't see    anything wrong with what we do either.)

3. The Times articles hinted that the conclusions of research    organizations are influenced by their funding. I have seen several    denials of this, and I believe that the culture of places like    Brookings is against such influence. But, as a professor in a major    research university with much the same culture, I can see that such    influence happens, in subtle ways. And it is not the least bit    limited to foreign sources. (I have received grants from Israel,    and I do not feel any pressure at all to conform to policies of the    Israeli government, although perhaps the probability that I would    participate in an academic boycott of Israel has gone from .01 to    .001.) The U.S. government itself has distorted research in major    ways. Right now it is engaged in a massive campaign to boost    biological research at the expense of traditional psychology, which    I think is a mistake. In my own field, partly as a result of this    shift, most research is now supported by the Templeton Foundation,    which has as its ultimate purpose the rapprochement of religion and    science. The topics it supports are limited to those that can be    shoe-horned into this framework, so I and some of my colleagues    have learned to speak a certain way, in order to get money from    them. (Of course, they too have been flexible in choosing topics    that would not offend atheists too much, lest they offend 90% of    the research audience they are trying to reach.) I could go on with    story after story about how research has been distorted by    influences of this sort, including large amounts of money from    corporations such as Exxon. But is it even distortion? or is this    the way science is supposed to work, with inputs from consumers as    well as producers? In sum, I don't see why foreign influences are    being singled out as distortions of research, when they are in    essence a drop in the bucket.

4. Many of the "foreign interests" mentioned struck me as extremely    odd. Apparently Norway gives money to Brookings, and this is    supposed to be in support of Norway's government policies. I do not    know which policies are at issue here, but Norway is a tiny country    with probably the most enlightened policies in the world concerning    the alleviation of world poverty and protection of the    environment. Yes, they have oil, but they know it is running out. I    find it difficult to believe that the money they give to Brookings    is in hopes that Brookings will release a report favoring off-shore    drilling off the Norwegian coast. The drilling is a done deal. More    likely, Norway contributes to Brookings in hopes that it will help    solve some environmental problem.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Isolation effect in world problems

This column by Thomas Friedman reminded me of an issue that has been on my mind for a while, the inter-relatedness of world problems. I discussed it in the book for which this blog is named, especially the chapter on population.

The world today has a long list of inter-related problems: food, fresh water, energy production, biodiversity, rising oceans from higher temperatures (resulting in shrinking coastal lands where many people live), health, unemployment of the young, catastrophic risks from technology, armed conflict, poverty, over-population, and antagonism against migrants. These problems compete. Efforts to reduce global warming with clean energy require land for wind farms and solar. Biofuels compete with agriculture. Rising oceans lead to migration.

Many people concerned with these problems view them in isolation. Some groups are concerned with food. Others with biodiversity. Others with energy. Here is an example.

This isolation of problems closes off the possibility of solving some problems as a side-effect of solving others. It may be more efficient to solve the problem of immigration than to prevent the rise of the oceans. It may be easier to reduce the growth of population than to exploit more energy, after some point in doing the latter. The idea that each problem requires its own solution is much like the fixed-pie bias in negotiation, where people tend to negotiate one issue at a time rather than look for trade-offs among issues.

When problems are isolated, the focus on one makes all the others seem uncontrollable, out of the picture. Discussions of food and water always begin with the point that population growth is going to cause problems, but then they view population growth as something that is uncontrollable.

In fact, it would be relatively cheap to simply meed women's unmet demand for birth control, as a start. Other steps, only slightly more costly, such as improving the education of girls, would reduce desired family size. Part of the problem is religion. It is opposition from the religious right that prevents the U.S. government from spending more on international family planning, for example. The idea of promoting birth control has become so politically incorrect that even the organizations that do it, such as Engender health, do not emphasize it in public.

