Free-market morals

As someone whose basic ethical framework is predicated upon the effects that actions have upon those affected by them rather than dogmatic a priori principles (some, including my brother, call me a consequentialist), I have often thought that the best thing that could happen to utilitarianism is to be saved from utilitarians. Because, as I have noted before, the basic criterion for the success of a social system that it needs to provide the greatest benefits possible to the greatest numbers is virtually axiomatic to any political philosophy, and yet somehow this insight has been claimed (and, what is more, largely conceded) to a particular heavily socialist-oriented school. It is in my opinion a more remarkable reversal than the identification of “liberal” in America with quasi-socialism.

And if the valid elements of utilitarianism are to be preserved it is precisely a more liberal understanding of social ethics that is necessary. As any student of introductory economics will know, maximizing wealth does not necessarily (and in fact rarely) equalizes wealth among the various participants in commerce. Creating the greatest economic well-being will in other words probably not result in everyone being equally well-off. The analogy to social philosophy is crude but essentially valid. There too the utilitarians have deceived by dogmatic presuppositions into believing that the greatest total well-being must be defined by equality among the greatest possible numbers. A brief example to illustrate (which is economic in nature, but only because that is more easily quantifiable): a man taking this as his normative goal would probably then try to do an equal amount of good to as many people as possible. When it came time for him to draw up his will, he should logically divide up his money into the smallest equal fractions possible so as to distribute it among as many people as possible. Quite apart from the special claims upon him that those close to him are traditionally supposed to have, need it be said that the total benefit of his generosity would most likely be considerably less than had he chosen to give it only to a small group of friends and family. Because the penny or less that each of that large number will receive is unlikely to be of much value to any of them, and in fact for the small number that could reasonably expect more it will probably in fact have a negative effect, and seem insulting if not catastrophic. Whereas a considerable gift to those who are already close to him and presumably care and are cared for by him will be of considerably more value to them, and probably also of greater reciprocal value to him, who will enjoy their gratitude (leaving aside the question of whether he will even be alive at that point to notice). Of course some at this point might notice a strange parallel between this conclusion and the mechanism of genetic kin selection that I discussed earlier, and decide that it is then merely a rationalization of the operation of “the selfish gene,” but firstly it would probably be premature to make any grandiose claims about an area still so little-understood as the nexus between society and biology and secondly even if it were the case it would take austere conception of morals to imagine that they don’t or shouldn’t provide some gratification to our biological impulses.

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