How justice and morality seem to work

Sun, 15 Mar 2015

I've listened to a few podcasts and audiobooks recently on justice and morality. They've been interesting, and got me thinking about how we justify our actions and interactions. Unfortunately I haven't been overly convinced by their explanations, so thought I'd write a post on how I am currently thinking it works.

I believe that I am an individual, with preferences that I broadly try to optimise (as does everyone else). These preferences aren’t static, but have evolved throughout history and in my life, unconsciously, and sometimes consciously.

I don’t ignore other people, and their preferences, because:
* I intrinsically like relationships and gain satisfaction from the wellbeing of others
* others can help me achieve better outcomes, say through trade
* others can hurt me if they choose

As a result of this interdependence, it is often in my interest to agree to rules, pacts, etc., within families, communities, nations and globally. That said, it is also often in my short term interest to break those rules, etc, and also often in my interests to seek to enforce rules on others (even if with punishments that appear to hurt everyone).

By saying that I follow my own preferences, I don’t mean to say that I am necessarily what would be considered selfish. It is very common to want to “be lovely” as Adam Smith puts it, to care about those around me, or to follow our God's will. I know that trying to maximise wealth or hedonistic pleasure won’t lead to a preferable outcome.

I also don’t consider myself to be a moral relativist. While any person’s preferences are valid, not all are equally sustainable, at the individual level or at the societal level. If I prefer to eat as much as I can, or steal from those around me, these are likely to lead to undesirable outcomes. I think I can say there is objective merit in developing sustainable, stable preferences, that fit in with the preferences of those around us.

When I say that I try to optimise according to my preferences, I don't mean to suggest that I do it perfectly, or that all my actions and decisions reflect preferences. I sometimes fail to correctly recognise the impact of my actions, overweight certain considerations, or accept small harms because it is too much effort to avoid them.

I’d like to contrast this model with Utilitarianism and Libertarianism in turn. Utilitarianism tries to take into account everyone’s preferences at once, and optimise globally. My concern with this is firstly that it is hard enough for one individual to optimise their own preferences, and impossible to do it at a global level. What more likely happens is that some elite’s preferences get forced on everyone, and individual preferences are overridden. In my model, utilitarianism may play a valid role in creating the rules that members of a society sign up to, but I don’t like individuals being forced to sign up.

In a lot of ways, my model sounds a lot like libertarianism, which also has at its heart individual freedom to develop preferences and optimise. Where we differ is how we prevent harm being done to us by others. Libertarianism (as I read it) constructs inalienable rights - for example, the right to autonomy, property and non-aggression. I instead feel that individuals need to negotiate, being prepared to give things up in return for what they want and to ensure others do not hurt them.

I’d also comment that most libertarians seem more individualistic than my preference optimising individual. There’s nothing stopping a traditional libertarian from being more generous and outward focussed if they chose, and possibly, even now, many would be happier if they did. But I’d also suggest that in my model, the need to ensure survival also encourages individuals to be more outward focussed, and more willing to let enforceable rules develop.

Finally and crucially, I'd like to stress that even though this model doesn't treat human rights and rule of law as absolute, it does give me plenty of reasons to act as if I did.  Not only am I worried about being harmed by others, locked up, or losing respect, but I intrinsically prefer a world where all humans are treated with dignity.