poly: economics of morality

From: Damien R. Sullivan <phoenix@ugcs.caltech.edu>
Date: Thu Feb 05 1998 - 12:02:58 PST

A proto-essay, drawing upon Posner's _The Economics of Justice_ and
Stock's _Metaman_.

One of the conflicts in modern moral philosophy has been over whether there
is any absolute morality.  One school of thought says that our beliefs
in human rights are _right_, and other societies are wrong, and we
should intervene to protect individual rights elsewhere.  Another,
cultural relativism, says that morals and ethics are culturally defined,
giving us no reason to denounce other cultures (but then again, giving
them no logic to denounce our interferences.)
A different approach is the economic analysis of law and morality, which
if correct would lead us to the conclusion that morality is culturally
dependent, but not in an arbitrary fashion.  Societies in the same
circumstances but with different internal rules may have differing rates
of growth and survival, which would lead to domination by some set of
moralities, which could be considered -- for practical purposes -- to be
the 'right' moralities for those societies.  Different technologies or
environments could lead to different moralities.
So the flexibility of modern society, in a primitive one, could lead to
a deadly lack of internal cohesion or growth rates lower than those of
surrounding societies, leading to conquest or destruction of the
anomaly.  A modern society, with an authoritarian structure, does not
grow as well as freer societies and may actively undermine itself.  So,
if we don't like the rights recognized elsewhere in the world, this way
of thinking would lead us not to exhort more respect for human rights,
but to make the foreign economy more like our own, which should cause
their morality to evolve to one appropriate for an information-rich,
advanced market society.
Such thinking drives the 'engagement' policy of the US with respect to
China.  A counterargument is sometimes made that Singapore seems to have
become a non-individualist market society.  A refutation I'd offer is that
Singapore has not been modern for very long.  Japan has been imitating
the economy of the West for over a century, and is only recently being
"Americanized" to a large degree.
Speaking of which, another idea is that the perceived spread of
"American" culture is misconstrued.  All of the advanced countries should
be moving toward flexible, individualistic, and affluence-celebrating
cultures.  America is prototypical because these forces have had most
effect there -- because there was less entrenchment to overcome, because
of the history of immigration, and because it came out of WW II in
prosperity, not in devastation.  The cosmetics -- Hollywood, McDonalds,
Coca-Cola -- are American, but the deeper social changes are economic.
The US is just ahead of the curve.
-xx- GCU Unique Name #4 X-)
"I can see that you have a lot to unlearn."
-"If you are talking about my vulgar instinct for survival, forget it."
  -- Roger Zelazny, _The Courts of Chaos_, Corwin
Received on Thu Feb 5 20:04:38 1998

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