This is just one example. When problems are interrelated, the solution to any one of them helps all the others, and the search for efficient solutions should take this into account.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Political disputes about abortion usually involve repetitions of bad arguments, empty slogans, and upsetting images. The assumption seems to be that reason is irrelevant and the important thing is to motivate those who are already convinced. It is as if everyone has accepted the theory that moral reasoning is post-hoc rationalization and that moral disputes in are intellectually no different from sports events in which fans cheer for one side or the other.

Here is a very brief summary of the argument for abortion, drawing heavily on the work of Peter Singer (especially in "Practical ethics"). The point is that reasoning is relevant. (I discuss relevant issues at greater length elsewhere, particularly here.)

Abortion is indeed killing, but that does not settle the issue. Nor does it settle the issue to say that the fetus is "human", since this still begs the question of when and why it is wrong to kill a human. The following reasons come to mind:

First, killing a fetus is a harm to the parents if the fetus is wanted. This is an issue only if the abortion is disputed by (for example) the father. Usually this is not an issue, and is surely not the issue that riles the anti-abortion movement. When relevant, it is a family dispute.

Second, the means of death can be painful. This is possibly an issue for late-term abortions, when the pain system is developed. The solution would be anesthesia for the fetus. The same argument would apply to the killing of animals. This too seems beside the point most of the time.

Third, abortion prevents a stream of future experiences for the person who would be born. On balance these experiences will probably be positive, relative to not having them at all. This argument applies to animals as well as people. It applies to any choice that prevents a person (or animal) from existing, not just abortion but also birth control and abstinence from sex. Carried to the limit, it would amount to a command to "be fruitful and multiply", until we reach the point where the world is so crowded that the totality of negative experiences resulting from an additional person was as great as the totality of positive ones. (Derek Parfit discusses this issue at length in "Reasons and persons".)

Although this argument is interesting, I do not see why we should accept it. If we go one step back and ask why experiences are valued, we find that they are valued because people want them. That is, people have goals or wants for having good experiences (and, presumably, so do animals). So, when we create a person, we are in essence creating goals (or wants) and then satisfying them. But, if the goals do not yet exist, why is it a requirement of morality or rationality to create them just so that they could be satisfied.

For example, why are you obliged to inculcate in me a taste for contemporary pop music? Even if it is true that, once I had the goal of listing to pop music, I would get positive experiences from listing to such music, it is possible that I do not want that goal. It might be inconsistent with my other goals. The Golden Rule thus implies that you have no particular obligation to create goals in me, because I may not want those goals. Nor is it necessarily rational for me to create such a goal or taste in myself. Whether I should do this depends on my other goals.

We have no moral obligation to create beings just so that we can satisfy the goals that come into existence. The Golden Rule does not apply here because the "others" in "do unto others" do not exist. It is the goals of those who exist that determine whether it is rational or moral to create new goals.

A final issue is potential. It is true that a fetus is a potential adult human. So is every sperm-egg pair, and it is hard to see why their physical joining together is relevant to the argument concerning potential. It is just a salient step in the pathway. But the argument from potential raises the same questions as argument from experience. It is not clear why it is moral or rational to create new people and new goals, if doing so is inconsistent with our current goals.

Some of our current goals, in fact, may imply that limiting births is a good thing. We want humans to have good lives once they come to exist. They have goals and wants then. (Of course, we also want enough of them to insure the long-term survival of humanity, but, arguably, long-term survival is more likely if the rate of population growth is slower than it is now.) We want particular children to have good lives. If we are going to limit family size, then we want to time the bearing of children so that they will be maximally wanted when they arrive, and maximally likely to develop well.

If this sounds like an argument for "abortion as a method of birth control", it is. But it does not imply that abortion is just as good as any other method of birth control. Clearly abortion has many disadvantages, including emotional effects. But these do not make it worse than no birth control at all. And often, as in the case of fetuses with serious genetic impairments, pregnancy complications, or failure of other methods, abortion is not the method of choice, but a fall-back.