Re: poly: economics of morality

From: <>
Date: Sun Feb 08 1998 - 05:26:12 PST

My apologies for the last post on this thread: I hit the "Reply" button by
accident (don't draft online before the second cup of coffee . . .)

In a message dated 98-02-05 15:03:26 EST, Damien Sullivan writes:

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

I haven't read _The Economics of Justice_ but am familiar with Posner's ideas
because I was fortunate enough to have studied basic tort law using Posner's
casebook as a primary text. That helped make the otherwise fairly boring
experience of the first year of law school an intellectual challenge for me.
> 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.

The core concept here is really not new with people like Posner. In fact,
this last sentence very well summarizes the most general expression of Marxian
political economy. Just as someone (Galbreath? Nixon?) is reported to have
said "We're all Keynsians now," I like to think that "we're all dialectical
(evolutionary) materialists now;" we just differ over the conclusions to be
derived from that methodology.

I wonder if the question you are asking, Damien, is the same one Marx
purported to answer: Given a particular set of material circumstances, is
there only one social system best adapted to it, such that all others will
eventually succumb to pressure to be like that one best-adapted system?
> [snip] 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.

As I've written elsewhere recently, the Confucian/Sinitic world is a very good
test of what might be called "the liberal ideal", i.e. that capitalism
necessarily _produces_ open, tolerant societies that stress and implement
values of individual liberty. To use the current vocabulary of evolutionary
theory, Western liberalism and what I call "Confucian capitalism" may be two
different fitness peaks rising from the same plane of initial economic
conditions. The IMF's prescription of greater "transparency" will be a test
of this, I think, because that term is really code for many of the core values
of Western liberalism that have been absent from the East Asian socio-economic
structure that has grown up in the last 50 years.

In terms of evolutionary adaptation, the question is whether societies like
Singapore and Korea can move from the fitness peak upon which they found
themselves up until the last six months to the one upon which we find
ourselves without becoming so maladapted that they disintegrate in a
competitive environment.

In a message dated 98-02-05 15:46:09 EST, Robin Hanson writes:

> >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.
> I'm not sure this argument makes sense. If their rights are well adapted
> to their environment, I'm not sure we should want them to change. If their
> rights haven't changed fast enough to adapt to their new environment, I'm
> not sure wishing even faster environmental change on them is so hot.
> to focus on what is blocking rights adaption and seek to reduce frictions
> there.

Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank and its associated enterprises
( are perhaps the perfect example of this.
Yunus makes so-called "microloans" (on the order of $50-$100) to would-be
entrepreneurs in the third world (especially in the Indian subcontinent).
Just Friday there was a news item about his latest venture: Using his bank's
microloans, he is selling solar-powered cell phones to poor people in
Bangladesh. They pay for themselves quickly in villages that have never known
any form of telecommunication, and serve as a vector for modernization on many
fronts. An example cited was the use of the phones by village farmers to
check market prices for their produce to reduce exploitation by grain traders.

In a message dated 98-02-05 16:53:20 EST, Damien Sullivan writes:
> Tangentially, we might expect our society to be the least fully adapted
> culture in existence, due to our youth and the rapidity of change. Some
> features -- markets, generally free speech -- are obviously good -- but
> many details may be random or contingent, and not selected for
> optimality across the board. Conversely, primitive societies would
> probably have been quite efficient (given their illiteracy and lack of
> science and tech) given how long they had to adapt. This is the same
> view which sees bacteria as highly optimized chemical machines and
> humans as a half-evolved species which is still working on walking
> upright without any problems.

I've thought this before when encountering the _feeling_ of cultural
superiority many Europeans seem to exhibit to Americans: On the one hand
there's a consternation at the apparent success that America's open society
has achieved while at the same time almost an attitude of pity at the way in
which American culture seems to be at loose ends over the details of manner
and aesthetics.

        Greg Burch <>----<>
           Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                   "Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
                      be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
                              -- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover
Received on Sun Feb 8 13:30:13 1998

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